Over the course of a dozen years together, the Afghan Whigs lived hard, played loud and captured a zeitgeist that was utterly unique, a melange of good melodies and bad vibes, rusty-razor guitars and sweet soul singing held together by darkly charismatic frontman Greg Dulli. While they split in 1999, the Whigs went out with neither a bang nor a whimper – – or even a real announcement, simply a slow fade into the shadows that spawned them.
This 13-years-later emergence was anything but quiet: While comparatively small-scale in its nature, the show was outsized in its emotional and sonic heft, and clearly a galvanizing experience for an aud that was clearly dominated by true believers prepared to sing along with virtually every word. And from the opening strains of the listing “Crime Scene, Part One,” many did just that, craning to glimpse Dulli and company through the purposefully murky back-lighting.
Most of the set was culled from what’s generally considered the Whigs’ peak era – spanning albums like 1992’s “Congregation” and the following year’s “Gentlemen” – and the performances here rivaled the steeliness they exuded in those days. Dulli, however, seemed less on edge and more capable of channeling his fervor into song (even the set’s one sparring session, with a middle-finger-wagging heckler, didn’t knock him off track).
The band, augmented here by two multi-instrumentalists that have worked with Dulli in his more recent bands, alternated tension and release with aplomb, hitting squalling peaks on “What Jail Is Like” and “Conjure Me” and downshifting into foreplay mode for extended takes on “When We Two Parted” and “See and Don’t See” (the Queenie Lyons’ cover that’s served as the Whigs’ recorded comeback).
The two-hour program was punctuated by the sorts of R&B and funk forays that always characterized the band’s live shows – a snatch of Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” was tossed into the middle of a bump-and-grind “’66,” and a verse or two of “Purple Rain” unspooled at set’s end. Their tastes haven’t been frozen in time, however, as they proved in a slinky romp through “Love Crimes,” a playfully sexed-up 2011 track by Odd Future’s Frank Ocean.
While a few shows have been scheduled for later this year – including a headlining set at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Asbury Park in September – the Whigs haven’t laid out a defined path for the future, but if this perf is any indication, there will be some scorched earth along the way.