Worlds colliding: Usher fronts the Afghan Whigs at SXSW

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As the media wrangler from the Fader walked me into the Fader Fort to see a show featuring performances by Future, the Afghan Whigs, and a secret special guest she'd assured me I wouldn't want to miss (but wasn't at liberty to reveal over e-mail), I told her that I 'd overheard people discussing who that guest might be. The most popular guess I'd heard, I told her, was Kendrick Lamar. "Kendrick stopped by last night," she said. There are so many big artists dropping in on SXSW shows unannounced that it wasn't surprising that one of my favorite musicians at the moment had done a surprise show and I hadn't even heard.

"Don't tell anyone," she said, "but Usher's going to jump onstage with the Afghan Whigs for a couple of songs."

It took me a few moments to regain my composure.

Apparently someone had told somebody who the special secret surprise for the night was, because after Future's brief but vigorous set, very few of the college kids who'd waited in the ridiculous line outside to soak up a day's worth of rap music cleared out at the sight of a team of middle-aged white guys setting up amps. You could hear the word "Usher" flitting about the crowd up front nearly constantly.

Given that the audience was decidedly ungrungy and made up largely of people who were toddlers when the Afghan Whigs dropped their definitive album, Gentlemen, they were surprisingly amenable to the brief set of originals the band opened with. Their slow-burn cover of Frank Ocean's "Lovecrimes" got a loudly appreciative response.

But when a Whigs-standard burst of noise—thunderous drumming and mean guitars doing nasty things to sweet soul riffs—revealed itself to be an aggressive fun-house mirror interpretation of Usher's Diplo-produced "Climax," the entire crowd collectively lost its mind. Greg Dulli capably handled the first verse, then Usher came onstage and took over and the entire thing rocketed into a little-explored state of hybrid rock-R&B nirvana, where it stayed for the remainder of the show.

"Climax" was thrilling, and the rocked-out version of Usher's "OMG" drove the crowd even crazier than it was already, but my favorite moment was when Usher and the band tore into "Somethin' Hot," a deep-ish cut from the Afghan Whigs' 1998 album 1965. It was obvious from the start that Usher had actually put some thought and effort into his performance beforehand—he navigated Dulli's vocal lines in his typically nimble way, revealing that Dulli has the melodic instincts of a hit R&B singer, if not necessarily the larynx of one.

The whole thing could easily have turned into a live-karaoke mess. Usher could have tried to "rock out" or the Whigs could have tamed down their noise. Instead, Usher was just Usher and the Afghan Whigs were just the Afghan Whigs, and it turns out that they fit so well together that it can bring me to the verge of tears.

Photo courtesy of the Fader

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