Afghan Whigs place their passion in right place

One of most acclaimed bands of 1990s returns more focused, but is still able to tear heads off onstage.

African Whigs (photo credit: Sam Holden)
African Whigs
(photo credit: Sam Holden)
‘The hell-raising is taking place on stage this time, where it’s supposed to take place anyway,” says a reflective Greg Dulli, describing the main difference between The Afghan Whigs of 2012 and the Afghan Whigs of the 1990s.
Back then, Dulli, the leader of the critically acclaimed, commercially cultish Ohio quartet, was the epitome of the tormented artist, bearing his soul on stage and record. However, fueled by various lubricants, there was a blurring of his life and his art, resulting in frequently chaotic, turbulent shows and dark, harrowing lyrics filled with ache and passion.
Speaking from Rome, where the Whigs are triumphantly appearing as part of their first tour in 14 years, the 47-year-old guitarist and singer readily admits that “things have calmed down.” But the ache and passion are still present, according to a review of the show’s debut last month at New York’s Bowery Ballroom.
“Dulli’s latter-day work has wavered between dangerous lounge lizardry and stoic murder balladeering, but last night’s show was the Whigs at their most punkkissed chaotic. In a set that relied heavily on their final album, 1998’s 1965, the Whigs revved their engines and let already propulsive songs... veer dangerously close to flying off the handle. But the core of the band – Dulli, bassist John Curley, and guitarist Rick McCollum – navigated those hot curves as though they had never been apart,” wrote Entertainment Weekly.
“We’re definitely better players now, we’re a little more present. Thirteen years ago, we were kind of off our tits,” said Dulli, adding that the expected butterflies that should have accompanied a band’s reunion after a long stretch were absent.
“Maybe I should have been nervous, but I had a feeling of utter confidence in what we were going to do, which was walk out into a room filled with love. I felt safe and serene – then we went out and tore [the audience’s] heads off.”
A true band of the 1990 – with six albums and EPs released between 1990 and 1998 when they imploded – the Whigs set themselves apart from their alternative rock brethren by focusing on Dulli’s angst-filled lyrics and incorporating nuanced rhythmic suppleness into their music that fused post-punk grunge with soul and R&B-inflected grooves.
Dulli, who grew up near Cincinnati, in Hamilton, Ohio, escaped the inevitable heavy metal and classic rock Midwest purgatory, thanks to an eclectic community radio station WMOH, which opened his ears to blues, R&B and whole lot of rock & roll.
“As a kid, I heard The New York Dolls, Patti Smith and all this late 1970s New York music. So I sort of got turned on to this cool stuff and then I was able to seek out other stuff on my own,” said Dulli. “But it’s correct that Cincinnati is a heavy metal and classic rock town, and I saw some great metal shows growing up. And I’ve incorporated elements of metal in my music ever since.
A good power chord never hurt anybody.”
Meeting future band mates Curley, McCollum and drummer Steve Earle while studying film at the University of Cincinnati, Dulli launched the Whigs in 1986 and they released their first indie album, Big Top Halloween, in 1988.
The music made its way to influential Seattle-based label Sub Pop, the champion of the alternative rock sound of the 1990s. The label signed the band and in 1990 released Up in It, the start of a long, successful run which saw the band becoming MTV staples and Dulli attracting attention for his brooding leading man persona.
Dulli said that the guiding light of Sub Pop proved to have a huge effect on the band and their subsequent popularity.
“The Sub Pop folks were our age, basically our peers, and they were – and still are – strong influences on us,” said Dulli. “[Sub Pop founders Jonathan Poneman and Megan Jasper] flew out from Seattle for our New York show, and that speaks volumes for the love and respect we all have for each other. I really meant a lot to me that they came, it was pretty wonderful.”
THE MOMENTUM and creative spark the band enjoyed in the 1990s eventually waned, however, and by the end of the decade, the Afghan Whigs called it quits.
Dulli had already been spending time with a side project, The Twilight Singers, releasing a handful of albums over the past 10 years. He also collaborated with former Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan forming The Gutter Twins which toured sporadically, and in 2008 released an album, Saturnalia.
Dulli kept rejecting offers to reform The Afghan Whigs, until a request reached him directly last year that made his change his mind.
“It was kind of a perfect storm,” he said. “I had put together acoustic shows about a year and a half ago consisting of songs from my whole career, including The Afghan Whigs. John joined me for some of the shows and it was the first time I had played with him in a decade. He’s like a brother and one of my closest friends and I really enjoyed it.
“Then, soon after that, Barry Hogan who runs [alternative music festivals] All Tomorrow’s Parties and I’ll Be Your Mirror got into a bind and asked me to help him out. He’d asked me over the years to reunite the Whigs and I had politely declined, but I’ve always been a big fan of his and the festivals. This time, when he asked me, the time was just kind of right for me to help him and I agreed to do two shows with the Whigs, one in May and one in September. Then I just decided to connect the shows. It’s really as simple and as complicated as that.”
Fans hoping for something more than a reunion tour received a treat last month when the Whigs released a new song online – a haunting version of an obscure funk rock song from 1970 – “See and Don’t See” by Marie “Queeni” Lyons.
“The Whigs in general always had a big interest in R&B, and I in particular have been a big fan of that song for a while,” said Dulli. “I sat down with John in the studio and it came together quickly – it wasn’t a conscious decision to record something, it just sounded good and we decided to record it.”
Dulli wouldn’t commit himself to comment on whether the song is a harbinger of the Whig’s first bona fide album in 13 years.
“I’m not saying yes and not saying no. Right now, I’m just enjoying the moment and the situation. I’ll react when and if I need to – now I’m in a ‘having a good time’ moment.”
The good time will continue this week when Dulli and the Whigs arrive in Tel Aviv for shows Friday and Saturday nights at The Barby Club. He’s no stranger to the country, having appeared here multiple times over the past few years with both The Twilight Singers and The Gutter Twins.
“Tel Aviv is a dynamic international city with a lot of smart people, great fashion and food. I’ve met a lot of amazing people and there’s this great energy everywhere,” said Dulli, adding that he’s dismissed calls from pro-Palestinian groups to boycott the country. “I’ve been approached, but I’m an individual – I make my own decisions.”
That sounds like the old Greg Dulli – resolute and opinionated. But in a noticeable mellowing of his crusty façade, he expressed gratitude for the reception that the Afghan Whigs have been receiving on their reunion tour.
“Who doesn’t like to be liked? When you do something that someone appreciates, I would defy the individual to say they didn’t enjoy that. I’ve been moved by the response.”