Music » This Little Underground

Afghan Whigs still hot and heavy, the artistic breakthrough of Manchester Orchestra, and more

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AFGHAN WHIGS AND HAR MAR SUPERSTAR, THE SOCIAL, Sept. 6

A true cult band by definition and following, the Afghan Whigs are one of the few acts that can lay claim to their own, nearly exclusive, realm. Now, the influential '90s indie-rock group are reactivated and two albums into their creative revival. Though perhaps not prime, the new work is substantive. Just listen to the rumble and torque of "Arabian Heights" on this year's In Spades, which rocketed their set right out of the gate with force and command. Solid work from an exceptional band is still good by any metric.

But for all the retooling they've done on record, this live performance was a roaring, virile beast that kept it hot and heavy for an impressive opening stretch. Regardless of what age might suggest, they gave no hint this night of a band – or singer – in twilight. Their sound was as thick and carnal as ever, and Greg Dulli's soul howl can still cut with rage and style.

Opening was quasi-novelty act Har Mar Superstar. Back in the early 2000s when I first and last saw it, his solo stage show was more persona than performance and seemed like an ironic stunt. Now, the R&B crooner comes winged by a deluxe five-piece band, which is just as notable for its size as its earnestness.

With gimmick replaced largely by straight, old-fashioned instrumentation, the truth and shine of his silky soul singing was irrefutable. But, fortunately, you can't keep good showmanship down. And he eventually uncorked his iconoclastic charisma and climbed up on the bar to belt it out, ordered a shot without missing a beat and even wound up shirtless. It doesn't get any more now than Har Mar Superstar's purely earned and democratic ideal of fab.

MANCHESTER ORCHESTRA AND TIGERS JAW, HOUSE OF BLUES, SEPT. 5

It's been practically a lifetime – or at least a significant career cycle – since I last saw Manchester Orchestra just over a decade ago. In that time, the Atlanta band have gone from scrappy though sometimes unoriginal and schizophrenic upstarts to an accomplished act of real range.

The band have cited their recent soundtrack work on the Daniel Radcliffe movie Swiss Army Man as a pivotal experience. That level of musical setting has apparently imbued their new band work with an extraordinary sense of structure and drama. On their latest album, A Black Mile to the Surface, this newfound magic has given their scattered ambitions the superpowers of coherence, constitution and overarching purpose. The result is a set of focused and incredibly cultivated songs that looms like a mountain range. It's a widescreen sound that can scale heights that steal the breath, especially live.

With a watershed degree of maturity and decision, Manchester Orchestra have really, finally, come into their own. And they've crystallized into a thing of such sonic and emotional majesty that the experience of both this show and this new album is like checking back in on an iffy house plant only to discover it's grown into a redwood.

Pennsylvania openers Tigers Jaw are looking to transcend their own emo and pop-punk origins. Those are two genres that can breed intense fidelity, and your allegiance to either of them may well dictate your reception of this act's evolution. But if you can see beyond, you'll understand the potential of their ringing, tender rock.

The very idea of applying mainstream shine to fare that's already sentimental seems dubious. But when you're a band with the natural pop aptitude and tight balance of Tigers Jaw, it makes perfect, and possibly next-level, sense. And they proved it onstage, delivering a streamlined indie rock sound of affecting melodies, measured feeling and keyboard-augmented instrumentation with clarity and cogency.

Only the genre diehards can forever be satisfied with the same old guitars and feels. But with a centered melodic core that doesn't need to try so hard to punch above its weight, Tigers Jaw's anthems penetrate with intrinsic ease without having to squeeze out their heart like a tired, old lemon. It's at least a viable vision beyond just the emo revival.


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