The part of the show you paid for is over,” announced singer Greg Dulli a couple blistering hours into what would be the Afghan Whigs’ last Philly show, circa fall 1998. “This part is called lagniappe.”
The custom of lagniappe is rooted in Dulli’s adopted New Orleans hometown, where giving the customer an extra special something for free is part and parcel of French Louisiana culture. And this something proved extra special indeed, as Dulli and his bandmates continued to tear through the Whigs’ soul-punk catalog till none of us could stand any longer.
At least that’s how I remember it. Dulli remembers that tour differently. Namely, the drugs.
“That last tour was a very Rolling Stones Exile on Main St. vibe,” he says on the phone from Los Angeles. “Sometimes, it worked. Sometimes, it was the right atmosphere for the situation. And sometimes, I felt like I talked too much, and everything I said was infinitely interesting to me, but perhaps not so much to other people.”
He doesn’t play shows high anymore, which makes this fall’s highly anticipated Afghan Whigs reunion—with bassist John Curley and guitarist Rick McCollum—a unique opportunity for a second act in a field that offers few of those. Something unexpected, something extra— lagniappe, perhaps.
“I feel kind of present and in the moment when I play live now, and that was not the case on the last Whigs tour,” he says. “Some of those shows just got sloppy, and I feel like I’m honoring the material and showing it the love that I probably didn’t at the end there.”
Irrespective of the conflicting memories of the Whigs’ tour behind 1965 —their final album, a soul-drenched magnum opus that bled baby-making rock and expertly blended ’90s alt rage with a ’60s Motown heart—a reunion tour was never inevitable. After the band members parted ways more than a decade ago, Dulli went on to release progressively darker albums under monikers including the Twilight Singers (a loose amalgamation of the lead singer and his sidemen of choice) and the Gutter Twins (with Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan). Whigs songs rarely, if ever, surfaced in setlists, and the Twilight Singers and the Gutter Twins developed fan bases of their own.
Then, two years ago, Dulli tried out a small acoustic tour, including a wild night at Johnny Brenda’s, and deeper Whigs cuts suddenly found their way back. It had finally been long enough that a reunion was not such a wacky idea after all.
“That was not a farewell tour back then,” he says of the 1965 tour. “The last show we played, we didn’t know that it was the last show. And I think that’s for the best.”
Now that they’re finding their rhythm again, the band has been able to reach into their back catalog and, after dusting off the bones, find gems they didn’t necessarily even know were there.
“It’s been cool to reinvent a couple of these songs without doing some sort of 2012 makeover,” Dulli says. “These are good songs. A couple of ’em needed editing for punch factor—for me. But with the editing, it’s very exciting. It’s almost like a new song.”
“Son of the South,” for example, was a track from 1990’s Sub Pop-released Up in It. The band came back to it after reuniting, but something wasn’t working quite right.
“It had a really long intro, and halfway through the intro, I was like, looking for someplace to go lie down,” says Dulli. “And I’m like, ‘What if I cut these eight bars off and cut to the piston action?’ And as soon as I cut to the piston action, I look forward to playing that song every night.”
Reviews from the first leg of the tour have the Whigs as tight as ever, with them giving equal time to the punkier early-’90s tracks and the latter-period soul rockers. They’re even improvising their way into new songs, much as they did in their heyday.
“A lot of the Gentlemen songs got written onstage,” Dulli recounts of the album considered by many literati to be the band’s masterwork. “I’ve gone back and heard tapes of early versions of songs that were on Gentlemen with gibberish for lyrics. That’s happened a few times on this tour.”
He used to think that was the drugs playing. Now, he says, it’s something different.
“I would tend to kind of keep riffing at the end of something, especially if I was altered, and I’ve noticed that maybe it wasn’t the altered factor because I’m not altered now, and I still do it,” he says. “I think it’s just kind of an inherent instinct to see where else the car can drive. Maybe I get in the driveway and decide to go through the fence and around the backyard a couple times to eat donuts.”
Altered or not, plenty of older Afghan Whigs fans—and newer Twilight Singers and Gutter Twins fans—are as curious as ever to see where that car will go.
Thurs., Sept. 27, 8:30pm. $34.50-$45. With School of Seven Bells. Electric Factory, 421 N. Seventh St. electricfactory.info
Top 10 shows around Philly this week