Taking place as it does a few days after the Manchester attack (not to mention a few days before the Borough market horrors, but we don’t know that yet), the Afghan Whigs London gig does come with a certain trepidation. Happily though, the crowd is undeterred and KOKO ends up filled to the brim. My friends are in the band’s fan club, so we get there early and camp in front of the stage, just in time for getting drinks, checking out the merch and catching Ed Harcourt.
I like Harcourt’s work a lot, but I was wondering whether his opening slot might be a bit too subtle and subdued for a rock ‘n’ roll show. Boy, was I wrong on that one. Affecting a classic singer- songwriter pose at the front of the stage, what strikes you first is how gorgeous the songs are. I used to listen to his debut album a lot but haven’t kept up with his recent stuff. Furnaces, the title song from his most recent album is a showstopper- and while the whole his whole deal could easily have come off as a “woe is me” pose, his stage presence keeps things unpredictable. An accomplished multi- instrumentalist, he clutters around the stage picking up guitars, recording loops, sitting down on the piano, before putting on Vegas Elvis sunglasses, jumping at the edge of the stage and going on a full- on lounge lizard parody. It’s brilliant.
I never had the chance to see the Afghan Whigs live back in the day, but the feeling that we are watching a group at the height of their powers takes only seconds to sink in. After attending a number of extreme metal gigs lately, it is a nice palate- cleanser to see a band that understands syncopation. To put it another way, they are tight and slinky- and the girls and boys in the crowd react accordingly. They also rock harder on stage, which I do appreciate a lot. The setlist is a mix of all their eras and features several songs from their latest incarnation, but they all blend in naturally. In general, I prefer their looser funk and soul obsessions (as opposed to their tortured indie leanings) and they deliver with Matamoros (slithery violin lick and all), Something Hot and Demon in Profile.
The mood turns somber for the darker stuff, but while the sexual politics in songs like Gentlemen and Debonair could come across as less than endearing, Dulli comes across as a warm, humorous presence. He good-naturedly takes the piss of an audience member who keeps using the flash to take pictures, banters with the crowd and pays tribute to absent comrade Dave Rosser, who is battling illness.
I’ve always loved their covers, so it’s thrilling to see them plays a passage from Penny Lane– although sadly, I Am Fire comes straight, without the chaser of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. After a while, I start wondering around KOKO, taking in the baroque curlicues of the surroundings (an old 1900 theatre, it is my favourite London venue). At some point I grab a whiskey from the chandeliered bar and come out to the balcony for a cigarette, while It Kills wafts from the stage. II end up at the top floor for the encore, to see Harcourt joining the band on stage. They blend George Michael’s I Can’t Make You Love Me with Faded in an epic finale, while white light hits the huge mirror ball on the ceiling and a thousand points of light bathe the crowd. It’s that kind of show.