As the annual search for The Next Big Thing (or in downsized music industry speak, “A Thing”) began in earnest last night for the 30th CMJ Music Marathon, it was clear at Bowery Ballroom that Greg Dulli did not want to be found.
“Turn those lights down,” Dulli ordered.
When he and the mostly acoustic trio backing him were in half-light, he barked again, “Lower.”
When he was barely lit, so that his trademark rock-toughened soul voice seemed to emerge from the shadows, Dulli purred his approval, "Everybody looks prettier in the dark."
Understand – after all these years – he’s a gentleman. And he’s still trying to balance all that entails, the push-pull of his angelic inspirations and devilish impulses. On this tour – his first under his own name instead of one of his bands Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers or Gutter Twins – Dulli strips back the rock bluster to focus on his lyrics and still-stunning delivery.
“There’s a riot going on inside of me,” he crooned in the opener “St. Gregory.” “Won’t you come inside, see what I see?”
With that, he was off – for nearly two hours, well beyond the average 40-minute CMJ showcase, and a schedule-buster for the badge-wearers in the capacity crowd.
Dulli rolled through songs from throughout his career, as well as unveiling a handful of songs from the upcoming Twilight Singers album due next year. (Based on the strength of the potent “Gunshots” and “Blackbird and the Fox,” that’s going to be a strong contender for one of 2011’s best albums.)
At a Dulli show, there’s no doubt who the center of attention is, though the crowd couldn’t help wildly singing along to the Whigs’ “66” and “Summer’s Kiss” and he even encouraged it for the Twilight Singers’ raucous “$40.”
“I need you to be more Queens, less Manhattan, on this one,” he said, asking for more applause. “More Nassau County.”
Dulli is still sharp as a tack. (“I don’t give a [expletive] about the Yankees,” he joked, after someone in the crowd notified him of the Yankees’ loss. “I’d like to dedicate the rest of this set to Cliff Lee.”) However, with this acoustic band – guitarist Dave Rosser, violinist/cellist Rick Nelson, and the great drummer Greg Wiz – Dulli was looking to focus on the quieter, more contemplative end of his catalog, especially the lovely “Step Into the Light” and “The Twilite Kid.”
Of course, Dulli sought to balance that as well.
“We’ll be back soon,” he promised, “with a rock band.”
SETLIST: St. Gregory / God's Children / The Lure Would Prove Too Much / Blackbird and the Fox / Bonnie Brae / 66 / Please Stay (Once You Go Away)/A Love Supreme / Let Me Lie to You / $40 / Step Into the Light / Gunshots / If I Were Going / Summer's Kiss / Follow You Down / The Stations / Never Seen No Devil // ENCORE: Candy Cane Crawl / Down the Line / Teenage Wristband/Pinball Wizard / The Twilite Kid
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