When The Afghan Whigs announced late last year they would be reuniting for a pair of appearances at All Tomorrow’s Parties in London and New Jersey (since grown to a full blown European tour of summer festivals and clubs), music critics and fans rejoiced.
For years, interviewers probed lead singer Greg Dulli about the possibility while he promoted his successful projects The Twilight Singers and The Gutter Twins. The answer, when it would come, was usually a firm "No" — everything that needed to be said with the Whigs had been said. Disappointed fans had reason to mourn — in the ’80s/’90s, Whigs' live shows were legendary for their one-two punch of cathartic anthems and ass-shaking grooves, with the alpha male voodoo cast by Dulli.
Unlike scores of other bands who get back together for all the wrong reasons — an embarrassing reality television moment or ill-conceived package tour (“Grunge on Ice!”) — The Whigs embraced this reunion on their own terms. It's been well covered in the press that all parties involved in the Whigs' camp said that the time was just right for this rendezvous. No hatchets to bury, no compromises to make and no million dollar title sponsorship necessary — the schedules just worked out and, by all accounts, everyone was in the right place, personally, emotionally, professionally.
That wasn’t the case in 2001 though, when the group cited physical distance as a prime reason behind their curtain call as a band. Two newish tracks momentarily reunited the band in 2006 for a career spanning retrospective, but no decision to re-group was made until bassist John Curley and guitarist Rick McCollum quietly got together with Dulli in New Orleans late last fall to test the waters. Obviously, they were pleased with what they heard.
Flash forward to this past week, halfway into their first live show in over a decade at the Bowery Ballroom in New York. Any concern that Dulli considered the band's reunion shows as some sort of middle-aged victory lap was put to rest as he traded quips with a heckler who apparently hadn’t got the memo about Dulli's legendary run-ins, on and off the stage with audience members who couldn’t resist being a part of the show.
Without dropping a beat, Dulli offered the fellow a cautionary warning before returning to the music at hand: “You know, I will fuck you up.”
Your attention please, indeed.
The Whigs still take their music seriously. In the month leading up to the somewhat surprise of a show at the Ballroom in New York this past week, the Whigs holed up in Cincinnati at Curley’s Ultrasuede Studio to give their entire catalog a work out. But hometown anonymity gave way when the band arrived in NYC to a New York Times proclamation that their sold out show in the Lower East Side was the “most sought after ticket in the Northeast.” Fitting perhaps as well that the Whigs first show back would take place in the city where they played their final show in 1999 (unbeknownst to anyone).
That Tuesday, the Whigs' fired their own opening salvo with their first television appearance in over a decade on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. It takes balls to play your first live gig in 13 years on TV in front of millions of viewers — not to mention performing a relatively obscure R&B tune (“See and Don’t See” by Marie “Queenie” Lyons) instead of one of your hits. Business as usual for the uncompromising Whigs.
Since Uptown Avondale's track by track Soul homage, the Whigs have been notorious for unearthing and reinventing old school R&B tracks. This time around, the Whig’s recorded a fragile interpretation of Lyons’ song, which was released online the week before. The tune got the Whigs' Chamber Rock treatment on Fallon with a string section and The Roots' ?uestlove joining in on drums while a nattily attired Dulli coolly plead his case. Later, after Fallon signed off air, the band recorded a bonus track for the show’s website, ripping through a caustic, muscular version of “I’m Her Slave.” Hopefully viewers at home didn’t miss the moment immediately after the song where Dulli and the usually reserved Curley quickly traded wide, shit-eating grins, obviously pleased with what the band just dropped on millions of viewers, many of whom had probably never had the opportunity to see the Whigs on their first go around.
If the Fallon appearance was the peek behind the curtain, the sold-out show at the Bowery Ballroom the next night was the full on Angelina-leg-bearing reveal. The band wasted no time, dipping heavily into Gentleman and Black Love, including a reprisal of “I’m Her Slave” and a dizzying “Conjure Me” from Congregation. The Whigs also visited a few tracks from their final full-length, 1965, before adding a couple of covers — the Lyons' track from Fallon and a spooky, piano-driven take on Frank Ocean’s “Lovecrimes.”
Presumably left for later in the tour was anything from the band's Sub Pop debut, Up In It. The band did, however, go six tracks deep from their noir epic, Black Love, including show opener "Crime Scene Part I" and the set-ending epic trio of “Bulletproof,” “Summer’s Kiss” and perennial show closer “Faded,” with the little coda from Purple Rain tagged on for good measure. But it was the reintroduction of the title track from Gentleman that brought the house down.The song had seemingly been shelved for live sets post-Black Love, it's rumored because of the heavy-hearted toll delivering the scathing lover’s reproach night after night took on its author. Whatever the reason, Dulli was back on better terms with his signature song, playfully pointing fingers and shaking his ass while the rest of the Whigs powered through the song’s metallic groove.
The reconvened Whigs are more light and nimble on their feet than the expansive 1965 final tour that saw the group supported by a cadre of excellent back-up singers and support musicians each night. This time around the trio is augmented by long time Dulli sideman, guitarist David Rosser, multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson and drummer Cully Symington. Even without all the extra hands on deck, the resulting sound still allows for moments of fragile beauty amongst the riffs thanks to Nelson’s cello and piano playing.
It’s worth noting that Dulli apparently gave up smokes over a year ago and his voice might be exhibit A for you kids contemplating taking a puff for the first time. He’s refined his aching falsetto and added some harmonic high notes to his trademark whisper-to-a-scream howl that showed no signs of letting down during the near two-hour show. Dulli acknowledged his new smoke-free existence, referencing the now legendary mid-show light ups where he would hold forth on baseball, shitty cover bands or how your girlfriend was flirting with him the entire show while the band would play bemusedly (or not) on. During his heckler beat-down at the Bowery, he even worked in a belated apology to mates Curley and McCollum for their patience during his soliloquies all those years — then accepted a goodwill drag off an audience member’s joint.
Unlike a lot of bands who play Reunion Roulette and lose, if national reviews of the show are any indication, this year’s model of the Whigs arguably sounds better than they did during the ’90s when they first broke on the international scene with their addictive mash up of Midwestern Punk, Rock and Soul.
Dulli said it best after a punkish wind-sprint through 1965’s "Uptown Again," when he offered a heartfelt thanks to the crowd for coming, adding, “It feels like we never left."
Full setlist from the Whigs' Facebook page: