[live review] Afghan Whigs 05.23 @ Bowery Ballroom NYC, first show in 13 years

Midway through the first full show of the long-awaited return of THE AFGHAN WHIGS at New York City's Bowery Ballroom last week, frontman extraordinaire Greg Dulli began to give a brief (but adoring) thanks to Sub Pop records co-founder Jonathan Poneman and current VP Megan Jasper for taking a chance on the band “500 years ago.” A more than likely inebriated man in attendance suddenly had a bout of poor judgment and decided to interrupt.

“ done? Can I tell my story?” Dulli asked. “You know I will fuck you up -– without laying a hand on you. I’m trying to tell a story, I have it all set up and then, ‘blah, blah, blah.’ So we’re cool now? Shutting the fuck up? Put on that hat, the shutting-the-fuck-up hat.”

After getting through another minute or so of his interrupted thanks, the same guy had the audacity to bark out, “Play it asshole.” It was an epically bad idea.

“Did you call me an asshole motherfucker -– who the fuck are you?” Dulli asked incredulously. “What –- am I not moving along fast enough for you?” The singer then talked about reaching up the guy’s backside, promising to, “Pull out your entrails, wrap them your neck, hang you from that fucking balcony.”

Ah yes, after 13 years, the Whigs are back.

Opening up the evening with the slow burn of “Crime Scene Part One” with its second verse of “Bathe my path in shining light/Set the dials to thrill me,” it would be the Cincinnati natives who would be handling the electrifying over the next 20 plus songs. It’s not every day that an outfit can reconvene and sound leaps and bounds better than calling it a day more than a decade ago. But that’s exactly what the just over 500 capacity were witnessing.

Dulli is trim, looking fit, and sounding fine with a voice weaned on gravel gurgling and whiskey soaking evident on deep cuts like “I’m Her Slave,” “Bulletproof,” and the surprise of the night, the title track from the ode to relationship dysfunction, Gentlemen. The songs were brash as ever, but whereas Dulli refused to touch them live in the past due to being too wrapped up emotionally in the lyrical content, he appears now to be in a place where the importance of the compositions comes first, and has made peace with his younger, more tortured self.

Credit for much of the intensity must be given to drummer Cully Symington of Okkervil River, who has toured in recent years with Dulli’s Twilight Singers and Gutter Twins projects. On his first go round with the Whigs, he attacks the kit harder and with more reverence for the material than any of his predecessors what has been an almost Spinal Tap-ish merry-go-round in the role. And the addition of longtime Dulli guitarist Dave Rosser bolsters an already full and crisp sound by Rick McCollum and his ever present slide creating that distinctive, soulful Whigs’ pitch.

Expectedly, the nods to a heavy r&b influence were prominent, tacking on a few lines of Drake’s “Over My Dead Body” to the end of “When We Two Parted,” delving into Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” during the breakdown of “66,” closing out “Faded” with the coda from “Purple Rain” and covering “Love Crimes” by Odd Future member Frank Ocean -– with lyrics that could have been penned by Dulli himself.

The States are done for now, and other than a couple of festival appearances the band will be in Europe and Australia for the summer. A proper U.S. tour will take place this fall, including a stop in Boston, and the taste given Wednesday has expectations high. There’s little doubt that they won’t be met though; the energy and attitude are intact after all this time –- just ask that guy who called out Dulli.

“Tweet about that guy who called me a fucker, Rick,” the singer said to guitarist McCollum later in the set. “Tweet about how he comes back and shines my shoes after the show.”

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