The Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli (left) and John Curley (Photo: Botellita de Cielo)
“I’ve been waiting for this for six months,” Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli said to start off the Cincinnati-spawned Rock crew’s first concert in the Queen City since a Sept. 25, 1999, appearance at the same venue. That ’99 show turned out to be the Whigs’ last public concert anywhere before the group’s recent return on a global reunion tour earlier this year.
As the extended band built upon the swarming buzz of opener “Crime Scene (Part One),” a lot of fans in the audience could relate to Dulli’s excitement for a hometown show, something most for years thought would never happen. They’ve been waiting a lot longer than six months (when the show was announced), though. More like 13 years.
The show kicked off a little after 9 p.m. with Cincy favorites Wussy. The foursome is opening several of the shows on the Whigs’ current U.S. run. Though the group had some sound issues (they clanged away to get levels a little before starting, apologizing and telling the audience they hadn’t gotten a soundcheck), many in the crowd got swept away by the rockers’ ragged, emotive and infectious sound. Though the Cincinnati stop on the tour is obviously the show where the audience would be most familiar with Wussy (many fans around me were dancing and shouting every lyric back as co-frontpeople/singers/guitarists Lisa Walker and Chuck Cleaver switched off vocals), it was fascinating to see that moment on people’s faces when you can tell they’ve been lured in — “Hey, these guys are really good.” It bodes well for the band, which will join Heartless Bastards on tour as soon as the Whigs dates end.
Short on its trademark hilarious banner (a theme for the night, though in Wussy’s case, it was difficult to hear much of anything the members said between songs), Wussy busted through a great set that touched on all four of their studio album releases to date. Like the albums, that created a great “calling card” of a set for potential new fans, as Wussy moved from more emotionally moving, slow swaying songs (like opener “Waiting Room” from last year’s excellent Strawberry and the transcendent “Muscle Cars” from 2009’s self-titled effort) to its often humorous (though still often just as passionate) and punkish upbeat tunes like the uber-catchy “Happiness Bleeds” and the relentless, wired “Pulverized” (another Strawberry track).
The core quartet was rounded out by John Erhardt, a former bandmate of Cleaver’s in The Ass Ponys who added some tasty shading with his pedal steel guitar (unfortunately, his contributions were probably effected most by the weak sound, which often made him inaudible in the mix). Whigs bassist John Curley sat in on a song, putting a jolt into the crowd and leading bassist/multi-instrumentalist Mark Messerly to joke that, while everyone should be excited about the Whigs reuniting, they were now going to be treated to a “Staggering Statistics reunion” (Curley played in that local band with Wussy drummer Joe Klug; SS singer/guitarist Austin Brown was not present, so it was really a 2/3 reunion-ish).
Between sets, the anticipation of Whigs’ fans that could be seen on social media sites since the show was first announced six months ago was becoming palpable.
The lights went down, the crowd erupted and The Afghan Whigs took the stage (adorned with a simple red backdrop, reminiscent of the one at the old Southgate House, and a shimmering disco ball) to kick off an hour-and-a-half-plus show that showed that this was far from the same band that performed at Bogart’s 13 years ago.
The Whigs have always been an amazing live band, but the current incarnation was a different kind of amazing — tight, focused and seemingly thrilled to be playing with each other again. Exemplifying the band’s decision to return for a full tour and do things smarter were the mere physiques of Curley and Dulli, who seemed to have recognized the unhealthy trappings of touring and preemptively hit the gym hard so they were ready for them. The always rail-thin original guitarist Rick McCollum was his usual enigmatic self, knocking out his brilliant, snaking leads while practically hidden on the far left of the stage. Though fairly subdued, occasionally McCollum stepped out of the shadows, doing his Jimmy Page-influenced stutter-step stage moves.
The Afghan Whigs were literally a different band than 13 years ago as well. Longtime associate Doug Falsetti was back on percussion and back-up vocals, but there were plenty of new faces — guitarist Dave Rosser and drummer Cully Symington (members of Dulli’s Twilight Singers) plus Rick Nelson, who played cello, violin and keys.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the Whigs that broke up in 1999 and the one that played last night was focus. I personally missed the funny, sometimes baiting banter for which Dulli’s infamous, but it made the show more powerful and fluid just sticking to the songs. The Afghan Whigs proved themselves one of the best live Rock & Roll bands on the planet right now with a no-BS set that hit upon songs from their entire career.
That was another “new thing” — the band’s last Bogart’s show featured no material from the Whigs’ first two SubPop albums (save standard finale “Miles Iz Dead” from Congregation). Last night, the band did “Miles” as the finale again, but also did ferocious versions of Congregation’s “I’m Her Slave” and “Conjure Me” and even “Retarded,” the fiery lead-off track from the 1990 SubPop debut, Up In It.
Instead of the swaggering “gentleman” teasing the crowd and making jokingly arrogant statements between songs, Dulli came off like a master frontman, taking off his guitar for the old R&B cover of “See and Don’t See” and roaming through the crowd, dancing frequently and, most importantly, hitting every note. Dulli has reportedly quit smoking and it has done wonders for his voice. In the past, he’d sometimes gasp for air doing a song like “Conjure Me” or nearly choke on some of the more throatier howls; last night, all cylinders were clicking and he hit all the right notes, including the “Yeah!” yells of “Retarded” (one of the best screams in Rock & Roll), which he's now nailing probably better than he has since the group recorded the song.
The more upbeat material from the Whigs’ swan song, 1965, got the crowd moving even more intensely as the Whigs grooved hard on their distinctive funkiness. And tracks from Gentlemen and Black Love were received like the classics they are, from the ominous “Fountain and Fairfax” and the whip-snap of “Gentleman” to the woozy teetering of “When We Two Parted” (which was given a bigger, sharper reworking), a hard and heavy “My Enemy” and a soaring “Faded,” one of the best “ballads” of the ’90s during which the group paid tribute to one of the best ballads of the ’80s, “Purple Rain.”
The Whigs have always quoted from other songs during their sets (kind of like how a Jazz saxophonist will sneak in various melodies while playing) and last night was no exception. Dulli inserted a touch of Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” into “66” (a holdover from their final touring days) and also worked up a snippet of The Emotions’ Disco classic “Best of My Love” as an intro. And during their most recent new song, a great cover of Frank Ocean’s “Lovecrimes,” Dulli (playing keys) segued into “Wicked Games” by Canadian R&B newcomer The Weeknd.
Early on in the set, Dulli thanked Wussy for opening up and remarked on how Cincinnati has always produced a ton of great bands. “Always has, always will,” he added. Those words carry a lot of weight coming from a Cincinnati music icon.
I came away from the show with one thought — “This can’t be it.” Yes, the group is returning for another Bogart’s show on New Year’s Eve, but The Afghan Whigs are better than they’ve ever been right now and, judging from various interviews, all three members are enjoying the experience immensely — why stop now? If they can get through this tour with those good vibes still peaking, why wouldn’t they make a new album and keep it going?
UPDATE: Here's is the full setlist from the Bogart's show Oct. 25 (from setlist.fm):
1. Crime Scene, Part One 2. I'm Her Slave 3. Uptown Again 4. What Jail is Like 5. Conjure Me 6. When We Two Parted/Over My Dead Body (Drake cover) 7. Gentlemen 8. Crazy 9. Best of My Love /66 (The Emotions cover) 10. My Enemy 11. Retarded 12. See and Don't See (Marie "Queenie" Lyons cover) 13. Lovecrimes /Wicked Games (Frank Ocean cover) 14. Going to Town 15. Who Do You Love?/Fountain and Fairfax (Bo Diddley cover) 16. Faded Encore: 17. Miles Iz Ded 18. Into the Floor