The Afghan Whigs are one of the best live rock bands ever, period. And they’ve always had an interesting relationship with Philadelphia. From their epic 3+ hour shows that went deep into the night at the TLA in the 90s, through a period where they intentionally passed over the city (citing relationship issues with the venues), the connection with the fans here has never waned. An Afghan Whigs show is never predictable, from vocalist Greg Dulli’s banter, through the weaving of classic songs into Whigs hits and back again. Hundreds were present at the Union Transfer Tuesday night to hang on every word, and sing every lyric.
“These are end times, Philadelphia,” Dulli challenged the crowd, “it’s time to make some noise.” And make some noise they did. Pulling heavily from their magnificent new album In Spades and reaching all the way back to their 1990 debut Up In It, which helped usher in the grunge era, this was a set that showcased the history of one of our greatest rock acts. The opening salvo began with Dulli alone on the stage, crooning the In Spades opener “Birdland” in almost pure darkness before the band joined for a ferocious version of “Arabian Heights.”
The passing of guitarist Dave Rosser weighed heavy in places, but never so much as when Dulli introduced “Can Rova,” one of Rosser’s favorites. Scores of signs were raised by fans with bold ““Viva La Rosser” printed on them. Dulli mentioned that the band would never again be a six piece, implying that Rosser would always be present on their stage. He then wove lyrics from Jeff Buckey’s “Last Goodbye” into “Can Rova” as signs bobbed in the lights.
The remaining band members are tight as ever, with original member John Curley suave and sinuous as ever on bass, the tactical Jon Skibic on lead guitar, Rick Nelson on keys, percussion and horns and a thunderous Patrick Keeler on sticks. Sean Tillmann from opener Har Mar Superstar took over lead vocals on “Demon In Profile,” allowing Dulli to stay on piano and Skibic to shred the guitar parts. It was a highlight among many, which for me included a stripped down version of “Going to Town,” a scintillating version of “Debonair” and “Summer’s Kiss” in the encore.
The closing tsunami of “Faded,” a soaring anthem that has closed out Whigs shows since its release on Black Love in the mid-nineties, for me is the band’s trademark song — their “White Room” turned to 11 — and a cathartic exit for a band that somehow has managed to stay relevant for three decades now.
Opener Has Mar Superstar were frankly amazing with their campy mix of r&b, funk and Capitol Cities-style new wave. Sean Tillmann was mesmerizing as he crooned at the crowd, spun the mic as he pranced across the stage, and proceeded to take off his clothes as the set wore on.
Light as a Feather
Can Rova / Last Goodbye
What Jail Is Like
Going to Town (slight return)
Demon In Profile
John the Baptist
I Wanna Be Your Lover (Prince cover)
Amphetamines & Coffee
Into the Floor
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