“He's skinny!” a bloke yells in delight the moment the Afghan Whigs troop on stage under the prom-night glimmer of a mirror ball – and he sets about clutching and pinching himself rapturously for the rest of the evening.
It’s true: time has not ticked on for Greg Dulli; not since this reviewer last saw them play in London, 1996. Here he stands, still in black shirt and suit jacket, with black guitar, black hair swept back, black humour intact, and black, malevolent gaze scanning the crowd.
Despite the Cincinnati band having released six albums before Dulli turned his attention to the Gutter Twins with Mark Lanegan and the Twilight Singers (with its revolving door of personnel), this is the first time the Afghan Whigs have been to Australia. That’s a huge deal to the forty-something men in the audience, transported back to their dorm rooms again and air-guitarring along with unadulterated joy, their hair bathed in stage light. It’s like they're in an ad for Teen Spirit deodorant.
And thank god, thank god, the band put on a first-rate, thrilling two-hour set; drawing largely on 1993’s Gentlemen and 1996’s Black Love. With three seething guitars providing a wall of pound and John Curley’s prowling bass lines always threatening to trip up Cully Symington’s thunder-crack drums, Dulli revisits the familiar first-person themes of sex, remorse, misogyny, self-loathing and pharmaceuticals, all laced with Catholic guilt.
He expounds this gentleman/bastard duality in ‘Crime Scene Part One’: “Do you think I'm beautiful? Or do you think I’m evil?” – knowing full well the simpering answer is both. Music journos back in the day would dress up unusually suave for a Whigs gig. Then they’d get emotional and scribble down words like “maelstrom”, “visceral” and “melancholic troubadour”. Words they’d never say out loud. I was a 21-year-old music publicist, and all us publicists tried to get off with Dulli. The winner had fag butts flicked at her all night by the sore losers.
On that theme, I notice there are more than a few desperate, prolonged screams going on tonight. Dulli meanders off the stage to get in among the ladies. “Hey dude, you see what I mean?” he smirks to someone or other. “About being in a band?" The fact that he’s only just snarled his way through ‘What Jail Is Like’, his ode to a relationship, has already been forgiven and forgotten. And, I mean, if you’re not singing along to ‘Going To Town’ – his Bonnie and Clyde-style romance – you’re dead. Or just weren’t born in 1996.
Dulli’s catarrh-aided howl has lost none of its venom over the decades and floors us on tracks like ‘Gentleman’ – in which he loosens up and dances across the stage; ‘Crazy’ – in which he loses himself; and ‘See and Don’t See’ – in which he imbues lines like “If I ever face reality I know that it’s gonna be the end of me” with so much soul he might burst into flames at any moment.
“You know what my curse is?” he says dryly, as the heckle for ‘My Curse’ – his duet with Scrawl’s Marcy Mays – continues. “That chick's never here to sing that song.” Instead we’re treated to a cover of Frank Ocean’s ‘Lovecrimes’, complete with cello player, and then ‘Debonair’ – delivered with the force of an interstate truck.
They encore with the Church’s 1983 moody psych masterpiece ‘One Day’, which Dulli explains the band covered in their earliest incarnation, and ‘Miles Iz Dead’ – the Whigs’ seduction by alcohol. Looking around the audience tonight, at grizzled faces rendered radiant, that mission has been well and truly accomplished.