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Come With Me, My Congregation

Thirteen years after breaking up, The Afghan Whigs make a triumphant return

By Jason Gargano · October 17th, 2012 · Cover Story
the afghan whigs (current)_photo_sam_holdenPhoto: Sam Holden
“We’re The Afghan Whigs from Cincinnati, O-hi-o,” frontman Greg Dulli relayed to a raucous crowd early in his band’s Aug. 4 show at The Metro in Chicago, one of many sold-out stops on the Whigs’ current reunion tour.

An unexpected sense of hometown pride swelled within me as he said it — a feeling only challenged in recent years by critic Robert Christgau’s unabashedly generous (bordering on orgiastic) praise of Wussy, another set of Cincinnati homies who just happen to be touring with the Whigs this fall (and opening the band’s sold-out homecoming show at Bogart’s on Oct. 25).

As a detractor of just about every Rock & Roll reunion ever conceived, most of which are driven by monetary concerns and/or an ache (from both artist and audience) to recover lost glory, I admit not being moved much when word broke that the Whigs were getting together for a couple All Tomorrow's Parties gigs. Yet, probably inevitably, my curiosity was piqued when a Lollapalooza appearance and a full-blown tour were announced and I began listening to the old records again.

Gentlemen, the band’s 1993 breakthrough/major-label debut, is as emotionally lacerating as the day it surfaced, while its follow-ups, 1996’s Black Love and 1998’s 1965, remain stellar examples of the Whigs’ move from boozy, guitar-driven SubPop upstarts to meticulous crafters of noir-ish, soulful Rock & Roll. Even the Whigs’ early records — from little-heard, self-released 1988 debut Big Top Halloween to 1992’s Congregation, the first album in which Dulli’s distinctive, cinematically informed vision would begin to fully flower — have aged pretty well, evolutionary markers of a band few thought would ever again see the dark of night.

But here they are — 13 years after the beginning of the end, 26 years after their initial formation — playing for audiences that seem just as eager to witness the band’s unique powers of persuasion as the day they left.

Truth be told, the reunited Whigs — which at times can feature as many as a dozen people on stage, including core original members Dulli, bassist John Curley and guitarist Rick McCollum — are as satisfying a live unit as they’ve ever been, whether it’s delivering the visceral sonic assault of a song like Gentlemen’s “Fountain and Fairfax” or the subtleties of an atmospheric slow-burner like “See and Don’t See,” a Soul-drenched Marie Lyons cover that, like Frank Ocean’s “LoveCrimes,” has become a staple of the band’s current live shows.

“It’s really not as complicated as some people have tried to make it out,” Dulli says by phone when asked why the band decided to get back together. “We’re grown men and we’ve decided to do something and it’s proven to be a good time. I think we’re better players now. I think we have stepped away from the material — at the end there was lots of songs we didn’t play, and by the time we played Bogart’s that final time that really wasn’t us anymore anyway.

“I really feel like that was a group that was just wiped out and in a lot ways just going through the motions, and that’s why I think we pulled away from it.

It just wasn’t what we intended it to be at the get-go.”

Contrary to his reputation as a rapscallion — Trouser Press rather hyperbolically once described him as an “ambassador of bad juju, the kind of sneering, self-involved superstud who bewitches and bewilders ordinarily intelligent women (and a smattering of men, no doubt) with his sheer pheremonal aura” — Dulli is laid-back and congenial in conversation, as happy to discuss the merits of his populist Midwestern musical roots (“I wear my Hard Rock pedigree with pride”) as he is his beloved Cincinnati Reds (“I like their chances to win the World Series” … a prediction that unfortunately didn’t come to fruition).

Dulli looks back on his local upbringing — he grew up in Hamilton during the heyday of the Big Red Machine and Rock radio — fondly.

“It was a great place to grow up and a great place to live,” Dulli says. “I was just like anyone else at the time — what you grew up listening to on the radio is what you seeked out. And then when I started writing songs I started mixing up all the sounds that I heard — my grandmother’s Country records, my mom’s Soul records, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground, Husker Du.”

His Catholic upbringing also had a lasting impact on him and his approach to music.

“I did enjoy the pageantry and the ritual of the church,” Dulli says. “I was an altar boy for a couple of years and got to watch it happen. It’s a spectacle and the music is really intense. The organ at the beginning of ‘Crime Scene’ (the lead track on Black Love), for instance, I would be shocked if I did not steal that from a Catholic mass. The arcane, almost D.W. Griffith approach of the Catholic Church — the stained glass, the marble and the light coming through and people standing up and sitting down and going through all these motions — it was fascinating until I began to ask too many questions, and then I found my way out pretty early on.”

As anyone who has witnessed an Afghan Whigs show can attest, Dulli fancies himself a kind of preacher, passionately pleading his case to a congregation that is usually receptive to whatever unexpected whim he might indulge on a given night. (At the Chicago show, that included a request for someone to pass a joint up to him from the crowd, a brief serenade to a new female friend and a comment about his fondness for ancient Roman sexual proclivities).

“I like to be turned on,” he says. “I really like it when the group or the frontperson knows how to properly manipulate. That’s one of my favorite experiences and it doesn’t have to be in an overt way. It doesn’t have to be pounding on your chest, jumping up and down and speaking in tongues; it can be done in a very low-key manner as well. I always know when someone’s got control.”

John Curley knows Dulli’s singular ability to command an audience better than anyone. And after more than a decade apart, he’s grateful to have a second chance to experience the Whigs again.

“I think the time away from it was really good for me in terms of appreciating what we’re doing now,” Curley says in a recent phone conversation. “I got some time to gain a little bit of perspective and live a little bit of life apart from being in a band full-time. A lot of things gave me more of an appreciation for what the Whigs had accomplished and what we were and what we meant to people.”

Asked what it’s like to be back on stage with Curley and McCollum, playing songs that, in some cases, are almost 25 years old, Dulli, who’s not one known to look back nostalgically, hesitates for almost 10 seconds before answering.
“I’ve known those guys for 26 years,” he says. “They’re my friends. They never stopped being my friends. When we got to that point at the end of the 1965 tour a lot of stuff happened. I got hurt. It had just been the end of a long run. John (Curley) was going to have a kid. We lived in three different cities. We were just kind of wiped out, man, and it was time to try something new. Honestly, I wouldn’t change my life and how it’s gone for anything — good and bad.”

Curley, for one, seems like he isn’t ready for the reunion to end.

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had playing music in my life,” he says. “Maybe part of it, too, is that when we were putting out records there is always the pressure of, ‘How’s the record doing?’ And this is different — you can just enjoy playing music for its own sake. Obviously there are economics involved and stuff and it’s a business, but there is not that pressure of trying to promote the record and having that whole thing going on in the background all the time, which on the one hand makes the car go, but on the other hand can make the ride kind of bumpy.”

All of which brings us to the obvious question: What’s next for the Whigs?

“We’re having a really good time playing together and hanging out, so that’s what I’ll say to that,” Curley says, laughing. “We haven’t really talked about it to any great degree. Greg is always writing and he’s got a pretty fair amount of stuff in the vault. But I think right now we’re concentrating on doing this thing and just enjoying it for what it is. I would imagine in this final month of shows that the topic is going to come up around the dinner table or on the tour bus. It’s not the elephant in the room yet, but it’s becoming that.”

For his part, Dulli remains vague about the band’s plans beyond the current tour.

“If it makes sense and feels right after (the touring), we’ll do it,” Dulli says. “It’s that simple.”

When told of Dulli’s “feels right” comment, Curley confirms that’s the way the Whigs have operated from the beginning.
“That has always been our rule in a land with few rules.”

THE AFGHAN WHIGS' Thursday, Oct. 25 show at Bogart's is sold out. Tickets remain for The Afghan Whigs' New Year's Eve show at Bogart's.



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