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For Afghan Whigs, a resurging campaign

’90s band front man Greg Dulli talks about new fans and the rising star R&B star he loves.

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com
The Afghan Whigs, led by Greg Dulli (center), have played a number of well-received shows since reuniting. Dulli says he’s been happy to see the band’s original fans from the ’90s as well as younger faces in the crowds.

If you were a fan of Afghan Whigs in the 1990s and devoted an unhealthy amount of time to their amazing hat trick of albums — “Congregation” (1992), “Gentlemen” (1993) and “Black Love” (1996) — it was entirely possible to believe frontman and songwriter Greg Dulli would not survive the Bill Clinton administration.

These are dark records, full of loathing, self-and otherwise, chronicles of a rake whose brain is perpetually flipping a coin between the sex and death drives and music that uses the tropes and structures of soul to create complicated rock music that could never quite find a mass audience.

And yet, Dulli survived. He and the Whigs made one final (cheerier, it should be said) album, “1965” (1998), then broke up. Various members went on to various projects. Dulli’s were the highest profile: His primary outfit, the Twilight Singers, released a number of strong records, and the Gutter Twins was his project with singer and songwriter Mark Lanegan.

Then last year Dulli and the other two key Whigs — bassist John Curley and guitarist Rick McCollum —announced they were getting back together and playing some shows, augmented by sometimes-Austin-based drummer Cully Symington, multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson and guitarist Dave Rosser. They play Friday at Zilker Park as part of the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

Like a lot of reunion gigs by ’90s bands, the shows have have been spectacularly well-received; the band’s ACL Fest aftershow seemed to sell out in minutes.

Naturally, the shows have been attended mostly by folks who remember the band the first time around. But Dulli is thrilled that there are plenty of young people in the crowd.

“It’s nice to see that the band is not just a generational thing,” Dulli said recently by phone.

The band has a good six albums and a handful of killer EPs to play around with and Dulli says they are going all over the place. “We are kind of winging it as we go,” he said. “We’ve been playing some deep tracks and people are keeping up with us.”

But one remains curious: Dulli wrote some of the darkest lyrics of his era. You might notice at first glance how closely intertwined the sex drive and death drive are here, but most of the Whigs music is a constant battle between the two. Are there songs that are just too grim to revisit?

“I’m aware of what is happening in some of those songs, and a lot of them still walk pretty close to the flame,” Dulli said. “But the guy who is singing them now is a lot older and wiser and a far healthier human being. I am also a far better singer than I used to be.”

But what get’s Dulli most excited is the band’s recently released cover of Frank Ocean’s “Lovecrimes,” which turns the avant-R&B tune into brilliant rock music. The Whigs were huge fans of well-chosen covers, and this is a doozy.

“I heard ‘Strawberry Swing’ at a party and was like, ‘who the (expletive) is that?,” Dulli said. “I love every song he’s done, With ‘Lovecrimes,’ I thought the ‘murder, murder, murder’ hook was phenomenal, I loved the episodic imagery. That guy is a monster talent.”

One wonders how this new, chiller Dulli would deal with the fellow who stared straight into the void on “Gentlemen” and “Black Love.”

“Uh, I’d stay the (expletive) out of his way, man,” Dulli said. “He was crazy.”

The Afghan Whigs play at 4:15 p.m. Friday on the AMD Stage, and a sold-out aftershow Saturday at Antone’s.