Concert Review: The Afghan Whigs, Beacon Theater, 10-4-14 and Music Hall of Williamsburg, 10-5-14


The Afghan Whigs arrived in New York City this weekend for two shows ostensibly as part of their Do To The Beast tour, but also in actual effect to celebrate the continued existence of the Greg Dulli Rhythm and Blues Revue as a living, breathing, thriving concern in the year 2014. Both nights were musical and emotional powerhouses, exceptionally performed and executed, with special moments and surprises. That is saying a lot for a band that always came to take prisoners and never phoned it in.

While Dulli and the Whigs have respectively played for larger crowds, at festivals and as openers, Saturday night at the Beacon Theater was the largest venue the band has played as a headlining act in their entire career. Their name was on the marquee, and they were the reason 3,000 people showed up on a Saturday night.

They were also the reason Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires opened the show, going on promptly at 8:00 p.m. sharp. “Are you ready for some good old-fashioned soul music?” asked Bradley’s MC. I’m not sure what you were doing in the building tonight if you weren’t. Bradley was one of the acts curated by Dulli to appear at the 2012 All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, and for obvious reasons, Bradley’s vintage soul and rhythm and blues remains a favorite, mid-set costume change and all. Bradley got an hour to perform, which was a generous gesture, but would have repercussions later.

The current Whigs setlist is constructed with a pile driver of an opener: “Parked Outside” and “Matamoros” from the current album, into “Fountain and Fairfax” from Gentlemen. Those songs transform the band into a thundering freight train from which there is no escape. I know, hyperbole, but also truth. It was a particularly breathtaking opening performance, and it made it very clear that this was an evening of moment for the people onstage. I literally stood there thinking, “I am not sure I have ever seen them play this well.” This is a band I have seen a lot, so that is not a small thing to think

Tonight was also a moment for the fans. Many of the old-timers dressed up for this. I have showed up for Dulli since Congregation days, and will buy anything his name is on unconditionally. It’s not out of blind obedience but rather that at this point, the dude has earned my trust. Even if I don’t like it (Amber Headlights) or can’t connect to it (still on the fence about some Do To The Beast, to be honest), I show up because I will still, always, get something out of it.

In this particular case, showing up for this tour let me see how the new songs fit well into the old ones and how the band breathes additional life into them onstage. They become more fully imagined, as Dulli and the rest of the crew figure out how to inhabit them. This is where I invoke the “revue” part I mentioned earlier, as there are now three guitars (Jon Skibic and the inimitable Dave Rosser), a keyboard / percussion / string player (Mr. Rick T. Nelson), and at least on certain dates, a emcee / dancer / backup vocalist (the delightful Steve Myers). All that’s missing are horns, and despite knowing well the cost of taking a horn section on the road (and I’ve had this discussion with Dulli more than once over the years), I would have loved to have seen horns at at least one of these shows this weekend. But, this is a minor quibble.

I can’t think of a lull in the evening, a dull moment in the pacing, a second where the audience might have been temporarily unengaged. I’m always down front for Dulli productions so I don’t really know what’s going on behind me, except for the occasional boneheaded moshpit that opens up during “Debonair” or something like that. Saturday, looking around me (I ended up in the third row) I reflected on the old adage that the men who show up for an Afghan Whigs show are generally there either because they want to be Dulli, or they want to be the person they think he is in his songs. (If you’re a single woman and you’ve ever stood in a crowd of guys crowing, “Well I stayed in too long/but she was a perfect fit,” you will know exactly what I am talking about.) Those guys have now all grown up and now stand there holding beers during the songs that aren’t on Gentlemen, except when they start fights while Greg is paying tribute to Bobby Womack by opening “Faded” with the first verse of “Across 110th Street.”

The big, loud, emotional moments kept catching you by surprise: the incendiary maelstrom that rose out of “John the Baptist,” the bit of old, wicked onstage Greg that showed up during the “Now I’ve got time/for you, and you, and you, and me” line in “Gentlemen,” as he went down the front row of ladies, and then gestured at the one dude, saying, “You can watch.” (Then there was the moment during “Neglekted,” when Dulli was working the front of the stage, mic in hand, and stopped in front of the highly excited 8-year old right at the “You can fuck my body/but please don’t fuck my mind.” “Earmuffs!” he yelled (she was wearing proper hearing protection!), waving back at her and cracking up. (And I’m sorry, but you don’t bring your kid to an Afghan Whigs show if you are worried about protecting their delicate sensibilities.)

Dulli is and has always been a showman’s showman, but that tendency has only expanded with his years onstage. And to watch him handle a larger, proper stage instead of a rickety platform at the back of a rock club was something I was looking forward to. Surprisingly he spent less time out front than I thought he would, but I knew something was up when he signaled for a roadie at the end of “My Enemy,” only for the guy to come up behind the amps holding a small digital clock. It was 10:29, and Greg immediately audibled something to the rest of the band. He was cutting something out of the set (which turned out to be “Son Of The South”) and went into “Lost In The Woods” instead. He did that because he wanted to sing that song from the front, sans guitar. He wanted to be able to work the entire crowd, from side to side and top to bottom. It was touching, and telling, and beautiful to see.

(That was also the moment where I said, “Why didn’t he just play the Apollo?” On Sunday I told him that he needed to just get that together for the 20th anniversary of Black Love, so start now. “They fuck you on the money,” he said, which means HE HAS CONSIDERED THIS.)

“Heaven On Their Minds” into “Something Hot” to open the encore wasn’t new, but it was decidedly different–at least to me–watching this Jesus Christ Superstar number being performed on a proper stage in a proper theater whose address happens to be Broadway. (I am not quite sure what I would pay to see Greg play all of JCS from start to finish, but it would be in the three digits, and I am sure I am not alone.) “Going To Town” threatened to shake the plaster off the walls, and then, at the end, bigger and brighter than ever, “Faded,” the quintessential Whigs closer, Greg singing all the way up to the third balcony, where they were on their feet and waving back, singing along. It was all a beautiful, and wonderful jewel of an evening to have been part of.

Sunday night, across the river at the 550 capacity Music Hall of Williamsburg, was set to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the Gentlemen album, or as Dulli would put it, “The way most of you found out about this band.” I had been completely detached from fan community chatter, and asked someone on Saturday, “So…are they doing something special for tomorrow? Are they going to play the entire album?” (In my defense, I would like to point out that there is precedent for this, and most people assumed, based on the tone of the email announcing the show, that this was what we were in for.)

“By the way, we’re not playing the whole Gentlemen album,” Dulli said to us as he arrived on Sunday afternoon. “In case that’s the word on the street. Don’t worry, it’s still gonna be a party.”

As if we had any doubt, although I confess I did not expect what we were in for.

The core changes to the set took place after that 1-2-3 killer opener, when the unmistakable rhythmic opening to “Turn On The Water” rumbled out of John Curley’s amp. Having seen the Whigs at the period where they literally could not play that song any longer because they played a 40 minute version during a drunken marathon show in New Orleans (a friend there recalls getting a chair and pulling it to the front of the stage so she could put her feet up on it, the show went on for so long) and Curley later telling a Seattle audience, “I wrote the thing and I can’t play it any more,” it is always lovely for me personally when it shows up in a setlist. This would be followed by “When We Two Parted,” that excruciatingly painful tale that is the flip side to “Gentlemen,” and then “Now You Know,” which to me is the third piece of that particular trilogy of angst. They may not have played the entire album, but my god did he pick the two songs that are right at its very rotten core. It was devastating and breathtaking, and we are only at the sixth song of the set.

It was another piledriver of a performance, intensified by the close quarters of the tiny club. I’d like to find a particularly great moment from each individual in the band but they were pretty much operating on overdrive the entire time. They don’t miss notes. They don’t forget beats. They are locked and loaded and all you can do, really, is hang on and enjoy the ride. The lovely Jeff Buckley cover (“Morning Theft”) is back again tonight, beginning the “Greg At The Piano” interlude. “Son of the South” makes it into the setlist–veering in and out of “Roadhouse Blues,” of all things–and the end of the set is the new cover of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.” I will be honest that I am not a huge fan of this cover, at all, but Greg makes it into this moment where it is him and the audience, making his way into the tiny gap between the rail and the stage, before heading out into the crowd proper to sing the end, getting us to sing the “wheeeeyooooo”s at the end, and it was a loud, lovely, happy little mess.

I am never going to be unhappy with anything from Black Love to open the encore, and “Going to Town” is as good a version as you’ll ever hear without horns. “Somethin’ Hot” is always a singalong and the Steve Myers special, and it was no different tonight. But then Rick Nelson starts playing something low and mournful on the cello, and Greg starts talking about last year, and how the Afghan Whigs reunion had toured and kind of run its course. And then he mentions the Fader Fort in Texas, and there’s a falsetto and I’m trying to see if it’s Steve Myers, only for the door to open and someone else to walk out and I am pretty sure I know exactly who this is, but I wait until he walks onto the stage and is standing right in front of us before yelling, OH MY GOD, IT’S USHER.

The place went apeshit, appropriately (except for the dude standing behind my friend who at some point tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Who is that?” I just felt kinda bad for him.) That was also when all of the polite little requests taped all over the venue about not watching the show from behind our cell phones went right out the window. I don’t think anybody didn’t have their phone out. Greg is smiling. John is smiling. Steve is smiling. EVERYONE is smiling their faces off. It was a complete and total surprise. They did not soundcheck it, and I am glad I did not look at the setlist as it was taped down earlier because it was on there. (From what we would deduce–based on his comments about Giants fans, and some internet sleuthing–he showed up tonight and not last night because he came up for the football game.)

Of course, the band waves, and leaves the stage. You can’t possibly follow that up with anything else, right? It’s over. And house lights come on immediately and the crew begins breaking down the stage, turning off amps, picking up guitars, unscrewing microphones. We didn’t move because it was still crowded and there wasn’t really anywhere to move yet.

But then one of the roadies appears at the side door and yells something and the crowd keeps cheering, and he blinks his flashlight at the soundboard, and it becomes very clear that they are coming back for another encore. And once that was clear, the crowd got louder, and louder and louder. The crew are running around and putting equipment back, shaking their heads in either disgust or disbelief.

The band walk onstage and the cheering is echoing off of the walls making the club seem like 10 times bigger than it actually is. Quicker than you think, there’s the riff to “Blame, Etc.” and I wonder how they can just keep doing this. This wasn’t, “We’ll come back and play ‘Debonair’ or something and leave,” this was going from 0 to 60 almost instantly. BOOM.

It was during the last chorus when Greg started veering off of the lyrics, and I am singing along because I know the words to what he’s singing, and then I realize that I am not singing the Afghan Whigs, and I look at my companion and suddenly–OH MY GOD, HE IS SINGING UNSATISFIED. GREG IS SINGING UNSATISFIED BY THE REPLACEMENTS.

Then it’s a quiet thank you, and a lull, and the intro to “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack–if there is a better person to cover this song I do not know who it is–and it is perfect and beautiful, except this is when the fight breaks out, just as he’s about to go into the verse and continue into “Faded.” “Don’t like me any more. Leave,” Greg says, as the offenders are escorted out. Then he admits that he isn’t feeling it any more, and can’t finish the song. So instead, he opts for the perfect equanimity of “Step Into the Light,” delicate and plaintive, to close out the night.

Afterwards, I reflect on the serendipity of still being able to see one of my all time favorite bands still play live and on stage. I talked earlier about how I give Dulli the benefit of the doubt, and always show up. There is a lot to be said about still being able to show up for your favorite band. I say this following a month in which I got to see the Replacements twice in one week, which is clearly not exactly irrelevant in this context, as it’s obviously on Dulli’s mind as well. They are still here; we still get to do this. We still get to buy a ticket and show up and have our ears and our head and our hearts blow up and out and be filled to the brim, and we get to walk out of the theater and down Broadway, or out the door and into the Brooklyn night.