By Patrick Beach
Even with all the goblins about, the scariest place in Austin Friday night was inside of Greg Dulli’s head. Whether through experience or imagination, the Afghan Whigs’ frontman-singer-songwriter-guitarist writes harrowing and hard-rocking songs about toxic relationships, addiction and self-loathing. Perfect material for Halloween, the day we laugh at what terrifies us.
So the reconfigured Whigs, most but Dulli wearing masks, swaggered onto the stage and delivered a set that offered a generous taste of "Do to the Beast," their fairly terrific first new album in 16 (!) years as well as choice tracks from back when the alt rock-soul outfit seemed close to busting into the mainstream. Even the absence of Rick McCollum, one of the most distinctive guitarists of the ’90s, wasn’t terribly noteworthy. These guys were ferocious, dropping the first two tracks from "Beast," "Parked Outside" and Matamoros," before crushing "Fountain and Fairfax," in which a narrator with certain tenuous chemical issues asks someone named Angel to "come closer/So the stink of your lies/Sinks into my memory."
Cheerful, no? They also made room for "Turn on the Water," a tune from 1992’s "Congregation" that, read literally, is a plea for assisted suicide. The trick to making such heavy material a treat is in the tunefulness of the songwriting and the delivery, and that’s where the Whigs really bring it. Dulli’s got a serviceable baritone, he can reach for the falsetto and he can shriek. He’s also a mesmerizing bandleader. And despite the band’s proclivities to sharp-elbowed indie rock and R&B, he’s at heart a popster, as evidenced by "I Am Fire" turning into Fleetwood Mac’s "Tusk" and "Lost in the Woods" unmasked to reveal the Beatles’ "Getting Better." They also managed to make The Police’s "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" sound even creepier than "Every Breath You Take."
Near the end of the set they got to "Something Hot," a comparatively conventional song about red-blooded lust without dysfunction, and it felt redemptive, as if much of the preceding material was a psychic purge, perfect for the night we’re all allowed, even encouraged, to howl at the moon. If Dulli can keep his demons on a leash in the service of real, substantive art, here’s hoping he stays healthy and haunted.