They were never the loudest band of the early-'90s grunge/alt-rock boom, nor the heaviest, wildest, tightest (though close) or most famous (not by a mile). The one surpassing quality the Afghan Whigs could arguably boast of was intensity.
Thirteen years since they last toured, the critically revered and cultishly adored Cincinnati group -- with a Minneapolis-based guitarist, Rick McCollum -- flaunted its greatest attribute Sunday night at the Varsity Theater. The sold-out show was the kind of powerful, full-throated, go-for-broke affair where fans sometimes had to check themselves and remember to breathe.
With often harrowing songs of jealousy, obsession, breakups and the crimes those failings can lead to, the Afghan Whigs always presented a dark experience for fans. Sunday's show was literally in the dark. The band often stuck to shadowy stage lighting or to an extra bloody blood-red tint. It might've been more for vanity (making it hard to see the 13 extra years on the band members' faces) but it had an eerie effect. There was barely enough light to see the fake snow that fell during the opening song, "Crime Scene, Part One" (as if the lyrics weren't chilling enough).
It took a few more songs, though, for things to fall into place musically. The oldest tunes of the night, "I'm Her Slave" and "Conjure Me" (both from 1992's "Congregation" album), failed to arouse the crowd, and the better-known howler "What Jail Is Like" lacked its usual bite.
The turning point came with the mellower, climactic gem "When We Two Parted," which singer Greg Dulli coolly laced with lines from Drake's "Over My Dead Body." The frontman-in-black repeatedly dropped in R&B influences with a sadistic-sounding twist, including a dramatic cover of newcomer Frank Ocean's "Lovecrimes," during which he sat at the piano. He twice threw in snippets of Prince tunes.
Much like the old days, the concert mostly became the Greg Dulli Show. His coal-black, gravel-splattering voice sounded perfectly polished. He even walked through the crowd to the soundboard to add showy sass to "See and Don't See," a 1970 soul nugget by Marie "Queenie" Lyons.
However, McCollum made his talent known plenty of times for the hometown crowd.
"Here's why we have a lead guitarist," Dulli interjected as McCollum tore through "Crazy." Bassist John Curley and new drummer Cully Symington also figured heavily, applying the disco groove in "Going to Town" and subtly funking up other songs.
The final montage became the most breathless, with the regretful hit "Debonair" boiling over into the fiery epic "Fountain and Fairfax" before the simmering pre-encore finale "Faded."
For the encore showpiece "Miles Iz Ded," fans helped Dulli scream out the song's ominous hook, "Don't forget the alcohol" -- proof the Whigs' aging fans can still muster a little intensity, too.
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