The Afghan Whigs With Built To Spill At The Wiltern, Thursday May 10th 2018
The Afghan Whigs and Built to Spill are on tour together for the first time, and despite their very different musical orientations, as two pillar indie rock bands of the ‘90s, it obviously makes a lot of sense. I caught them on Thursday night at the Wiltern Theater, one of their last dates of this North American tour which started on April 11th in Madison Wisconsin.
English singer songwriter Ed Harcourt opened the show with a captivating and eclectic set, drawing influences from many horizons. He was alone on stage, except for a violinist who joined him for a few songs, but he managed to play guitar, keyboard and drums, building his songs with looping pedals, from the drums up to several layered guitar and piano parts. His songs had a very interesting atmospheric sound, with very strong vocals and going from bleak soundscapes to more violent or melancholic ones, bringing fire, emotion, passion at the same time. A song (with a scary fast violin) even brought a sort of ‘Skeleton Tree’ vibe, and that’s why I was not surprised to read that Harcourt is known for drawing his inspiration from Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. Some of his songs had a more soothing effect and his piano ones even brought a sort of upbeat/sad tone à la Rufus Wainwright, while he unexpectedly dropped everything for a old-fashioned mic and became a humorous syrupus crooner as if he was hosting a vintage ballroom event. Harcourt has collaborated with numerous famous artists from Lana Del Rey, to Marianne Faithfull, James Bay… and despite the fact he joined the Afghan Whigs on stage later on, he would certainly deserve his own show.
Last time I heard about the Afghan Whigs, their frontman Greg Dulli was participating into a benefit show for guitarist Dave Rosser at the Teragram Ballroom, and an all-star cast, featuring Mark Lanegan, Duff McKagan, Jesse Hughes, Dave Catching and Joshua Homme, had joined him. Sadly Rosser passed away the following year, shortly after the release of the Afghan Whigs’ eighth studio album, the critically acclaimed ‘In Spades’, which was in fact their second one after reuniting.
With the Afghan Whigs, it’s all about the atmosphere, dark and gothic, and it’s also all about their frontman, Greg Dulli and his incomparable voice, ravaging and haunting, capable to bring you at the core of an invisible battle field. The beat-driven song ‘Arabian Heights’ was a great opener, as it immediately gave the tone, violent and mysterious, with Dulli’s falsetto howl rising in the dark, just coming form his shadow. If the absence of light is great for a moody atmosphere, completely matching their music, it’s not that great for photography. ‘There’s no flash photography,’ said Greg Dulli during a rare interlude between two songs when he was sitting in front of his piano… ‘Please don’t do that. They look like shit anyway. Tomorrow’s my birthday… All I want is no flash photography’. Dulli wants it dark, but he is actually more interested by grey areas and shadows than he is interested by total darkness, on stage he lives at twilight, at the image of the name of one of his side projects, The Twilight Singers.
Describing the sound of the Afghan Whigs has always seemed like a challenge, probably because no other band sound like them. If bassist John Curley is the only original member with Dulli, the music is still built around layered guitars, a touch of devastating strings and complex textures, challenging genre classification. When Dulli switched to piano for a few songs such as ‘The Lottery’, he brought a more intimate feeling compared to the expansive nature of the first songs.
The music was soulful, seductive and almost supernatural, as Dulli’s signature shouted-sang his short-sentence lyrics like a wounded beast, transforming them into spells, brutally spreading them in the large venue. It doesn’t matter if the songs mix intimate feelings about failed relationships (‘I’m gonna be breaking your heart, baby’) and personal demons (‘I got nothing to lose’), everything he sings sounds definitive and has the dimension of mythical drama, while oscillating between ultimatums and seductions.
Even if you are like me and haven’t been closely following the Afghan Whigs’ career – they broke up in 2001 and reformed about 10 years later – even if you get lost between the old songs and the new ones, attending one of their concerts feels like a transporting experience and an invitation to be seduced by the demon. You are not sure of what’s exactly going on, but you know you are witnessing something powerful, while Dulli’s strong croon soars and echoes with the exact same strength above each one of their cinematic soundscapes… And everything sounds dangerous enough to accept the invitation.
Before revisiting older songs, they did a rocking version of David Gilmore’s ‘There’s No Way Out of Here’, followed by a surprising (to me) and spectacular cover of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Heaven on Their Minds’, and managed to make the Jesus Christ Superstar’s emotional song totally theirs. They are one of these rare bands which can cover anything while avoiding a pastiche impression.
During the slightly more stripped down songs played on keys, ‘The Lottery’, ‘Going to Town (slight return)’ and The Twilight Singers’ cover, ‘The Killer’, Dulli’s vocals were even more fascinating, showing his unusual range from deep baritone to ravaged high yell. They rushed through the rest of the set with triumphant crashes and the same momentum that had all night, riding a furious wave during ‘My Enemy’, infiltrating snippets of the Doors’ ‘Roadhouse Blues’ during ‘Son of the South’ and ‘Boys of Summer’ during ‘Into the Floor’ the last song of their last album.
If The Afghan Whigs’ set sounded like the headliners, they were followed by Built to Spill, another band hero of the ‘90s with a, nevertheless, radically different sound. Where Dulli soars and brings you from floor to ceiling with his spectacular croon, Doug Martsch’s gentle and shy high-pitched voice sounds at the opposite of the vocal spectrum,,,, where Dulli stands strong in the middle of his soulful chaos, there is certainly more vulnerability in Martsch’s unassuming stage presence.
However, both bands may have more things in common than you may think at the first look. May be it’s because they are both guitar bands, may be it’s because of their introspective lyrics which tend to go on the dark side, but watching them play side by side made sense.
Built to Spill didn’t have an album to promote, their last album, ‘Untethered Moon’, was released in 2015, and last time I saw the band, there were more musicians on stage, and so more layered guitars. This time, they were just a trio, with drummer Steve Gere and bassist Jason Albertini on each side of Doug Martsch, who was standing next to a tower of electronics, adding distortion to his complex and elaborated guitar work
Starting from the very catchy and anxious melody of ‘Goin’ Against Your Mind’ from their ‘You In Reverse’ album, the set was a compendium of songs from almost their entire catalogue, with cuts from their 1994 ‘There’s Nothing Wrong with Love’, to just a few ones from their last one, ‘Untethered Moon’, and a great cover of the Pretenders’ ‘Back on the Chain Gang’, which triggered a happy sing along. Watching Built to Spill in action brings you to concentrate on the music and Martsch’s elaborated jams, it’s a beautiful thing to get lost in their intricate detours, just like him, who was often closing his eyes while playing. If there has always been a physical distance between Martsch and his audience when he is playing his songs filled with hooky riffs and thoughtful lyrics — he is not the kind to joke between songs — the emotional connection is palpable at every level. Several of their moody classics, ‘I Would Hurt a Fly’ from their 1997 ‘Perfect From Now On’ album, ‘Reasons’ and ‘Stab’ from their 1994 ‘There’s nothing Wrong with Love’ album and ‘Carry the Zero’ from their 1999 ‘Keep It Like a Secret’ album drew big reactions from the crowd and heartfelt sing alongs.
The show was an occasion to see two enduring bands playing in one bill, and even though the Afghan Whigs played before Built to Spill, it was truly a co-headlining night, while both bands let the music shine with a minimum of talking. May be it was about nostalgia because a part of both setlists could have been the same 2 decades earlier, but it was certainly about (re)connecting with meaningful songs and an emotionally-charged brand of indie rock, full of swelling guitars and sang by two anti-hero guitar heroes.
Setlist (The Afghan Whigs)
Light as a Feather
There’s No Way Out of Here (David Gilmour cover)
Heaven on Their Minds
Going to Town (slight return)
Demon In Profile
The Killer (The Twilight Singers cover)
John the Baptist
Son of the South / Roadhouse Blues (snippet)
Into the Floor / Boys of Summer Cover
Goin’ Against Your Mind
In the Morning
Back on the Chain Gang (The Pretenders cover)
Three Years Ago Today
I Would Hurt a Fly
On the Way
Carry the Zero