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The Afghan Whigs

Beginning as a raw, garage-influenced rock band in the mold of the Replacements, Dinosaur Jr., and Mudhoney, the Afghan Whigs matured into a literate, moody, soul-inflected post-punk quartet who became one of the most critically acclaimed alternative bands of the 1990s. Singer, songwriter, and group leader Greg Dulli's songs were vivid stories of broken relationships and toxic masculinity accompanied by taut, R&B-influenced guitar rock, especially on 1992's Congregation and 1993's Gentlemen. The band upped the grooves while toning down the darker lyrical themes on 1998's 1965, their last LP before they disbanded in 2001. Dulli reunited the Whigs for live work in 2012, and with a rotating cast of accompanists, he took the group back to the studio for new projects, including the dark, densely arranged Do to the Beast (2014) and the more straightforward, guitar-based How Do You Burn? (2022). The Afghan Whigs were formed when the members -- vocalist/rhythm guitarist Greg Dulli, bassist John Curley, lead guitarist Rick McCollum, and drummer Steve Earle -- were attending the University of Cincinnati. Dulli, who was raised in Hamilton, Ohio, was studying film at the university, where he met fellow students McCollum and Earle. Unlike the rest of the band, Curley didn't attend the University of Cincinnati. He arrived in the city to intern as a photographer at The Cincinnati Enquirer, which his father -- who published USA Today -- arranged for him; for the next few years, Curley continued to shoot pictures for the paper, quitting only when the band's schedule became too busy for him to work both jobs. Dulli happened to meet Curley when visiting a friend's apartment building. Eventually, the pair formed the Afghan Whigs in 1986, along with McCollum and Earle. In 1988, the Afghan Whigs released their debut album, Big Top Halloween, on their independent record label, Ultrasuede. The set received good word-of-mouth in underground music publications and college radio. A copy of the album worked its way to the influential Seattle-based independent record label Sub Pop, and the label arranged for the Whigs to release a one-off single. That track led to a full-blown record contract with Sub Pop. Up in It, their first Sub Pop album, was released in 1990. For the next two years, the Afghan Whigs toured America consistently, occasionally heading over to Europe and England. In 1992, their third album, Congregation, was released to very positive reviews. After its release, the band was courted by a number of major labels. They issued one more record on Sub Pop -- an EP of soul and R&B covers called Uptown Avondale -- and signed to Elektra Records. Gentlemen, the group's major-label debut, was released to considerable critical acclaim in the fall of 1993. "Debonair," the first single pulled from the album, received major play from MTV, and all of the reviews were positive. Nevertheless, the band wasn't able to ascend past cult status and all the critical praise even engendered a backlash, most notably in the form of an anti-Whigs fanzine called Fat Greg Dulli. In the summer of 1994, the band released the What Jail Is Like EP to coincide with their American tour. Upon the completion of their international tour in the fall of 1994, the Whigs took an extended break. Steve Earle left the group in the spring of 1995; he was replaced by Paul Buchignani, just before the band entered the studio to record their fifth album. Black Love, the Whigs' second album for Elektra, was released in the spring of 1996. Again, the album received positive reviews, but the band failed to break out of their cult status. 1965, their first effort for new label Columbia, followed two years later. However, with the bandmembers living in different states, it would prove to be their last; in February 2001, the group called it quits, citing geographical separation. In 2006, the Afghan Whigs reunited for a brief recording session for the release of the best-of compilation Unbreakable: A Retrospective 1990-2006, which featured two newly recorded tracks: "I'm a Soldier" and "Magazine." With the members going their separate ways once again, the future of the Whigs was put on hold until 2011. In a surprise announcement from British festival organizers All Tomorrow's Parties, it was revealed that the band would headline ATP's I'll Be Your Mirror festival at London's Alexandra Palace in May 2012. Kicking off a world tour that would span 2012 and 2013, the original lineup -- minus drummer Steve Earle -- returned with gusto. At the beginning of 2014 the group members announced that they had recorded their first album in some 16 years and had returned to the label that had originally launched them, Sub Pop. Do to the Beast was slated for an April 2014 release, and featured a new lineup of the band. Greg Dulli and John Curley were the only original members to return for Do to the Beast, while their accompanists included guitarist Dave Rosser (the Twilight Singers, the Gutter Twins), multi-instrumentalist Mark McGuire (Emeralds), bassist Jon Skibic (Gigolo Aunts, the Twilight Singers), drummer Cully Symington (Okkervil River, Shearwater), and string player Rick Nelson (St. Vincent, Polyphonic Spree). A subsequent concert tour took the new Whigs to major venues in the United States and Europe, including a major spot at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival. In October 2014, the band capped off the year with a deluxe reissue of Gentlemen, expanded to a two-disc set with the addition of B-sides, unreleased demos, and live tracks. The year 2016 found the Afghan Whigs once again revisiting their back catalog with an expanded two-disc edition of Black Love, featuring outtakes and alternate mixes along with a remastered version of the original album. Greg Dulli announced that the Afghan Whigs would play two shows in conjunction with the Black Love reissue, one in New Orleans and the other in Los Angeles. Both shows were benefits for latter-day Whigs guitarist Dave Rosser, who had been diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer earlier in the year. Despite Rosser's health problems, he appeared on 2017's In Spades, a studio album Dulli described as "spooky," going on to say, "To me it's about memory -- in particular, how quickly life and memory can blur together." In Spades was released on May 5, 2017, and Dave Rosser died on June 28. The group toured North America and Europe from May to October of that year, after which Dulli put the band on hold. He guested on a pair of albums by his close friend and frequent collaborator Mark Lanegan -- 2019's Somebody's Knocking and 2020's Straight Songs of Sorrow -- and cut a solo album in 2020, Random Desire. In September 2020, Dulli began work on another Afghan Whigs album, and due to the lockdowns of COVID-19 pandemic, much of it was recorded remotely, with Dulli and drummer Patrick Keeler recording their parts in California, bassist John Curley doing his work in Cincinnati, guitarist Jon Skibic cutting his material in New Jersey, and Rick Nelson recording his string arrangements in New Orleans. Dulli also invited a number of artists to contribute guest vocals, including Tennessee-based singer and songwriter Susan Marshall, Ohio R&B vocalist Van Hunt, former Scrawl frontwoman Marcy Mays, and Mark Lanegan, whose contributions were among his very last recordings before his death on February 22, 2022. Dulli and producer Christopher Thorn assembled the various components into an LP, How Do You Burn?, which was issued by Dulli's Royal Cream label in September 2022.
© Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Mark Deming /TiVo


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