Afghan Whigs bring the darkness at First Ave, Har Mar brings the funk

Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs at the Varsity in 2012.

Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs at the Varsity in 2012. Jeff Wheeler

It was a bill that might not have made sense on paper.

But in practice, local soul hero Har Mar Superstar opening for dense, dark rockers Afghan Whigs last night at First Avenue worked in every possible way.

Har Mar Superstar opened with the fantastically moody new song “Personal Boy,” the band in matching satin jackets and t shirts emblazoned with “Personal Boix,” in the style of beloved sparkling water purveyors, La Croix. Sean “Har Mar” Tillman himself was dressed like a really dedicated janitor on his wedding day, or maybe in the manner of a stylish zookeeper.

With plenty of microphone swings and synchronized dance moves, Har Mar served up a skronky, funky-ass good time. By the time the band got to the Motown-flavored favorite “Restless Leg,” Tillman had started undressing.

Har Mar dusted off a faithful rendition of Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine” and dedicated “How Did I Get Through the Day” to the dearly departed Grant Hart. Then he tore through a loose, fun cover of “Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News. “There’s nothing wrong with Huey Lewis,” Tillman assured the crowd. “Not a goddamned thing.”

Tillman’s falsetto was in full effect on the funky “Tall Boy,” and he delivered “We Don’t Sleep” with conviction and authority, controlling the noise and the crowd. Hell, he sang at least 30 seconds of the song in a full headstand. After a quick sales pitch (“You seem ready to buy some shirts. Ours are fantastic.”) Har Mar capped his no-bullshit, rough and tumble set with a super-smooth “Lady, You Shot Me.”

Greg Dulli and the Afghan Whigs began by ripping into the pitch-black new track, “Arabian Heights,” from their latest album, In Spades. The Whigs’ intense, pummeling attack was almost oppressive, in a good way, their intensity pinning you to whatever or whoever was behind you. The band also performed a beautiful rendition of “Teenage Wristband,” a song from Dulli's side project, the Twilight Singers. Piano flourishes cut through the din. 

We were warned pre-show that there should be no flash photography during the Whigs’ none-more-black performance. Still, a flash popped. “Sir, did you miss the speech about flash photography?” Dulli asked. “That picture is going to look shitty.” He went on to explain how real photographers work, adding, “I’m not fucking with you, brother.”

Dulli also spoke about the loss of bandmate Dave Rosser to colon cancer. Rosser was still with the Afghan Whigs when they last came through town, but last night they were down to a five-piece without their late friend and guitarist. The band turned in a gorgeous rendition of “Can Rova,” a favorite of Rosser’s, from their 2014 comeback album, Do to the Beast.

Tillman came back out to sing In Spades’ “Demon in Profile” with the Whigs, establishing some continuity between the sets. Then the Whigs returned to Do to the Beast, driving through “It Kills” with a very rhythmic piano, before reaching back to 1998 for 1965’s “Somethin’ Hot.”

The Afghan Whigs finished their main set with a brooding “Into the Floor.”  Waves of melodic noise crashed as the band effortlessly segued into Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer.” As the song wound down, Dulli left us with this prediction: “First day of autumn, days are shorter, nights are longer… Remember, I told you so.”

The freewheeling encore showed some love for Minneapolis and its institutions. “The music that has come off this stage and out of this city changed my life,” Dulli said, welcoming Tillman back to the stage for a tribute to Grant Hart, a version of Hüsker Dü’s “Keep Hanging On.” With just Dulli and Tillman on stage, and the crowd singing along, it was a cathartic moment.

The rest of the Whigs returned to the stage for a technicolor jam of Black Love’s “Summer’s Kiss” before sliding into Prince’s “Sometimes it Snows in April,” which they mashed up with another favorite from Black Love, “Faded.” In the midst of swirling sounds of a band possessed, Dulli announced “On this very stage I say… ‘TAKE ME AWAY!’” The last blast followed right on cue – a perfect end to the show.

The crowd: In my general vicinity: Surly-drinking dads and women dressed far too nicely for them.

Overheard in the crowd: “He’s taking his clothes off! Watch!”

Random notebook dump: The Afghan Whigs are intense and loud. Definitely an earplugs show. I should’ve worn earplugs.