The Afghan Whigs released their 6th studio album recently (first in 16 years! cue little girl squealing sounds), and as part of that they’re doing the media hoopla thing. I ran across this performance/interview with Seattle’s KEXP the other day — KEXP has lots of artists on, and they’re usually very good, you should check ’em out. Here’s the Whigs’ time on the show:
1) Even though he’s 50, and, let’s be honest, put on a few pounds recently (ahh, the return of Fat Greg Dulli perhaps in the offing?), even though he’s sweating bacon grease indoors in an air-conditioned studio, even though all that time has passed since the Whigs’ first time around — he’s still selling it, still shucking and jiving, still completely into the music, trying to make you feel something, trying to reach across and connect with you by sheer force of will, if not always musicality. That’s showmanship. That’s dedication, craft, and class. Gotta respect that.
2) Dulli seems irritable, which is odd. He’s nearly borderline rude. It’s even more puzzling because Cheryl Waters, the host, comes off as a total fangirl. (She bought a vinyl copy of Big Top Halloween. How many people can say that?) Perhaps the two facts, Dulli’s irritation and her obvious love and appreciation for the band, are not unconnected. Or maybe someone starched his shorts too much, or he got an unwelcome text before going into the studio, or the airline lost his luggage, too much caffeine, what have you — hard to say. At the most, it’s just speculation, but he does come off as tetchy.
3) The songs are stripped down as compared to the album versions. This robs them a little of their full musicality, but it ups the punch. “Matamoros” is plain scary, with the loopy non sequiturs in the lyrics delivered in a flat affect that signals “hustler on the move”. “It Kills” shows its bones as a true soul ballad –nothing “blue-eyed” about the soul on display here (an insulting and racialist modifier if ever I saw one.) The propulsive thump of the album version becomes a nearly marching-band chop, which actually makes it seem even more old-school. The song sorely misses Van Hunt’s wild, edge-of-control (emotional, auditory, mental) falsetto, but that extra space also highlights the chord changes through the middle of the song that just grip you and won’t let go. Who else makes soul music like this anymore? No really, who? “Royal Cream” stretches and builds tension, and “The Lottery” clatters appealingly and bangs a groove more than the album original’s spacey/U2 feel, but again, it’s just different, not worse by any stretch. Bottom line, this is a veteran band that can groove and move at will, as one. They don’t make bands like this anymore. Many bands sound polished to a T on record but can’t finish live. The Whigs flourish in a live setting, and always have.
4) Speaking of “It Kills”, perhaps the most riveting moment I’ve ever witnessed in a studio interview-play-a-few-songs-kinda performance comes during that song — specifically, at the end. Dulli plays the final few tender notes of the piano part, then he holds it — and pauses. He stares off into the distance, and you can tell he’s somewhere else, with someone else, thinking of other times, other places; other voices, other people, perhaps one particular person. For those few moments, he’s not in the room. Nowhere close. After a few eternal moments of reverie, Dulli looks back toward someone (the host?) and nods once, with a slight smile on his lips — and it’s still quiet. She supplies a clarification for the listeners at home: “A moment of silence for the Afghan Whigs” — and then the chatter resumes. But for those few moments, the most riveting statement that they could make, the most beautiful music of all, was simply to play…nothing.
5) Dig those smoky aviator shades of Dulli’s — classy.
6) Rick Nelson, the strings player, looks like a librarian or an engineer on the weekend. Obviously he didn’t get the “all black dress code for performances” memo from Dulli. (He often doesn’t, it seems.) But who cares, because his all-around musical excellence is not to be underestimated. He’s one of the aces Dulli has taped under the table…and he should continue to be on every project Dulli works on from now til, well, always.
7) Cully Simonson, the drummer, looks like a psychopathic logger in that plaid shirt. He often has a frightening detached insouciance, as if he could shake your hand or push you out a window with equal ease. Maybe it’s the combination of the beard, the hair, and the sunglasses. He doesn’t look like that without the beard or shades. Dude can smack a tub though.
8) Another favorite moment: when Greg silently yells at a band member to turn it down, whoever it might be, after he’s already made the motion for it once before, during “Royal Cream”. It’s a tiny glimpse in what it must be like to tour with Dulli and play in his sandbox. He’s a notoriously big personality, and all these guys have played with Dulli a long time. In order to run with Dulli one must skip to his lou … but it sure is hard to argue with the finished product.