Greg Dulli

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

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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.

Greg Dulli

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Tel Aviv, 1993, me, and the Afghan Whigs

I moved to Israel in the summer of 1988. The specific reasons why are complicated and irrelevant now, mostly; I was young and wanted an adventure. I thought it would all work out okay, and it did. Miraculously, despite only knowing how to say “orange juice” in Hebrew, I got a job within two weeks after arriving. The ad in the Jerusalem Post said “Wanted: Young person with good English and interest in popular music.” The job was Label Manager of Warner/Elektra/Atlantic (which included Geffen & MCA at the time), and since I had been stumbling around the music business before I moved to the Middle East, and had good English, I got the job.

In Israel, being the label manager meant weeding through the international roster and figuring out what would sell in my territory and what wouldn’t, which then translated into what we manufactured locally (which meant the price was lower) as opposed to what we imported from Europe. Sometimes a “release” was importing 50 albums from Germany, and seeing if anyone cared. It is a small market: a gold record is 20,000 albums, and that was very, very hard to achieve. (There is also no concept of a singles market; instead, compilation albums still sold briskly.) One of the first things I was told when I started my job was that there were two types of music that weren’t popular in Israel: “Black music” and heavy metal, and that I needed to avoid those. But the advent of MTV and changing musical tastes everywhere also meant Israel, and Prince and Tracy Chapman sold well like they did everywhere. But an Atlantic box set tanked while the soundtrack to The Commitments sold like hotcakes, so there was some truth to it (some, but not much).

I wanted to sell records, so I mostly tried to take the advice of people who had lived there for years, but the indie-loving music fan in me followed my heart and my gut. I also went out a lot, helping my friend Liron (who’s in the picture above) DJ at the main rock club in Tel Aviv (which was called Roxanne, after the Police song – I still can’t listen to it), so I saw what kids were actually responding to and asking for, things like Jane’s Addiction and Guns ‘n’ Roses and Pearl Jam. We weren’t selling tens of thousands of those records yet, but I knew there was an audience for things that sounded different. (Then again, Nick Cave was enormously popular in Israel, as were many of the 4AD bands, for example.) There were smaller breaks I was also proud of, just getting a foothold for some artists, getting one or two people to champion an artist everyone told me wouldn’t sell felt like an enormous success sometimes. And I remain enormously proud of the fact that we sold enough R.E.M. records to rate them coming over for a promo tour during Out of Time.

Tower Records, Tel Aviv

I got Mojo and the NME and Melody Maker couried over every week, and had video tapes from the States coming in, and kept up with things better than you would think in the days where there was no internet. My friends would send me mix tapes and important records, and I would beg the Warner people I talked with (okay, sent faxes and telexes to) to get me records that were on other labels, and they would occasionally be able to help me out. You would get on a plane when you absolutely had to see a band, you would figure out how to do it despite how crazy expensive it was and how little money you actually made. This meant I never got to see Nirvana, had to miss Pearl Jam opening for U2 in Rome, but did see the Stone Roses in Paris and U2 at Wembley during Zooropa. You had friends who were music crazy, as music crazy as any of my friends in London or New York or Chicago. And every time a friend went abroad, you gave them dollars that you bought on the black market from the candy store on Ben Yehuda St. and a list of records or t-shirts you wanted them to buy. Sometimes it was as simple as, “Just get me something cool.”

Just get me something cool. This is what I told my friends, the two brothers who were going to LA and then Seattle in 1992, on their way to check out grunge. They came back home with a Space Needle t-shirt, a Soundgarden bumper sticker, and a copy of Congregation by the Afghan Whigs, who I wasn’t that familiar with at the time. When I asked why they bought me that particular item, they said, “The cover looked interesting, there are a lot of guitars, we thought you would like it.”

I liked it. I liked it a lot. I made one of those two-sided tapes so I could run on the beach with it. The Whigs became that band that I liked that no one else really knew about.

In 1993, I was sitting in my office, opening the mail from abroad, stacking advance cassettes and going through label copy, when a cassette caught my eye: AFGHAN WHIGS. GENTLEMEN. I put it front and center, excited to hear it, happy to recognize something.

I opened the door to the cassette player and slid the tape in. I closed my office door. I hit play.

I remember almost everything about that moment. I remember what I was wearing, I remember the light streaming in through the blinds. I remember the guitars and Dulli’s voice and the whirling dervish of energy. It was the same band I already loved, only more so.

Two songs later my phone rang. It was one of our PR people, who sat right outside my office.
“What is that incredible thing you are listening to?”
I opened the door.
“It’s the Afghan Whigs, and we’re releasing this,” I said. I didn’t even need to hear the rest of it.

I had to fight hard to justify releasing the record. My manager disagreed (he disagreed with just about everything I released, including the records that would later be huge sellers). He made a case in the weekly meeting that this wasn’t the kind of music that was popular here, that only a handful of DJ’s and music writers would care about the record. I asked him how on earth we would ever break anything if we waited for it to become popular. (This was an argument we had a lot.)

But we released Gentlemen, and it got enough attention from the right people to keep me out of hot water. We would play “Gentleman” at Roxane at night and the kids who sing along to it just like “Been Caught Stealing” and “Paradise City” and “Evenflow”. It helped that everyone on staff, including our PR people and the guys who worked in the warehouse, loved the record. It was one of those small successes that made me smile.

I moved back to the U.S. in December of 1993. One of the first shows I saw in New York was the Afghan Whigs at the old Academy in Times Square, on April 8, 1994. It was everything I expected it would be, and this almost never happens. I know I said that about Bruce Springsteen and the Clash and the Ramones, but I hadn’t said it for a very long time. It was the beginning of a very beautiful friendship.

So this week, when the Whigs are heading to Israel, I feel a particular kind of pride and happiness, that I helped kickstart a connection. Maybe it would have happened anyway, but at least I helped open the door.

Greg Dulli

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Rebirth of the Cool: the Afghan Whigs at the Bowery Ballroom, 5-22-12

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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.

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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.

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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.

Greg Dulli

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“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.

Greg Dulli

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my best shows of 2011

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Even I am not immune to the year-end listing process. Here’s my list of favorite/best shows of 2011. It’s so skewed as to representative of nothing except my particular universe – but it’s not like I’m pretending that 2012 isn’t going to be a laundry list of Springsteen and Afghan Whigs shows.

1. Twilight Singers, San Francisco
2. Wild Flag, Bell House
3. U2, Montreal night 1
4. Big Audio Dynamite, Roseland
5. Horrible Crowes, Bowery Ballroom
6. Twilight Singers, Webster Hall
7. Gaslight Anthem, Asbury Park Convention Hall [I feel the need to footnote this show by pointing out that it was amazing before Bruce showed up.]
8. U2, Giants Stadium
9. Bryan Ferry, Beacon Theater
10. Patti Smith & Lenny Kaye, St. Mark’s Church

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F**k Yeah, Setlists

This week over at Fuck Yeah, Setlists I’ve donated five setlists from my collection: Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers, R.E.M., Springsteen and the New York Dolls. If you like setlists, it’s an amazing site. If you’ve got your own setlists, he’s always looking for submissions!

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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.

Second set:
Last Night In Town
That’s Just How That Bird Sings
Bonnie Brae
God’s Children
Live With Me
Boogie Boogie
Gunshots
Too Tough To Die
She Was Stolen
Candy Cane Crawl
Never Seen No Devil
On The Corner

Love
Annie Mae
Cigarettes

Hey Hey, My My

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Twilight Singers, Webster Hall, 5-13-11

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One of the things I have always loved and appreciated about Greg Dulli is that he’s not ashamed to be a frontman. The word “showmanship” isn’t anathema to him. When he is on stage, he is ON STAGE. So on a night when he’s filming the show for what I can only assume is commercial release, he’s going to turn it all the way up, hard. I’ve seen him do this with the Afghan Whigs, I’ve seen him do it with the Twilight Singers – even on the solo tour or with Lanegan on the Gutter Twins tour, Dulli is a like a magician the way he can grab the energy, flip it around, find it if it’s hiding, beg for it if he has to, demand it if it’s not meeting his needs, cajole it out from a shy crowd.

It was clear from the minute the band walked onto the stage that their energy was off the charts. The first four songs – “Last Night In Town,” “Blackbird and the Fox,” “I’m Ready” and “Forty Dollars” felt like you were being steamrolled. The sound was perfect. The band was tight. The energy was just absolutely insane. I’ve seen a freakish amount of Dulli project shows and this has to be in my top five. I don’t mean to insult other performances, because I’ve never seen Greg phone it in, but last night was just something other.

Everyone was in a great mood. Dulli smiled the entire time – hell, everyone smiled the entire time. The band is – I would say ‘just short of perfect’ but they’re perfect for Greg. Dave Roesser is a guitar wizard, Scott Ford was reminding me of Entwistle last night with his solidness and fluidity, and Greg Wieczorec on drums is absolutely what Dulli needs. He’s an amazingly physical drummer, but incredibly focused.

There were reports that he had been covering “Main Street” (yes, Bob Seger) in Europe (and I could go into a long post about different Bob Seger songs I’d rather see him cover) but instead tonight we were graced with Tom Petty – in the middle of “Too Tough To Die,” Greg comes to the edge of the stage and off-mic, begins:

It’s all right if you love me
It’s all right if you don’t
I’m not afraid of you running away
Honey, I’ve got the feeling you won’t

There is no sense in pretending
Your eyes give you away
Something inside you is feeling like I do
We said all there is to say

Greg took it all the way into the chorus, a capella the whole time. It was one of those moments where I’m singing a song I know by heart but I cannot in that instant place what song it is. The giveaway here was that my long-suffering boyfriend, who has now seen Greg 5 times because of me, was suddenly singing every word loudly. And I’m thinking, “Seriously? He knows a Dulli song by heart?” and then in the next line I was all – “Oh, wait, Tom Petty.”

And then he came barreling back into the song, which was the uncontested highlight of the night. (Also in that running: “Candy Cane Crawl,” the best I’ve ever seen it, and “King Only” which rarely impacts me at all.) It felt like 12 people in the entire venue knew the song, which is deplorable, but not surprising, I guess: gone are the days that Greg can talk Ted Nugent and find a dozen guys who grew up listening to the same stuff he did.

Another highlight of the night was the visual backdrop, cycling through a series of photographs that whoever mans the @twilitekid account on Twitter posts every couple of days. It definitely added to the performance without becoming a distraction; the shot of Jerry Lee Lewis with his 13-year-old wife told me what the next song was before Dulli’s hands touched the keys for “The Killer”.

At the end of the night, as the final chords of “Esta Noche” rang out, Greg put down his guitar, faced the audience, and raised both arms in the air, his smile enormous and finally, relaxed. He didn’t need our applause to know he’d knocked this one out of the park this time, but he soaked in the applause for a second or two before leaving the stage, letting the band play him off.

Greg Dulli
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The Greg Dulli Solo Tour, Fall 2010

OMG Dulli Curley

The thought of Greg solo was enough to make me buy tickets for four shows (and see three), and I would have done more had I been able to manage it. The thought of Greg onstage all by himself, or at least outside the encumbrance of an organized musical vehicle (even if he was in the driver’s seat) was just so – appealing, so tempting, so frought with potential and anticipation.

Reality didn’t disappoint, but it was tighter, more organized, more disciplined. The setlist did not vary all that much, with a wide selection of material across his musical history. The variation came with the appearance of various guests, from a drummer (Greg Wieczorec, who played on Powder Burns) , to Mark Lanegan and Petra Haden, to John Curley Himself turning up in Cincinnati (as well as all of the West Coast shows).

The New York show was triumphant, feeling like a tour starter or some kind of celebration. The audience applauded every song, exhaled equally breathlessly for “Bonnie Brae” as they did for “What Jail Is Like”. I was almost sad that there were drums, because it made it more traditional and less a departure (and I had to wear my earplugs). I was watching baseball playoff scores inbetween songs and was thrilled to listen to him salute Cliff Lee and diss the Yankees. It was emotionally thrilling and exhausting, so much so that I passed on heading to Philly the next night.

There was no filler in this show, almost no time to breathe, stop, catch a breath; even the numbers on the piano (especially!) required your undivided attention. Dulli is a master pacer, knows how to keep things moving, when to pick the energy up, or slow it back down. I hesitate to use the word slick, but it did feel very polished, and extremely together – it felt more like an rnb showcase than a rock and roll show. You could say that going out with two other musicians, mainly on acoustic guitar, one of whom solely played strings, is hardly rock and roll, but then I’d tell you that you’ve never heard Rick Nelson play live. As Dulli said in Seattle, “This isn’t your grandma’s acoustic guitar show.”

The surprise was spoiled early in Seattle when opener Shawn Smith told us that John Curley was there. He’d been in LA and SF and we had hoped he had made it up to the Pacific Northwest, but didn’t count on anything. The response as he walked onstage in Seattle was tumultuous nonetheless, despite the early warning.The looks between Dulli and Curley made you want to weep and smile so hard that your face hurt, all at the same time. He played through the Whigs portion of the set, sounding like the John Curley you knew and loved even if he had greyed elegantly around the edges. By the time he had left the stage, I announced to no one in particular that I needed a cigarette after that; Greg overheard and laughed, feeling the same way.

Portland, at the Doug Fir, was the end of the road and promised to be off the charts; he’s done two-night stands at the venue before and you couldn’t blame us for hoping that there’d be a little deviance on the menu. Greg suffered from monitor issues during the first few songs, which was resolved by the placement of a large wedge in the middle of the stage, which he then worried about tripping over. He regained the emotional intensity later but it was nowhere near as strong as Seattle. There was no announcement of Curley’s presence so when Greg said, “From Cincinnati, Mr. John Curley” there was a venue-wide gasp as he walked out onstage.

Portland was a little looser than the other two shows, with some definite Whigs-ian moments, like tagging “La Grange,” followed by “Shake Your Hips” at the end of a song, launching into “Love, Reign O’er Me” before starting “Teenage Wristband”. I love all of that, the references and the nods and the flashbacks, but always feel like it’s selfish to celebrate the inclusion of someone else’s songs into a set. But the Whigs songs weren’t the only notables on this tour – Gutter Twins without Lanegan had a different, ethereal intensity, and “Forty Dollars” was as much of an audience singalong as “66” was, “Candy Cane Crawl” equally as heartbreaking as “Let Me Lie To You.” Grown-up Greg does not disappoint; the records have only gotten better. This is why while I would love nothing more than to see Greg, John and Rick McCollum onstage again, I’ve also been perfectly happy in my Twilight Singers/Gutter Twins post-Whigs existence thus far, and selfishly don’t need that to end.

More Twilight Singers in February. See you then.

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greg dulli on the reds

“I watch baseball, either on TV or by going to a game. I support the Cincinnati Reds, who are terrible at the moment-they have one of the worst teams I’ve ever seen in my life! But when they’re your team, you’re with them for the good times and you’re with them for the bad times.” -GD

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