There’s a well-known episode in the first season of The Twilight Zone circa 1960 titled "The Hitchhiker" where a pretty blonde, driving cross country, keeps seeing the same man hitchhiking on the side of the road over and over again no matter how fast she drives or how many miles she travels. Understandably, it really starts to freak her out. This year, GREG DULLI probably felt like the driver in that episode, with me playing the role of the hitchhiker.
When the reunion of THE AFGHAN WHIGS was first announced just 13 months ago, set to perform at this past September’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, I managed to make a last-minute May warm-up gig at Bowery Ballroom in New York City before the band fine-tuned the decade-dormant engine in Europe and Australia for the summer. By the time Boston’s House of Blues show rolled around in late September, it was like the Whigs never broke up. In fact, as the glowing reviews from around the world had agreed, they were better than ever. It wasn’t a difficult decision then to try and catch a few more shows by the band -– six in total, including a sold out October Terminal 5 show in New York City, a more intimate Williamsburg Music Hall in Brooklyn the following night, and a stop in Dulli’s adopted hometown of New Orleans later that same month.
Along the way I hung with the boys, Dulli, guitarist Rick McCollum, bassist John Curley, Cully Symington (the latest and no doubt greatest to sit on the ever revolving drum stool) and additional guitarist Dave Rosser. Backup singer Steve Myers, who brought a soulful funk vibe to a band that was already armpit deep in soulfulness and funk on its final studio effort, 1998’s 1965, joined in the fray on latter dates. Caught up in the excitement, I tattooed the Whigs’ new logo, a sunglass-clad skull with a rose in its mouth, on my leg, drawing compliments from most of the guys and drawing suspicion from Dulli who probably thought it might be a good idea to change his locks.
The obsession began to affect my work. During an interview with The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser, we almost got into it as I tried to convince him that one of his greatest influences when it came to vocal delivery was Dulli (come on -– you’ve all heard “The Rat”). Hell, just yesterday, I spoke to Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil and asked him what it was like for the grunge icons to share the same bill with the Whigs last June at a show in Milan. He appeared a bit puzzled by that one.
But one of the more fanatical aspects of this little monomaniacal jaunt was making the decision to head where the seeds were originally sowed in the late-'80s when the Afghan Whigs were still in the beginning stages of their career -– Cincinnati. The band’s hometown on New Year’s Eve at Bogart’s was also set to be the finale of a reunion that was initially just two dates but turned into a globe-spanning event met with an unexpected devotion from audiences both nostalgic and those wanting music with real emotion and less jadedness. No further dates have been scheduled past Cincy, and the boys were uncharacteristically mum on future plans, leading many to think, “Well shit –- this really could be it.” And if it was, despite an undeniable bittersweet element floating through the air at Bogart’s, the Whigs were going to go out with a bang for longtime friends and supporters.
Fellow Ohioans Scrawl opened up the show, which led to the logical conclusion that frontwoman Marcy Mays would be reprising her role as vocalist on the tortured Whigs track “My Curse.” While it was good to see the locals, things got down to business when Dulli and Co. hit the stage, leading off with a couple verses of “Heaven on Their Minds” from Jesus Christ Superstar before launching into the slithering and sexy “Somethin’ Hot” which kicked off 1965. A good chunk of the 21-song set was pulled from that record, buoyed by the three-piece horn section that was somehow squeezed onto the small stage. Myers, having traveled from NYC, made his typically luminous cameos on a few songs and Mays made her much anticipated appearance. More surprising was singer Peter Searcy, another regional player, coming out for a roaring version of his Squirrel Bait outfit’s “Kid Dynamite.” But hey -– it was New Year’s, and anything goes, right?
Speaking of which, Dulli was insistent that no one start dropping the ball unless it was on his command. “It’s midnight when I say it’s midnight,” he said. “Don’t be counting down shit.” He then advised the crowd that if they did, he was going to have the sound guy put on “Moves Like Jagger” and, “We’ll be listening to that for the rest of the night.”
There were moments of reflection too; Dulli gave heartfelt thanks at the end of the show, which included the tearjerker “Faded” mixed with another gut punch, Maxwell’s “Pretty Wings.” Expressing how enjoyable it had been to get out and gas up the car and drive those songs around one more time he added an ominous, “I don’t know if we’ll ever do this again.” There was next to no merch available to commemorate the night, but I managed to get the sole poster advertising the show behind a glass case at the entrance to Bogart’s after convincing one of the bartenders that there was no one else who wanted it more.
The next morning, Myers let me know he was “still drunk from last night” trying to navigate his way to the airport. Rosser was already out of town on his way back to New Orleans, making a last minute stop to do the halftime performance with The Voice finalist Terry McDermott at the Texans/Bengals playoff game. Symington will surely head back to drumming for his main group Okkervil River. The core of the band were preparing to go their separate ways too, with Dulli expected to do some more work with his Twilight Singers project, McCollum going back to Minneapolis and Curley staying local where he owns a studio and performs regularly.
But what about that Twilight Zone episode? [Spoiler alert!] It turns out the woman was dead all along and the hitchhiker was just looking for a ride as they were both headed to the same place. Here’s to hoping the ride with Dulli at the helm goes on just a bit longer, because I’m not ready for it to end just yet and nothing looked more alive this year than the Afghan Whigs ripping it up on stage again.