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The Afghan Whigs

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The recent reformation of THE AFGHAN WHIGS proves a simple story, really. It was not precipitated by financial urgency, a need to cash in on some recent cover smash, or a made-for-TV movie deal;...

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The recent reformation of THE AFGHAN WHIGS proves a simple story, really. It was not precipitated by financial urgency, a need to cash in on some recent cover smash, or a made-for-TV movie deal; instead, it's all about three musicians who want to hit the stage together again. While every band reunion carries its share of nostalgic currency, an Afghan Whigs concert tour in 2012 - neatly timed to hit 25 years after their first live show in 1987 - promises to be a most unpredictable and contemporary experience. Then again, those were always the Whigs' defining qualities, along with a reputation as one of rock's most cathartic, powerful concert outfits. "I'd been asked about a reunion so many times over the years, and I kept saying no," says GREG DULLI, Afghan Whigs' frontman and chief songwriter. "I finally had to ask myself, 'Well, why not?'"

The actual impetus to regroup occurred in 2010 during Dulli's first-ever solo tour - a rare hiatus from his ongoing gig as leader of his acclaimed post-Whigs outfit, THE TWILIGHT SINGERS. He had asked Whigs bassist JOHN CURLEY to join him on stage at a couple shows, and then Curley stayed on for a few more; soon after, audiences found themselves treated to performances of beloved Whigs' classics like "Step Into The Light" (off the band's 1996 noir masterpiece Black Love) for the first time in well over a decade. "I had a great time playing with John, and just hanging out," says Dulli. "More and more Whigs songs were finding their way into the set list. I hadn't sang those songs for years, but they felt fresh and alive in ways I couldn't have predicted."

Following a similar bonding experience with Whigs' guitarist RICK MCCOLLUM during a day off of the Twilight Singers' 2011 spring tour, the desire to bring the original trio back to the stage was now sown in Dulli's mind - and, simultaneously, with the other two primary members. "Greg's enthusiasm definitely rubbed off," says Curley, who currently owns and operates Ultrasuede Studio in the Whigs' hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. "I didn't need a whole lot of convincing, though, after the recent shows we'd played together. We all came to the conclusion that getting the Whigs back together would be a lot of fun, for no other reason than because we wanted to." In November 2011, the three convened for several days in New Orleans; after the first night of rehearsal, however, it was clear that old black magic remained strong as ever. "We could've played a show that night," Dulli notes.

Formed in Cincinnati in 1986 by the core trio of Curley, Dulli, and McCollum, The Afghan Whigs began with an almost preternatural chemistry. The group's combination of sheer volume, audacious personality, gritty soul immediacy, and swinging musical chops proved auspiciously rare in that moment of American indie culture, propelling them to the top tier of Cincinnati's music scene almost immediately. Mining urgent desire and will power, the Whigs started to venture outside their Midwest confines on a series of shoestring tours, eventually catching the attention of a small, fledgling label out of Seattle called Sub Pop. Sub Pop signed the Whigs in 1989, releasing the band's debut album, Up In It, one year later. Up In It provided the first addition to Sub Pop's roster from outside the label's Pacific Northwest's stronghold - not just geographically, but sonically: while certainly kindred spirits with the burgeoning grunge scene, the Whigs positioned themselves early on as a band that wasn't going to jump on anyone's bandwagon.

That outsider status didn't stop them from becoming a crucial cog in the '90s legendary alternative-rock juggernaut, however. Indeed, The Afghan Whigs won over fans town by town with their idiosyncratic fervor. In pre-Internet days, the Whigs got attention via a wily cocktail of hard graft and raw talent: hanging flyers in record stores, playing incessant shows, doing fanzine interviews, garnering college-radio airplay - but above all, connecting with a passionate cult of admirers who found something compelling in the band's dark psychosexual force. The 1992 release of their second full-length Sub Pop album, Congregation, however, provided the first real glimpse of the potential behind the Whigs' bleeding ambition. Songs like the swirling rocker "Conjure Me" and the sinister anthem "Turn on the Water" proved serious indie hits, their videos even garnering airplay on MTV; a cover of "The Temple" from Jesus Christ Superstar, meanwhile, underscored Dulli's winking messianic tendencies. Even more so, this evolution of the band demonstrated Dulli's undeniable growth into one of the most distinctive songwriters of his generation: "I'm gonna turn on you, before you turn on me" goes the double entendre powering the chorus of "Conjure Me," displaying the slithering wordplay and obsessions with power relationships, self-loathing, and self-love that grew into vivid trademarks of his anti-hero persona. The Uptown Avondale EP would follow that same year, belying a new, evocative direction for the band: Dulli's lifelong embrace of soul music crept even deeper into the Whigs' sound, evidenced by moody, haunting covers of R&B classics like Freda Payne's "Band of Gold," Al Green's "Beware," and "Come See About Me," the Holland/Dozier/Holland smash immortalized by The Supremes

The underground couldn't contain The Whigs' growing stature, however. In the wake of a contract with Elektra Records, the band released its first major-label effort, Gentlemen, in 1993. A deeply personal opus exploring the brutal rise and fall of a doomed love affair, Gentlemen would prove to be the band's critical breakthrough, appearing on numerous year-end "best of" lists. Rolling Stone praised Gentlemen as a "corrosive yet very soulful master-work"; elsewhere, famed critic Michael Azerrad called the album "a grow-on-you record populated by troubled characters, given life by Dulli's passionate vocals," while Trouser Press proclaimed it "an album that threatens to give pomposity a good name." Since its release, Gentlemen has grown to be considered one of the greatest albums of its era: SPIN placed it among its "Top 100 Albums from 1985-2005," while Alternative Press ranked it #14 on its "Greatest Albums of the '90s."

The impact of Gentlemen opened many doors: alt-rock hits like "Debonair" and the title track spawned world tours and bigger venues, and increased MTV airplay and network television appearances ensued. More opportunities ultimately led to more temptations, however. Personal and professional pressures weighed heavily on Dulli in the wake of Gentlemen's triumph, and The Afghan Whigs' challenging next album, 1996's Black Love, mirrored these conflicts. Considered the band's supreme achievement by many hardcore Whigs fans, Black Love explored shadowy personal politics unflinchingly, made even more poignant by a strange, muted soul vibe throughout. There was certainly nothing quite like it anywhere then, nor since, which proved both a blessing and a curse. The lack of an obvious radio single meant that Elektra's attentions began to wander; this resulted in the Whigs leaving the label and commencing a long hiatus before resurfacing in 1998 on Columbia with its sixth album, 1965 - not coincidentally the year of Dulli's birth. Decidedly more upbeat, the songs on 1965 proved lighter and funkier, subversively packaging the now-patented sexual tension and inner turmoil that had drawn so many people to the band in the first place inside hooks and groove. "Afghan Whigs' leader Greg Dulli remains a black-music ironist bar none," Entertainment Weekly raved, giving the album an "A" grade. "Merging cool-fire post-grunge into Puff Daddy quotes and symphonic blaxploitation sweep, he creates maximum pre-millennium tension in 1965. Yet he's also one of rock's finest lyricists: His noir vignettes read like a Jim Thompson novel, their erotic narratives expertly skewering the male psyche..."

1965 would prove to be the band's final album together, with Curley, Dulli, and McCollum parting ways amicably soon after the album's release. McCollum moved from Cincinnati to Minneapolis, where he continued to make music with his band MOONMAAN, among other projects; Curley stayed in Cincinnati to raise a family and operate his successful Ultrasuede recording studio, remaining a force in the local music scene. Dulli, meanwhile, quickly started his next musical project, the long-running collective known as The Twilight Singers, releasing its debut Twilight as Played by The Twilight Singers in 2000. By 2011, the Twilight Singers had released its fifth full-length album, the acclaimed Dynamite Steps; in 2008, Dulli also put out Saturnalia by The Gutter Twins, his successful, years-in-gestation collaboration with longtime associate Mark Lanegan.

Despite these efforts, the Afghan Whigs story remained somewhat open ended. The core three members remained friends and stayed in touch, and in 2006 briefly reunited to record two new songs for Rhino Records' Afghan Whigs career retrospective Unbreakable. That action stoked renewed hope for further activity, which went unfounded until recently: in December 2011, the band announced that it would be appearing at All Tomorrow's Parties' renowned I'll Be Your Mirror festival on May 25-27, 2012 in London, England. As well, Dulli will serve as the curator, and the Whigs the headliner, for ATP's stateside edition on September 22nd, 2012 in Asbury Park, New Jersey; further dates continue to be announced, including major summer-festival headlining spots at Spain's Primavera, among others. Drummer Cully Symington (Okkervil River, Gutter Twins) and multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson (Polyphonic Spree, Twilight Singers) will join Curley, Dulli, and McCollum for all shows, which will feature songs from the entire span of the Afghan Whigs repertoire, along with a few new surprises and songs never before played live.

These developments provided both surprise and relief for the group's members. "The pressure is really nonexistent, because we're playing songs that we've already completed - that we already know," Dulli says. "Those songs still resonate with me; in fact, they have always resonated with me. I imagine there will be people who never saw the band before, too, and that's exciting." "It will be nice to experience the Whigs again as a grown-up," jokes Curley. "In my mind, the Whigs were a live band above anything else. Playing shows always was our favorite part about being in the band, and the times when we felt the most freedom and release. I missed playing at that level; I missed playing the songs that we wrote, that meant so much to people - and to us."