The Afghan Whigs at the Beacon Theater

Saturday afternoon, I drove down to the city to see the reunited Afghan Whigs play the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side. I saw them years and years ago in DC, around 1996 or so on the tour for Black Love, and that was a great show. They've always been one of my favorite bands, so it was great to get another chance to see them live again.

Of course, the passage of 18 years has wrought some changes, most significantly a different lineup for the band. They never had much luck keeping drummers around, but this time they've also lost original guitarist Rick McCollum. This has both good and bad aspects-- on the one hand, the new guys they have don't have the same flair for creepy slide guitar, which hurts some of the old songs (particularly the show-closing "Faded"). But then, reviews of the new album all note that the rhythm section is much stronger than it used to be, and that was clearly the case. Not only are new songs like "I Am Fire" built around complex and powerful drum lines, but they applied the same approach to some older stuff to good effect-- the drum/bass part for "Debonair" was really strikingly improved. The lyrics of that have always had a lot of punch, but I had never paid all that much attention to the rhythm section; Saturday night, that was the most striking part.

This was very much a tour behind the new record, not a greatest hits set-- this set list is nowhere near complete-- it leaves off "Royal Cream" and "I Am Fire" among others-- but I think they played eight of the ten tracks off the new record. They're clearly committed to the new material, and it fits in very well with the old stuff, both in concert and on shuffle play in my car on the way down and back. The guitar sounds is different, but even a song like "Matamoros" that seems at first like a big departure fits really well alongside "Going to Town" and "Blame, Etc."

They didn't do any full-length covers-- the band is famous for doing sexy, creepy versions of Motown songs and the like-- but did work in snippets of some other stuff: Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" showed up at the tail end of "I Am Fire" and "Lost in the Woods" (the new song closest in feel to their older material) got a verse of "Getting Better" by the Beatles (fun fact: Dulli was one of the vocalists on the soundtrack for the early-Beatles movie "Backbeat"). There was something I didn't recognize at the start of the encore, and then a bit of Bobby Womack's "Across 110th St." at the start of "Faded," a nice New York tribute. As always, these took on a more sinister air than the originals-- Paul McCartney singing "I used to be cruel to my woman/ I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved" is hard to take seriously, but Dulli delivers it like someone who really did have his girlfriend locked in the basement, but is trying to do better.

The opening act was Charles Bradley, who I had never heard of before, but is apparently part of the whole Dap-Tone soul revival thing. In terms of vocals, he does a pretty credible James Brown, but he's not as agile as the original Godfather of Soul. There's also probably an interesting bit of cultural commentary in the fact that his band-- which was outstanding-- consists mostly of white guys half his age. I'll probably look for some of his records, though, because the whole Dap-Tone thing is very much relevant to my musical interests. (I do sort of wish that the Whigs had grabbed his brass players for "John the Baptist" which is missing something without the trumpet; they're not the regular opener, though (Joseph Arthur is doing a lot of the other stops, and contributed vocals to a couple of songs Saturday night), so I guess the logistics didn't work...)

Anyway, it was an excellent show, and well worth the drive down and back. The new album isn't quite as good as Gentlemen or 1965, but then there are only a handful of albums made in the last thirty years that I would put on a level with those two. It's a great rock record, though, and the band still puts on a terrific show. If they're playing near you, check 'em out.

And here's some video of the band doing new songs live at KEXP earlier this year:

That's live-in-studio, not a real show, but it gets a bit of the flavor, at least.

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The encore started with Heaven on Their Minds from Jesus Christ Superstar. Enjoyed your review, cheers.

That'd be why I didn't recognize it, as I know nothing about Jesus Christ, Superstar...