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“We’re from the future, where the past is the present.” So said Greg Dulli, frontman for The Afghan Whigs. Before you could scratch your head and parse out that brainteaser, he and his band launched into “Uptown Again,” a characteristically misery-mired track from one of the finest indie-rock bands Ohio ever begat. The song was from their last album, 1965 (dropped in 1998), and this performance — kicking off a reunion tour — was their first in 13 years. And by the end of their propulsive set, one thing was clear: The Afghan Whigs’ past may now be the present, but their timeless catalog of garage-born soul, has returned future perfect.
The Whigs (the other members being bassist John Curley and guitarist Rick McCollum), who essentially got their start on Sub Pop, never achieved the success of their mostly grunge contemporaries. But what the band lacked in SoundScan numbers, they amassed in critical high-fives and steadfast diehards. The Bowery show, for instance, sold out in nanoseconds. And a quick visual sweep of the venue proved that a Whigs comeback was a welcome one: theirs remains a diverse crowd including OG indie rockers, grown-up metal kids, quasi-folkies — off-the-beaten path types who, back in the day, peered past grunge and were relieved to find the Whigs.
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That crowd jibed thunderously in sing-alongs to tracks off the band’s crowning achievement, 1993’s Gentlemen. (Even the famously tough music-critic Robert Christgau was intrigued by the release, writing, “No Butch Vig or Steve Albini tidying or toughening up this sucker –those conflicted guitars are a direct function of the singer-writer-producer-guitarist’s agonized self-exposure/-examination.) The band drew heavily from that album — confidently tearing through such tortured fare as the title track, “When We Two Parted,” “Fountain and Fairfax,” “What Jail Is Like,” as well as one of their biggest cult hits “Debonair.”
The latter, with its yowled-out lyrics (“It’s in our heart / It’s in our head / It’s in our love / Baby, it’s in our bed”) served as potent reminder that Dulli — his pipes still muscular from extracurricular projects, his physique again slimmed down to fighting form — was once an unlikely sex symbol. He’s living proof that wailing self-hatred continues to supplant sweet nothings as the aphrodisiac of the future. Rest assured, this did not go unrecognized. As enthusiasm bubbled over the night, one heady concertgoer screamed, “Greg Dulli, fertility specialist!” to explain a pregnant woman seated in front of her, creating a black hole in the otherwise SRO floor.
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With the crowd-pleasers (among them, “I’m Her Slave”) served, the Whigs transitioned into bonus material. Over the years, they’ve infused everything from TLC’s “Creep” to The Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket” with seductive unrest. This evening, they transformed the beat-driven “Lovecrimes,” from R&B overachiever Frank Ocean, into an aching confession of weakness. They also brought to life their first recording in six years, a heart-melting take on Marie “Queenie” Lyons’ funked-out lament “Seen and Don’t See” (which they premiered live on Fallon the previous night). It’s a tease, we hope, of new material to come.
Two encores later, they shut it down with the angsty, jangly “Miles Iz Dead,” from 1992’s stellar Congregation. “We could exaggerate / Now everybody knows / Or everybody wants to know,” Dulli sang urgently, reminding us that he is in no nostalgia band, “the hows, the whens, the whys / Of how I said goodbye.” Welcome back, Afghan Whigs.
Crime Scene, Part One
I’m Her Slave
What Jail Is Like
Going to Town
When We Two Parted / Dead Body
See and Don’t See (Marie “Queenie” Lyons cover)
Lovecrimes (Frank Ocean cover)
Fountain and Fairfax
Miles Iz Ded
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