Gentleman, scholar, acrobat?

Afghan Whigs – Manchester Cathedral, 17th July 2014

Flashback: The 1990s. American rock music is dominated by Nirvana, and all those who followed in their wake. Angst ridden skinny white boys, wailing against the injustice of it all…much like Harry Enfield’s Kevin the teenager. Amongst all of this Afghan Whigs stood out as being something a bit different. The band that purportedly met in jail, these were no fey and fragile indie boys making a racket. No, they looked like the kind of guys you’d want to be in a different postcode to should a bar fight break out.

Greg Dulli’s bruised alpha make charisma on songs about blame & denial, love & heartbreak, lust & longing and…well, sex, put them in a different category to the grungy zeitgeist of the time. The Afghan Whigs always had impeccable taste when it came to cover versions too. B sides where frequently littered with original interpretations of soul classics; Band of Gold, Come See About Me, True Love Travels on a a Gravel Road. Grinding Sabbath riffing accompanied by a love of vintage soul and funk, giving them a unique, timeless sound, and in Greg Dulli they had one of the great rock voices of the 90s.

I saw them three or four times back in the day, and as a live band they were always entertaining, if a bit volatile. I remember a particularly joyous gig at Manchester University when Dulli, clearly indulging in the local medication at the height of the Ecstasy boom, was at his most charming and engaging. The show started with one of the roadies, wearing a silver lamé shirt singing Ziggy Stardust, accompanied by the band. Much banter with the crowd ensued throughout the evening, at one point even inviting the locals up on stage to dance. The encores commenced with a loved up Greg returning in the silver shirt, cigarette in hand, to deliver a totally committed rendition of When Doves Cry. This contrasted with a gig at the Boardwalk a year or so later which was quite the opposite. Playing a room too small for their egos and filled with the wrong kind of drugs, the atmosphere was vile; Dulli at one point inviting most of the audience outside for a fight. Like I say, volatile but always engaging, always entertaining.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached this reunion. Going to see the Pixies last year, who I equally adored at the time, was fun but strangely left me cold. It felt like a band trading on past glories, not helped by their aloof, disengaged stage presence. I concluded that maybe I had changed more than they had. I just hoped this would be a more rewarding experience.

It was my first time seeing a gig at the Cathedral…I couldn’t help but chuckle at the irony of a church, in the ultimate act of forgiveness, inviting a true sinner to play within it’s hallowed walls. Lovely building it is too….although trying to find a vantage point between the pillars could be a challenge. Support tonight was from Mark Lanegan collaborator, Duke Garwood. An interesting character on stage, half Lanegan, half Nick Cave, he played a set of dusty desert blues while complaining it was “hot as balls” up there. On the whole I enjoyed it, and it felt like a good appetiser before the main event.

As the band strode on stage, Dulli screaming the troops to order as they launched into the opening sonic volley, it was clear we had nothing to worry about. Looking lean and mean and still full of rock star swagger, Dulli opened with two tracks from the new album, Parked Outside and Matamoros. The set was a mixture of tracks from the new album alongside songs from Gentlemen, Black Love and 1965. It was a mark of the quality of the newer less familiar tracks that they blended perfectly with the older stuff. As is always the case with these kind of gigs, it was the older songs which drew the greater reception. What Jail is Like, Gentlemen, Something Hot were all delivered, dripping with hardcore funk sleaze and with as much energy and commitment as they ever did in their heyday.

The humour of old was still present in Dulli’s between song patter…”great room right? (Cue cheering and applause)… First time y’all have been in here right?” Then there were the inevitable covers, and if I’m being honest it took a visit to Setlist FM to work out what the hell they were. Tusk by Fleetwood Mac, and perhaps in tribute to the venue, Heaven in their Minds from Jesus Christ Superstar. Actually having just watched the video for the Lloyd Webber song…. It’s funk riffing isn’t a million miles away from the Afghan Whigs trademark sound. With three guitars, violin and keyboards, the sound was dense and complex, so much light and shade, not just a barrage of hardcore riffing. The main set ending with Vaudeville vamping of Lost in the Woods from Do the Beast, strangely segueing into Everything is Getting Better by a The Beatles. It really shouldn’t work but somehow it did.

Encoring with the sleazy come on of John the Baptist, Dulli the seducer, chilled wine and Marvin Gaye, before ending on Faded from Black Love. In a touching Bobby Womack tribute, the lyrics from Across 110th St blended perfectly with Dulli’s plea for redemption. It was here that a touch of the barroom brawler of old made it’s presence felt. Seeing an altercation breaking out near the front, Dulli stopped mid song to point the finger of doom at the guilty party, threatening that if he started something he would come down there and finish it himself. You can take the boy out of Cincinnati….

Stepping out into the warm summers evening, I was buzzing like it was 20 years ago. Reunions can be a tricky business; so often an exercise in retreading the old hits and coining the cash. But from what I saw tonight, the Afghan Whigs are back, still full of piss and vinegar and as vital as ever. Still debonair, still full of soul, and still my favourite out and out rock band of the 90s.

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