“beloved rock band” aka the Afghan Whigs return on Jimmy Fallon

I am in this photo!

In one of those moments of my life in which I know I did something right, I was extended the opportunity to see the 2012 Afghan Whigs during dress rehearsal for their Late Night With Jimmy Fallon appearance tonight. It goes without saying, but I will say it in case you are new around these parts: the Whigs are a Top 10 artist for me. I got to work Gentlemen when it came out. I have a long, long history with them (which I will save for another time).

So being able to step through doors and into a studio and see the recombined Afghan Whigs standing there was like walking through the doors of the Emerald City. Everyone looks good; everyone looks well. You would recognize them if you saw them walking down the street, even if the heads are now salt-and-pepper; they would just look like you and your friends. The energy was clear and palpable; these are people who are connected to each other. This isn’t a big payday (although I’m sure it’s not small, and they’re more than entitled to it), so I wasn’t worried that they’d get together if they didn’t genuinely want to be there, but the tangible proof was heartwarming to see.

Dave Rosser, Cully and Rick (Nelson) were all there as well, along with two other string players, which I was not expecting. I will be honest that I was a tiny bit sad that the Roots were nowhere in evidence because this just seems like a match made in heaven; this was removed a few minutes later when ?uestlove strolled in, afro tamed by cornrows, red hoodie on. He shook hands with everyone individually, with especially recognition (it seemed) from Rosser and Dulli. Everyone except David Rosser was bundled up because it was freezing in that studio. Greg had a sweater on, everyone else had a jacket or long sleeves of some sort.

I sat through the thrilling experience that was checking the input for each instrument (I didn’t care if I had to sit through them tuning the drums) and then they did their first take of “See And Don’t See,” which I more or less expected. I love the cover and it makes so much sense but live it is, as usual with AW, another animal all together, and with the addition of ?uestlove on drums (Cully playing percussion), it killed. Greg is not playing guitar, and I love that he knows when to not fucking play guitar, he is confident enough as a frontman to not need the crutch when it’s not necessary.

They ran through it once, and then Greg and ?uestlove talked about what he wanted him to do. They ran through it again and Greg stopped it to give more direction to ?uestlove about what kind of rhythm he wanted. Of course he got it in half a second, Greg nodding and moving to the beat. There was a third runthrough, and a final discussion of cues, where to come in on the song, before Greg suggesting they take it one more time through the passage in question.

I love this stuff. I love watching band leaders lead their bands. I dig being a fly on the wall in the artistic process. You never get to see this kind of stuff, and the process, the interaction, the putting things together fascinates me. I care about process and the unspoken and the intangible. I could have watched them run through one song 15 times and never gotten bored.

During the runthroughs, they started to have a producer sit at the desk and do what will be Jimmy’s introduction, which used the phrase “beloved rock band”. I was touched by that because it is so true, truer than other possible descriptors, and more important than most of them.

Rick McCollum is someone I haven’t seen in over 10 years, and I would say something like “it was good to see him” but you know, I don’t know him. But I have missed seeing him play guitar and he didn’t have a huge role in “See and Don’t See.” I know, we are all older and I don’t expect him to be the fluid, shimmying Rick of days gone by but it is there, as I would discover when they moved on to the next song. I knew there were going to be two songs because when I arrived, Greg was playing with the guitar I refer to as “Big Black” (yes, that’s a Neil Young reference); it disappeared before they started playing and I hoped it would return. During the runthroughs of “See and Don’t See” there was the occasional reference to “the rock song” and I was hoping that meant what I hoped it meant.

Sure enough, once the Fallon crew had indicated they were good with the take and ?uestlove felt comfortable and departed, Greg’s guitar arrived. I couldn’t even begin to guess what the other song was going to be, no idea where they would start, what would be the first song of Afghan Whigs Opening Day 2012, and without the smallest musical cue they careened straight into “I’m Her Slave,” like they had never stopped playing it, like they had been playing it regularly over the past 10 years. I was listening to some older Whigs shows after the past few weeks and last night especially, wondering and worrying if it would be like I remembered, if it would be real and true enough to be more than nostalgia, if it would stand on its own merit enough. I should know better than to doubt Greg Dulli, because the band roared forward in fifth gear, no holds barred, a finely tuned machine and the tour hasn’t even started yet.

That sound, that guitar wall, as usual it roared straight into my chest and made me catch my breath. It was old but it was new and fresh and loud and magnificent. I remembered to start breathing at one point. I was glad to be far enough away and hiding behind the lights.

And lest you think it was all drama, the other Whigs-ian element that I wondered about, between takes and during one small break the guys were laughing and jamming: the O’Jays (“For The Love Of Money”), Lynyrd Skynyrd (“That Smell,) and – led by Curley, natch – Led Zeppelin (“Ten Years Gone”). I am not exactly expecting Greg to start referencing Madonna lyrics during “Turn On The Water” as in ye olden days but If they were a hits-playing machine and played it straight they wouldn’t be the Afghan Whigs.

Tomorrow, Bowery Ballroom, the main event.