CMJ Day One: Greg Dulli Seethes, Thrills, And Banters Hilariously At Bowery Ballroom
Better than: Leaving the lights on.
"Could we bring the lights down a little bit, please?" asked Greg Dulli after the first song of his Bowery Ballroom set on Tuesday night. And immediately after that request, an explanation: "Everybody looks prettier in the dark."
And Dulli should know. As frontman for the chronically tormented Afghan Whigs and the wiser but no less achy Twilight Singers, he's constantly played with notions of dark and light, with the divide between the good kind of pain and the bad. His voice is a soulful rasp that can spit out invective as easily as it can seduce a lover into believing his lies, and its ascent into a strangled yawp can double as a warning to run for cover; the music he's made throughout his career straddles the gap between early Amerindie's spitfire and soul's hip-thrusting.
Tuesday night's Bowery show was officially on the CMJ docket, although it was far removed from the kingmaking going on elsewhere. Instead, the concert (part of a brief solo tour that stretches into next month) was more like a homecoming: Audience members shouted out requests that reached all the way back to the Whigs' 20-year-old album Up in It during even the briefest lulls, and treated each not-brand-new song as if it was a long-buried treasure unearthed just for the occasion.
But this was no nostalgia act -- Dulli's been working on a new Twilight Singers record, and he previewed three songs last night. And oh, they were good. On the militaristic "Gunshots," his strangled wail seemed to be directly reacting against the closing in of the song's deliberate beat; "Never Seen No Devil," which closed out the main set, incorporated a fragment of the Whigs' bad-trip classic "Miles Iz Ded" in such a way that it added just the right type of menace.
The band was pretty bare-bones -- just a string player (Rick Nelson, on fire the entire night), a guitarist (Dave Rosser), and a drummer (Greg Wieczorec). But they flooded the room. The stretched-out ode to duplicity "Let Me Lie to You" had an absolutely stunning guitar solo that Dulli referred to as "the big 'Comfortably Numb' moment of the song"; Nelson's string parts brought new gravitas, and homages to John Coltrane, the Who, Prince, and Ronnie James Dio were incorporated into Dulli's own songs.
One thing that's often forgotten by those focusing on either the sexiness or the pain of Dulli's music is just how funny the man is; if any enterprising music-awards show wants to start doling out Banter of the Year trophies, I'd like to nominate last night's performance. Between songs, he riffed on what went on behind Daft Punk's helmets ("I was convinced they were up there just checking their email in front of 40,000 people, checking their bank balances, texting each other, 'Can you believe how much money we're making?' "), the Yankees ("I don't give a fuck about the Yankees -- that's why I'd like to dedicate the rest of this show to Cliff Lee"), and himself ("I'm back like a motherfucker... it would have been best to have a fast song after saying that"). (He also asked for the lights to be brought down, again.)
The people in attendance ate it up, and even got into the traditional audience-participation game late in the show: "Hands up," Dulli instructed during the encore, as the band twitched its way through José González's "Down the Line." The crowd was tenative about it at first (the awkward-slacker influence lives!), but by the time he requested those raised hands to engage in some double-time clapping, people were more than happy to accommodate.
The night closed out with "The Twilite Kid," the gently rolling track that opened the Twilight Singers' debut. "That was really fun," he said as the song drew to a close. "Thank you. We'll be back with the rock 'n' roll band next year." And the band left the stage, the lights went up, and the audience squinted as they tried to adjust their fields of vision.
Critical bias: In the seemingly long wait between the end of Craig Wedren's gorgeously hazy set and Dulli arriving onstage, two bleary-eyed friends told me quite sincerely that my utter state of excitement over what was about to transpire onstage was helping them stay on their feet.
Overheard: "Wait, shouldn't there be more people defending the Yankees in here? What the fuck?"
Random notebook dump: Apologies to the man in the blue-and-white-striped button-down next to me who seemed to spend a lot of the show worrying about my pen somehow getting a mind of its own and blotting ink all over his shirt. I swear I can retain control of my implements even in my most rapturous moments!
The Lure Would Prove Too Much
The Blackbird and the Fox
66 / Little Red Corvette
A Love Supreme / Please Stay (Once You Go Away)
Let Me Lie To You
Step Into The Light
If I Were Going
Follow You Down
Never Seen No Devil / Miles Iz Ded
Candy Cane Crawl
Down The Line
Teenage Wristband / Pinball Wizard
The Twilite Kid