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Whiggin' Out

Avant-rock takes shape in the Afghan Whigs and its wild front man

Afghan Whigs lead singer Greg Dulli was standing, pissing into an empty Jim Beam bottle in the men's room of a club in the band's Cincinnati hometown and made some mention of how he was going to get somebody to drink it. He must not have gotten any takers because, by the end of the night, the container hadn't moved from its place on top of a video game in the back of the building. No deposit. Only a refill.

These kinds of rock and roll exploits have made the Whigs front man revered and hated, depending on whose opinion you hear. Since the band's beginning over a decade ago, Dulli has grown into its centerpiece a la Jim Morrison. Prone to taking cigarette breaks on stage and taunting audiences, Dulli can be alternately amusing and acerbic. This element of his personality, according to bassist John Curley, was not to blame for an altercation with Austin's Liberty Lunch after the band's performance there in December 1998. Published reports from Austin suggest that Dulli attacked a bouncer with a two-by-four before falling and hitting his head on a cement staircase. Whatever the cause, Dulli spent three days in intensive care with a head injury. Dulli isn't talking about the circumstances, and the band has filed a suit against the club while a grand jury investigates.

"When you have a reputation, for whatever reason, like that, and something does happen to you, people are a lot less willing to give you the benefit of the doubt," says Curley. "Nobody was asking for that. An ass-whipping that you deserve is one thing; getting whacked in the back of the head with a piece of wood or something, that's just fucked up. And if those guys had wanted any kind of fair confrontation, they could have had one."

Like its front man, Afghan Whigs itself also gets hot-and-cold reception. Always a critical favorite and a stunning live band, the group (with Rick McCollum on guitar and Michael Horrigan on drums) has never been able to generate large sales. While the Whigs's popularity has been increasing, circumstances and missteps are forcing it now to either put out or get out.

Expectations were that the band's October 1998 release, 1965, on Columbia, its third label, would be its largest-selling album to date. It was not. It merely carried on the great-but-won't-sell tradition. A self-released album called Big Top Halloween (Ultrasuede), which is now a collector's item, made the Whigs in 1988 the first non-Seattle band signed to the marquee grunge label Sub Pop. A minor achievement, but notable still. And for that imprint the band released a pair of albums, Up In It and Congregation, as well as the first hint that the Whigs had reverence for old-school R&B, a record called Uptown Avondale, an EP of soul covers. The promise of the brass ring brought the band to Elektra, and its first release, 1993's Gentlemen, was widely hailed by critics. But Top 10 lists don't guarantee sales. Still, the band was in a place to capitalize on its critical success and possibly break through to a larger audience in 1996 with Black Love. Unfortunately, the addition of strings and grandiose songs neither caught record buyers' eyes nor improved the relationship between the band and its label. Elektra and the band consequently parted, leaving Dulli to finance the recording of 1965 before the move to Columbia.

For the Whigs's part, the band has toned down the theatrics and has tried to deliver an album that is less flamboyant and easier for mainstream fans to swallow -- 1965 is the least conceptual of its recent records.

"At a certain point," says Dulli, "you get to a point to what is known in the industry as 'preaching to the converted.' We've developed ourselves; this is as far as we've been able to take it. Hopefully Columbia, with their infinite muscle, can push the door open a little bit further; maybe we can take it a little bit further this time. The bottom line is, the state of radio these days is the worst I've ever heard it. If we don't end up getting played on the radio, we don't get played on MTV. And if you don't get played on either of those, you don't go gold -- unless you're Korn."

The Whigs is trying to beat Dulli's own assessment, opening for rock vets Aerosmith this tour at the behest of the headliners. "Hopefully there are some Aerosmith fans that maybe wouldn't otherwise hear of us that might like what we're doing," says Dulli. "We all kind of grew up listening to the legendary stuff, so I'm sure they play a fair amount of that. Those people that like them might like our band. Unfortunately, a lot of people that only listen to stuff that's on the radio have pretty closed minds and they can't really accept stuff that's not on the radio all the time. I don't think we're ever going to get through to those people until we get played on the radio. I think of Aerosmith fans of the kind that I feel like I am. There are some folks that will like what we're doing. Clearly a couple of people in Aerosmith do, and that in itself is pretty cool."

What Aerosmith must dig is the soulful incarnation the Whigs has evolved into with 1965. Perhaps it was the New Orleans recording location, but the addition of horns, P-Funk keyboards and female backup singers moves the band further from the Sub Pop sound and closer to the upbeat sensuality of mid-'70s Motown combined with guitar rock. The record opens with the sound of a match striking and Dulli's voice confessing on "Something Hot" that his desire is so strong he'll "never walk the same." It's a clue of what's ahead. In the past the group has offered paeans to the downside of bad love, but this is a record about the night before it all goes to shit. This is a record about trying to get laid. On "John the Baptist," Dulli uses wine and Marvin Gaye to charm a lover before offering up himself, quoting the soul legend with, "Let's get it on!" And the band hangs on for the ride while hoping to make a love connection. "[This is] definitely our most rock record since Up In It," says Dulli.

Proud of his fascination with hip-hop and R&B, Dulli quotes Puff Daddy, Mase, Nas, the Temptations and Marvin Gaye on record and in concert. The playful mood of the album is reflected in Dulli's asking, "Who's hot, who's not?" parroting rapper Mase's question from Puff Daddy's "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems." "The Mase thing was more of a funny kind of thing," says Dulli. "The Nas thing, I'm blown away by that kid. I think he's a Bob Dylan-caliber writer. He's the best lyricist I've seen since Chuck D's heyday. It's so far past what Master P is doing. Master P is just down there picking quarters out from underneath couch cushions."

Though the band has long been mixing elements of soul into the mix, the Whigs's 1965 is more fully realized than the hit-and-miss stabs at soul the group has offered in the past. A raucous version of Barry White's "Can't Get Enough of Your Love," which landed on the soundtrack to the 1997 film Beautiful Girls, showed that Dulli wasn't as smooth as White and that the band couldn't carry off the smoldering desire. The white White version was too fast, too loose, like a garage band screwing around. A more convincing cover was the Whigs's take on TLC's "Creep." Instead of sounding like the defiant, booty-on-the-side Atlanta ladies, Dulli and the boys come off as reluctant cocksmen, downplaying the sleaziness and adding hints of regret. McCollum pinches the stuttering melody on his six-string, and Curley throws a mess of freak-me keyboards on top, while Dulli moans through the lyrics. The highlights come when Dulli doesn't try so hard to do everything by himself. Letting instruments such as the piano and cello build the sexual tension while the bass sets up the groove, Dulli relies on his laid-back singing and intensity to bolster the sexuality.

See, when he wants to, Dulli can be mature.

Afghan Whigs performs Tuesday, April 27, at 7:30 p.m., opening up for Aerosmith, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands. Tickets are $25 to $65. Call (713)629-3700 for more info.

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