PHOTO BY SCOTT SALTZMAN
Usher and The Roots perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival April 29.
Jazz Fest is at its best when it encourages collaboration. Whether that means putting New Orleans musicians onstage with other artists or booking seemingly unlikely pairings, the festival can help bridge the gulf between the "heritage" part and the big mess of music on the grounds or elsewhere. The Roots — an endlessly versatile hip-hop outfit that can play pretty much anything — distilled pure funk and a thrilling, raw performance from one of the best-selling R&B singers (or any kind of singer) of all time April 29 on the Congo Square stage.
Topped with a shock of blond hair, Usher smiled wide as he stepped onstage in a cream jacket (on the back were two fighting figures circling one another, a design by artist Cleon Peterson, evoking figures on Ancient Greek pottery). He'd eventually ditch the jacket, then a shirt, then another. He mopped sweat from his brow with a black towel, which, an hour and several gallons of sweat later, he tossed to the crowd.
The set showcased Usher's dynamic performance — a charming stage presence, dance moves, a killer voice, and endless energy, all brought out with the aid of the Roots' seemingly effortless versatility, gently transforming Usher's already-massive hits into classic funk and soul arrangements, helping contextualize Usher's rightful place in pop.
Usher comfortably merged with the band, armed with horns, keyboards, percussion (including bandleader Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and hyperactive beat machine Jeremy Ellis), and two guitars, mingling Instant Funk's “I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl)" and Kool and the Gang's "Jungle Boogie" with ease into Usher's two decades of hits, from "You Make Me Wanna" to "U Got It Bad" to "Confessions Part II" and beyond.
The set also was spiked with heightened drama, from "Captain" Kirk Douglas' cosmic waterfall of riffs in a wild guitar solo to the final encore of "Climax," which the band slowed down, stewed in the beat and stripped of studio gloss to reveal a gorgeous ballad.
The band's thoughtful, full-band renditions of Usher's songs helped illustrate just how good they are, despite their veneer of compressed, overly polished pop. The songs weren't stripped down. The arrangements underlined how well the songs stand on their own. "Love in This Club" became a heavy reggae jam. "Caught Up" was anxious James Brown funk. "OMG" exploded like a lost Sly and the Family Stone hit (The Roots crew also weaved in a bit of "Dance to the Music"). "Yeah" was largely left alone, keeping the familiar drum pop intact while The Roots' MC Black Thought relished in the Ludacris verses.
Black Thought also acted as both a hype man and a thrilling MC in his own right. Before the final encore. he lead the band with lightspeed raps through The Roots' "Can You Dig It?" as band members hopped alongside him in choreographed harmony.