I arrive at Manchester Cathedral tonight very much in the dark about Afghan Whigs.  I’m aware of their music only from older friends’ enthusiastic recommendations, who champion them as soul and blues infected hangers-on of the sub-pop generation, related to – but not of – the grunge movement,  and as a band who are effectively beyond categorisation.   I’m intrigued to see how a band, reputed to meld power-pop punk together with rust-belt Americana and classic soul, can channel these elements into a cohesive and relevant  sound:  and more importantly, how this will connect with a UK audience.

The demographic of the audience itself is also telling: Predominantly male, supplemented by a smattering of wives and girlfriends, they are even older than the normal 80-90’s sub-pop revivalists who regularly turn out to relive their thinner pasts.  I wonder if this is the legacy of being a genre challenging band, in that they appealed initially to a more mature, musically literate audience than the standard alt-rock band?  Certainly the T-Shirts on show in my immediate vicinity are diverse:  Turbo wolf,  Paramore,  Pearl Jam (3 off), Husker Du,  Rolling Stones , Lulu (alarmingly) and My Morning Jacket amongst them.

When Greg Dulli and his band take to the stage to the accompanying wailing of a sole violin, it quickly becomes apparent to me that this band is no bloated indulgence, trudging out tired stereotypes in the hope of a quick buck.  The sound is initially confusing to me:  Classic heavy rock underpinned with Eastern/gypsy melodies, a rhythm section that is complex in concept yet with a simplicity of delivery, and songs that veer from classic punk to country and western soundtrack in the space of a few bars.   Much of the set is from the new album Do To The Beast, and this material is strong, with stand-outs including the hip-hop stylings of ‘Matamoros’, and the fractured cascading menace of ‘Parked Outside’.  The overall impression musically is of a band who have the confidence to morph and transcend genres, and crucially who know how to mix their rock with their roll.

On an emotional front, the performance of Dulli is mesmeric.  He fully owns the stage, and has a great presence even from my afghan whigsvantage point by the mixing desk.   There is a general sense of his personal loss and disappointment in his songs, but my feeling is that he has not mellowed with age, rather become more focused and reflective, and his performance is all the more convincing for that.  You don’t need to know or hear the lyrics of the songs to grasp the sentiment, and that really defines Dulli’s performance for me.  When he exhorts us to “Dream your sins away, sin your dreams away” in ‘Algiers’, you feel he is at a point in life and knows what he wants to do.  In this religious setting, he is certain of his own failings, but is not asking for our judgement:  We are merely passing witnesses to the cathartic release of his inner demons.

That’s not to say this is a one-dimensional or introspective performance.  Through the 20 song set, his vocal style moves from screamer to soulman delivery, yet it never jars and always seems authentic, even when we are treated to a southern Baptist style reverie on ‘When We Two Parted’ or encore ‘God’s Children’.  Indeed this is my biggest surprise, that a singer and band can encompass so many styles of music and still be genuine, engaging and cohesive.  This contradiction is probably best summed up when Dulli confronts an aggressive audience member with the politely menacing words “Brother, I appreciate you coming out tonight, but start a fight and I will come down and finish it”:  That this takes place in the middle of a quite beautiful and moving version of ‘Across 110th Street’ is somehow telling, and I’m stunned by the sudden transition from de-facto laid back Soul-man to (potential) brawler.

Ultimately this is a strong set, delivered by a band completely in control, and with a real sense of doing what they want to do, in their own time.  Whether I warmed to Dulli on the night I’m not sure, but I appreciate his absoluterefusal to compromise and the feel of focus from his band.

I’m not sure I’d like to go for a drink with him, but I’ll be buying his records.

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