By Jacqueline Howlett
The Afghan Whigs take the stage in Toronto at the ambient, refurbished Opera House like it was theirs. For it is. The stage set up, all the usual amps & instruments and a few water bottles, is a lot more aesthetically pleasing than the typical rock club show. The amps are all white, lit in a pleasing way, and adorned with some fine art in black and white that mirrors the album artwork for their latest album, In Spades. But this is decoration with a special purpose. For this tour, this show, and this season, is to tour the record, but at least equally, to celebrate their much loved and missed guitarist Dave Rosser, who died in June 2017.
The Whigs are a band whose fans know their history and feel a deep connection. One whose return in 2011 after a decade away signaled a personal resurgence ahead of the larger, global one we are still holding out for in emotive, lyrical, deeply musical, powerful rock of the kind that made the 90s (and this band) a marvel to behold. They bring their past with them, their legacy, their growth & their mastery and so do we, if all we have is our applause and our attention. And when they hurt, so do we. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt this much electricity in a room. It is certainly very rare, even among the addicted; music writers. Here, tonight, are waves, and shifts, and everyone is riveted. The rare person who does not hold up the social contract around flash photography is roundly shunned, and given a proper dressing down in a way that makes the heart flutter like it does when you hear fearless candour, I actually cheer. And for certain, we are in the presence of a powerful, fearless leader in Greg Dulli. I am just feet away from his work space. Anyone this close had better learn the rules quick or leave. Or deal not just with Dulli, but all of us.
Dave Rosser’s passing is, naturally, foregrounded tonight. Or maybe, not naturally. Some bands take a path that is quite different up there as they must deal with these terrible losses with an almost superstitious “don’t say Macbeth” way of warding off their dead friends or a fear of some sort of band curse. Many older musicians are fraught, bowed by the heaviness it can create, the air it might take out of the room or of themselves. But not The Afghan Whigs. They shake that shit off with an athletic ease. Tonight, star QB Greg Dulli foregrounds the story of Dave’s passing from the outset, adding a true air of poignancy to the melodies, adding another layer to the rich power of the poetry. It is very real. Very raw. Very noble. Very effective. For the best gigs are always a trip to church, and tonight it’s a special one. Fans along the tour hold up signs for Dave. They are acknowledged, thanked. Dulli tells us early on that the band was just here last May, with Dave. By the end of June, this sweetest, kindest, funniest, most talented man was gone. This is a stark reality that too many of us relate to in any crowd at our age. The man to my left, at my side, escaped death this year. We are both very keen to raises our voices and our applause for Rosser. And so the album art, the lighting, the mood, is thoughtfully designed, speaking to someone like me who looks for little signs, clues and silent cues. Tonight, the stage is rich with them. And then there’s the music.
Afghan Whigs are 8 albums deep spanning nearly 30 years. It’s a rich time to be a fan of bands of their vintage (man, it’s our vintage too and we are all aging well) when they are in the sweet spot of choice and ease, and can have a little fun sorting through hits, deep cuts, b-sides and newer material fitting side by side in this out-of-time musical moment of the messy new millennium. I don’t need to tell you that the band has always had a way with a cover song too, with a mastery of the room that means almost nothing is out of bounds. There is room for surprise, laughter, shifts of dramatic mood. Tonight in Toronto, there’s a heavy weighting on the new material, a mark of confidence that only the most self-assured bands can pull off without the weak but buzzing wrath of the internet and its vocal minority of bores who like to keep score. They seem to have been driven off tonight in the strong wind of The Afghan Whigs.
Powerhouse Greg Dulli is one of those multi-talented visionaries whose intelligence is visible, and who misses nothing. Producer, songwriter, and leader, Dulli has been prolific over the years inside and outside The Afghan Whigs including as the lead vocalist for “The Backbeat Band”, a supergroup that included Mike Mills, Dave Grohl and Thurston Moore who created music for the film Backbeat, a biopic about the Beatles. He’s also done some acting turns and more interesting quietly cool collaborations than I can list.
But on to the newest project: In Spades gets a terrific helping: “Arabian Heights”, “Demon in Profile”, “Into the Floor”, “Light as a Feather”, “Oriole” and “Toy Automatic”. From Do to the Beast we get “Algiers”, “It Kills”, “Matamoros” “Can Rova” and “Parked Outside”. All the records get some play. Old and newer weave together cohesively, expansively, masterfully. But the centerpiece of the show, coming about halfway through the main set, is the spare, gorgeous, feels like it dropped out of a ceiling in the 90s but with today’s polish, “Can Rova”. It’s “a Bonnie & Clyde thing”.
This song was a favourite of Dave Rosser’s. And tonight, and on this road, it is his song. We don’t catch this, maybe others do, but his amp and area is set up just in case he wants to drop by and join them. And there’s such a stirring, you have to wonder. You have to wonder if the light and power of music can do almost any miracle on earth. You have to marvel that music IS our healer, our teacher, our comfort, our side-effect free antidepressant, our rage soundtrack, our mood setter, our caffeine, our rubber to the road anthem, our therapy. Ours. And I realize here tonight, that should you live long enough, any love & heartbreak song can be converted cleanly and profoudly into a dirge, a lament, in time. It’s a revelation. And it happens here:
“If I’m uncivilized child, that’s okay
You gonna see me light a fire some hot day
But you don’t see me
You don’t see me
You don’t see me
I can’t see you anymore”
This is the song that is a diamond even among the songs out there of its type. It’s an anthem. It starts from almost a murmur, builds to a cry, and can shape-shift to be a defiant call, a lament, or a celebration. All within four minutes. All of this, the masterful shifts of mood through the generously full show, the surprising bursts of cover songs, the weaving of Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye” into “Can Rova”, the meaningful moments of remembrance for the lost (including our own, in our quiet way) the near misses, the close calls, the weight of life and the persistence of love carried on these chords, all means something. He is as in control leaning over the room balanced on one foot as an athlete in flight. It moves me so. It moves the gears in my head, my head that lives for moments like this and are rarer than love.
“If all in vain I call your name
As though the end was near
A slow decay, a sad refrain
And then I disappear
We leave tonight
Ain’t nothing but the stripes”
And since I’m a lifelong melancholic, who loves to mourn not just the specific person of the moment, and feels the still fresh ache of the person at my side (who almost was taken by illness), and the moms and the grandfathers and the dreams and the beloved pet, I’ve got room inside this experience to become wracked with all that angst that a band this grand, that has no doubt achieved and traveled and bent the world, is not at the echelon we all know, along the tour, that they deserve. This song, in a just and fair world, in that window where Alternative and Rock music rightly last reigned, would be a number one. Here, at the Opera House, we get a band and a show that could slide onto Glastonbury’s big stage with ease, and fill that space all the way up. Can flex to make The Opera House feel like a stadium. Could light a match and turn this whole Titanic music has been feeling like in the biggest and most hollow stages right around that iceberg and clear on to America. This is the work of genius. Too goddamned often, nearly always, unsung. It means, though, that I get to have my Dancing in the Dark moment I’ve always longed for, and will never forget: Greg Dulli comes and leans directly over me at a certain point to ask “How you doin’?” mid-song.
A music geek goes through this turmoil and rages inside without missing a beat or a note of this jaw-dropping show. In fact, pinned to the very front of the stage, my photographer and I, always lucky to be here, do not leave our post for a moment. This resurgence of the bands that came to the fore around that exciting time of 1990, the end of the century, the music of half a century maturing and growing, diversifying, electric, sensitive, and learned, were so special. But never mind movements and scenes that half the time were some record company’s wet dream that just as easily swept aside brilliant acts from the wrong city, and can take no credit for the self-made, the stoics, the survivors. The kings whether in absentia for periods or not. Tonight and this tour and the perseverance and fearlessness of The Afghan Whigs is simply a master class, the proof of what we’ve always been raving about, that we were almost starting to forget, that we’ve always needed.
The Afghan Whigs are Greg Dulli, John Curley, Rick. G. Nelson, Jon Skibic, Patrick Keeler.
Rest in Power, Dave Rosser.
The Afghan Whigs play tonight, October 27th in New Orleans, at Voodoo Music + Arts Festival. (Tour info)
(The writer apologizes for the lateness of this review due to unforeseen circumstances. The photographer was on time, even early.)