BY ANDERS SMITH LINDALL For the Sun-Times
Festival gigs force even the dourest of rock and roll animals into unnaturally sunny habitats, and such was the case with Afghan Whigs at Lollapalooza. But as jarring as the sight of frontman Greg Dulli abroad on a bright afternoon was the simple fact of his band's reunion after an 11-year hiatus.
As it happens, the Cincinnati natives never played the original incarnation of Lollapalooza when it was alt-rock's summertime traveling circus. Back then they shared a label, Sub Pop, with the bands that defined the moment's scuzzy sound, but the Whigs worked the dark end of the street, fusing sweaty R&B to scabrous rock guitars. Now that Lolla's remade itself as Ikea by the lake (big-box shopping with a safe, respectable veneer), here came the Whigs to drag it back into the mud. They couldn't have been more welcome.
Recharged and fighting trim, Dulli, John Curley, Rick McCollum & Co. ripped through a set of nearly all old favorites. Opening with "Uptown Again" and continuing through "What Jail Is Like" and "Gentlemen" from their 1993 neo-classic of the same name, their fierce funkiness was intact. Guitars slashed, drums pummeled, and Dulli pleaded and growled, confessing his familiar appetites for lust, drink and drugs while refusing to flinch in their brutal aftermath.
Known for creative covers, here the Whigs bridged generations of R&B. They connected Queenie Lyons's 1970 tune "See and Don't See" to rising star Frank Ocean, whose cut "Lovecrimes" equates romance with illicit adventure and with Dulli at the piano was a perfect fit.
Also playing in Friday's early going but occupying the other end of the career spectrum was Brooklyn singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten. She's released a pair of albums since we first tipped her two-plus years ago, in the process coaxing songs that once were intense bedroom meditations into lush and often loping folk-rock. Still she's new enough to note that a recent single, "Serpents," is the first song she wrote on electric guitar.
While the crowd cooked on the blacktop at the Petrillo bandshell, ethereal clouds floated from misting machines on stage to match Van Etten's sound and mood. She was breezy and brooding in turn. On guitar, she thrummed out backdrops for her remarkable voice; like Sinead O'Connor, who she name-checked Friday, Van Etten has a ghostly upper register and a bluesy low one, too.
Harmony vocals bracketed and entwined with Van Etten's own--on album she often multitracks her voice--but still her diamond-sharp lyrics shone through. In "Give Out," she sized up the end of an affair even before it began: "You're the reason why I'll move to the city," she sang, "and why I'll have to leave." She introduced the tune with a rueful laugh; "It's about moving to New York and falling in love," she said, "and it still sounds sad."
Soon after, the South African rap outfit Die Antwoord ("the answer") amped up the energy. Clad in jailhouse couture--baggy orange pants--the MCs Ninja and Yolandi Visser and their mask-wearing DJ came off like three gleeful miscreants. Lobbing rhymes between them and pinballing around the stage, they were hyper, bratty and entertaining, an Afrikaaner art-punk cartoon version of the "Fight for Your Right"-era Beasties. And that was before the diminutive, squeaky-voiced Visser partially dropped trou and half-mooned the crowd. "I think you're freaky and I like you a lot," she chirped. The bobbing sea of arms thrust skyward said the throng agreed.