Rebirth of the Cool: the Afghan Whigs at the Bowery Ballroom, 5-22-12
Band reunions are tricky, complicated, emotional things. In these days of holograms and reunion tours that go on for 5 years, the concept of accepting that this entity to which you had such an emotional connection, or never got to experience, will never be available to you (either again or for the first time) is unpopular. I never saw the Who with Keith Moon, never got to see Sterling Morrison play guitar on the same stage as Lou Reed, John Cale and Maureen Tucker, never saw the New York Dolls with Johnny Thunders and Arthur Kane. When I was younger these things made me rue my very existence, now that I was older I kick myself but still accept that bands are this amorphous thing and sometimes the universe does not align to put you where you need to be to experience something you want.
I never felt a huge, Afghan Whigs-shaped hole in my life because the records are still so vital and valid to me, shaping and changing meaning even as I got older. I always listened to them, never stopped listening to them, and have loved every single one of Dulli’s solo outings. But to see those three men back onstage together, playing music, was enormous and profound. This seems to be a reunion of unfinished business combined with wanting to see where the journey will take them. It doesn’t feel like nostalgia or an attempt to recapture a moment that no longer exists. When you used to walk into a Whigs show, you never knew what you were going to get, what direction the band would pull you into, what rant Greg would go off on (and take you with him; he always took you with him, it was about him but it was always about him bringing you into it), what cover they would bust out just because, what riff would get tagged onto the end of something. The Afghan Whigs were always a live powerhouse; they always delivered; they never sold you short, gave you less than you deserved.
So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Afghan Whigs in 2012 are still a live powerhouse, but it is surprising and both not surprising that the live experience is tremendous. It is surprising because these men have not been playing together consistently for the past 10 years, and can fly out of the gate with such tremendous power and presence. Rehearsing in a studio is never the same as being in front of a crowd and woodshedding for two weeks won’t give you the same return as those two weeks in front of a live audience. It is not surprising for the reasons mentioned above: they always killed live, each element of the Curley / Dulli / McCollum trinity interfacing, weaving, combining together to make that sound that only the three of them made together.
Last night’s setlist was truly a work of art; it was everything you could possibly want to hear but not a greatest hits compilation by any stretch. Every person in that room knew every word and sang along, with a beatific or ecstatic expression on their face. They hit the high notes, they hit the low notes, pulling songs from the Congregation / Gentlemen / Black Love / 1965 quartet of records, which is a pretty tremendous output of music. Back in the day, it always felt to me like the setlist struggled to integrate the earlier material with the newer material, just from a thematic or emotional standpoint (especially on the 1965 tour), but this was not a problem last night. The setlist felt like it was put together from the fan’s perspective, giving us the emotional resonance of opening with “Crime Scene Pt. 1,” and that final coup de mort of “Bulletproof,” “Summer’s Kiss” and “Faded.” Those three songs together were something you would have always wanted and asked for, and at first I was thinking, “this is too easy, why are you putting these songs together in the way we would have done it,” but it’s also not easy to perform those three songs back to back. Even with the initial detour of Greg asking for whatever joint was being smoked right before “Bulletproof” and then the owner of said joint coming up and handing it to him, that trio of songs absolutely slayed the crowd. I started crying at the beginning of “Bulletproof” and had a random woman pat me on the shoulder. The woman next to me started crying at the end of it, and I reached out to do the same thing: hey, you know, we’re all here, and we’re all in this together. 20 years ago, those songs would have likely brought different emotions; it is a tribute to this music that they still endure, still vibrate, still have meaning.
When Rick began the “Purple Rain” coda at the end of “Faded,” it was this combination of nostalgia – oh, god, I remember this – and wistfulness- oh, god, that was so long ago – and yet, we were here and we are all very much alive and this is happening now and I am lucky that I can remember this and that it means something, “this” being the Whigs and “this” being seeing Purple Rain the Friday night it came out in a theater in Times Square, where the crowd was so loud it was like a Rocky Horror audience. There were a lot of ghosts in the room at that moment. There were a lot of shared yet different memories in the ether.
It’s not like the other songs in the set were lowlights by any means. “We Two Parted,” “Going To Town,” “Conjure Me,” “Debonair” were particular standouts, executed in many cases with more competence than they were back in the day. We have traded the feeling of the unknown for assurance and power and confidence, and that seems valid and worthy and not a loss at all. The former is not sustainable, while the latter can power a band until it decides it needs to stop.
The first encore brought out the string section for the new cover, “See And Don’t See,” which was performed even stronger than on Jimmy Fallon, and will only continue to get better. Frank Ocean’s “Love Crimes” fits into the set so well that people were struggling to figure out if it was a b-side they just didn’t know. “Fountain & Fairfax” threatened to take the roof off the place, and putting “Milez Is Ded” in the final encore slot meant that there was no way anyone could possibly ask for anything more. (Well, maybe that 20-minute [or was it 40-minute? The legend is bigger than the song right now] version of “Turn On The Water” that was performed at that infamous New Orleans show once upon a time.
Stepping back a bit, the first six songs felt just the tiniest bit tentative, like they were getting their sea legs, but by the time the set reached “Gentleman” they were operating at full throttle. There were some sound challenges, three guitars and keyboards and/or strings, and it is not the biggest room. I wish Greg could switch guitars instead of having to tune so often, in the old days he’d have a cigarette and tell a story and it would take five times longer, but he no longer performs with a cup holder on the mic for his drink and another holder on the mic for an ashtray.
What else could we want? I would like to see these three men write music together again; I don’t think it’s outrageous or out of the question or that they no longer have anything to contribute. I would not be shocked to see it happen next, but I am glad that they are hedging and not committing to anything right now. I would love to see them figure out how to do a full album show, I would love to see Black Love performed end-to-end, I would love a horn section again and the return of Susan Marshall. Before you tell me I am asking for too much, keep in mind that every year I place a bet in Las Vegas that the Mets will win the World Series. But it is 2012 and we have the Afghan Whigs back with us, and who expected that either? Now is precisely the time to ask for the impossible.
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