“This is the first time I’ve been hot on this whole tour,” said a gleeful Greg Dulli near the end of a rousing set on Saturday night at Baltimore’s Ottobar. If you’ve seen Dulli live with any of his past or current outfits (Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers, Gutter Twins), this might be a surprising thing to hear. But this 14-date U.S. tour, billed as An Evening With Greg Dulli, featured Dulli in a stripped-down, mostly acoustic setting. Backed by a violinist/cellist (Rick Nelson) and an acoustic/electric guitarist and backup singer (longtime Dulli bandmate Dave Rosser) for the entire tour, the group also added a drummer (Greg Wieczorec) over the last few dates. In this arrangement, Dulli’s normally howling songs were stripped to the bruised bone; their core of torment and dark urges laid bare. Despite the unplugged delivery, the show had a magical, sweaty fire that made it feel like a searing rock performance fitting of Dulli’s usual incarnations.
The crowd (well, me at least) had leaned hard into their Saturday night by the time Dulli and his band took the stage after 11 p.m. With the Ottobar’s website stating the show would start right at 9 p.m, the place was packed early. But Craig Wedren, former lead singer for Shudder To Think, didn’t take the stage until more than an hour after that, giving people plenty of time to throwback Baltimore’s iconic National Bohemian beer. It was worth the wait, though, as Wedren serenaded the crowd with his beautiful, fluttery voice. Standing alone in front of two microphones, he often looped vocal, guitar and simple beat parts to flesh out his odd-but-gorgeous songs. Highlights included Shudder To Think tunes “Red House” and “Hit Liquor” and a song he recorded for the HBO show Hung.
Dulli’s set started with him sitting at the keyboard, pounding out “The Killer” from the Twilight Singers’ Blackberry Belle. From the beginning, this show was on a whole different level from the performance earlier in the week in Philadelphia. The band was visibly amped up and played harder and louder. The room rocked in response. Dulli whipped the crowd into a frenzy with the Afghan Whigs’ “Uptown Again” early on in the set and really never let up. The set list covered nearly every record in Dulli’s catalog, with the acoustic setting being the perfect chance for Dulli to dust off gems like Congregation’s harrowing “Let Me Lie To You,” “Step Into The Light” from Black Love, the overlooked “The Lure Would Prove Too Much” from the Twilight Singers’ A Stitch In Time EP and piano-driven Gentelmen classic “What Jail Is Like,” which led off the band’s first encore. Dulli also pulled from his Gutter Twins project and shared a number of songs from the next Twilight Singers record, which is due via Sub Pop in 2011.
Dulli mostly strummed an acoustic guitar, only taking to the keyboard on a few songs. He drank bottled water. No ceaseless smoking. No alcohol. He’s now entrenched in his mid-40s and while he still wants the crowd “to make party,” he himself has seemed to reign in the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. But this more sober stage act has not muted any of his showmanship power. He knows how to entertain. He knows how to craft a set list where songs build on each other, each one topping the next. A signature Dulli move is inserting a line or two from other songs into his own. Examples tonight included a nicked verse from the Who’s “Pinball Wizard” at the end of “Teenage Wristband,” Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” appearing in “66” and even a teaser of his own “Milez is Ded” popping up at one point, which sent the crowd soaring.
No surprise, then, that after the band’s encore (which included the Twilight Singers’ “Candy Cane Crawl” and a blistering cover of Jose Gonzalez’s “Down The Line”), the crowd didn’t even look toward the exits. They continued to clap and howl until the band came back out and did a breathless rendition of Björk’s “Hyperballad,” with everyone in the room singing along. Glazed with sweat, Dulli and the band retired for good despite protests for a third curtain call, the U.S. leg of this tour closed out with a truly great evening.
—text and photo by Doug Sell