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Afghan Whigs' amazing reunion at Bowery Ballroom
It was the stuff of legend.
Regardless of how the surprising reunion of the Afghan Whigs turns out, their show last night at the Bowery Ballroom will go down as the '90s alt-rock heroes' greatest concert ever.
It's not that the Whigs' singer-guitarist Greg Dulli, bassist John Curley and guitarist Rick McCollum were perfect in their first concert together in 13 years, they were – not to get all Oprah about it – their best selves.
The impressive two-hour show delivered on the promising concept the band began 25 years ago in the tiny bars of Cincinnati, where their usual gigs would be in the tiny front corner of a laundromat/bar. They brought together rock, soul, blues and enough lyrical drama about the ongoing battle of the sexes to merit decades of psychoanalysis. And they looked like they were having a blast doing it – even when Dulli threatened a heckler with disembowelment and a hanging from the balcony, it seemed playful.
As has always been the case, the night's focus was Dulli – the singer who combines an angel's soulful voice with a devil's bad intentions. Whether his onstage persona has always been an act is up for debate, but he has certainly played that character well – the bad boy that good girls want to save.
“Do you think I'm beautiful?” he crooned in the opening “Crime Scene Part One,” the dramatic lighting that cast the entire band in silhouette for most of the evening enhancing the mood. “Or do you think I'm evil?”
The response to the band's central theme was so intense it felt like the building was shaking. The screaming along with the band's central m.o. “A lie? The truth? Which one should I use?” was so loud even Dulli stopped to savor it.
Of course, that may have been by design. So far, everything about the band's reunion has been unorthodox, but well-crafted – starting with the decision to return to New York, where they played the final show before their lengthy breakup in 1999, rather than kicking off their reunion at a major festival for a big paycheck. (They will return to the area to headline the Dulli-curated I'll Be Your Mirror Festival in Asbury Park on Sept. 22 and to end this leg of the tour at Terminal 5 on Oct. 5.)
It was certainly by design that the show only got more powerful from there, gathering momentum from the raucous “I'm Her Slave” and a sped-up “Uptown Again.”
That's when it became clear that this was not a reunion for nostalgia's sake. The Whigs – backed by Dulli's pals from other projects drummer Cully Symington from the Gutter Twins, and guitarist Dave Rosser and multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson from the Twilight Singers – were out to build something new.
There was a new grandeur in “66,” probably the band's most glaring shoulda-been hit, with majestic piano chords standing up to the hip-hop groove and Dulli's flirtatious “Come on, come on, come on little rabbit” chorus and snippet from “Little Red Corvette.”
The grunge-era classic “Conjure Me” became even more potent, with the band's three-guitar attack giving the song Soundgarden heft while Dulli plays around with upbeat, girl-group verses and a defeatist chorus of “I'm gonna turn on you before you turn on me.”
The mix of songs from throughout their career was the build-up to the stunning closing suite from “Black Love” – the nearly 20-minute combination of “Bulletproof,” “Summer's Kiss” and “Faded” that takes the Whigs' sound and shows how it fits with the stadium-rocking anthems of The Who, Neil Young, Pink Floyd and Prince, whose “Purple Rain” was tacked on to the end of “Faded.”
Even the Whigs' new single, a cover of Marie “Queenie” Lyons' “See and Don't See,” offered a more developed incarnation of their musical point of view, as Dulli sounded more vulnerable than usual in the upper register of his voice. A cover of Frank Ocean's “Love Games,” with Dulli at the keyboards, followed nicely, perhaps showing the vibe that the band could follow on a new album. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
The Afghan Whigs' first show together was triumphant, validation for all the accolades as one of the '90s most underappreciated bands and all the meticulous planning they do to look spontaneous. Everything after this should be seen as gravy.
SETLIST: Crime Scene Part One / I'm Her Slave / Uptown Again / What Jail Is Like / Going to Town / When We Two Parted/Dead Body / Gentleman / 66 / Conjure Me / Crazy / My Enemy / Debonair / Bulletproof / Summer's Kiss / Faded // ENCORE: See and Don't See / Love Crimes / Fountain and Fairfax / Somethin' Hot // ENCORE 2: Miles Iz Ded