Though a few days separated them from the actual holiday, the reunited Afghan Whigs lit up one hellacious big top Halloween in Detroit on October 24th. With devil’s night right around the corner — a fact singer-guitarist-motorized libido Greg Dulli referenced directly — a sold-out congregation in Saint Andrew’s Hall thronged to be enraptured by the band’s blistering and groove-laden tales of co-dependent relationships, shared needles, crazed arsonists, and angry sex and love mistaken for lust (or vice versa). If any time had passed for Dulli, guitarist Rick McCollum, and bassist John Curley since the dissolution of their band in 2001, it was only to allow their cult audience to grow and spread their gospel to a younger generation.
Following a rousing set by Cincinnati’s Wussy, the Whigs took the stage as the opening keyboard notes of “Crime Scene, Part One” shimmered through the speakers. Newly svelte and back to a fighting weight, the 47-year-old Dulli looked as though he’d arrived from a time loop from the Whigs’ mid ‘90s heyday as he held the audience in wait for the song’s first lyrics. “Do you think I’m beautiful / Or do you think I’m evil?” he howled as the subdued melody launched into crashing drums and frenzied guitars, the crowd simultaneously exploding on the floor as though a detonation had gone off. From that point on, the exchange of energy between band and crowd did not cease.
As a testament to the excellence of the group’s discography, their first five songs all hailed from a distinct album. As they ripped through the harrowing “I’m Her Slave” and the melodramatic “What Jail is Like” (melodramatic to anyone who hasn’t been in a similar situation depicted by the song), Dulli reveled in the experience, belying the dour subject matter of his lyrics. His voice, always more of an instrument designed to trigger emotions than a technically gifted device, was astoundingly sharp, the guttural scream he conjures ranking among the most affecting in rock. As a friend of mine said after the show, “it’s a howl that could make Satan’s skin crawl.” It was clear Dulli was as excited to be there as the spectators, playing with his old buddies before a crowd eager to be involved. Dark as the tunes themselves may be, there was simply too much fun to be had for the lyrical content to prevent the audience from belting their words out in unison. Even the despairing “When We Two Parted” went from an intimate rumination to an all-encompassing sprawl, complimented by a spinning disco ball refracting purple and blue lights across the venue.
Ever the seducer and cut-up, Dulli hammed it up for the audience, frequently turning his back as he sashayed and shimmied with his guitar and joked around between cuts. The stalwart Curley to Dulli’s left held down the fort in John Entwistle-fashion, smiling occasionally, almost despite himself. McCollum, unfortunately, was shadowed a little too far to the side of the stage, yet his proficient guitar work did the speaking for him. To fill out their sound, Dulli brought along his compadres from the Twilight Singers: Dave Rosser on guitar, Cully Symington on drums and Rick G. Nelson on keys, violin, and cello.
Paying tribute to the Motown legends the Afghan Whigs owed such a debt to, the band played their foreboding take on the Supremes’ “Come See About Me” from their 1992 EP Uptown Avondale. The band’s reputation for reinterpreting others’ songs was on full display beyond the Supremes nod, as they effortlessly weaved snippets of cover tunes into their originals, at times just a riff or a lyrical couplet that sounded as though they had been part of the album cuts all along. The best of these off-the-cuff medleys saw the Whigs beginning the sweetly funky romp of fan-favorite “66” with the Emotions’ “Best of My Love”. Toward the bridge, after Dulli crooned the infectious chorus of “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon little rabbit / Show me where you got it / ‘Cuz I know you got a habit”, he dropped a few choice innuendoes from Prince’s “Little Red Corvette”, lyrics which fit in as though they were designed to be there.
The highlight of the night, oddly enough, was the one-two punch of covers of Marrie “Queenie” Lyons’ “See and Don’t See” and Frank Ocean’s “Lovecrimes”. During the former, Dulli dropped from sight as the band began playing the smoky melody. As he began singing, heads turned throughout the hall, everyone looking for where he’d disappeared to. Dulli eventually emerged on the floor, slithering through the audience as he continued to sing the entirely appropriate refrain of “So just see and don’t see / Hear and don’t hear / Know and don’t know”. After returning to the stage, Dulli refrained from returning to his guitar, instead settling in at the keyboard for “Lovecrimes”, itself wrapping with a portion of the Weeknd’s “Wicked Games”, leaving the singer to pair such lyrics as “Murder, murder, murder / She wrote” with “Just let me motherfucking love you”.
The 16-song set ended with “Conjure Me” and “Fountain and Fairfax”, songs that are nearly uncomfortable in their brutal honesty. With “Conjure Me”, from 1992’s Congregation, McCollum, Dulli and Rosser’s three-guitar scat riffing replicated the song’s sense of paranoia as Dulli spit the vitriolic mantra of “I’m gonna turn on you / Before you turn on me”. In the latter song, frantic and unrelenting with McCollum’s slinky work on the fretboard sounding like his fingers would bleed, Dulli wailed the grotesque and self-lacerating lyrics: “Let me drink / Let me tie off / I’m really slobbering now”. I gotta say, it’s quite odd to hear such sentiments being sung along to by the crowd as though they were anthems.
As an encore, the Whigs treated fans with the closing three-song suite from 1996’s Black Love —“Bulletproof”, “Summer’s Kiss” and “Faded”. The band couldn’t have chosen a better way to go out, the trilogy transcendent in its progression and encapsulating all the dynamics that make the Whigs great —lyrics of swaggering confidence tempered by inner torment and sensitivity and music that is sweeping in its grandeur, incorporating jazz, soul, and R&B as much as savage rock. The performance hit its apex in “Faded”, a song that is already epic (a word I tend to despise for its overuse, but in this case, it is entirely warranted) on record, but in such a live setting, it stretched into a 15-minute hymnal with a degree of exegesis attained when it closed with the outro melody of Prince’s “Purple Rain”.
When it was over, I couldn’t help but think that as little as eight months ago, I would have thought my bucket list entry to see the Afghan Whigs was only a shade more likely than seeing a reunited Jimi Hendrix Experience. A sense of disbelief, of “Wow, that really just happened,” dominated my thoughts as I left the venue and began the two-hour drive home. The Afghan Whigs’ show proved that, for all the naysayers and cynics who arise whenever a defunct band reunites and goes on tour, there are those groups who get back together for the sheer joy of it and who do their legacy proud by adding a new chapter onto it.
1. Crime Scene, Part One
2. I’m Her Slave
3. Uptown Again
4. What Jail is Like
5. Come See About Me (Supremes cover)
6. When We Two Parted / Over My Dead Body (Drake cover)
9. Best of My Love (Emotions cover) / 66
11. Somethin’ Hot
12. See and Don’t See (Marie “Queenie” Lyons cover)
13. Lovecrimes (Frank Ocean cover) / Wicked Games (Weekend cover)
14. Going to Town
15. Conjure Me
16. Fountain and Fairfax
18. Summer’s Kiss