Magnet Philly Review
November 15, 2003
It almost doesn’t matter what you think of Greg Dulli’s recorded work with the Afghan Whigs (except for Gentlemen—how does that not demolish every heart on this planet?) or the Twilight Singers. Because on stage—glass of Maker’s Mark on the rocks in one hand, cigarette in the other, eyes glowing with decadence, voice soulful and ragged, stories and jokes charming and lethal—Dulli is a mesmerizing, full-throttled entertainer who casts his spell with a blisteringly confident style of showmanship.
Not since 1989, when he and the Afghan Whigs were young pups, has Dulli stepped on the stage at the Khyber, a tiny rock club in Philadelphia. Dulli—here with the touring version of the Twilight Singers (his current project, which recently released its second record, Blackberry Belle)—enters through the door at the back of the stage, sipping bourbon and smoking and grinning at the sold-out, smashed-in crowd. There’s incense burning and candles flickering. The four-piece backing band (guitarist, drummer, bassist, keyboardist) stakes out their scant personal space and Dulli, dressed in black, puts on the guitar with its seatbelt-buckle strap and surveys the crowd. “Damn, it’s tight in here.” And then the punch line: “I hope I’ll be saying that later on, too.” The band proceeded to kick off a two-hour set with an it’s-Saturday-night-so-let’s-fucking-rock version of “Esta Noche” from Blackberry Belle.
Most of the after-hours, tricked-out electronics of the Twilight Singers songs (especially those from the debut, Twilight) were burned away in favor of full-on soulful rock arrangements. Aside from the sad-piano pounding and twinkling, everything else was cranked up Whigs-style. This re-casting made many of the songs unrecognizable until Dulli fire-breathed the first lyrics. “That’s Just How That Bird Sings” featured the most remarkable re-working of the Twilight Singers’ material. This live version, with its stellar guitar hooks and vocal interplay between Dulli and guitarist Jon Skibic, was staggeringly superior to the recorded one.
A master showman, Dulli understands the importance of balance: He knows when to play it loud and throaty, and when to ease down to a sexy, bluesy simmer. “Teenage Wristband” and “Annie Mae” had the walls and floor shaking, the band in full holler. Then they switched it up and did the smoky jazz thing with a reading of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” (during which Dulli purred random bits of love-drenched pop lyrics and asked the crowd if they ever fucked to Chet Baker) and the pleading coo of Marvin Gaye’s “Please Stay (Once You Go Away).” Later on, they shifted from a searing string of gut-bucket howlers (“Decatur St.” and “Annie Mae” among them) straight into about seven minutes of soft piano and cymbal-tapping as Dulli told a story about the Whigs staying at Nirvana’s house on their first trip to Seattle, and his thoughts on Kurt Cobain’s and Elliot Smith’s suicide (“He chose a very Shakespearean way to leave this world”) before gearing up for Blackberry Belle’s lead-off song, “Martin Eden.” Gentlemen’s “If I Were Going” sent shivers down my spine. Dulli calmed his voice and the band played with a hush as the crowd belted out the biting words like a drunken choir.
But Dulli didn’t relinquish the mic too often, as he was in a very talkative mood. He showed his stand-up chops between songs as he cracked jokes about the Khyber (“Welcome to Miniature Square Garden”), discussed baseball (“You gotta get rid of Larry Bowa”) dissed athletes that do Chunky Soup commercials (“Eating vegetable soup with your mom in the suburbs? Not cool.”) and relayed, in his opinion, the greatest film actors of the ‘60s (Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty and Paul Newman).
With a fresh drink and another in a ceaseless line of smokes, Dulli led the band through a rump-shaking trio of Whigs songs (“Uptown Again,” “66” and “Faded”) during the encore, stirring the crowd into a final frenzy. The Twilight Singers then poured out onto Second Street (which doubles as the Khyber’s backstage area), leaving the throng of fans chanting “Dulli! Dulli!” for a second curtain call. But he didn’t reappear. Like any good student of show business, Dulli knows you gotta leave the people craving more.