Afghan Whigs tone it down

They come into Bogart’s after and injury-marred year; next step some R&R

BY LARRY NAGER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Life’s lessons have come hard for Greg Dulli.

As frontman for the Afghan Whigs, the Hamilton native has spent the ’90s filling the rock-star job description with panache. Onstage, he commands attention, exuding confidence as effortlessly as clouds of nicotine. Ever swaggering, cocktail at the ready, his stage persona is equal parts Sinatra and Sex Pistols.

But as the Afghan Whigs return to Bogart’s Saturday for their last show of the year, he’s not so sure of things as he once was.

“I assume nothing anymore,” he says from New Orleans, where the band has been recording following the world tour that began Feb. 9 at Bogart’s.

“It’s been an interesting year,” he reflects, punctuating that understatement with a long, audible draw on his cigarette.

In October, the Afghan Whigs released 1965, their debut for Columbia Records. A tightly focused exploration of lust and consequences with a bit of New Orleans voodoo thrown in, it was the band’s most accessible disc. Reviews were good and the band hit the road.

Then on Dec. 12, that momentum ended with the thud of bone hitting cement. Mr. Dulli went down hard in a fight with a stagehand at Liberty Lunch, an Austin, Texas, nightclub where the Whigs were playing. He suffered a fractured skull. The tour was over. A lawsuit is pending against the individual and the club.

A Slow Recovery
Recovery was slow. Two months later, the Whigs played their first post-fracture concert at Bogart’s. Mr. Dulli was visibly shaky, often ceding the spotlight to his backup singers Susan Marshall and Steve Myers and Whigs keyboardist/guitarist (and current opening act) Happy Chichester..

“It was like having an out-of-body experience,” Mr. Dulli recalls. “I could actually see myself, but I really couldn’t feel what was going on. It was very, very strange to me. I didn’t kind of get back into the groove for a good eight shows after that.”

In June, after the tour, Mr. Dulli picked up the telephone and received another major shock.

“It’s not a phone call you expect to get, that your friend … was shot six times in front of his house.”

Leaving his home in New Orleans, Mr. Myers was the victim of a street robbery.

“They wanted his $12 really bad,” Mr. Dulli says bitterly.

Miraculously, Mr. Myers survived, but barely.

“I was out with him the other day and he gets pretty tired pretty easy, and Steve is one of the healthiest people I ever knew, always go, go, go.”

Nonetheless, New Orleans, where 1965 was recorded, remains a favorite city for the Whigs. Along with playing a benefit for Mr. Myers, the band has been doing some recording there.

It’s not for a new album, Mr. Dulli says, “the reason is just to facilitate our love of the great unknown. We’re writing stuff, we’re laying down covers … We’ve never recorded at the end of a (tour) phase of a record before, we’ve never used our momentum. (Usually) we’ve all just kind of gone our separate ways. But while we’re still loose and playing well, we’re gonna keep on playing.”

Scaled-back concert
They’ve been joined in the studio by alt-rock cult hero Alex Chilton, who’s enjoying some rare mainstream exposure. His “In the Street,” recorded 25 years ago with his band Big Star, is the theme for Fox’s That ’70s Show.

Mr. Chilton, known as much for his erratic behavior and mercurial temper as his superb songwriting, has been a longtime role model for Mr. Dulli. A few years ago, the Whigs recorded Big Star’s “Nightime” for an as-yet-unreleased tribute album. The Whigs cover of “Lost in the Supermarket” appeared on the recent Clash tribute.

Saturday’s concert will be the Whigs’ last show for a while. It won’t be the big nine-member production the band brought to Bogart’s in February. Instead, it will resemble the stripped-down, unannounced show the Whigs gave at Sudsy Malone’s in September, before the October release of 1965.

“It’ll be the scaled-back version,” he says. The 1965 tour is officially over. Mr. Myers is still recovering from the shooting and Ms. Marshall is back home in Memphis. The other sidemen have gone on to other gigs. Even Whigs utility man Doug Falsetti is unavailable, on the road with the band Tonic.

The Bogart’s show will feature the four Whigs — Mr. Dulli, bassist John Curley, guitarist Rick McCollum and newest member, drummer Michael Horrigan, augmented by New Orleans keyboardist Josh Paxton.

And that’s it for the Afghan Whigs, for this millennium, at least. After Saturday, says Mr. Dulli. “I don’t think anybody will see us until at least 2001. We’ll still be working, but nothing’s gonna come out until then.”

What comes out then should be worth waiting for. Given everything the Whigs have gone through in 1999, that’s a lot of songwriting fodder for a new album. But right now, the band could use some well-earned rest. As Mr. Dulli said back in February at Bogart’s, “Life is a fragile, precious thing.”

The past few months haven’t changed his attitude.

“From waking up in the hospital out of a coma to seeing one of my best friends and bandmates get shot down,” he says with a sigh. “Y’know, everything else kind of pales.”

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