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Thursday, November 26, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Afghan Whigs Waiting In Wings For Stardom

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Concert preview Afghan Whigs, 9 p.m. Monday, Showbox, Seattle; $15, 206-628-0888.

The Afghan Whigs are tearing through a blistering, two-hour set in front of several hundred fans crammed in a Corryville, Ohio, bar.

But this is 1998, not 1989. The Cincinnati-born band has come a long way from its baby steps in the local alternative-rock scene. It's a journey that has taken the Whigs all over the world, through several drummers, a handful of record labels and countless magazine and newspaper articles touting them as rock's "next big thing."

So a lot is riding on the band's new album, "1965," recently released by Columbia after an acrimonious parting from Elektra Records. The Whigs are hoping for that elusive hit single to take them from cult band to mainstream rock stars.

On this night, though, the pressure's off. The band is proving it can still rock hard. And it does.

Lead singer-rhythm guitarist Greg Dulli wears a manic grin and a wild gleam in his eyes as he practically drags his band through a full-tilt "Rip This Joint," with all the reckless intensity of the Rolling Stones' original.

He and the other Whigs - core members John Curley on bass and Rick McCollum on guitar, newest drummer Michael Horrigan, longtime sidemen Doug Falsetti on vocals and percussion and Harold "Happy" Chichester on vocals and keyboards - keep that momentum going, moving from "1965" songs to such Whig oldies as "Debonair" and "What Jail is Like."

"John and Rick and I started the band in John's living room over on Euclid Street (in Cincinnati) in the fall of '86. I think I played drums that day," Dulli recalls.

"And for like six weeks, it was just like the three of us. We got Steve (Earle, the band's first in a series of drummers) much later on and then played our first gig, January of '87."

In 1988, the band released "Big Top Halloween," recorded in Curley's home studio and released on his Ultrasuede label. The disc drew the interest of Sub Pop, and The Whigs became the first non-Seattle act on the label in 1990, releasing "Up In It," which featured a few tracks from "Big Top Halloween." The group stayed with Sub Pop through "Congregation" (1992) and the 1993 soul cover "Uptown Avondale."

The buzz resulted in a deal with Elektra Records that produced two albums, 1994's "Gentlemen" and 1996's "Black Love."

In 1996, everything seemed to be going the Whigs' way. Dulli had earned rave reviews providing the singing voice for John Lennon in the movie "BackBeat," and the Whigs were prominently featured in the movie "Beautiful Girls," both onscreen and on the soundtrack, which was co-produced by Dulli.

All that potential came to nothing, however, as shake-ups and staff cutbacks at Elektra resulted in zero promotion for the Whigs' projects.

"They bought the soundtrack to `Beautiful Girls' because I was doing it. I was stunned," Dulli says of Elektra's lack of support. "It was amateur hour all the way."

The Whigs decided to sign with Columbia, following a bidding war that included Interscope and Capitol, but the label first had to pay Elektra for the band's contract.

The label change marks a new direction for the Whigs. The production of "1965" remains dense, with atmospheric trumpets, swirling strings and backup vocals recalling classic soul, particularly the work of Dulli's idol, Curtis Mayfield. But the material itself is less complex.

"The songs are real simple," Dulli says. "If you just sit down and play the songs, it's a lot of verse-chorus-verse, which is unheard of from me as a songwriter. I'm usually way busier. I made a conscious effort to simplify it this time."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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