The Twilight Singers perform Blackberry Belle: Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, CA; 9/17/11
When the Twilight Singers were forced to cancel the San Francisco date behind the latest album, Dynamite Steps, no one anticipated that the makeup date wouldn’t be just another show, somehow shoehorned into the tour schedule, but rather a first time one-off epic performance: Blackberry Belle, Dulli’s first post-Whigs magnum opus, performed in its entirety. Waiting on line to get into the venue, along with people from Chicago and Texas and Seattle and Canada I wondered if any San Franciscans had gotten themselves into their makeup date.
The emotional continuum of Blackberry Belle is a tough one for me. It’s a record that got me through an agonizing, lengthy breakup that I just could not get free of. I didn’t need to listen to music that was positive or uplifting, I wanted to hear the audible representation of how I felt inside and dig out of it that way. It’s kind of like the Whigs’ version of of “Come See About Me” – the way the Supremes sing it, it’s a cheery little ditty that’s hiding the main character’s true feelings. But when the Whigs did it? They turned it into a howling, dark, dissonant beast of a song that made you feel like you’d never heard it before. It owed as much to Husker Du as it did to Holland-Dozier-Holland – but make no mistake, it very much had a foot equally planted in both camps. Which is, of course, how I fell in love with the Afghan Whigs in the first place, and Dulli still does this shit. I mean, “Teenage Wristband”? Nevermind the direct Baba O’Riley reference (which is always guaranteed to get my fucking attention), he writes classic, anthemic arena rock music behind a tale of desperation and madness: “you wanna go for a ride/i got 16 hours to burn/and i’m gonna stay up all night”: that can be a statement of purpose, of despair, or triumph. I still listen to that album – it hasn’t left my iPod since it came out – and it doesn’t do the same thing that it did the first time I heard it but it still does something, each and every time. It’s been almost 10 years since Blackberry Belle came out and it’s been almost 20 years since I first saw Greg Dulli onstage for the first time. There aren’t that many other artists who are still working and playing on a regular basis that I have that kind of enduring relationship with. This explains why I got on a plane for San Francisco, no questions asked.
The Great American Music Hall, an ornate jewelbox of a venue built in 1907, was a suitable, intimate setting for this performance- and let’s get this straight, it was a performance, not just a show or a gig or any kind of standard rock show, but yet, it was a loud and raucous and frenetic evening from start to finish. I’ve always taken Blackberry Belle as a song cycle, as the representation of a specific period of time, I could blaspheme here and invoke Born To Run but where that started in the morning and ended in the evening, Blackberry Belle started at twilight and ended back at twilight. On Saturday, they tried their hardest to keep the momentum going and allow the audience to experience the album as a whole, from start to finish with as few distractions as possible. It was absolutely magnificent. They paused as briefly as possible, and there was little to no chatter between numbers (and if you’ve ever seen Greg Dulli live before, you realize what an accomplishment this is.)
The exceptions were an invocation of “Esta Noche!” prior to that song, uttered with an exultant tone that sounded to me like it was missing a “motherfuckers!” right behind it, and prior to the performance of “Feathers,” Dulli noting that this is what most of us travelled to the show to see, given that it had never been performed before – not that that stopped the crowd from singing along to it as loudly as they had every track that had preceded it. I hate the off tune dude singing in my ear behind me as much as you do, but when the band is loud enough that you can’t hear them except as another layer of sound in the background, it’s just adding to the performance, it’s fueling the performers, it’s sending the love and the energy back.
Sorry to get all hippie on you, but this was a profession of love between the band and the audience. These were people who had travelled, these were people who were here not just because it was another Dulli show or another Twilight Singers show or because maybe he’ll play “Debonair,” this was a destination show in the town that invented the destination concert. (When I walked into Slim’s Friday night and they were showing “The Last Waltz” before the band came on, I took it as an omen.) And it wasn’t just an event for the fans, it was an event for the band: scheduling it on a Saturday wasn’t an accident, giving us plenty of notice wasn’t an accident, and practicing all week before the gig as well as the day before and the day of wasn’t an accident, either. Greg tipped his hand there with the comment before “Feathers”. I felt that this was right and proper and respectful of everything and everyone involved.
I ended up front and center, not by design, but by situation: I got to the venue when I did because the hotel was playing fucking Billy Joel at a party in the courtyard and I couldn’t take it for one second longer, so I walked up to the venue and got on the line and they opened the door and I walked in and that was the space that was there. This meant I had Dulli’s amp pointed at me all night, and being on the receiving end of the scratchiest, funkiest, most soulful guitar I have ever heard him play was about as raw and overwhelming as you might think it would be. I had to put the earplugs in for the second set not just to save my hearing but just to emotionally be able to handle the physical impact of that sound hitting me in the center of the chest all night long. He was playing that big black Gretsch he’s been favoring for the last couple of years, different than the Telecaster he used to sling with the Whigs, and it and it would be overwhelming on someone else, it’s a perfect foil for Dulli. “Decatur Street” was an especial highlight of this moment; on record it’s smoother, more laid back, but in San Francisco it was like he was a member of the fucking Bar-Kays or something. I mean, it’s there in the song, it was always there, buried in the background, but Saturday night it was along the top, wide open, big and loud. By the time Mark Lanegan – in a suit, no less! – had joined the band for the final track, “Number Nine,” and Petra Haden had carried the band off the stage with her magnificent voice wailing up into the lights, you were ready for a drink, a cigarette, or both: even if you didn’t drink and didn’t smoke, you suddenly wanted to. It was very post-coital at that moment. It was hard to imagine that they were going to walk back out onstage and do it again.
But the roadie scurrying out to place fresh setlists was the reminder that we weren’t done, not by a long shot. There was another full set, with two encores, still to come. In this case, it would be easy, very easy, for Dulli to fall back on a set of favorites or classics or drag out a Whigs medley, but the second set was a judicious mix from the Twilight catalog, both new and old, with plenty of songs from the last album in the mix, and a Lanegan solo number to boot. And I’ll give the props to the audience who — as always, at least from my experience — cheered the new songs as loudly as they did the old ones. I love watching the songs transform, from the first round of shows on the tour to the next tour to the one after that, how they grow and morph and transform and become bigger or sleeker or something else completely different than what they were originally conceived on record.
The highlights there, for me personally, had to be an extended “Never Seen No Devil,” an ecstatic “Candy Cane Crawl,” and the mind-blowing “Too Tough To Die.” The latter, especially, becomes this ever-changing vehicle for Dulli, as he finds thematically suitable songs to bring into the midpoint of the song – “Breakdown” by Tom Petty a recent personal favorite – except that tonight was “Something Hot” by the Whigs (selected as a birthday dedication to a fan in front), and it became one of those hold your breath moments, as Dulli sang the interlude acapella, off-mic, with the crowd keeping their I LOVE YOU GREG DULLI to themselves long enough to actually let him do it, that moment without electricity and amplification, the ones who were singing sang in quiet hushed tones so they could also hear… and then he circles back into the song which is classic rollicking New Orleans romp, a song originally delivered by a woman, which of course he flips around and (to my mind) is always singing it from both sides – okay this isn’t about San Francisco, which is the point of this, the point of this is how the performances Saturday night were probably the strongest or best performances of those songs you could ever hope to hear – everything you loved about them live was solidified and crystallized and cranked up as high and as strong as he and the rest of the band could make it.
The guests, the aforementioned Mr. Lanegan, Dave Catching on guitar, and Petra Haden taking the place of Apollonia (probably the thing that bummed me out the most was that cancellation, because after all these years I dearly wanted to watch Dulli channel his inner Prince Rogers Nelson for a couple of songs there), were all on their best game, as was every single member of the Twilight SIngers ensemble. They all wore smiles almost as big as the audience for the entire night, and they played as hard as you’ve ever seen them. I truly admire and appreciate every single musician on that stage every time I get to see them play, and Saturday was absolutely no exception to that rule.
And then, for the last song of the night, Dulli announcing it as “the song you can’t play anything else after it,” the amazing Dave Catching is brought on to compliment the barrage of guitar noise as they stomp like giants through Young Neil’s “Hey Hey, My My,” full on 1978 Crazy Horse mode, channeling Rust Never Sleeps and the Cow Palace and Big Black and as loud and crunchy and thudding and colossal as you can possibly imagine it, and, yes, being the song that nothing could be played after. It was affirmation, it was statement of purpose and if I want to read too much into it, it was a statement of things that wouldn’t be happening to Dulli and this band, and it was just plain big rock and roll fun, which was the best way to send us out the door, into a clear, starry and moon-filled San Francisco night.
Last Night In Town
That’s Just How That Bird Sings
Live With Me
Too Tough To Die
She Was Stolen
Candy Cane Crawl
Never Seen No Devil
On The Corner
Hey Hey, My My
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