Into the Pit: 146: The Afghan Whigs – Live at KOKO – 19-August 2012

If Yuck are/were the sound of the grunge revival, then side-project Oupa are the sound of it dying, already reduced to sub-Neil youngesque croaks, backed with a wheezing drum machine that never chances pace. Oh yes. Not content with being part of the much-hyped “grunge revival” (which aside from the original bands reforming, and a lot of re-issues, has been a non-event as far as I can tell), dredging up the memories of various dreary side-projects isn’t helping.

The Afghan Whigs
supported by Oupa
Live @ KOKO, London NW1
19 August 2012

What this needed was something better to wash it away.

So thank God for the main event. Even so, I’m beginning to wonder that when it comes to my usual end-of-the-year roundups, I should split the live rundown into “best reunion gigs” and the rest – I’ve seen that many nostalgia trips this year. I’m not going to complain too much, especially as this recent trend has allowed me to see a load of bands I would otherwise have filed in the “I wish I’d seen them” file.

And so it is/was with The Afghan Whigs. Ok, so I’ve seen Greg Dulli live before, with his subsequent band The Twilight Singers back in 2006 (christ, six years already?), and while there were a couple of ‘Whigs songs, it wasn’t really the real thing, y’know? I’d heard tales of the band’s legendary live shows, stuffed with covers, snippets of other songs, stage banter, and lasting for a whole evening.

Well, ok, so we didn’t get everything of old, but the band had a bloody good try. Getting chucked in with the grunge movement was a marriage of convenience, frankly – or the mark of lazy journalists and publicists that couldn’t find anywhere else to pigeonhole Dulli and his band. Listening back to their material, you can see their problem. Who else, at the time – or indeed since – was mixing up rock, soul, R’n’B (as in proper rhythm and blues) and making it blazingly emotional, thrilling music that made you want to dance, cry or both?

It was initially difficult to work out what we were going to get. Coming onstage bang on time, the band blitzed through a few songs before even speaking to the crowd – while showing an almost equal-opportunities approach to their back catalogue, by playing a song from each of their last four albums in turn. So, the perfect intro to the set is made with the should-have-been-set-to-opening-credits brooding of Crime Scene, Part One, before a blast through oldie I’m Her Slave before we’d even had a chance to take breath.

Interestingly, even with an allotted two hours, the band blasted through most of their set as if they had been told they had lost half-an-hour – if Dulli wasn’t going to talk, the absurdly well-drilled band wasted no time in getting on with the next song, with the result that we certainly got enough songs to keep us happy, and they pretty much pleased everyone by going to nearly all of the corners of their back catalogue, ensuring that all the old favourites, and quite a few more besides, were played. Although saying that, there was one bizarre omission in the form of Somethin’ Hot, that disappointed my girlfriend at least (it’s her favourite ‘Whigs song).

Not that I could really complain with the set, particularly a glorious run through a number of songs from Gentlemen back-to-back, of which a blazing pairing of What Jail is Like and Fountain and Fairfax was frankly one of the highlights of the whole set. And if you ever felt that Dulli’s tales were perhaps little more than filmic fantasies, the sheer emotional clout of seeing him – having conquered addictions himself – singing the tale of trying to kick the booze, and promising a lover of better times, that in the latter song felt oh-so-real.

The Afghan Whigs setlist:
Crime Scene, Part One
I’m Her Slave
Uptown Again
What Jail is Like
Fountain and Fairfax
When We Two Parted/Over My Dead Body (Drake cover)
You, my Flower/Sail to the Moon (Radiohead cover)
66/Little Red Corvette (Prince cover)
My Enemy
Son of the South
See and Don’t See (Marie “Queenie” Lyons cover)
Lovecrimes (Frank Ocean cover)
Going to Town
Citi Soleil
Omerta/She Loves You (The Beatles cover)
The Vampire Lanois

Bulletproof/Where Did Our Love Go (The Supremes cover)
Summer’s Kiss
Faded/Purple Rain (Prince cover)

In fact, the set played nicely on both sides of the coin when it comes to the ‘Whigs. There were many of the songs about bitter regret, lost love and heartache, and then there were the songs that function as salacious come-ons. Of the latter, 66 is one of the most overt, and it’s funky rhythms merged wonderfully with the snippet of Little Red Corvette (!) that was slipped in – and that wasn’t the last Prince reference there was, either. But more of that in a moment.

After this and a few other teases from other songs, it was no great surprise that the two recent new tracks – both covers – were aired, and they were both of a more relaxed, languid nature. The more immediate of the two, and probably the only real link with present day music that the night had, was an intriguing cover of Frank Ocean’s Lovecrimes, a song whose mixture of (real or imagined) crime and love fit in perfectly with the ‘Whigs usual themes. Having now finally listened to the original, too, it is clear that both artists share a love of Prince, too.

Such a slowing down of pace was only temporary, mind, and the perfect way to bring the temperature back to “steaming” was the joyous, crime-scene fantasies of Going to Down, propelled by the Superstition-esque organ lead, that only lost part of it’s power by a frustratingly muddy sound (something that affected odd moments through the set, but none more so than here). Then there was even time for one more look at Gentlemen, in the form of a blazing Debonair, perhaps the ultimate example of Dulli – or at least the character the song represents – being repentent for his “sins” against women.

As the set charged on toward it’s end, it was time to move into darker corners of the band’s past, but not before a rousing and bright charge through Citi Soleil, an unexpected highlight of a song that to be honest I’ve not heard in a while. All of the remaining songs played were the latter songs on the last two albums, taking us into the depths of darkness, songs where Dulli manages to invoke the sweaty, hot nights of the deep south and the pleasures and nightmares within. They were certainly a popular set of songs, too, and once again there were a surprising number of other songs woven in – although the most spectacular moment came right at the end, as Faded moved seamlessly into the final few minutes of Purple Rain, with appropriate lighting!

A spectacular end to a seriously impressive show, one delivered by a band that didn’t look at all like one who are going through the motions – this was a fully committed band, bringing one hell of a show, with nothing held back. There was, eventually, too, some entertaining stage banter, involving sex on balconies, down the front, maybe all in a day’s work for The Afghan Whigs. Like all great bands should, this was two hours taking us somewhere else entirely – to a world that sounds, looks and is much cooler than our own.

And it begs the question – where are the new crop of bands as vital as this now?

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