Gig review: The Afghan Whigs at The Church, Leeds

The Afghan Whigs. Picture: Chris Cuffaro
The Afghan Whigs. Picture: Chris Cuffaro
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“It’s a nice place you’ve got here, Leeds,” Greg Dulli observes, taking in the surroundings of the city’s Church venue. “Let’s hope we deserve it,” he adds as an afterthought.

Given the Ohio native’s black humour and carnal preoccupation with emasculated anti-heroes, there is an irony to seeing him play a former place of religious worship. Incorporating old-school R&B and funk influences alongside tales of saints and sinners, the Afghan Whigs stood out from the Seattle sound and their Sub Pop labelmates as the thinking man’s option within grunge. Over five years since their reunion, the Cincinnati outfit remain accomplished orators of the embittered male psyche, – and at Church in Leeds, they deliver a performance worthy of their status, a sonic wallop both predatory and intoxicating.

With bassist John Curly the only holdover from the Whigs’ original iteration, Dulli excluded, it is upon this new manifestation that the setlist leans on; almost two-thirds of their performance is culled from reunion efforts Do the Beast, and this year’s In Spades. It is a sound decision – the group, accompanied by support act Ed Harcourt, are gifted with an elastic versatility best suited to the wide palate of genres deployed across their latest LPs, be it the hymnal post-rock rush of Can Rova or Demon in Profile’s delicious horn-dog groove, sloping in on jazzy snatches of piano. Pleasingly, it never feels lopsided too; fresher material such the jagged stoner strut of Arabian Heights sits comfortably alongside Fountain and Fairfax‘s tortured cock-rock like natural bedfellows.

Dulli – a bear-like figure in black – remains the ace though, a lust-ridden maverick of a frontman. At fifty-two, emotionally-beaten rasp still intact, he is blessed with a discerning gravitas tempered by defiant wit; when he delivers the sultry fire-and-brimstone of John the Baptist, his screwed-up sermon remains darkly sexy under the influence of his howl. Alone on stage for the widescreen, minimalist baroque of Birdland, his harrowing cry for help is spine-tingling amongst the spookiness. Over twenty-one songs, he leads his band on a cinematic odyssey – and when he reaches closer Faded, the group’s film-noir-tinted showstopper, his searing roar swells with the music, from soulful balladry into cathartic power chords. Thrilling and chilling for all the right reasons, the Afghan Whigs’ second wind is something almost spiritual – a rock ‘n’ roll resurrection quite unlike any other indeed.

Jade Helliwell.

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