Preview: The Afghan Whigs, a band that embraced punk and soul, reunite after 10-year hiatus
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Although The Afghan Whigs were based only a state away, in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh was never a regular stomping ground for the alt-rock band.
It did a show at Graffiti with Teenage Fanclub in 1992 and returned to Club Laga in 1999 for what Greg Dulli remembers as "a Marlboro show or something like that. It wasn't an official show."
Prior to that, he recalls, "We played someplace called the Foundry," referring to the former venue in the Strip. "That was the time I remember [most] and it was literally in a foundry."
The Whigs' latest trip to Pittsburgh will be on a long-awaited reunion tour that stops Saturday at Mr. Smalls. The band, which split in 2001, announced in late 2011 that it was reforming to play the All Tomorrow's Parties festivals in May in the UK and last weekend in New Jersey.
The singer, who has been fronting The Twilight Singers for the past decade-plus, says the reunion originated out of an acoustic tour in 2010 in which he was joined by Whigs bassist John Curley.
"[He] joined with me for Cincinnati and Chicago, and then he came out and played the West Coast with me. Probably when he played the West Coast, that began the germination of the idea in my head that it might be fun to do. When the ATP came up, that was kind of the clincher. We had a gig in May and a gig in September and I'm not going to put a band together for two gigs, especially five months apart, so we just decided to roll one out and two gigs turned into 60 gigs."
The reunion tour hits at about 25 years since the band's first gig in 1987 when it came out as a garage punk band in the mode of the Replacements. Its second album, 1990's "Up in It," released on Sub Pop, contained the thrashy songs "Retarded" (a college radio staple) and "White Trash Party." By the third record, "Congregation," the Whigs were evolving into a band that more prominently embraced his love of Motown and Stax.
"I've always listened to R&B and have incorporated it into my songs," he says. "As early as the '80s we were playing Temptations and Al Green songs, and William Bell songs, and Bobby Womack songs. We were always running through that stuff amongst other things. We were three guys who listened to a lot of different music. By the third record, we were covering 'Jesus Christ Superstar,' so we were definitely all over the map. In reality we weren't doing anything different than the Beatles did. We just did it in a different way. Lots of white kids heard black music and tried to emulate it or incorporate it into their style."
"Gentlemen," marking the Whigs' jump to major-label Elektra, got the band attention on MTV and "My So Called Life" and was hailed as one of the most acclaimed albums of 1993, in part for the "ironic self-loathing" of Mr. Dulli's lyrics. They followed with two more albums, the film noir-inflected "Black Love" in 1996 and 1998's "1965," its most ambitious venture into funk and soul, heard on songs like "Somethin' Hot" and "Uptown Again."
Despite the acclaim, the Afghan Whigs remained more of a cult success, never breaking into the mainstream ranks of the Seattle grunge bands or funk-rockers like the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
"Lack of a hit single, perhaps, would be my guess, off the top of my head," he says of the band's lack of chart success. "I don't know. I don't know why things happen one way and not the other. What happened with our band was just fine with me. I got to travel the world and play for lots of people and have a meaningful exchange with our audience, so I've never wondered or really longed for any more than what we had."
They never strived to write hits, he says, but adds of the last record, "it wasn't even a conscious attempt, but if we were going to have one, that was when it was going to be."
In promoting that album, the Whigs toured with Aerosmith, and also played a fateful show in Austin where Mr. Dulli was brutally assaulted, leaving him in a coma. Around that time he was also suffering from depression. In 2001, the band issued a press release stating that it was breaking up due to geographical distance, as the band was divided between LA, Cincinnati and Minneapolis.
What is it like now to revisit songs that have a strong emotional resonance?
"I think of it this way," he say. "I've basically resumed something that I was doing. In my way of thinking it's a continuation of playing music as I've continued to do. I've been asked about certain albums and 'Is the material too emotional for me?' and I'm like 'Um, I'm really not that fragile.' It's kind of OK."
Of the current set list, he says, "When we first started playing together, we played the last four records, now we're playing five. We're never going to play the first record, so that's out of the question. It's NOT good. We abandoned it. None of those songs made it about of the '80s, and they'll remain there. But we've begun to add songs from the second record and we're playing at least three of them now."
The future of the band, after the tour, is up in the air, but don't be surprised if new music emerges.
"We'll see how that goes, but there have been some recordings. We've been in the studio -- short answer."
First Published September 27, 2012 12:00 am