Welcome Back, Fellas.
Last Wednesday night, for the first time in over a decade, Greg Dulli was flanked by John Curley and Rick McCollum on stage performing under the name of the Afghan Whigs.
The Bowery Ballroom in New York City was at full (although very possibly over) capacity, bulging at the seams with fans that traveled from across the United States to see a reunion that many thought unlikely, if not impossible. The return of these musical brothers was an overt celebration of a rich legacy, not a cash-in for a quick dollar. Those who were in attendance saw a band at full force defying a few short weeks of rehearsal. The intangibles shared with Greg, John and Rick have become such a part of the machine that they carry on as an unspoken language. A nod of a head. A shake of the hips. Cues are read. Transitions are flawless. The boys are back in town.
As the organ prelude to “Crime Scene Part One” rang through the hall, it was obvious that it would be a special night. When the splashy cymbal count-down to “I’m Her Slave” sliced through the seconds of space after the trailing lyrics “you can meet me at the scene of the crime…” a frenzy erupted from the floor that intensified as the night progressed. The setlist touched on all of the band’s last four full-length studio albums and bounced through eras uniting the slick pop-infused choruses of 1965‘s “66” with the raw growl of the early Congregation single “Conjure Me”.
True to the fact that this wasn’t an empty romp with nostalgia, there were surprises aplenty. A full cover of Frank Ocean’s “Love Crimes” was a reminder that the Whigs were never reticent in giving love to contemporary artists. Black Love‘s closing suite of “Bulletproof”, “Summer’s Kiss” and “Faded” wrapped the first act with the passionate arc of a romance gone very wrong. The sleepless screams of “Love… don’t you ever go away” bled through to the pleading of “Demons be gone… away from me” and the acceptance that secrets are better left unknown. The final slide guitar wahs of the main set channeled Purple Rain‘s outro falsetto “ooohs” and washed over an audience eagerly singing along. Every ounce of energy expended on the stage was returned by the fans lined up on the floor of the venue, packed into a cluster of excitement and fervor.
If I was forced to name a highlight, it would probably be hearing “Gentlemen” live for the first time. The sound and attitude coalesced into a beautiful symmetry. Dulli wore his guitar like a rope-chain necklace, slickly gesturing along with lyrics that had not been sung in far too long. He channeled the persona that infused their breakthrough album, spouting lyrics like “all messed up with no place to go” like they were fresh ideas, imagined on the spot, gifted by the gods.
The impact of seeing Rick and John on stage again can’t be ignored. While they don’t share the same physical space while performing, they flank the edges and hold the scene together. John’s powerful bass lines ripped through “Debonair” leading the storyline as much as the tempo. He holds his Rickenbacker like an archer drawing his bow, strongly poised and silhouetted to Dulli’s left. Rick’s playing is a defining element to the Whigs’ sound in that his solos and rhythms form their own lyrics, counterpointing Dulli’s tales of lust and betrayal with a playful wistfulness, showing his power then retreating back into the groove. To Dulli’s far right, his subtle moves slinked around his dance partner, a burgundy mist Fender Jazzmaster. Dulli’s more recent collaborators, Dave Rosser and Rick Nelson, provided even more weight to the proceedings, creating a three-guitar attack augmented with cello and piano. The combined sound was massive.
Just when you thought the band had played everything you wanted to hear – “Crazy”, “Going to Town”, “Somethin’ Hot” – they returned to the stage for a second encore with “Miles Iz Ded”. It was like the Afghan Whigs never left. While the room swayed and resisted the urge to crowd-surf, the song segued to a different tempo and Dulli began singing two unrecognizable verses. New lyrics. Could they possibly be new Afghan Whigs lyrics? We’ll have to wait and find out.