Monday, October 8th, 2012
The Afghan Whigs and Crocodiles at The Phoenix in Toronto
Frank YangI’m old enough to have lived through The Afghan Whigs in their heyday, but I still missed them completely. Okay, not completely – I had a copy of Gentlemen on cassette because, well, Spin and such told me that I should – but it never really spoke to high school me. In 1993, I was all R.E.M. and Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead, at the artier end of the guitar rock spectrum, and the Whigs’ inherent seediness, the blackness of their soul, didn’t resonate; it probably scared me.
Fast-forward to late last year when it was announced that the 2012 edition of the ’90s rock reunion renaissance would feature the Afghan Whigs and on a whim, I decided to revisit their back catalog. And apparently my life has gotten much seedier or my soul much blacker in the past 20 years because damned if they haven’t become my most listened-to artist this year; not a fact that will be reflected in the old year-end list, but certainly merits mention. And it also offers some context as to why last Wednesday night’s show at The Phoenix – their only Canadian stop on the reunion tour – was probably my most-anticipated show of the year. The list of bands that I’m super-into and whom I haven’t been able to see live by this point is a pretty short one and for the last while, The Afghan Whigs have been at the very top of it. And while I thought I’d have been far from the only one – the band’s return to active duty had been met with great enthusiasm at almost all their European and American dates so far – but The Phoenix was far from full to welcome the Whigs back to town for the first time this century. Surprising and disappointing, but mostly unfortunate for those who missed it.
San Diego’s Crocodiles were on their own headlining tour in support of their second album Endless Flowers but took the support slot for this show, making for a bill that was impressive on paper but maybe a bit mismatched in practice. Not stylistically, but demographically – the Whigs fans would be out for their band, and an act with their own following, as Crocodiles had, probably would have been better off in front of their own audience. Those out early were largely impassive to their performance, but to be fair it wasn’t their best foot forward. I had been much more impressed seeing them at NXNE 2011 in the close quarters of the Silver Dollar, but here they weren’t as snotty or explosive with their balance of melody and noise far from optimal; they were good and loud but came across more generic than they should have. As with that NXNE show, watching guitarist Charles Rowell work was still the highlight, particularly when he managed to berate an audience member up front mid-song for being on his phone rather than watching the show. Okay, maybe they were still a bit snotty.
The Afghan Whigs setlists for the reunion tour had commendably changed things up from show to show, incorporating requests and just keeping things interesting, but most times the shows had opened with cinematic Black Love leadoff track “Crime Scene, Part One” and why not? It was the perfect way to kick things off, from slow burning introduction to impassioned chorus and so as predictable as it might have been to start this show, it was no less thrilling. Any concerns that Greg Dulli’s voice wouldn’t be what it once was – in recordings of the earliest live performances from the Spring, he came across more ragged and raspy than he probably should have – proved to be unfounded as except for a little bit of ducking on the toughest parts, he sounded every bit of whiskey, cigarette, and sex-shredded fantastic.
Given the rotating drum throne of the ’90s-era Afghan Whigs, the 2012 reunion technically only meant Dulli, guitarist Rick McCollum, and bassist John Curley were there from the original records, but with the rest of the band made up of Dave Rosser (guitar), Rick Nelson (strings/keys), and Cully Symington (drums) – all of whom had played with Dulli in The Twilight Singers – this edition had plenty of legitimacy and more importantly, chemistry. The songs had been masterfully re-arranged for three guitars, sounding massive without any player ever stepping on the others’ parts, as well as tastefully incorporating violin and cello to make the Whigs an intricate and elegant sonic bludgeon.
After the Black Love opener, the set list moved through all points of their discography, giving due to early works Congregation and Up In It – “Turn On The Water” was used to accomodate a shouted request for a cover of, “Helter Skelter” complete with Dulli yelling, “I got blisters on my fingers!” at its close – but the bulk of the show was justly dedicated to the triumvirate of Gentlemen, Black Love, and 1965, kicking it into especially high-gear with a sublime mid-set run of “Gentlemen”, “Crazy”, “My Enemy”, and “Somethin’ Hot”, each sounding as fiercely swaggering as they did a decade and a half ago.
While his bandmates were mostly content to lay back and go about their business – McCollum and Rosser’s guitar kingdom was curiously set about halfway back on the stage – Dulli was engaging and chatty through the show, bantering with the audience and complimenting Toronto on our beautiful women, perhaps intending to add emphasis to this when he got into the crowd to go after them a couple songs later during, “See And Don’t See”, after which he got on the piano for the Frank Ocean cover of “Love Crimes”. This covered their officially-released new recordings since reuniting, but the eagle-eared would have noticed another new song – “Dead Body” – appended onto “We Two Parted”. Their main set ran for an hour twenty, capped by a searing “Fountain and Fairfax”, and while I can understand those calling out for “Miles Iz Dead” in the encore – it would have been great to hear, for sure – their decision to close things bookend-style out with the epic Black Love suite of “Bulletproof”, “Summer’s Kiss”, and “Faded” – complete with “Purple Rain” quote in the outro – was damned near perfect, as was the show.
Exclaim also has a review of the show.
Photos: The Afghan Whigs, Crocodiles @ The Phoenix – October 3, 2012
MP3: The Afghan Whigs – “Lovecrimes”
MP3: The Afghan Whigs – “See And Don’t See”
MP3: Crocodiles – “Sunday (Psychic Conversation #9)”
MP3: Crocodiles – “Sleep Forever”
Video: The Afghan Whigs – “Going To Town”
Video: The Afghan Whigs – “Somethin’ Hot”
Video: The Afghan Whigs – “Honky’s Ladder”
Video: The Afghan Whigs – “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe”
Video: The Afghan Whigs – “Gentlemen”
Video: The Afghan Whigs – “Debonair”
Video: The Afghan Whigs – “Come See About Me”
Video: The Afghan Whigs – “Conjure Me”
Video: The Afghan Whigs – “Turn On The Water”
Video: The Afghan Whigs – “You My Flower”
Video: The Afghan Whigs – “Miles Iz Dead”
Video: The Afghan Whigs – “Sister, Brother”
Video: Crocodiles – “Endless Flowers”
Video: Crocodiles – “Hearts Of Love”
Video: Crocodiles – “Sleep Forever”
MTV Hive reports that even though they’re pretty busy with the Turn On The Bright Lights tenth anniversary edition and Paul Banks with his new solo record Banks on top of that, Interpol has started work on their fifth studio album. And over at DIY and Clash, Banks talks about Banks.
Jason Lytle has handed his new record Dept. Of Disappearance over to NPR to stream a week before its release on October 16 and offers an interview to The Irish Times. He opens up for Band OF Horses at Massey Hall on December 5.