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NYC 10.16.04 Review –

Dulli proves that where there’s smoke, there’s still fire

Star-Ledger Staff

NEW YORK — As the Twilight Singers show climaxed just before 3 a.m. Sunday at Irving Plaza, an especially enthused fan remarked, “My reward in heaven would be this band playing all the time.”

A nice thought, but Greg Dulli’s rock outfit would no doubt feel more comfortable as the house entertainment in that other, hotter place.

Dulli’s customized mike stand said much for his lifestyle priorities, with a dual-vice caddy of ashtray on one side, drink holder on the other. Fully suited to a post-midnight tee-off, the ex-Afghan Whigs leader’s voice was husky and emotive as his band leaned into the wide-screen nocturnal adventure of “Teenage Wristband.”

The song represents Dulli’s Twilight vision at its most potent, as a gradual intro of silvery electric piano and seething guitar detonate into an ever-escalating crescendo on that evergreen theme of night time is the right time. It seemed — Dulli noted, referencing the Whigs’ triumphs in this venue — like 1996 again, as the crowd bellowed the singer’s lyrics back at him.

Along with his unflinching portrayals of male sexuality in the Whigs days, Dulli’s cocky stage presence and voluble off-duty shenanigans have earned him a reputation as an “either you love him or hate him” kind of guy. Masculine and confident he may have been at Irving, but his prowling, howling at the moon persona has been tamed a bit, with Dulli at 40 or so looking more like a butcher (or a Mafioso) than a rock star lover man.

What separates Dulli from dimmed ’90s leading lights is his sheer musical depth. The Ohio-bred Los Angeleno has a pop wonk’s love for music from the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac to all manner of Motown and Stax, which shows subtly in his songwriting. Ever since the Whigs, though, Dulli has also been an uncommonly inspired interpreter of others’ music, underlined by “She Loves You,” the Twilights’ new collection of covers.

Sunday’s set revolved around Dulli and company’s reinvention of songs classic and contemporary, with an emphasis not on male swagger but more feminine complexities. The version of Bjork’s “Hyperballad” traded the original’s whiz-bang electronics for rangy guitars, yet the touchingly vulnerable sentiment could still be felt in the band’s organic roar. If Dulli couldn’t hope to match Martina Topley-Bird’s first-person authority in “Too Tough to Die,” his rendition had its own volatile groove, as searing slide guitar hinted at the Afghan Whigs’ Stones-like sound.

Whether bruised or boasting, Dulli is essentially a romantic — as any reciter of the ages-old Anglo-American folk poem “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” must be. His emotional hot-wiring of the song was the set’s dramatic linchpin. He intoned the mantra to John Coltrane’s ’60s jazz epic “A Love Supreme” as a preface to his soul-rock renewal of Marvin Gaye’s “Please Stay.” In showman mode, he also weaved off-the-cuff interpolations from hip-hop and disco tunes into the mix, even quoting songs by Def Leppard and the Zombies with conceptual grace.

As impressive as the Twilight Singers were on the covers (with the band including Morristown native Jon Skibic on lead guitar), the sequence of Dulli’s strictly post-Whigs originals was even better. “Decatur St.,” ‘The Killers” and “Annie Mae” are rock as reckoning on the wages of sin and their worth. Whether or not he has lived such tales of temptation and trouble, Dulli performs them as an ideal soundtrack for those hours when the line between Saturday night and Sunday morning is blurry.

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