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Come See About Dulli: Deciphering the Afghan Whigs’ enduring appeal among fans and bands

 

It’s a question old as time itself: what makes an artist so appealing that that to some it borders on obsession? We’re not talking about the often chemically enhanced allure of, say, an overindulging-in-the-hippie-lettuce Phish follower or the recent upswing in EDM that has fans taking so much MDMA that body painting themselves into walking Easter eggs seems like a great idea. No, this is about the intangible attraction to a band that you get, your friends get, but so many other people have no goddamn clue about.

The Afghan Whigs, who come to Boston’s Royale tomorrow night in support of this year’s Do to the Beast, are the perfect example. A group of Cincinnati indie-rockers steeped in soul and fancy suits who somehow managed to end up being one of the first non-Pacific Northwest acts signed to Sub Pop Records back when it was a label that swaddled itself in flannel.

Dalliances with major labels that ended in disaster, a revolving drum stool that made Spinal Tap’s kit look stable, a 2001 breakup that cut short an incredibly prolific 14-year run… and those songs; the confident swagger of “Debonair,” the epic balladry of “Faded,” the how-the-fuck-did-it-not-become-a-hit “66,” and retooling tracks like the Supremes’ “Come See About Me” and TLC’s “Creep.” Reconvening in 2012, it’s given many a second chance for what they missed out on the first time around.

 

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The face of the Whigs, one Gregory Edward Dulli, is responsible for all of the above. Considered to be a sexist lothario by haters, an unflappable exalter of honesty by lovers, he’s got that “it” factor which some singers unsuccessfully try to manufacture for an entire career, that thing which appeals to both sexes.

“To be honest, I think men and women are looking for the same thing in a rock singer,” says Glenn di Benedetto, frontman for Boston’s Parlour Bells. “When it comes to male rock stars, there’s this dated assumption that men want to be them and women want to fuck them. I think we can all admit that’s a little shortsighted and misogynistic. We lock in both sexes by tapping into something universal, something human.”

 
 

Adds di Benedetto: “That’s what makes an artist resonate. Something we can all connect with, regardless of what’s between our legs. Although I secretly believe they all want to fuck me.”

The aforementioned style factor is something that not only caught di Benedetto’s eye, but also influenced him.

“The Afghan Whigs taught me the importance of looking sharp,” he says. “Sure, you can be a hot mess underneath it all, but dress that shit up. Incidentally, this was about when I started wearing suits a lot.”

And that’s just the tip.

 
 

“For me it’s an attitude thing,” adds David Mirabella, who fronts and plays guitar for another homegrown outfit, The Rationales. “There’s the classic soul thing meets the beautiful/slithering/abrasive guitars — the way they layer their guitars often sounds really unorthodox — sometimes almost bordering on atonal — but it comes together into something unique and beautiful.”

“And there is just a swagger and sense of place to Dulli’s songs and delivery. It just taps into something. Whether it’s blustery or sultry – you are always in the song with them.”

Greg Dulli: Still Debonair After All These Years
Greg Dulli: Still Debonair After All These Years

Seattle’s Danny Bland, who played in the Northwest’s Cat Butt and later the Dwarves, last year released the acclaimed book In Case We Die, which had an accompanying audiobook with chapters read by the likes of Duff McKagan, Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready and Dulli. It was with the latter that he expanded it into a partnership in I Apologize in Advance for the Awful Things I’m Gonna Do, a collection of haiku by Bland with photographs by Dulli and calligraphy from X co-founder Exene Cervenka.

“I wrote one of the haiku from the book driving home from a recent Whigs show in Seattle,” Bland tells Vanyaland. “The devil is here, in the morning we will all wake up with black eyes.”

 
 

“The Afghan Whigs are the modern day equivalent of the Rat Pack,” he continues, “Effortlessly cool and undeniably great at what they do. Dulli’s approach to the stage is otherworldly confident, a tad bit menacing and, above all, wholly inviting. For a couple hours you are part of it and know they’re going to put out.”

Bland’s summary of the Whigs’ live prowess corresponds with the spectacle at The Paradise back in May, when the band played a fiery set to packed house that still gets talked about and has conjured well-placed anticipation for tomorrow night.

And if you happen to be late to the party, fear not, as this year is turning out to be one bustling with activity. Late next month when the 1993 album Gentlemen, long considered the group’s masterpiece, gets the deluxe treatment as Gentlemen at 21. A tortured testament to a failing relationship with unflinching passion and directness, it’s also home to “Be Sweet,” with the infamous Dulli line, “Ladies, let me tell you about myself/ I got a dick for a brain, and my brain is gonna sell my ass to you.”

“There’s always been a strong undercurrent of Byronic Romanticism in the lyrics from Gentlemen,” opines di Benedetto. “Obviously, there’s no clearer evidence of this than the song “When We Two Parted” which is also the title of a Lord Byron poem. Notoriously excessive and sexually promiscuous, Byron was a little tortured. Sounds like the Lord had a “dick for a brain” as well. But literary references aside, Dulli has always presented something kind of refined and distinguished, bringing a high brow to the low brow of rock and roll.”

 
 

THE AFGHAN WHIGS + JOSEPH ARTHUR | Tuesday, September 30 @ Royale, 279 Tremont Street, Boston | 8pm, all-ages, $35 to $38 | advance tickets