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Soul reborn in Twilight

The new record from Greg Dulli’s Twilight Singers is a different sort of tribute album.

By Susan Carpenter, LA Times

The Twilight Singers’ new record, “Blackberry Belle,” is a different sort of tribute album. It isn’t the usual assemblage of bands playing the songs of an artist they admired, but a single artist gathering his musician friends to honor the memory of a man few of them even knew.

In the case of the Twilight Singers’ latest release, the artist is former Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli. The man he is honoring: Ted Demme. Director of the films “Blow” and “Beautiful Girls,” Demme was only 37 when he died suddenly of a heart attack two years ago.

“Ted had a light inside him that I had rarely seen in any person,” said Dulli, who had appeared in and written songs for some of the director’s films and who considered Demme his closest friend. “I missed that light and wanted that light, and it was gone. That teaches you that if light is taken away from you, you must replace it yourself.”

And so Dulli did with “Blackberry Belle,” a collection of 11 songs that are thick with emotion and instrumentation but not about Demme himself. “It’s more about me and his loss, what journey it sent me on,” said the 38-year-old singer and guitarist.

Before Demme’s death, Dulli was almost finished with the album. He had written 30 songs and recorded five, but none of them appear on “Blackberry Belle.”

“The day my friend died, that record just meant nothing,” he said. “Whenever I put out a record, what I’m saying is, ‘This is me now.’ If I put that record out, that would have been false.”

Had Demme lived, instead of suffering heart failure during a celebrity basketball game, Dulli said the new record would have sounded like a cross between Kevin Shields’ wall-of-guitar group, My Bloody Valentine, and soul singer Otis Redding’s backup band, the Bar-Kays. What it sounds like now is a melancholy rock symphony, albeit one with a jazz sensibility. On various songs, banjo, horns, piano, lap steel guitar and clavinet all take the lead for a while before being crushed in a swell of sound.

In addition to Dulli, 23 other artists perform on “Blackberry Belle,” including Apollonia “Purple Rain” Kotero, former Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan and violinist Petra Haden, who also contributes Diamanda Galas-style wails.

Patterned after Anton Fier’s Golden Palominos, the Twilight Singers are not so much a band as an ongoing project, with a revolving-door cast of musicians appearing on each album. After breaking up the Afghan Whigs in 2001, Dulli said he just didn’t want to go that route again.

“Being in a band for 15 years, I wasn’t going to just get one group of people,” he said. “I know a bunch of great players. I really did want to see what other people [could bring to it].”Dulli started the Twilight Singers in 1997 as a side project to the Whigs, who were on hiatus because of label troubles with Elektra. The Afghan Whigs, one of the Sub Pop bands that helped fuel the early ’90s grunge movement, had scored a hit with their first major-label release, the 1993 rock ‘n’ soul record, “Gentlemen.” But their 1996 follow-up, the darker, less radio-friendly “Black Love,” didn’t fare so well.

Elektra and the Whigs parted ways, and Dulli got to work recording the first set of Twilight Singers songs with some New Orleans musician friends and a former Sub Pop label mate, Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin. Dulli temporarily shelved the Singers when the Whigs signed to Columbia. He completed the group’s debut, “Twilight as Played by the Twilight Singers,” in 2000.

The following year, the Whigs split up in what Dulli calls “a sweetly dignified breakup.” If there were any doubt, his present tour proves his former bandmates are still very much friends. Each of the Whigs will join Dulli on stage when the “Blackberry Belle” tour stops in the cities they now call home, adding Whigs hits to a set list that includes surprise covers as well as Twilight Singers tracks. The band plays the El Rey Theatre on Wednesday.

Dulli says he’s excited about this tour, unlike his first for the Twilight Singers. “After breaking up the Whigs, the thought of it turned my stomach cuz I’d been doing it my whole life,” he says. “I just kind of wanted to have a regular life.”

He found that regular life as co-owner of the Short-Stop, the former cop bar in Echo Park that is now a hipster favorite. Dulli, a self-declared dive bar aficionado, has since purchased Footsie’s, on Figueroa near Mt. Washington. Giving it a New Orleans makeover, the renamed La Croix should be open sometime around the New Year.

To Dulli, New Orleans is more than just a place. It’s where he has found much of the inspiration for the music he makes guitar-driven rock that’s been dunked in funk and soul.

“If I can make you feel what I feel with my voice, then I’m a soul singer,” Dulli said. “I’m not Otis Redding or James Brown or anybody like that, but I have a soul, too, and it feels, too, and it can transmit as well.”

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