The first thing that stands out about a Greg Dulli show is the audience is highly female. My casual estimate had it at an even split, or maybe 55/45 dudes to ladies. There aren’t a lot of male artists working the indie circuit (whatever “indie” means to us now) that have anything approaching 50/50. It’s also a mid-30s age range, which makes sense because those were the teenagers of the Afghan Whigs days that remained loyal to anything Dulli has done.
Why? It’s because of the rep the singer/songwriter has perpetuated since the Whigs’ first album: carnally adventurous, blue-eyed soul man, besotted with drink, voice ravaged by cigarettes.* It’s the sort of gutter romantic act that makes men wish they were him and women want to take him home. The second part of it is that all of Dulli’s back catalog has appealed to the hip shake and swivel as much as the Afghan Whigs did to the head bang on their first three albums. When your prime influence is R&B, the concept of groove survives no matter how much fuzz and noise you put the guitars through.
Dulli’s genius move in the late 80s-early 90s was merging post-punk guitar with soul swing and lover-man bravado. In an underground rock scene where all the influences were comically white, the Whigs and everything Dulli did stood out, particularly because the pathos he put to tape had more to do with sex and Catholic guilt than suburban anomie. The remarkable thing is that he’s in his mid-40s now and it still works. Playing to a packed Doug Fir Lounge, Dulli proved that you can play a lech yet grow old gracefully.**
(*N.B. Dulli didn’t look intoxicated for the show; a fellow attendee who may be a bit too obsessed with the man says she read or heard that he doesn’t smoke any more, he may have had throat polyps somewhere along the line. Given his vocal style, I wouldn’t be surprised were it true.
**How much of the lecherousness, sexuality, and gutter view of his songs is a stage act/homage and how much of it is really him has always been up for debate.)
The opener, Shawn Smith, is a familiar face who is probably more familiar than you’d think upon first blush. Dulli acolytes know he’s guested on backing vocals on both Whigs & Twilight Singers records for years, but Smith is a Seattle native — which means he is in or has been in bands with some of the grunge era’s big names. If you remember Brad’s “The Day Brings”, that’s him. He sat and played by himself for a half hour, closing with an epic, stark version of Prince’s “Purple Rain” that had the crowd eating out of his hand. Smith’s voice doesn’t match what you’d think he’d look like: long hair, top hat, flannel shirt, burly — and out comes this distinctive, reedy voice.
This was the last night of the Dulli solo tour; it’s been booked as such, but it’s basically 3/5 of the apparently current line-up of the Twilight Singers: guitarist Dave Rosser and cellist/violinist Rick Nelson joined Dulli. It was an acoustic, quieter show — as far as Dulli is capable of being quiet. It kicked off with a few songs from the upcoming Dynamite Steps and went through several Singers songs before Dulli welcomed Afghan Whigs bass player John Curley on stage — which received cheers like you wouldn’t believe.
The quartet tore through Whigs material: “Let Me Lie To You,” “66”, “Step Into The Light”, “If I Were Going”, “What Jail Is Like”, “Summer’s Kiss” and added a loud rumble through the Singers’ “Forty Dollars” for good measure before Curley departed, Dulli addressing him as “my favorite bass player” and a hug between the two.
"That’s a hard act to top," Dulli said, "but you know I’m gonna try." There’s something quietly intense about the whole proceeding even though this wasn’t really a showman type of gig — Dulli radiates showmanship even when he isn’t really putting on the rock act, shifting between his Gibson acoustic guitar and the same Yamaha keyboard Smith used. What is clear is that he and his core trio for this tour had a very solid interplay; Rosser provided the backing vocals while playing delicate lines or taking Rick McCollum’s old Whigs melodies and spinning them in another direction with crisp fingerpicking; Nelson’s cello wasn’t as high in the mix as I’d have liked, but when he took up the violin, he played counterpart to Dulli’s vocals, which lie somewhere between soulful and strained at their best (and are part and parcel of the man.)
If he’d played for another hour, everyone would have stayed. We had to be content with buying a live recording of the New Orleans show at the merch hole in the back. Before I’d walked in the door to the Doug Fir four hours earlier, I watched him walk out the front for whatever reason, saying “excuse me” and “Hi” to people as he went through those of us waiting in the cold for the doors to open. “Hey, excited to see you play, man,” I said as he walked past. “Excited to be seen,” he said, and judging by his performance, he meant it.