By Josh Stillman
Updated September 23, 2012 at 09:24 PM EDT
Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images

Afghan Whigs

  • Music

Image Credit: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images[/caption]

Day two of I’ll Be Your Mirror offered up a bevy of surprises – not the least of which was running into Bob Boilen of NPR’s All Songs Considered.

Singer songwriter Joseph Arthur brought his stream-of-consciousness rock poetry to the indoor stage with songs like “Slide Away” and the breezy, nostalgic “I Miss the Zoo.” On the latter he donned a white lab coat and, in a deft work of performance art, painted an eerie human face while singing (his self-made album art has been nominated for a Grammy).

Following him up outside was Charles Bradley, a.k.a. The Screaming Eagle of Soul. Let me tell you, this man has a life story: Homeless for a time, the Gainesville, Florida native eventually found his way to New York and started performing as a James Brown cover artist known as Black Velvet. Then about a decade ago, in his mid-50s, he was discovered by Daptone Records and last year released his debut album, No Time for Dreaming.

Yesterday’s performance was a joyous funk/soul revival act, Bradley hootin’ and hollerin’ and gyratin’ his hips like the Godfather himself. After playing a generous blend of originals – “Heartaches and Pain,” “The World (Is Goin’ Up in Flames)” – and covers, like Clarence Carter’s “Slip Away” and James Brown’s “Funky Good Time,” Bradley closed the show by climbing into the audience and doling out hugs. The man was so genuine and so talented (his nickname is well-earned) that none of it felt hokey or forced. In the words of a nearby fan, “That mother­­­f—er is the truth.”

Then it was off to see Australian psych-folk trio Dirty Three. Violinist and de-facto bandleader Warren Ellis, a gangly, bearded Charles Manson lookalike, commanded the stage with a manic, deranged intensity. He thrashed and kicked and leered as he and the group banged out their explosive instrumental epics, including “The Pier” and “Some Summers they Drop Like Flys.” But as enthralling as the music was, the most memorable bits were Ellis’ maniacal introductions: “This is a song about coming home for Christmas and finding out Santa didn’t come and everybody died. This a song, ladies and gentlemen, about stuff like that.”

Detroit’s The Dirtbombs were up next, and what a rollicking treat they were. Known for blending punk rock and Motown soul, their muscular lineup consisted of two bass players and two drummers in addition to Mick Collins’ vocals and guitar. That enormous rhythm section – come on, it’s 80% of the band – gives their music a brute physicality.

Segueing effortlessly from garage-tinged R&B (“Underdog”) to disco dance-rock (“Good Life”) to swaggering funk (“Candy A—“), Collins and co. arguably delivered the day’s most enthusiastic performance. Pouring sweat, drinking beer, waving their instruments around, it felt like watching a group of 17-year-olds playing a punk show in their friend’s basemen (that’s a good thing). For the close, Collins simply walked off stage, leaving the drummers and bassists to hammer out five-minutes of tuneless percussive bliss.

Inside once more, buzzy relative newcomers The Antlers shifted the mood 180 degrees with their transcendent soundscapes. Drawing from their two most recent records, Hospice and Burst Apart, the Brooklyn-based indie darlings played with an orchestral grandeur that was at once lush and haunting. Think The Cure’s Disintegration but without the gothic dread; epic and drenched in reverb, with vocalist Peter Silberman boasting power and range to rival Steve Perry on highlights “Sylvia” and “Putting the Dog to Sleep.”

Later in the evening, artist favorite Mark Lanegan Band (at least three earlier groups hyped up his show) performed his signature menacing proto-blues. On stage he did little more than grip the mic stand and glower, letting his deep, gruff, inimitable voice – equal parts Tom Waits and Billy Gibbons – anchor the four musicians behind him. “Riot in My House,” “Harborview Hospital,” and others dished up ferocious, testosterone-fueled grooves; when he closed with “Methamphetamine Blues,” a savage work of industrial blues-rock played in the key of hate, I thought the building might collapse.

Outside, Swedish-Argentinian nü-folkster José González brought his own brand of stripped-down intensity. His mastery of the acoustic guitar is evident, and he has a penchant for songwriting that is both literate and urgent. Occasionally the constant negativity wore thin – a major chord wouldn’t kill the guy – but his technical dexterity was a wonder in itself, and songs like “Lovestain” and “Remain” are very, very good at what they do, which is earnestly conveying regret. He ended with a cover of Massive Attack’s trip-hop anthem “Teardrop,” revealing unheard nuances with his propulsive acoustic take.

Then, finally, the true headliners took the stage: the newly-reunited Afghan Whigs. I must say first that I was twelve years old when these alt-rock icons broke up in 2001, so for me their live show was one of discovery. What I discovered, first and foremost, is that Greg Dulli, lead singer of the Whigs and guest curator of the festival, has a hell of a voice. I mean, this thing was made for a stadium, like a modern-day Roger Daltrey.

He built the band with a volume to match, employing not one, not two, but three guitars, and a cello (Necessary? Probably not. Awesome? Definitely). Dulli and the crew rocked a set that spanned the whole of their lauded career, from “Son of the South” off 1990’s Up In It to “66” from 1998’s 1965. They also made sure to treat their devoted fans to some gems, bringing out former backup singer Steve Meyer to help with “Gentlemen,” and even calling up Marcy Mays of Scrawl to perform their 1993 collaboration “My Curse.”

And of course it wouldn’t be a Whigs set without some diggin’-in-the-crates covers. Dulli, who’s been called “a black singer in a white body,” dipped into an extensive R&B catalog, taking on Marie “Queenie” Lyons’ “See and Don’t See,” The Supremes’ “Baby Don’t Leave Me,” and Frank Ocean’s “Love Crimes” and “Thinking About You,” and strutting the stage with a rapper’s braggadocio. The band’s final song, the cavernous “Faded,” bled into the searing guitar line from Prince’s “Purple Rain,” cementing Dulli’s dichotomous ambitions. After 11 years out of the race, the Afghan Whigs have relaunched at a full sprint.

Easily 2/3 of the crowd dispersed after the Whigs played, but those who remained bore witness to one of the hallowed truths in contemporary music: the Roots are the best live act around. I don’t even know where to begin. First, kudos to those guys – playing before a dwindling audience of perhaps 150 people, they could easily have phoned in the show. What’s one more live gig to Jimmy Fallon’s backing band?

But if the crowd size was a factor it was impossible to tell: their performance was one of the most enthused and technically proficient that I have ever had the pleasure of watching. Rapper Black Thought dedicated the show to the memories of the late Chuck Brown, the godfather of Go-Go, and MCA of the Beastie Boys, before launching into a Go-Go rendition of the Beastie’s “Paul Revere” that was nothing short of miraculous.

The rest of the concert can best be described as “a whirlwind musical odyssey with your hosts, the Roots.” Of course they played their own hits (“Mellow My Man,” Proceed,” “Break You Off”) frequently dropping to immaculate jazz breaks or tossing in exterior tidbits, like plucking the horn line from OutKast’s “SpottieOttieDopalicious” during “You Got Me.” But then they threw their own catalog to the wind and tore through an eclectic medley: “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Bad to the Bone,” “Jungle Boogie,” “Who Do You Love,” even transforming Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” into a murky dub cut

. Add to all that the fact that they didn’t break once between songs, and performed the last half hour with the breakneck energy and false endings of an encore. It was a true marvel of showmanship. When they hurtled to a close at precisely 12:59, it was like waking up from a fever dream.

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Afghan Whigs

  • Music