The Afghan Whigs at Varsity Theater, 10/28/12
Photo by Steve Cohen
The Afghan Whigs
Varsity Theater, Minneapolis
Sunday, October 28, 2012
"What else you got? I want you naked in three more songs," the Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli called to the adoring person who threw a sparkling black scarf onstage amid "What Jail is Like," from 1993's Gentlemen. "I'm not joking," the group's fearless frontman added.
For the sold-out assembly at Varsity Theater on Sunday, it was apparent from the Ohio-bred rockers' opening montage of lights redder than blood, dramatic synthesizer intro, and eventually the snow machine painting the air a glimmering white, that everything about the night -- as over-the-top as it might've seemed in most other contexts -- was no joke. This must be what reunion tours are really like.
Ocasionally preening and mostly just self-assured, Dulli led his black-clad band through a satisfying look back at their three most recent albums, Gentlemen, Black Love (1996), and 1965 (1998), as well as some covers and a handful of earlier gems. The first offering, which came with the aforementioned blizzard was "Crime Scene Part One." At the surging moment when the three guitar attack hit mid-song, Dulli sings "Do you think I'm beautiful/ Or do you think I'm evil?" And for the majority of the night, he proved those two descriptors don't have to be mutually exclusive.
No motion is a wasted endeavor when you're dealing with the now-sober frontman. As the Afghan Whigs muscled into "I'm Her Slave," from 1992's Congregation, Dulli began testing the dimensions of the stage, toying with his black Gibson, swiveling his feet, dramatically turning his back when the lights shifted, and even blowing a subtle kiss to the heavens like a professional athlete. All made the team around him, onstage and off, rally harder.
After more than a decade apart -- excepting a few shows here and there -- the Afghan Whigs as a live are possibly better than they ever were before. If the wrinkles of age and perspective can make a band better, this is how to execute. But then again, the fellow Whigs assembled in front of a velvet curtain weren't entirely the band that recorded all this admittedly unfuckwithable material.
Add versatile multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson, who also tours with Dulli for the Twilight Singers, who ably hopped between the keys and strings all night. Guitarist Dave Rosser (Gutter Twins) filled out the three-guitar attack and pierced the night with his backing vocals. And it should come as little surprise that drummer Cully Symington also lends his rhythmic gifts to Okkervil River on one end of the sonic spectrum and Cursive on the other.
Photo by Steve Cohen
Limber long-time member Rick McCollum flying as close to the sun as possible without melting his wings on slide guitar for "Crazy." The group's other original, bassist John Curley, massaged the necessary low end out of his instrument to push the urgency of "My Enemy" and plumb then depths for tear-jerker "When We Two Parted."
For the latter, Dulli showed the first of several stratospheric climbs with his vocal cords. As the night unfolded, more evidence of the "midnight rides" he now takes with his upper range flew at the adoring crowd like the sharpest of needles. This was a crowd ready to bleed for him. The song closed with a coda featuring a choice bit of rapper Drake's "Over My Dead Body," which speaks unequivocally to the spell popular hip-hop and R&B have cast over this noisy, punk-postured group from their earliest days.
The seething soul within Whigs material like "66" could easily be re-imagined for mainstream R&B, but until that time, Dulli will be pleased to incorporate his favorite bits of "urban" music into his own. This can include an introduction to Marie Queenie Lyons' "See and Don't See," which brought Dulli wandering into the crowd with a wireless mic, as well as exploring a well-documented fascination with Frank Ocean behind the keyboard for "LoveCrimes."
"Faded" was undoubtedly Greg Dulli's "Purple Rain" from the moment it was conceived, but the end of the regular set proved to be some artistic confirmation/affirmation. This was the second moment of the night that got a Prince shout-out after brief nod to "Little Red Corvette" got tucked in at the end of "66." From the endlessly sumptuous Black Love, "Faded" is the most sumptuous moment -- especially with a seamless transition into the closing moments of "Purple Rain" taking it home.
An eight-minute melange of piano balladry and guitar-fueled rumpus, the song really could never end and it would be too soon. With the pageantry of Halloween just a couple days away, the Whigs spooked and delighted us with smoke, cinematic lights, songcraft, and what amounted to serious business everywhere onstage.
Photo by Steve Cohen
Photo by Steve Cohen
Personal Bias: After seeing the Afghan Whigs perform an abbreviated set at Lollapalooza this past summer, this blew away already high expectations for a group I've loved for two decades. In the middle of "When We Two Parted," I actually left my body and was gliding somewhere near the ceiling.
The Crowd: Far from elderly, but certainly old enough to wish "Retarded" had been played.
By the Way: Opening act Wussy lived up to their name in no way whatsoever. The Cincy-based group's bassist Mark Messerly wore an "Ohio Against the World" tee, and it completely encapsulated the evening. Co-fronted by the wry interplay of grey-bearded ex-Ass Pony Chuck Cleaver and fire-haired Lisa Walker, the alternation between hooks and dissonance proved a proper early thrust into the evening.
Random Detail: Don't mosh on the Current's Barb Abney, for Christ's sake. During the Whigs lone encore of "Miles Iz Ded," an over-energetic bunch of bros decided this was the perfect time to push through the enraptured, teary crowd and start a miniature pit -- on her back. Would you mosh during Leonard Cohen or Al Green? Bad form.
Crime Scene Part One
I'm Her Slave
What Jail Is Like
When We Two Parted/Over My Dead Body (Drake)
66/Little Red Corvette (Prince)
See and Don't See (Marie Queenie Lyons)
LoveCrimes (Frank Ocean)/Wicked Games (The Weeknd)
Going to Town
Fountain and Fairfax
Faded/Purple Rain (Prince)
Miles Iz Ded
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