[Editor’s Note: Since the publishing of this review, Hear Nebraska has been digitally approached by attendees who said Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli left the stage near the set’s end to break up a skirmish in the crowd, not accost a phone user. That version of events is corroborated by this review from Omaha World Herald’s Kevin Coffey.]
Greg Dulli made his expectations clear from the instant he took the stage. Anchored by the frontman’s fearless stage presence, The Afghan Whigs were going to play deftly, loudly, and theatrically.
And, preferably, without cameras in their faces.
The front door and ticket booth at The Waiting Room, where the indie rock forerunners would play to their first-ever Omaha crowd, was plastered with signs imploring fans to experience the show with their own senses, not through iPhone lenses.
This request was roundly ignored as flashes peppered the stage from the outset of the band’s first number. Dulli had just roared the first few bars of the searing “Parked Outside” before having to reiterate their request mid-song, even taunting, “Be good enough to not need it.” Indeed, no one wants to play to a half-attentive crowd, but such a request was especially unsurprising coming from a musician who rose to prominence before phones even had cameras.
Following a sixteen year hiatus – with a brief reunion in 2012 – The Afghan Whigs came to Omaha Wednesday in support of Do The Beast, their first recording since 1998. While the new album rocks quite a bit harder than its predecessors, it is also clearly informed by them. Do the Beast features Dulli’s signature dark lyrical themes of loneliness, desire, obsession, and heartbreak draped over grungy guitars and accented by undercurrents of R&B and soul rhythms. Like earlier Afghan Whigs records, to call it indie rock is, perhaps, only to recognize that its hard to define.
The band ripped through the first two songs of Do the Beast to start the set, and would play at length from their new effort throughout the night. Those who came to the show looking for old favorites were not disappointed, however, as the band traversed its catalogue all the way back to 1993’s Gentlemen. The room dripped with mood from the very beginning, as smoke machines pumped clouds from the back of the stage, shrouding the black-attired band in smog and purple light.
If there was tension between performer and audience early, it was soon alleviated by Dulli himself. Near the end of the mournful ballad “When We Two Parted,” he looked up, shook his head, and smiled before belting the final chorus. The crowd erupted as the band immediately transitioned into “John the Baptist”, a punky, funk-laden number from “1965” that spawned the night’s first sing-along. “Anything for a lover/anything for a friend,” the crowd shouted in unison with Dulli.
That moment ignited an energetic run of new songs “Algiers” and “Royal Cream,” during which Dulli pounded a floor tom as the lights shifted violently from mood-setting to seizure-inducing, marking the high point in the set. Dulli seemed to relax, gesticulating and grooving across the stage. That Afghan Whigs paraded much of its old material meant that myriad influences were present, from the haunting keys and electricity in “The Lottery” to the very ‘90s alt-rock, guitar-solo-punctuated “Gentlemen.”
As the main set drew to a close, Dulli leapt from the stage to excoriate a straggling would-be photographer still snapping photos of the performance. With four songs still visible on the setlist, the band cut to their closer, a rendition of “These Sticks” that dissipated into the chorus of the Beatles’ “Getting Better.” Though it’s unclear that the band’s early exit was a direct reaction to the stray camera, the latter appeared to prompt the former. Dulli returned swiftly, accompanied only by the band’s cellist, for a gentle encore intro. An all-Black Love encore ended mightily with the Family Stone-infused “Blame, Etc.”
The evening could be summed up by its final moments. Dulli offered parting words, “Have a beautiful night, a beautiful year, a beautiful life,” shrugged, and waved goodnight, the remaining tension sliced by the cheering of the crowd. The Afghan Whigs set an explicit tone early and never wavered. Both musically and procedurally, they delivered with gusto.