The Afghan Whigs tame 'the Beast'

Cincinnati's finest return in prime form.


  • Piper Ferguson
  • THE RED ROOM: The resplendent Afghan Whigs.

"What's round on the ends and 'hi' in the middle?"

When Devo inserted that riddle into a live performance of the song "Jocko Homo," they were paying snarky homage to their home state of Ohio. From its geographical space as a midpoint of sorts between the cities of New York and Chicago, Ohio never developed an artistic cultural hegemony. As it turns out, this has worked out to its advantage. Rather than engaging with the prevailing trends, Ohio has historically produced outright outliers: Pere Ubu, Guided by Voices, Albert Ayler, and a great many others. Afghan Whigs fit nicely into that puzzle of idiosyncrasies.
As an unlikely merger between the tortured sounds of early alternative rock and the sleek sounds of soul music, the Afghan Whigs defied conventions while still gaining massive success.

Throughout the ‘90s, the band rode the wave of gnarly sound coming from the Sub Pop label to major label ascendance before breaking up in 2001. Following a grand slam reunion tour in 2012, the band has returned to Sub Pop for their first album in sixteen years, titled Do To The Beast.

When asked the biggest difference between the label now and the label then, singer/guitarist Greg Dulli is quick to reply with a laugh: "They know what they're doing now. I'm sure they would say the same thing. We're all the same age — they were learning how to run a business, just like we all were. Young and making mistakes and kind of trying to catch up with what was going on around them. They did a remarkable job, and they also went broke. They went broke in the middle of us making our second record for them. They went so broke that I got stranded in California; that's kind of, in a lot of ways, why I'm still here."

? ? ?
But before he could have a chance to be stranded in California, Dulli came of age in the Buckeye State. "I did," he responds when asked to confirm this fact, adding: "proudly so." Dulli has since called several other places home, currently splitting his time between Los Angeles and New Orleans. He's also been more than just an Afghan Whig: since the ‘90s-era soul-grunge group disbanded in 2001, he's written equally dark and sinewy songs as the leader of the Twilight Singers. He also partnered with former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan in the duo the Gutter Twins.

No matter what the vessel, Dulli's work has been rather consistent: a Midwestern take on the sort of darkness investigated by Nick Cave, often accompanied by atmosphere, muscle, or a combination of the two. While original guitarist Rick McCollum hasn't been a part of the reunion, Do To The Beast largely continues where the Whigs left off. In McCollum's place, a variety of artists of equal standing (in other words, vets) stepped in to contribute, including members of Queens of the Stone Age, Emeralds, and Squirrel Bait.

Dulli grew up in Hamilton, a suburb of Cincinnati. "The first shows that I ever saw were at the Ohio State Fair," he says. "When I first started going to concerts, I went to metal concerts, because that's really all that came through Ohio in the '70s and '80s. Going to see Judas Priest and Ted Nugent, stuff like that. By and large, a lot of the Midwest concert availability was metal. Which I loved, by the way."

The weirdos that Ohio is known for didn't have as much of a direct impact on Dulli as one might expect. Despite Pere Ubu's status as Cleveland's avant-garde rockers who just won't quit, David Thomas and company "weren't coming down to Cincinnati," says Dulli. "The Dead Boys weren't coming down either; that was kind of before my time anyway. By the time the Whigs started, Guided by Voices played very infrequently. They were more kind of a legend than a band."

Instead, by the time Dulli was in his late teens, two simultaneous threads of music were beginning to come together for him. "My senior year of high school, I got to see Prince," he says. "I saw Ohio Players … I saw Roger Troutman before he was in Zapp."

He began fostering a fondness for funk and soul, but shortly thereafter, he enrolled at the University of Cincinnati and started seeing shows at a place called the Jockey Club. "The Jockey Club was in Newport, Kentucky," located just across the Ohio River. "Back in the '40s, there was gambling down there, a lot of rum runners, bootleggers running through there. It was its own kind of cabaret scene. It was abandoned, taken over by this guy Shorty, and they started doing punk rock shows there."

It was at the Jockey Club that Dulli would see Husker Du, Black Flag, and Louisville's Squirrel Bait. The heady combination of punk rock, soul, early hard rock, and funk would go on to take its shape in Dulli's creative vision of the Afghan Whigs. Now, decades later, that unique breed of beast has returned. But it could have come only from Ohio.

The Afghan Whigs play Center Stage tonight (Fri., Sept. 19), with Joseph Arthur. $35. 9 p.m. 1374 W. Peachtree St. N.W., 404-855-1365 www.centerstage-atlanta.com.

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