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Dulli Live Review: NOLA

Keith Spera, The Times-Picayune,

Greg Dulli kicked off his world tour on all-too-familiar Frenchmen Street

World tours don’t often commence at d.b.a., the boutique beer bar on Frenchmen Street. And the club doesn’t normally sell advance tickets for its presentation of mostly local bands.

But Greg Dulli is a part-time local with an international reputation.

Off and on for more than 20 years, the former Afghan Whigs and current Twilight Singers frontman has lived, composed, recorded and misbehaved in New Orleans. Along the way his literate, unflinching confessionals and morning-after soul man’s rasp earned him an intensely devoted, far-flung cult of fans.

Having spent a small fortune in the city’s bars, he finally bought one: He co-owns the R Bar, a block off Esplanade Avenue on Royal Street. He owns a nearby home in Faubourg Marigny, though he also maintains a residency — and co-owns two other bars — in Los Angeles.

On Oct. 8, Dulli launched his first-ever acoustic tour at d.b.a.. Tonight, Oct. 19, the tour stops at a sold-out Bowery Ballroom in New York. Running through late November, the trek crisscrosses North America and touches down in Ireland, Portugal and Spain

To guarantee admittance for scores of fans traveling to New Orleans for opening night — they came from England, Canada and elsewhere — d.b.a. brokered advance tickets via PayPal. Thus, the 100-plus fans who pressed in close to the low stage skewed heavily toward out-of-towners. They didn’t get Dulli’s reference to long-defunct local club Muddy Waters.

At d.b.a., Dulli, guitarist Dave Rosser and violinist/cellist Rick Nelson rendered 23 songs sampled from all phases of Dulli’s career: The Afghan Whigs, the Twilight Singers, his Gutter Twins side project with Mark Lanegan, his 2005 solo album “Amber Headlights.” Early next year, Sub Pop Records will release a new Twilight Singers album. Dulli premiered three songs at d.b.a., “Gunshots,” “Never Seen No Devil” and “Blackbird and the Fox.” For the latter, Ani DiFranco — like Dulli, an adopted, semi-permanent New Orleanian — joined him onstage to reprise their duet from the record.

Dulli and DiFranco share a history in New Orleans. Dulli recorded the Twilight Singers’ 2006 album “Powder Burns” in the old home studio of producer Mike Napolitano, DiFranco’s husband. The trio slipped into locked-down New Orleans days after Hurricane Katrina to retrieve tapes of both the Twilight Singers album and a DiFranco project.

Dulli and Napolitano finished recording in late September 2005, with backup generators, while New Orleans was still under curfew.

“I was here for the 10 p.m., 12 a.m. and 2 a.m. curfews,” Dulli recalled the night after the d.b.a. gig, calling from the back seat of a cab bound for a late supper at Gautreau’s. “We used to sneak out and go to Metairie all the time. When you have to sneak out to go to Jigger’s….”

At d.b.a., he revisited the “Powder Burns” track “Forty Dollars.” Its protagonist is deep in the thrall of substance abuse and a misbegotten relationship.

“That’s my only-in-New Orleans song. I wrote it in New Orleans just out of my tree,” Dulli said. “The crazy (stuff) I say in that song, I’d never be able to replicate that. It’s a stream of consciousness like no other.”

Dulli’s promotional photos often depicted him with a cigarette, but he’s quit smoking. He still drinks from time to time, but has dialed way back on the partying. He no longer gets into the sort of lower Quarter mischief he described in “Decatur Street.”

“Absolutely not,” he said, laughing. “I went inside Decatur Street.”

At d.b.a., he drank only water. “During a show, I want to be completely present. People paid money to watch me play. I don’t want them to watch me screw up because I got drunk. That’s not part of the respect for the audience deal that I’m into.”

That said, Dulli doesn’t prostrate himself for fans. He dismissed shouted requests for an old Afghan Whigs song called “Now You Know.” “It’s really not that good of a song. I don’t know why you would shout for that. The guy was like, ‘I like it.’ And I’m like, ‘You can like it, but I don’t have to like it. I wrote it. Everything I write isn’t great.’”

Before “Let Me Lie to You,” he shut down loud talkers near the stage. “I’m a pretty direct person. I had to work that out with them. I would never dream of doing that to someone. If you want to talk, move to the back of the room.”

Yet for the song’s climax, he cupped a hand to his ear, soliciting cheers. He cackles at the memory. “I never said I wasn’t precocious. Or a bit of a dilettante, even.”

A dilettante who’s not above borrowing songs. He first heard Basement Jaxx’s “Lights Go Down” years ago and filed it in his “I’m going to cover that song some day” folder. “That’s a bad-ass song. I related to that song on almost every level. It wasn’t hard for me to inhabit.”

Nelson requested they cover Bjork’s “Hyper-Ballad.” “Rick doesn’t ask for much,” Dulli said. “He loves my version of that song.”

The d.b.a. show ended with Dave Catching of the Eagles of Death Metal joining in a cover of Big Star’s “Take Care.” “This is for Alex Chilton, and by Alex Chilton,” Dulli announced. In the ‘90s, he ran around with Chilton, who died of a heart attack in March.

As his tour progresses, Dulli plans to alternate another 10 or so songs. But the tour kickoff will be the standard by which subsequent shows are judged.

“It was a good set to get your legs by. I didn’t know how it would fly. It was flying good in my living room, but you never know until you get in front of a gang of people. As dress rehearsals go, that was probably one of the more fun ones I’ve had.”

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