Like a few bands of the 90s, the Afghan Whigs are part of a certain mythology for me, I have heard of them a lot, but have never seen them nor really got into their music for some reasons…But on Thursday night I had the chance to attend their first West Coast gig in 13 years, at Bootsy Bellows on the Sunset Strip. The show was part of the Fader and Captain Morgan’s Step Into The Black Music Series, and they were generously offering free In and Out burgers outside, and free rum cocktails inside, but I passed on both to squeeze myself through the crowd and reached the front. I was literally under the mics, somewhat too close for comfort, but not complaining a bit to have Greg Dulli singing with swagger and charm, his tortured lyrics just above my nose.
If these guys haven’t played these songs for 13 years – except recent reunion shows in New York and London last May – they didn’t show any sign of it, taking the fans by surprise, and playing a loud set of their own songs with a few unexpected (to me) covers.
All dressed in black from head to toes and bathed by the blue light of the nightclub, they started loud and bold, rocking hard with ‘Uptown Again’ off their last album ‘1965’, before enchaining with the heavily sexually charged ‘I’m Her slave’ off their 1992 ‘Congregation’ album. Now I will probably not teach anything new to Afghan Whigs fans, but I couldn’t detach my eyes from Greg Dulli – I must say it was also very hard to do so, placed as I was – as he was constantly addressing large smiles to his band mates, visibly happy and confident to play this ‘old stuff’ again. ‘I guess we should keep going’ he said in a brief moment during songs. Although he was quite sage last night, Gulli looked like someone who has done stage banters all his life, owning the place and the music while acknowledging his band mates, especially the excellent Rick McCollum on lead guitar, and John Curley on bass, keeping at the corner of his eyes that playful look the whole time.
‘Who is smoking weed?’ he said with a large smile when effectively the specific smell was filling the room, ‘David Arquette is smoking a joint in the back?’, David Arquette? I understood the connection later, when I read that the actor actually co-owned the freshly opened Bootsy Bellows, which had hosted an all-star party earlier this week attracting (I read it in the LA Times) the likes of Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Paris Hilton,….
But honestly, it was a weird place for a show, looking more like a Hollywood cabaret décor with its black walls, diamond-shaped mirrors, leather couches and glitter ceilings, and what it seemed to be a totally improvised stage, so I was wondering how people in the back could see anything, and may be they were just enjoying the free rum.
Nevertheless, after the hard rock party of the first songs, Dulli grabbed the mic to sing a stripped down cover of 'See and Don’t See’ and soon began to venture through the crowd. It was a total shift in the direction of the show, a moment to focus on Dulli’s soulful vocals, previously buried in the loudness of the songs, and enjoy his showman quality as he was climbing on tables and coming back on stage with someone’s hat on his head. For someone who didn’t know they had recently recorded it, the Marie ‘Queenie’ Lyons’1970 song totally sounded theirs, just like the other astonishing covers that they did. Back on stage, Dulli sat at the piano to do a totally powerful R&B version of Frank Ocean’s ‘Love Crimes', and, without taking a breath, went back to his own material with ‘Crazy’… The best part of this? These 47-year-something guys weren’t trying to look hip and cool by covering a song of a member of Odd Future, no it sounded damn natural and effortless, just like their enjoyable and loyal cover of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Little Darlin’ and their unrecognizable, badass-painted-in-dark take on The Supremes’ ‘Come See About Me’.
Now, Greg Dulli has some reputation to maintain, and addressing some woman (women?) in the crowd he quoted Aaliyah’s ‘Are You That Somebody’, and added with an almost sad tone, ‘That's what I would have said 15 years ago, when she was still alive’.
They played a few more songs, and I am not sure why they didn’t play the last one written on the setlist ‘Fountain and Fairfaix’, as the set was rather short, but they all disappear with a ‘Thank you’, when everyone was waiting and expecting an encore. Now the Afghan Whigs are no more a vague myth for me, I got to see them singing their tunes about bad love and wrong sex, and, interestingly, I didn’t get the nostalgia vibe at all from the band or the crowd, no Greg Dulli is not a nostalgic…. Just like their rendition of soul classics, everything sounded fresh and transformed, in full assault mode for 2012, a year which may see their triumphant return.
I’m Her Slave
Going to Town
What Jail Is Like
See and Don’t See (Marie ‘Queenie’ Lyons cover)
Love Crimes (Frank Ocean cover)
Little Darlin (Thin Lizzy cover)
Come See About Me (The Supremes cover)
Fountain and Fairfaix (not played)