"It's a really good band, man. We're playing great shows. Even on an off night, we're better than most. And if we're on, no one's better."
-- Greg Dulli
If a band leader is going to talk like that, his band better deliver the goods.
On Tuesday night at Union Transfer in Philadelphia, and again on Friday in New York City at the Bowery Ballroom, the Afghan Whigs validated all of Greg Dulli's claims -- in spades.
The number of bands that have successfully come back after a long layoff and released great new albums is small. Mission of Burma certainly did that. Sleater-Kinney did too. So did Superchunk. But it's a short list of successes in that regard. (And no, I'm not going to name the failures, but their ranks are legion). The Afghan Whigs, two albums into a career restart after their 2001 split, are breathing the rarefied air of bands that have truly done a reunion right.
My reaction to 2014's Do to the Beast album -- their first after the layoff -- was something along the lines of: "Very good, gentlemen, but I feel like you can do even better next time." It was a solid effort, but not up to their very best. When your previous output includes a three-album run with the brilliance of Congregation (1992), Gentlemen (1993), and Black Love (1996), standards are high. But on their latest album, the Afghan Whigs stepped up their game to meet higher expectations. In Spades is not only a collection of ten great songs; it has cohesion. It's truly an album -- a record that sounds its best when played in order. Sure, "Demon in Profile" is a menacing/soulful single unto itself, but In Spades is no collection of random songs. It flows.
I wondered how the new album would translate to the live setting. It's a little quieter on the whole than most AW albums.
I shouldn't have wondered.
Tuesday night in Philly, we got the more typical tour setlist. It looked like this. The set was heavy on the new album, but it also spanned the Whigs' career. And, as always, it did so with a little extra power than the studio albums.
This band has made its living delivering brilliant albums full of soul/funk influenced rock, but nothing on those records fully prepares you for their live show. It's James Brown fronting the Who with more than a small dose of punk rock. It's why you started listening to rock music in the first place: the sweat, the grime, the dynamics, the groove. That Dulli quote that led this article? Fuck yes. That's the thing with this band: a "normal" AW show is better than most bands can offer; an "on fire" one is the product of one of the very best live bands in the world.
In both Philly and New York, I witnessed the "on fire" version of the band.
Philly highlights mostly came from the "pin your ears to the back wall" version of the Whigs -- the band that thunders and grooves with metallic precision ("Debonair," Light As a Feather," "Honky's Ladder," "John the Baptist," "Amphetamines and Coffee"). But it wasn't only the big/loud/funky Afghan Whigs that ruled the roost that evening. The quiet hush of "Can Rova" -- complete with a gorgeous tribute to recently-deceased guitarist Dave Rosser -- left no dry eyes in the house, and the lighter "slight return" take on "Going to Town" was unexpectedly powerful amidst its deep smolder. Additionally, somehow -- fucking somehow -- the band figured out how to make "Demon in Profile" even more soulful: have opener Har Mar Superstar (he's the guy lip-synching in the above video) actually sing the song while the Whigs backed him. It was devastating. And then there were the final two songs -- the Who-ish "Summer's Kiss" where drummer Patrick Keeler added Keith Moon-ish fills that the original cried out for, but never had, and the classic Whigs closer, "Faded," which featured a foray into "How Deep is Your Love" before heading back into its own Who-ish finale.
I was spent by the end of it. "These are the end times, Philadelphia. It's time to make some noise," Dulli had exhorted us. We made the noise. They made the bigger noise. It was a goddamn cathartic roar of a gig.
"How could they top that?" I wondered.
"Hold my beer, dude," the band replied.
Friday night's show at the Bowery Ballroom was intended to be something special right off the bat. It was announced later than the rest of the tour and the format was preordained: the band would play a first set consisting entirely of the In Spades album start-to-finish, and then there would be a second set. Yes, Har Mar came out and sang "Demon In Profile" and it was even tighter than in Philly. The full-album format also meant that the three lesser-played songs on In Spades would get a full airing. Of those, both "Copernicus" and "The Spell" were played perfectly, but, wow.... "I Got Lost."
Greg Dulli spoke to the crowd just before the band launched into "I Got Lost." He told us that, live, it was the least-played song on the record, but that it also held a special place in his heart because it was the one he wrote after he learned of Dave Rosser's terminal cancer diagnosis. Then he told us something that hit my punk-rock heart hard. He spoke of Grant Hart's death and told us: "If I hadn't seen Husker Du back in 1984, I wouldn't be up on this stage." I have no doubt that that statement is true, because Husker Du changed a lot of lives, mine included. Then Dulli said that he hung out twice with Harry Dean Stanton, and a smile crossed his face. "I Got Lost" felt like a New Orleans funeral for the honor roll of the recently-deceased: a triumphant mix of sorrow and celebration.
The song that closed the first set -- "Into the Floor" -- continued that theme. "I remember you always this way," Dulli sang, before letting the band thunder for the last minute of the song and bring it to a close. It was a brilliant move playing the album from beginning to end like that. All of its studio track-to-track cohesion shone through amidst that extra BOOM that the live Whigs bring to everything.
And then there was set number two.
That second set was a mix of the familiar from the tour -- four from Do To the Beast that made frequent, if not nightly, appearances in the setlist --and then the surprises. There were some covers: Prince's "I Wanna Be Your Lover (which had also been played in Philly), "Dear Prudence" (which, despite being a straight take on a Beatles song, really was a hell of a version) and Sinead O'Connor's "Mandinka."
It's 48 hours later and I am still singing "Mandinka" because of how great the Afghan Whigs' version of that one was.
Dulli joked right after that one: "That vocal was so high my balls are way up in my body." Judging by what followed, he recovered quickly.
The surprises didn't end there. One of my favorite songs from the '90s run by this band was "My Enemy." They haven't played it much on the current tour, so in the spirit of "why not?" they whipped it out on Friday night. The fact that it sounded like it had been played every night was a testament to just how tight this band is live. It was just like this one, which I give you because Dave Rosser is in it:
There were two other highlights to the second set at Bowery Ballroom: a "Debonair" that was somehow just a little more menacing and savage than the one in Philly, and a version of the Twilight Singers' "Teenage Wristband" that was the sort of life-affirming take on a crowd singing along to a balls-out rock song that still has me flying high a couple days later. I don't have a video of Friday night's version, so, in keeping with the theme of giving you a version with Dave Rosser, there's this:
The Afghan Whigs are a force of nature live. They played, by my count, 32 different songs over these two nights and left me wondering how anyone else can match them live. Many will try -- I see a lot of bands -- but I wonder if any will succeed. Greg Dulli's self-assessment of his band is dead-on.