When I first joined Entertainment Weekly a little over a year ago, the deputy managing editor asked me who my favorite songwriter was. I answered unequivocally: Greg Dulli, the seedy mastermind behind great 21st-century soul-scuzz combos Twilight Singers and the Gutter Twins. While Dulli has rarely put out anything I didn’t like, my adoration for him begins with the Afghan Whigs, the Cincinnati-bred combo who released a half dozen albums’ worth of cocksure R&B for the alt-rock era.
The band parted ways in 1999, but last night at New York’s Bowery Ballroom, they returned. (The Whigs were supposed to make their grand reunion at the Dulli-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in New Jersey this September, but considering the band’s last show was at the now-defunct New York club Hush, Dulli wanted to start the band right where they left off over a decade ago.)
Dulli’s latter-day work has wavered between dangerous lounge lizardry and stoic murder balladeering, but last night’s show was the Whigs at their most punk-kissed chaotic. In a set that relied heavily on their final album, 1998’s 1965, the Whigs revved their engines and let already propulsive songs like “Uptown Again” and “Somethin’ Hot” veer dangerously close to flying off the handle. But the core of the band—Dulli, bassist John Curley, and guitarist Rick McCollum—navigated those hot curves as though they had never been apart.
The band seemed to throw the most adrenaline into the songs from 1965 (“66” was particularly lithe and lively), perhaps because it’s the stuff they’ve played the least live. The older material was well-serviced as well, featuring dips deep into the catalog that showed off the band’s muscular grooves. “Conjure Me” was particularly punchy, spinning a squirrelly wah-wah guitar riff into a tornado of razor blades, with Dulli sneering “I’m gonna turn on you” as though the song’s original wound never scabbed over. Of course, “Debonair” was greeted as the secret smash it should have been, and “My Enemy” was all snarling and solos.
In the encore, the band laid out their sole new recording this century, a cover of Marie “Queenie” Lyons’ “See and Don’t See,” which burned with ache and passion. Dulli’s voice sounded especially full, easily navigating the song’s delicate emotional twists. If there was any evidence needed that this was a show for the hardcore fans, the evening closed with “Miles Iz Dead,” a smoldering volcano of feedback and falsetto that exists only as a hidden track on the band’s 1992 album Congregation.
Dulli dedicated the evening to Jonathan Poneman and Megan Jasper of Sub Pop, the label who nurtured the Afghan Whigs’ during their heyday. Dulli’s gratitude was genuine, as was his appreciation of the revelers who waited patiently for 13 years to go nuts during “Fountain and Fairfax”—save for one dude who interrupted him during a story and got a beatdown threat in response. Just like the good old days.
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