perfect fall albums #2: the twilight singers sing blackberry belle (also live)

Q: Do you think people think you’re an asshole?
Greg Dulli: I know people think I’m an asshole.

Q: Why? Tell me what you mean by that.
GD: I’m a candid, direct, and confident person, and people don’t like that. I think I’m a very loved and loving person, and I think that pussies are scared of me.
The Stranger interview, 11/28/03

I worshipped the Afghan Whigs. For me, they were that band that you’re annoyingly obsessive about, that no one else you know is. It was that train collision of punk and soul that no one else quite got right until the Whigs foisted themselves upon an unsuspecting universe.

Even before the Whigs broke up and Twilight Singers was all we had, I wanted to love them. In Seattle, for a while that was what everyone was talking about – Greg Dulli and Shawn Smith. I heard a few songs from the early, first demo that was floating around, and what wasn’t there to love? But then, rumors, fallings out, change in concept, and it became the record that was supposed to come out any day now. The released version really did nothing for me, and I actually wasn’t upset that I was not in town when Greg came through with this project in 2000.

Three years later, and another incarnation of the Twilight Singers. The Whigs have broken up, Dulli’s moved to LA. Reports are varying – he looks great, he looks like shit – the usual. Pair that with the parallel Elliot Smith reports and things were not looking so great.

But this record is – remarkable.

Soulful with a touch of funk. Heartfelt almost-emo shadings lyrically and musically. Lush and emotive. It’s the perfect record to listen on a softly greying late autumn afternoon, just as the rain begins to fall. That’s what it feels like, that’s what it SOUNDS like. Dulli always wanted to be Prince – okay, he really wants to be Curtis Mayfield – and I’ll go out on a limb and say he succeeded in merging his vision with Prince’s sensibility circa ’85, with enough of a modern sound that it’s just not retro.

Dulli just has a knack for writing these tremendous, climactic songs – “Don’t Drink The Water,” “Milez Is Dead,” and the glorious “Faded.” And he continues it here – “Martin Eden,” “The Killer,” and the utterly explosive “Teenage Wristband.” They’re just larger than life.

It’s the kind of album that only reveals its true self after multiple listens. And even after you think you’ve gotten it, yet another layer unpeels.

Then there is the live show.

This tour did not get off to the greatest start, by all reports. You couldn’t even write it off as younger fans holding the torch of the Whigs so high that there was no way this incarnation could live up to it – diehard Whigs fans were proclaiming they’d never give Greg a cent of their money ever again. The thing is, though, I trust Dulli – I trust his muse, to be more accurate. He might be drunk, or slightly fucked up, or arrogant, but I’ve never seen him go on that stage and not deliver. It might be out there or it might be the weirdest fucking trip you’ve ever been on, but he just can’t lie up there. I don’t mean that he doesn’t tell slightly exaggerated stories or isn’t full of boasting and bravado, but it was always the music that never ever ever lied. I don’t believe you can play those songs and sing those lyrics without looking like a fool if you don’t fucking mean it.

Tonight, last show of the tour, Chop Suey here in Seattle, St. Gregory returns to his former home. And once again, Dulli brought it all home. When the opening notes of “Esta Noche” came raining down, seemingly from the heavens, it was indeed nothing short of homecoming. The songs are eerie and evocative on the album, with their own individual characters, but live they expand and fulfill their promise. They’re huge, thundering, and I swear, utterly breathtaking.

I know I am overly emotional when it comes to this music, but I don’t know how you can possibly be ambivalent or anywhere in the middle when it comes to anything Dulli’s involved in. (Hell, he even sang like he was blowing his vocal chords out on the Backbeat soundtrack.) It’s all too powerful, too passionate, too heart-renderingly, overwhelmingly, painfully honest. This shit is real. Dulli’s been through love and loss, friends and enemies, sex and drugs, and stared death right in its goddamn face. Even before the Texas incident (when he had the shit beat out of him by a bouncer with a 2×4 during the 1965 tour), he knew. He understood. Call it an old soul (or more likely, just plain soul, the one element that made the Whigs stand out for me above all others), call it a high sense of drama, but it was that sensibility that made this band and those lyrics so true.

Dulli wrote (and writes) about life and love and heartbreak with darkness but without drama, with passion and pragmaticism mixed together. He sees the shades of grey and is willing to inhabit all the spaces inbetween. Life ain’t black and white and love sure as hell isn’t, either, and he’s walked both sides of that thin line. The best example of this is, of course, the old “I got a dick for a brain/and my brain is gonna sell my ass to you…” line from Gentlemen’s “Be Sweet”, or a dozen other instances I could quote you verbatim, I know them (and have lived them) entirely too well. He faces this shit head on, dares it to come seek him out, dares himself to go in after it. The lyrics address denial but are anything but that. It’s about standing there, ready to face the blast head on, knowing what could happen but doing it anyway. Break my heart? That’s fine, I’ve seen worse. Do it again? I’ve got scars you’ll never even touch. That ain’t bravado; that’s just an acceptance and readiness to pay the price of living, in its truest sense.

And that was exactly the avatar Greg conjured onstage tonight. The band was stellar, elements of funk and soul and just plain rawk. This is a band capable of playing “Hey Ya” and “Don’t Fear The Reaper” (complete with cowbell), “Black Love” into a Stevie Nicks medley that concluded with a note-for-note rendition of the ending to “Layla,” tweeting birds and all. Interspersed with that were the Twilight songs, better than ever, and then the Whigs songs you almost felt guilty for wanting to hear so badly. – we got “Uptown Again,” “Crazy,” “66” (which came right after “Hey Ya” and I have to say, I do hear the influence of the former on the latter, not that Greg could have stayed away from “Hey Ya” if his life depended on it – when I heard he was covering it, it was just so damn obvious, ya know?) And to end the whole night, the best possible ending, the biggest, loudest, almost arena rock version of “Faded” I ever remember seeing, so huge it overwhelmed that tiny club.

For me, it was equal parts joy and pain and catharsis and just plain old rock and roll goodness, it was abandon and reclamation. It was healing, and was exactly what I needed right now, a chance to face the roaring furies head on, to fully embrace and inhabit all those shades of grey. Only at the Whigs could I find myself shaking my ass one minute, headbanging the next, and laughing the whole time, even if at least a quarter of it brought tears to my eyes. To my delight, right now, the Twilight Singers was the exact same thing, only, well, more grown up, if that makes any sense. Definitely not more mature, just more seasoned, settled, established and expansive. This record should be huge; I’ll just selfishly thank my lucky stars that it’s not.

Consider yourselves warned.