PopMatters NYC 04 Review
by Rob Horning
3 April 2004: Warsaw — Brooklyn, New York
For a brief moment, around 1993, in the heyday of alternative rock radio, the Afghan Whigs were going to be big. It seemed as though they were in all the music magazines, they had major-label distribution for their records, and they had a slick video in the MTV rotation that showcased preening frontman Greg Dulli in the first flower of his peculiar bloom of elegance, arrogance and seediness. Critics, in what turned out to be a trial run for their later inexplicable embrace of Neil LaBute, credited Dulli’s calculatedly misogynistic lyrics with courageous honesty and deep sensitivity to the unseemly side of sexual politics while celebrating the Whigs’ musical approach as an innovative blend of grunge soft/loud dynamics with the trappings of ’60s soul. But further exposure revealed to everybody but the die-hards the basic shallowness of Dulli’s lyrical worldview (love is a lie; men are brutes; women are victims), while the alleged soulfulness of their music began to seem more like brazen appropriation and arbitrary quotation of whatever Motown motif happened to strike Dulli’s fancy at any given moment. And there was the problem that all their songs basically sounded the same, no matter how they were dressed up: they all seemed to be hookless mid-tempo plodders with precious few changes, inchoate sketches over which Dulli could rant without having to constrain himself to anything resembling a melody.
So the Whigs never quite made it, and as they faded from public view, Dulli turned his attentions to an alleged acting career and to the Twilight Singers, a musical side project that originally injected some trip-hop beats into Dulli’s usual hateful dirges. With the Whigs disbanded entirely and his acting career likely derailed by his perpetual bloatedness, the Twilight Singers is now Dulli’s primary vehicle, and judging by the Warsaw show, they are all but indistinguishable from the Afghan Whigs at this point. Dulli took the stage smoking a cigarette (in a suitably flagrant violation of the NYC ban) with his collection of younger backing musicians, and they launched into the first of what became a series of indistinguishable mid-tempo songs featuring all the old Afghan Whigs tics in their places: soaring e-bow-like dive-bomb guitar wails, whispering alternating with shouting, Roy Bittan-esque piano parts, long and pointless intros (during which the drummer was able to spring up like a jack-in-the-box and play random percussion instruments in his cymbal mics). The band was extremely competent if a bit anodyne: the guitarist’s shaggy haircut and Joe Perry posing only seemed to make him more generic, while the lone backing vocalist seemed nothing more than token. They exuded guitar-store-salesman self-regard, with a note of condescension in everything they played.
Overall, they reminded me of the bands on the late-night talk shows, slick and soulless; or rather, they could have been mistaken for Nickelback, or any of those earnest hand-wringing bands, were it not for Dulli’s besotted buffoonery. They were expert at making music that’s entirely functional. But Dulli seemed utterly dysfunctional: he looked like fat Elvis, sallow in the spotlight and puffy like a post-operative patient, dripping with kitsch and phoniness, hamming it up like he was on Merv Griffin. It seemed especially hubristic for him to singing a refrain like “I’m too tough to die” when he looked like he might be teetering near the edge. The tantalizing sense that he could be living the déclassé life about which he sings added some spice to the performance.
Apparently a dress code was in effect for the band, as everyone on stage wore black shirts and black pants, those playing guitars played red ones. Even the bodyguards, apparently part of Dulli’s entourage, wore black. It’s hard to tell whether the bodyguards are a self-mocking joke on Dulli’s part, or evidence of his rampant and paranoid egomania: perhaps it’s both, and in that resides a great portion of the Twilight Singers’ charm. How serious Dulli takes himself is always ambiguous, so it’s easy to make excuses for his sleazy stage behavior while secretly enjoying it, vicariously taking pleasure in the antics of someone who’s shameless. He is clearly someone who loves being on stage, and his extravagant need to be paid attention gives him a kind of charisma that can’t be faked by the more workaday performers who usually work the indie rock circuit. He’s not above making a mockery of himself — as with his cartoonish misogyny and his silly dance moves and hammy posing — if it means people will keep watching. Which all in all, makes him indie rock’s answer to William Shatner.
Thus Dulli is completely compelling, if not in a campy way then in a train wreck sort of way, where you wait in suspense for the next absurdly inappropriate thing to come out of his mouth. Highlights of this particular show were his demanding women in the audience show him their breasts (“Rock concert, people. Show me your titties!”), his exploration of his “white slavery fantasy” (“Massah’s always right!”), his calling himself “G. Diddy”, and his lengthy diatribe about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (“Alright Mary, make a blow-job face”). He even stooped to mocking the Manhattan audience of his Bowery Ballroom appearance a few months ago as a bunch of “metrosexuals” and kept on throwing in shout-outs to Brooklyn in the middle of songs to try to win over the crowd. But this crowd didn’t really need winning over — there were hundreds of people in the room, mostly women, and they were riveted to him — and that had to have been obvious from the stage. But he was not to be placated, which, oddly enough, made his pandering almost sympathetic. That he has to keep provoking and keep taunting and keep begging for assurance all gives the lie to his cocky posturing, showing just how much his aggressive hostility masks a wounded vulnerability. He is so exaggerated in his scorn that it comes across as defensive, reactionary. Thus he fits the bad-boy paradigm perfectly: he is the angry asshole who could be tamed and fixed by the right sort of devotion. He lashes out, but you just know he doesn’t really mean it. No wonder the women in the crowd loved him so much.