Afghan Whigs: Astoria 2, London

HIP LIBS… IT’S POWER!

FOR A MAN who deals in big questions and widescreen images whilst mapping out love’s little peaks and troughs, Greg Dulli sure has an eye for painful detail. All his open-heart songs are dotted with little scenarios — how she turned to the wall just when he was ready to communicate, how he loves someone until she starts ‘clinging’ — from a typical masculine perspective, which are in turn thrown into lighter relief by little turns of phrase, sudden insights and howling recognitions of ultimate futility. He’s a non-ersatz soul man, who isn’t averse to a little showbiz cheesiness, fronting a cooking, powerhouse post-grunge outfit.

Much has been made of Greg Dulli’s love of black soul from the ‘other side of the tracks’ and how Afghan Whigs lacerate these influences with the bare bones of muscular rock. And this first night in a newly converted venue makes sure you don’t just pass him off as another sub-metal singer who thinks it’s cool to rip off black music. His hurt, momentous howl is simply that of a man who lays his emotions on the line in a quest for catharsis. And when he sings softly, you’re touched, moved even.

The only obstacle facing Afghan Whigs is that they’re sometimes over-wrought and sometimes press the over-emotional lever. Life isn’t so bleak that anyone should reach the depths of misery ploughed in ‘When We Two Are Parted’ and still be travelling the world in a rock band, but then, modern medicine can work miracles. What remains while you experience the cut and thrust of the drums, bass, two guitars and voice format is a sense of most repressions being left behind and a sense of getting down to some primeval level. Afghan Whigs thankfully vary their noises so you’re not given over to monotony, and the shifting textures and tempos suggest that the let-everything-hang-out ethos still has method and a modicum of discipline.

Dulli occasionally treads a thin line between expression and vague offensiveness. ‘Gentlemen’ could be an uptempo scraaaaanng re-write of the Teddy Pendergrass seduction anthem, ‘Close The Door’, and as the guitars churn and twist and the goateed singer twitches and gesticulates in time, you suspect that some women might find fault with his openness. At least ‘Be Sweet’ makes his position worthy of some mirth: “I’ve got a dick for brain/…She wants love and I still wanna f—”. And when one of his protagonists admits to getting off those drugs because the mythical ‘she’ told him to (“Angel, I got off that stuff”), you know Greg still listens to women. His vindication for slipping up also comes when he takes a backseat and Scrawl’s vocalist Marcy Mays displays a range of heightened feelings with her smoky voice on ‘My Curse’.

As the protracted, frazzled ‘Turn On The Water’ proves, Afghan Whigs aren’t necessarily overshadowed by Greg. Ciphers exist in the music as well, little codes and nudges at the past that a greater number of people than present tonight will soon struggle to unravel.

© Dele FadeleNew Musical Express, 25 September 1993

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