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SOUL DEEP: The Afghan Whigs get to the heart of the matter at Trees gig

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
The Afghan Whigs at Trees in Dallas, Texas. (Oct. 25, 2017)
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DALLAS, Texas – Standing in the parking lot next to the Trees concert venue here on Elm Street in the Dallas’s historical music-minded district Deep Ellum, a longtime, hardcore Afghan Whigs fan explained to me why he was here today, doing the before-the-show-VIP-meet-and-greet-the-band and hold on to that feeling you first had when you were first introduced to the band, likely around the time when 1993’s Gentlemen broke them into the “big time.”

Well, at least that was the case for me. I Whigged out around that time. And no elixir, potion or broth could cure me. I was happily infected with a

“Well, anyone whose into witchcraft and black magic, I’m there,” he told me, seemingly serious. “In fact I heard he (Whigs frontman Greg Dulli) dated a witch.”

Oh.

I don’t know much about Dulli’s private life, other than what I hear in his songs, be it his solo stuff, The Twilight Singers material, or every song the Afghan Whigs have ever done.

Scratch that. I do know more about Dulli’s life than I know about pretty much any other rock singer. So, when I met him, I felt I knew him. Later on, I would have a dream, a very vivid one – and I’m having very vivid dreams these days, in these confused, chaotic and Trumpsidedown days when “young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams …” - where I begged Greg and the band to let me be a roadie, so I could hang out with them, see them live each night. And learn. I've got a lot to learn.

Hell, I happened to be listening to my vinyl copy of Prince & The Revolution’s underrated 1986 album Parade, when I happened to read a PopMatters interview with Dulli where he talks about how great “Do U Lie?” is. And I happened to wear my Twin Peaks T-shirt this particular day, and Dulli is a big fan of the original series, and he got inspiration for the new “Oriole” video from the Lynch style to Valley of the Dolls, Rosemary’s Baby and The Witch – that last film I was searching for just yesterday …

So true. In sync. In spades.

Thumbs up! (Red Dirt Report photo)

Halloween was just a few days away. The first Afghan Whigs album was called Big Top Halloween. Weird vibes were definitely in the air. It was a sunny afternoon (thank you, Ray Davies) and the autumn light was just right.

But as we chatted amongst ourselves in the Trees parking lot in the fading light, we could hear the police sirens in the distance. It was from (presumably) the police escort taking President Trump to a fundraiser (priorities!) here in Bush Country, and on the day before the release of the remaining files related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, 54 years ago, a horrific nightmarish tragedy that took place just blocks from where I was standing. (And those files? Only some would be released, because … well, Trump … go figure …)

The ghost of Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t walk, but sort of, well, drifted, down the Elm Street sidewalk … right in front of me …

“Some of the (VIP/Whigs fans) are late because of Trump,” someone linked with the band told the VIPs, as he came out of Trees and we absorbed the gritty sounds coming from the the Cincinnati, Ohio-based band in the midst of a crack soundcheck, at the end of a lengthy world tour which took the Whigs to places like Antwerp, Belgium (where Elizabethan alchemist Dr. John Dee wrote about a secret formula to “recombine the elements of the universe into one thing the Monad – thus uncreating the universe, with the power then to create a new one…”) and Brighton, England, where Aleister Crowley was cremated. And then they would go to Orlando, Florida, home of nourishing orange juice and mind-shattering Disney nightmares – in spades.

Anticipation was high as the small, hardcore Congregationalists waited for the band manager to give us the green light and go in – something I wrote about in my Dust Devil Dreams piece “Syncs on Elm Street” – and meet the band, get posters and other Whigs-related merch autographed, to be displayed and framed later. Impress your friends, because you understand why the Afghan Whigs are so important. They speak to what’s real. That Jungian thing. The duality of man, as Private Joker says in Full Metal Jacket. Or is it that Dulli-ality of man? The ongoing process of individuation?

“Who the fuck is Greg Dulli?” the popular T-shirt asks. Indeed!

“No flashes please, sir,” a shades-wearing Greg Dulli would tell me minutes later as we listened to them cover The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence,” with Dulli on organ. Yipes! I thought the flash was off. And the photo didn’t even come out right … damn. I hate this camera.

A most appropriate choice in these ’68-esque days of rage, here on the third-to-last tour stop on the Afghan Whigs’ ’89 World Tour (yeah, I know – ’68 is ’89 upside down, a lot of that going on lately), a band supporting an amazing album, In Spades, that is my favorite release this dark year.

8+9 = 17 ... of course. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

It is so damn good. Dulli and company are digging into the soil and reaching the bedrock on In Spades … actually, they’re going deeper than that, to hellish realms where soulful anguish and poetic grandeur coexist and morph into a singular thing of dark beauty. Black Love is a longtime fan favorite. And for good reason. It’s just a badass record all around. Just as In Spades captures latter-day Whigs perfectly. Dulli emphasizes that with his records, he is trying to “create a vibe.”

How does a man begin to fall, when he does practice to deceive?” Dulli would sing later in the gig, on Black Love’s “My Enemy,” adding, “The sun is gone, and the sky is black …

Trees is a great venue to see a band like the Afghan Whigs. Everyone is professional and so totally into the music. Many of my fellow Whigs fans are very, very serious about that band, traveling anywhere they can afford to travel to to see the band live.

One guy, Brandon, proudly displayed his 1996 ticket stub from a Whigs show during the Black Love tour. Between the VIP meet-n-greet and the opening of the doors for general admission, I sat at the bar with Brandon, me downing bourbon on the rocks and him sipping a beer. He told me about the various Whigs shows he had been to. I don’t recall the band playing in Oklahoma. Maybe in the old, original Sub Pop days?

First off, I should say that I was very impressed with the opening act – a jokey band called Har Mar Superstar (actually it’s a schlubby guy named Sean who wears clothes your 8th grade science teacher probably wore, back in ’87, until he slowly takes them off over the course of his set – yes, really …). Har Mar is from some UFO-haunted town in Minnesota and has supported everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Incubus. And clearly the Whigs love this guy, as he appears in their creative and vaguely spooky “Demon in Profile” music video, and would later sing on stage with the band when the song was performed late in the Whigs’ set.

Yes, it’s been a long tour, but Dulli and the Whigs are ready to give the room its money’s worth. This is a band that recently lost guitarist Dave Rosser to cancer, but has remained strong, vigilant in sharing their message of staring down the demons and monsters and coming out the other side better for it. Or, as Deputy Hawk warns on Twin Peaks, if you enter the Black Lodge with imperfect courage, “it will utterly annihilate your soul.

In Spades artwork by Robert Rodriguez Melo. (Sub Pop)

Run / Seek thy fear / All come down / Disappear” Dulli sings on bruising song opener “Arabian Heights.” The show is just getting started. Dulli, bassist John Curley, guitarist Jon Skibic, multi-instrumentalist Rick G. Nelson, and drummer Patrick Keeler are on fire this October night. That beat alone ... holy toledo, Ohio!

Just as the second song, “Matamoros” ends, MTV-friendly “Debonair” – with that guitar riff and Curley’s thundering bass line – kicks off, the song that caught my attention when I was a college dropout living in a dump in Grand Rapids, Michigan. These guys were different. Not “college rock” and not “grunge.” They were in their own genre. And I sure as hell liked it. It was dangerous, but not in the way heavy metal or punk or rap was viewed as dangerous. It’s as if they had something on you. They were smart. They had style. They were in touch with the things that really make humans tick, sitting there, waiting for you on Fountain and Fairfax … and they understood music history. They appreciated what had come before, unlike a lot of younger bands that seem to lack the soul needed to come off as authentic and real. 

In Spades - the 2017 album from The Afghan Whigs. (Sub Pop)

But it wasn’t political. Dulli doesn’t pretend to be Woody Guthrie or Billy Bragg. But he also speaks to that part of us that is vulnerable. I think that is a big part of their appeal as a band. They play music that has a groove. That can shuffle or quiet the beast inside us. Or inspire it to break free. Because the Afghan Whigs are ultimately about encouraging people – of all classes, races, backgrounds – to be free. “If what your’re shoveling is company, Then I’d rather be alone,” Dulli explains on “What Jail is Like,” which appears on the heels of crowd-pleasing “Debonair.” Dulli's raw vocals still sound great after 30 years of doing the live music thing. A place like Trees is like a church for the Whigs.

“What Jail is Like,” which appears on the heels of “Debonair.” Another Gentlemen track.

The next three songs, straight off In Spades, are still young songs (no pre-Gentlemen songs would appear in this set, btw), but they are Whigs to the core. Listen to that Nile Rodgers-styled funk guitar and Curley’s looping, repetitive bass line and Dulli’s characteristically sinister vocal delivery, for a powerful, funky-n-dark song that ranks among their best, as Keeler turns the beat around.

We also heard "Toy Automatic" and "Oriole," as we noted earlier, which has a witchy woman video to go with it. 

On stage, Dulli acknowledged the late Dave Rosser (fans held signs in memory of the guitarist), not by being saddened, but celebrating his life and noting how Rosser loved the song “Can Rova,” from Do to the Beast, which merged into Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye,” a song featured on the late singer’s classic album Grace.

I found it particularly interesting, in light of the synchromystic vibes and intrapersonal alchemy that were all around this particular night, that Mr. Buckley’s song was included here. (Listen to their version recorded in September at a show in Philadelphia here).

 

Jeff Buckley has been a major touchstone in the sync world, which Greg Dulli may or may not be in touch with (it comes as no surprise that The Church’s Steve Kilbey and Dulli are friends and musical collaborators), but has been noted endlessly by sync magus Chris Knowles at his insightful Secret Sun blog. 

I mention it because consciously or not, the Afghan Whigs understand pain and loss, having lost David Rosser, at age 50. Far too young. The Beatles lost Stuart Sutcliffe - twice. He left the band to pursue art and be with his German girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr. And then he died from a cerebral hemmorhage at only 21 years of age. Before Sutcliffe died, he had given left-handed Paul McCartney his Hofner bass and his death broke John Lennon's heart. It was Greg Dulli who sang the John songs on the Stuart Sutcliffe/John Lennon in Hamburg friendship film from '94 - Backbeat - which I wrote about here.

While the VIPs heard them do "Dear Prudence," it did not make it into the final set list this night. So glad I got to hear it. Need convincing? Check out Dulli singing the Beatles' "Money" and "Helter Skelter" with the "Backbeat Band" (Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner, Nirvana's Dave Grohl, R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore) at the 1994 MTV Movie Awards, and getting introductions from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me's Chris Isaak and Men in Black's Will Smith. Dulli rips up "Helter Skelter" - another "White Album" sync for those of you paying attention ... along with Dennis Rodman, now best pals with Kim Jong Un of North Korea. It's just weird.

I also got to hear "John the Baptist," from 1965. My favorite song on that album. "I got a little wine, some Marvin Gaye ..." Look out, y'all!

With the encore including both "Summer's Kiss" and "Into the Floor," the latter being the ender on In Spades, were great. And then it was over. Far too soon. I could have stayed there well into the early morning hours. But a guy on tour has got to sleep sometime. We're not the rowdy bastards we were in the 90's, after all.

The set list for the Oct. 25, 2017 show was:

“Arabian Heights” from In Spades

“Matamoros” from Do to the Beast

“Debonair” from Gentlemen

“What Jail is Like” from Gentlemen

“Light as a Feather” from In Spades

“Oriole” from In Spades

“Toy Automatic” from In Spades

“Can Rova/Last Goodbye” from Do to the Beast and cover of Jeff Buckley song

“Royal Cream” from Do to the Beast

“I Am Fire” from Do to the Beast

“My Enemy” from Black Love

“Neglekted” from 1965

“Going to Town (Slight Return)” from Black Love

“Demon in Profile” from In Spades (w/ Har Mar Superstar)

“It Kills” from Do to the Beast

“John the Baptist” from 1965

“Somethin’ Hot” from 1965

ENCORE:
“Parked Outside” from Do to the Beast

“Summer’s Kiss” from Black Love

“Into the Floor” from In Spades

A new Afghan Whigs album is said to be in the works. Cannot wait for it! 

For more information on The Afghan Whigs, go here.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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