by Jeff Nale (@jeffnale)
You’re at an Afghan Whigs show inside the beautifully renovated North Park Observatory, right in the middle of San Diego’s hipster epicenter. But you are not one of the hipsters. You’re forty-one. You do not blend in.
But come to think of it, you’ve never blended in too well, which is probably a big reason why you were attracted to the Afghan Whigs’ music—their manic covers, their darkness, their wailing soul—from the beginning. Once upon a time (1993 or so) you were lost, blue-eyed, and blue.
You’ve seen them perform plenty of times prior. The first time was electrifying, near life-changing. But then the years pile up as they do. There’s a breakup for them, and more than a few breakups for you. Then there is a reunion tour, and an album, and then another. The shows are full of anticipation, but in the end feel a little underwhelming. You stand up front and look down at your reflection in your phone and realize that you look a little underwhelming as well.
The stage inside the Observatory is beset with very little beyond the essentials, which is a far cry from the ornate accouterments of previous Afghan Whigs affairs, back when the band adorned their stage with tapestries, dry ice, or burning incense. Back when they recorded albums full of soulful songs about self-sabotage and pain and darkness, but all delivered with a wink.
Back in the 90s, when you subscribed to an Afghan Whigs email listserv—that’s an electronic mailing list, kids—the question “skinny Dulli or fat Dulli?” was a constant. Greg Dulli, the singer, songwriter, and all around creative center of the Afghan Whigs has stage presence and confidence ‘in spades’. Dulli doesn’t worry about blending in.
The insinuation, though, was that skinny Dulli was using, and fat Dulli was sober. This was never confirmed, but remained a wholly accepted hypothesis among your listserv/AOL friends. You’d even hung out with a few of these strangers prior to Dulli’s other shows. This was back in early aughts, after the Afghan Whigs had split, and the answer to the question regarding the singer’s weight was nearly always a surprise. But it never mattered to you, and it didn’t affect the music. It clearly never mattered to Dulli.
As fate would have it, it’s fat Dulli, or at least well-fed 53-year-old Dulli. You look past your soda water and realize you might be as well-fed as the singer, perhaps more so.
The band hardly pretends an audience is in attendance, and seems to avoid looking up from their instruments. Dulli smiles at us, though. He picks up a guitar and saunters to the microphone “Good evening,” he says, and that’s all he says. The wink is still there.
They get to the business at hand. First, “Arabian Heights” from last year’s In Spades,and then “Matomoros” from 2014’s Do to the Beast.
The band is good—really good—but it seems lost on this crowd. Before the third song Dulli assesses the gathered beards and boho dresses and looks down. These aren’t his fans. Most of these concert-goers are here to see the co-headliner Built to Spill. The idea of co-headliners still seems like an impossible idea to you.
Nevertheless, they launch into “Debonair” one of the jewels from their landmark album Gentlemen.
The song is equal parts Isaac Hayes, Johnny Marr, and Roger Daltrey, and is as sexy and lacerating as ever. It goes over pretty damn well, despite the poor mixing that refuses to render Jon Skibic’s guitar to a tolerable level. You sigh, and dutifully put in place your earplugs, fulfilling a promise you made to yourself and your spouse.
Later, Dulli points to a kid in the crowd and says something about it being his first concert. “My first concert was Ted Nugent,” he says, which makes you feel a little less old. Shortly after, they ease into “John the Baptist”, a lavish homage to late 70s soul.
You’ve been standing awhile so you retreat to the bar, where the bartender grants you more soda water. The band plays “Into the Floor” and you remember Los Angeles in December ’98 when you saw them the first time at a theater not terribly unlike this one, when you were younger. When everybody was younger.
The band is in full tilt when Dulli thanks the audience, more authentically than he might’ve in the past. He bids adieu and leaves you and everybody in the capable hands of the rest of the Afghan Whigs, who proceed to tear down the stage in coalescing noise before exiting themselves. They leave the stage bathed in blue light.
You depart, satisfied. Encouraged, even. Greg Dulli, skinny or fat, young or old, is always Greg Dulli, God bless him. Maybe he’s not the only staying true to himself all these years later. God bless us all.