Afghan Whigs slide into sophistication

Greg Dulli led the Afghan Whigs in an amazing performance at Clutch Cargo’s.

By Lucas Rakocija
For the Michigan Daily

The Afghan Whigs’ stellar show on Tuesday night at Clutch Cargos proved that, in the hipper circles of alternative rock, head bobbing to the live tunes of your favorite group is the only truly flattering response an artist can expect of his/her audience.

Led by raspy crooner Greg Dulli, the Whigs have crafted a repertoire of moody and self-reflexive albums that are tinged with noir-like lyrical explorations of themes such as guilt, pleasure, cynicism, self-torment and, of course, sex – a topic Dulli flirts with nearly as much as he did with the women attending Tuesday night’s show.

Entering with a theatrical instrumental as a backing score, Dulli gracefully took center stage, dressed in black, complete with dark shades and a hat, which looked like it may have been purchased at Johnny Cash’s yard sale.

When the band launched into the new record’s catchy first single, “Somethin’ Hot,” the audience immediately fed off of the group’s vibrant energy and danced throughout much of the band’s two and a half hour set – one that drifted through material from all of its five full-length albums as well a handful of surprising covers.

“Debonair,” the single that introduced many to the band back when 1993’s gorgeously morose “Gentlemen” was first released, was well-received and inspired many to scream the lyrics back toward the stage. While the dreary “When We Two Parted” was vamped up by an accentuated array of back-up singers and the dream-like accompaniment of the band’s keyboardist, its poignant delivery was heightened by the inclusion of lyrics from Lauryn Hill’s latest record “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” – no doubt an album that Dulli probably studies as a reference for his very own foray into diva-dom.

As Tuesday night’s show progressed, so did the number of drinks that Dulli consumed. While this might seem like a hindrance to many other bands, it only provided for a more intimate experience for the audience. The slightly intoxicated Dulli became more flirtatious with the crowd, inviting it into the experience with stories from the past year as well as insights into the inspirations for his music.

“Rehabilitation,” he declared to a somewhat confused audience, “you guys are probably too young to know you’re fucked up yet. That’s OK. I’ll take you there.” With that introduction made clear, the band then launched into a rousing rendition of “Fountain and Fairfax” – a song rumored to be about an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting Dulli once attended in Los Angeles.

While most contemporary lead singers in the post-“Nevermind” era of rock shy away from the spotlight, the Whigs’ Dulli seems to relish the attention – almost feasting off of the vibe he gets from his audience. What distinguishes him from the rest of his alternative peers is his intriguing, natural stage presence. Whether delving into the funked-up hip-shaker, “Going to Town,” or the epic grandeur of the murky “Faded,” the man simply knows how to keep his audience entertained. “We could go on all night,” Dulli teased with a sly grin, knowing full well his alcohol-induced, Morrison-esque swagger was making his audience want more.

Which is not to say that Dulli is the only member of the band. Rick McCollum, the Whigs’ lead guitarist, proved that he has grown to become quite a master at the slide guitar. Bassist John Curley, the stoic Silent Bob look-alike, seemed to blend perfectly with new drummer Michael Horrigan – igniting the core that is indeed the “soul” of the bluesy New Orleans-influenced sound heard on the band’s new disc. Even the group’s back-up singer, Susan Marshall, stepped up to the plate and delivered an impressive rendition of Dulli’s intensely personal “My Curse.”

Just as Dulli’s alcohol induction seemed to hint that the band’s set would never end, the group chose to end their two encores with the hauntingly beautiful “The Vampire Lanois,” and the full-tilt rock of the band’s best song, “Miles Iz Dead” – which left the died-hard fans screaming along to the night’s most appropriate chorus, “Don’t forget the alcohol.”

Perhaps the most musically capable band in the land, the Afghan Whigs have achieved, with an inspired live performance, something that is rare in the pretentious world of late-’90s alternative music – the group lets us know that, beneath the samples and gimmicky flavor of contemporary artists as we know it, there are those who still want to rock and aren’t afraid to do so.

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