Concert Chronicle

The Whigs

Brian Ahnmark
I once saw a band play at a pool hall.

The venue was called The Sets, and it was in Tempe, Arizona. Truthfully it was more than “just” a pool hall; there was also a combination bar/karaoke area, and a dank bat cave serving as a makeshift concert hall. There was a small stage, so no, musicians did not have to set up their gear on billiards tables.

I drove up from Tucson to see this band, who I'd heard about through a friend and through Rolling Stone's “10 Artists to Watch” list. They were touring alone, although this particular performance featured two local opening acts. The first band noodled through some thin jam music for their buddies and girlfriends in attendance; once they finished, they left and took their loyal contingency with them. The second band played some “hard rock” that was so “hard” that their lead singer/guitarist kept facing his amp – probably because he couldn't hear anything. Once they finished, they left and took their fans with them, as well.

So when the headlining act hit the stage, there were three people in attendance.

The band was The Whigs.

They were touring in support of their superb debut, Give 'Em All a Big Fat Lip. One incredulous thought kept crossing my mind: This group was featured in Rolling Stone! I kept waiting for the crowd to show, but it was just me and my buddy Jon and another weird dude who kept hovering around us, probably because he felt as painfully awkward as we did.

I naturally assumed that the band would take one look at the attendance, pack it in and drive somewhere more lucrative. Instead, The Whigs altered my perception of artist-audience interaction and restored my faith in the religion that is music.

For starters, I got to meet the band members. And far from being insulted by the paltry turnout, they instead embraced the opportunity to enjoy a loose evening. Drummer Julian Dorio raised his eyebrows when we told him we had driven 100 miles from Tucson to catch the set.

“You drove an hour and a half to see us?” he said. Then-touring bassist Sam Gunn (who has since departed) spoke of the challenges dividing time among The Whigs, his own band Iron Hero, and a full-time job in Athens, GA. Lead singer and guitarist Parker Gispert “introduced” himself by leaping offstage mid-tuning, roaring “You ready to rock?” as he slapped me on the back, then attempting to buy drinks for all three of his fans (a request that the bartender denied, evidently out of fear that the masses would stampede). Southern gentlemen, through and through.

The actual concert was a nuclear fireworks display befitting a stadium, not a ragged trio of extremely Caucasian young men. After plowing through a slew of tunes off Fat Lip, Parker asked us if it would be alright if the band tried out some fresh material.

He asked us. Then he proceeded to ask us how we felt about each of the new songs. One of them, “Right Hand on My Heart,” would become a signature anthem for the band months later. On this particular night, it had one blond 25-year-old man-child leaping around a pool hall with goosebumps while the remainder of the “crowd” nodded heads in stoic rhythm, arms crossed.

“That's a keeper,” my friend Jon deadpanned when Parker requested our assessment. Looking back, I wish I would've begged them to play it a second time.

After the show, the band stuck around for a beer. I bought their debut by placing a $10 bill in the hands of Julian Dorio – the same hands responsible for creating the frantic beats that laid the foundation for the very item I was purchasing. We chatted about record stores (Remember Media Play? Julian did) and sophomore albums. We made fun of the karaoke singers at the bar. Then we made fun of the band because, well, karaoke had a bigger crowd. Julian confirmed that The Whigs would be playing at Bonnaroo, the enormous summer music festival held every June in Tennessee. Jon and I told him that we were thinking of attending.

After this particular night, there was no doubt. We went to Bonnaroo, and the boys remembered “Jon and Brian from Arizona.” Then we saw them down the line in Charlottesville, Virginia. And in San Francisco. And in Washington. And in Columbus. And we told our friends about The Whigs, and our friends met them in North Carolina. And in Omaha. And in Denver. And in New York. And now the band tours with The Hold Steady and Kings of Leon and The Black Keys. And someday, rightfully, The Whigs will overtake them all.

On a boiling March 2007 night in Arizona, The Whigs made $31 – three tickets and one compact disc. Between the band members, that show paid for dinner at In 'N' Out Burger.

But The Whigs also earned the unconditional love of three listeners. That kind of respect doesn't come easy, and it doesn't come free.

I have a feeling the band was perfectly content with their overall earnings from that evening at The Sets.