Whenever the opportunity to see a great band in a small, packed venue comes up, I take it. I went as far as taking a trip to Nashville from Miami to see The Afghan Whigs and Har Mar Superstar at the historic Exit/In on Friday, September 29th. Established in 1971, the small club quickly developed a reputation for being outside the norm in Nashville by booking a wide variety of artists from blues and country to rock, punk, metal and hip hop. With a max capacity of 500 and no frills, it is impressive to see the long list of legendary artists names written on the walls and imagine their performances there over the years. There isn’t a bad spot in the place, but there I was, front and center.
Sweet Spirit opened the show and I was an instant fan of their fun, high energy and melodic jams. Incorporating unlikely but somehow congruent elements of punk, pop, dance, soul and country their sound reminded me of bits of different artists but the package was so unique it would be impossible to compare them to anyone in particular. At one point, they brought out Har Mar Superstar to do one of his songs “Famous Last Words” because it was guitarist, Andrew Cashen’s birthday. I’d like to imagine it was also because they knew it was my favorite Har Mar song, but either way, they killed. Their entire set was fire and the perfect setup for the rest of a night that could have easily ended there and still have been fine, but was only just getting started.
Then there was Har Mar Superstar. He started with the slow burn of his recent single “Personal Boy,” before going into some of his grooviest songs and busting out his famous dance moves for everyone. His band is impressively tight and brought a lot of funk to his most soulful songs. At one point they did a cover of “These Arms of Mine” that paid proper respect to the Otis Redding original. Aside from inevitably going shirtless and at one point standing on his head while singing, my favorite bits where when Har Mar let his voice soar with the emotion I’ve come to really love in his work. During “How Did I Get Through The Day,” sweaty, shirtless passion was on full display. By the time they got to the closer, “Lady You Shot Me,” it was clear he had earned the Superstar status.
The Afghan Whigs opened their attack with a forceful “Arabian Heights” from this year’s In Spades that went right into “Matamoros” from 2014’s Do To The Beast, with the same tsunami of sound that I experienced the last time I saw them. Back in 2014, a friend of mine invited me to see them, before I was a fan. I knew who they were but somehow never really got into them. The night of the show I was blown away and now, In Spades is one of my favorite albums of the year so far.
What I’ve learned most from seeing this band twice is that these are some of the most loyal and nicest fans of any band I’ve ever encountered. Everyone is ready to share stories about having met Greg Dulli at some point, or seeing John Curley somewhere, or how far they’ve traveled to see the band play. And the love they have for Dulli is reflected back in those stories as well as in the way he treats his audiences. He’s a natural showman and his authenticity and joy come through in his performance.
The band has changed somewhat since I saw them before, with several personnel changes, including the passing of guitarist Dave Rosser just a few short months ago. On stage, on an amp sat a hat and a sign that said “Fuck Cancer” in his honor. They played “Can Rova” which Dulli said was Rosser’s favorite song to play, weaving in some of Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye,” in a personal and emotional moment for the band and the family of fans to share as a moving remembrance of Rosser.
Through most of the show, I was watching bassist John Curley’s unique movements on stage. His playing is phenomenal and may be one of the best I’ve seen on the instrument, going from pick to fingers seamlessly as he plays some of the most melodically complex bass lines in rock. The way he grooves is almost like he’s surfing the low-end waves, hardly ever lifting his feet from the stage, but rather swaying at the waist and knees, side to side like a visual representation of the rhythm he’s laying down. My theory is that he doesn’t lift his feet much because he’s feeling the vibrations on the stage.
Har Mar Superstar joined the band for “Demon in Profile” and it was great to hear him and Dulli do this song together. At this point they have equal claim to the song as far as I’m concerned. It’s pretty amazing to me how artists that, on the surface, seem so different can work so well together. But if you break down the genres and influences that Greg Dulli has been working with and blending all these years, creating his own unique sound, it’s easy to see how he could work with anyone. Just about any artist that is true to their art could open for The Afghan Whigs and it would work, because the genre is ultimately not in the music, but in the honesty of it.
They ended the night with “Into the Floor” blending into a slow take on Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” as Dulli left the stage, letting the rest of the band take us out on a crescendo of solos. Much like my first experience seeing them, I left the show on a high, ready to see them again sometime soon.