The last time the Afghan Whigs played San Francisco, in 1998 at the Fillmore, the band was touring in support of its celebratory sixth album, 1965. On that early December night, the Cincinnati, Ohio-born outfit was firing on all cylinders, doing more than a little justice to one of music's most hallowed rooms with an exuberant rock 'n' soul party that nobody in the crowd wanted to end. That's why it was surprising that just a couple of years later, the band announced that it was hanging up its guitars.
"We were just scorched," says frontman Greg Dulli, who now splits his time between Los Angeles and New Orleans. "[Bassist] John [Curley] had a baby, [guitarist] Rick [McCollum] moved up to Minnesota, and I wanted to do different stuff than they did. We started working on what would be the next record, and we just couldn't agree on the direction. So we walked away."
It wasn't the first time that the Whigs had broken up: They weren't together when Sub Pop's Jonathan Poneman first asked them to record a single for the label back in the late '80s, and Dulli says they split again between 1990's Up in It and 1992's Congregation. But after spending 15 years fronting one of alt-rock's most explosive and intriguing acts — which specialized in an epic brand of driving rock topped with dark, insightful tales that explored a lot of sexually charged loathing, both internal and external — Dulli turned all of his attention to his already underway Twilight Singers project. Since 2000, he's released five studio albums with the Twilight Singers, one by himself, and one with Mark Lanegan as the Gutter Twins.
But followers of the Afghan Whigs never gave up on the idea of a reconciliation, which looked like it was coming to fruition when the band recorded two new songs, "I'm a Solider" and "Magazine" (the latter of which was dug up from the past), for 2007's Unbreakable (A Retrospective 1990-2006). That's as far as things went at the time, but hope was revived when Curley was spotted lending a hand to some of their old tunes at several dates on Dulli's 2010 solo tour. However, as recently as last year Dulli was assuring interviewers — who never missed a chance to ask when the band was getting back together — that he had no interest in rekindling the flame.
But everything changed when Dulli was invited by All Tomorrow's Parties founder Barry Hogan to play ATP's I'll Be Your Mirror events in London and New York this year. Rather than saying no to Hogan, as he'd done in the past, Dulli looked at his clear 2012 calendar and decided to throw the idea out to the other guys. Inspired in part by those gigs with Curley, they decided to give it a shot.
"Just after Thanksgiving last year, everybody flew down to New Orleans and we took a swing," says Dulli. "It sounded good, and we went to dinner and I said, 'Hey, do you want to play a couple shows next year?' I really didn't know that it was going to turn into 60 shows. But I was ready to go have a good time. And it has been."
Just based on the band's setlists since that first show in May, it's obvious that this isn't a group just going through the motions. Dulli figures he and the guys (which also includes drummer Cully Symington, guitarist Dave Rosser, and multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson) have played well over half of the Whigs' discography, and they continue to add new twists to a foundation of classics like Congregation's "I'm Her Slave," Gentlemen's "Debonair," Black Love's "Faded," and 1965's "66." And Dulli, whose past dalliances with drugs are well documented, is operating at full strength now that he's left the hard stuff behind.
"Last night we went super deep," says Dulli of the band's mid-October show at Antone's in Austin, Texas. "We whipped out 'Heaven on Their Minds' from Jesus Christ Superstar. And brought back [Congregation's] 'Conjure Me,' which we played in May and stopped playing. So it was cool to play that one again. Changing up the set, it keeps it fresh every night."
Though the band has been showing off one brand-new song, a dramatic and dreamy number called "Into the Floor," the only recorded material it's unveiled since the reunion are reworked versions of Marie "Queenie" Lyons' "See And Don't See" and Frank Ocean's "Lovecrimes." The Whigs are no strangers to the cover song ("I have to wish I wrote the song and then act like I did," says Dulli of how he chooses what he reconstructs), and the move appears to be a wise way of getting back into the studio without getting ahead of themselves. It seems that avoiding making any firm commitments in the future — Dulli says that the band doesn't have any plans after a New Year's Eve gig in Cincinnati — is yet another way the band is keeping things exciting for themselves.
One thing that Dulli is willing to confirm is that he plans to spend the early part of next year making an album with the Church's Steve Kilbey, who joined the Whigs this summer in Sydney for a cover of his band's "One Day." That's one of the songs, along with the Temptations' "Psychedelic Shack" and Led Zeppelin's "The Rover," that the fledgling Whigs — with Dulli on drums, no less — played at their inaugural jam session oh so many years ago.
"In a lot of ways, those three songs were kind of the building blocks of the Afghan Whigs," says Dulli. "The Church is the underdog [of those three bands], and we are forever underdogs and lovers of the underdog. I like Steve's solo records — I think he's an amazing songwriter."
But for now, Dulli is squarely focused on the celebration at hand.
"In a lot of ways, it's been entertaining for me as much as the audience," he says. "You stay away from something long enough, it becomes new again. We wanted to have a good time and play our songs. Mission accomplished."