The Afghan Whigs never did a farewell tour.
By the time the soulful alt-rockers split up in 2001 — after 12 years, six albums, 1,500 shows and an uncountable amount of hard living — the band members were so burnt out by the cycle of recording and touring, recording and touring, they just decided to go their separate ways.
Looking back, that was a better way to leave it, says frontman Greg Dulli.
“We did play a final show; we just didn’t know it at the time,” says Dulli, on the phone from Los Angeles in late summer. “I think that was better than some heavy ‘Last Waltz’ kind of thing. There’s no turning back from that, so I think leaving it with some ambiguity was in our favor.”
After the break-up, Dulli walked away from music. He opened a bar in Los Angeles and ran it top to bottom, from tending bar to ordering inventory to stocking the jukebox. After years of life on the road, he relished living a mile and a half away from work and packing his lunch every day. “For somebody who lived an itinerant lifestyle,” he says, “it was a nice kind of grounding for me.”
He didn’t touch his guitar or write music for two years, but there were always offers to get the band back together. He never entertained them. When he did return to music, as a solo artist and as a member of the Twilight Singers and the Gutter Twins, he was distanced from his work with the Afghan Whigs.
But eventually he softened on the idea of reuniting the group, one of the defining alt-rock acts of the 1990s. During a solo tour where he was playing Whigs songs, along with songs from throughout his career, he asked Whigs bassist John Curley to join him on stage in Cincinnati, the band’s hometown. One show became two shows and two became several shows, and soon Curley joined Dulli on an entire run of West Coast dates. “That was probably a harbinger of what was to come,” Dulli says.
The group reunited briefly in 2006 to record a track for a Rhino Records compilation, but the subject of touring was never breached. Then Dulli saw Buffalo Springfield play in Los Angeles in 2011; and the show was so pure, the band members so genuine with one another, that any lingering fears he had about playing with the Afghan Whigs again melted away.
“When I watched (Buffalo Springfield), it was like they were friends who obviously went and did other things, but the warmth they had, the good time they were having, killer songs, all great players, all great singers, I found that moving,” says Dulli, 47. “There was camaraderie, an ease with them on stage, and I was really moved by the performance. The affection they had for each other was really cool, and their whole, ‘Why not?’ attitude was infectious to me.”
So when the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival invited the Afghan Whigs to play its 2012 events in London and Asbury Park, N.J., the band members agreed. They got together in November 2011 in New Orleans and ran through 20 songs just to see how they’d sound. They played for two days, “and at the end of the second day we could have played a gig,” Dulli says.
The band has been playing shows all year; they swing through Saint Andrew’s Hall in Detroit, the site of many Afghan Whigs shows in the ’90s, on Wednesday.
Going forward, there are no concrete plans with the group, according to Dulli. “Whenever I’ve thought too far in the future, it gets me into trouble,” he says. “I’m not promising anything, I’m not not promising anything. At the end of the day, it’s really a decision made by a couple people, and those people are me and my bandmates. When we decide, I don’t even know if we’ll say anything. We’ll just go about our business, and one day maybe we’ll say we have a record coming out, or maybe we won’t. I’m just going to kind of leave it like that.”
For now, he’s having a blast.
“I’m having the best time. And it has proven to be a successful mix, probably better than we were that last tour,” he says. “That last tour we were kind of cooked. I feel like we’re doing the songs a greater justice than we did that final run.”
The Afghan Whigs
7 p.m. Wednesday
Saint Andrew’s Hall
431 E. Congress St., Detroit
Call (313) 961-6358