Contributing Writer : Anna Whalen
Contributing Photographer : Grant Gutierrez
When : HALLOWEEN WEEKEND!
Where : New Orleans, LA
Voodoo Fest 2009
A Dark Omen of Good Times
The Voodoo Music Experience took place Friday, October 30th through Sunday, November 1st at City Park in New Orleans. Big name headliners like Eminem, Kiss, Widespread Panic, The Flaming Lips and Lenny Kravitz marked the bill—but what made this festival distinct from other weekend-long city fests was the prominence of outstanding performances by local acts.
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There were a total of six stages at Voodoo Fest, three of which were dominated by New Orleans artists including Rebirth Brass Band, Papa Grows Funk, Trombone Shorty, and the Zydepunks. The elements were not in favor of the fest as downpours on Friday turned the park into a muddy mess for the rest of the weekend. But what is a music festival without mud? Those fans whose party spirit was bold enough to tolerate the wet and cold were rewarded by the stellar music they danced to under a full moon, making for one hell of a Halloween weekend.
When I arrived at Voodoo Fest around 4 p.m. on Friday, the sky was dark and it felt like night had settled. The sun doesn’t set until after 5, but black clouds weighed heavily in the air like a rock‘n’roll omen (Maybe it was natures warning not to waste your money on Kiss). I navigated through traffic with my windshield wipers at full speed, narrowly avoiding puddles and pedestrians, searching for a parking spot where my tires would not get stuck in the mud. As I walked to the festival grounds, I passed under a freeway overpass where groups of soaked Voodoo fans stood huddled in tight circles, shivering. I powered past them, drawn by the rocking sound of the Black Keys competing in volume against torrential rain and thunder. At the entry gate, there were more people fleeing the festival in a hurry than standing in the entrance line for security.
I made it to the Black Keys for the second half of the set. The first time I listened to a Black Keys CD, I thought it was good. I thought the band played solid, blues-infused classic rock that was enjoyable but not exceptional; the first time I saw the Keys live, at Forecastle, I was so impressed that such a full and textured sound could come from only one guitarist and one drummer that it redefined my perceptions of rock‘n’roll musicianship. The Black Keys performance at Voodoo Fest did not disappoint my expectations—in fact, it gets extra credit for its vigor despite miserable weather and fading fans.
Silversun Pickups were up next. “This is our first time ever playing New Orleans,” the singer announced. The sparse and unenthusiastic crowd facing the stage visibly supported his statement.
After seeking shelter, I migrated to the Justice DJ set. Adorned with glow sticks and equalizer t-shirts, fans went wild to the electronic beats of the French duo, whose high-energy show warmed the audience until it was no longer drenched in rain, but instead with sweat. The international superstars posed nonchalantly in leather jackets and smoked cigarettes throughout their performance, which was accented with colored lights and smoke machines.
The Friday night headliner was Eminem, joined by his entourage D12. Eminem played an intense and commanding set, marked by audience call-and-responses such as,
“Fuck you assholes,” and “Fuck you bitches.” He pleased the crowd with all of his popular radio hits, and gave Voodoo-goers the festival’s only real musical outlet for rage.
Saturday was Halloween and the festival grounds were filled with costumes—Swine Flu flirted with Cupid waiting in line for hurricanes, a Hornets Honeybee cheerleader danced with Scooby Doo and Shaggy in the Bingo! Tent, and Harry Potter smoked a bowl by himself during Gogol Bordello. There were countless zombies—well, actually there were 1,701 zombies, as recorded by organizers attempting unsuccessfully to break the Guinness Book of World Records for largest zombie gathering (currently set at 4,026 zombies). And there was a noticeable presence of individuals dressed like Gene Simmons, which makes me wonder whether the proportion of the audience sporting black leather and face paint was typical for at a Kiss show, or whether it was greater than average because it was Halloween.
Even the Drive-by Truckers had their faces painted like Kiss. The truckers, a staple festival act, balanced its mellow root-laden tunes with its guitar-heavy southern rock, satisfying the intimate audience that hovered near the difficult to reach stage. The ground near the DBT stage was like quicksand—my flip-flop and I got momentarily stuck in the thick mud along the way, until a gentlemanly hippy extended his hand to rescue me. Drive-by Truckers offered the perfect rock‘n’roll moment when they performed “Let There Be Rock,” which Patterson Hood introduced by saying, “When I was a teenager, music—rock and roll—saved my life. And I wouldn’t be here right now without it. And I imagine most of you could say the same and that’s why you’re here tonight,” and the crowd erupted in cheer. He sang about when he was sixteen and he was pulled over by a police officer while driving with a case of beer and a half-ounce of weed in the car: “And I’d like to say I’m sorry, but I lived to tell about it,” he sang, then looked to the sky and extended his arms to the stars and shouted, “And I’m not sorry about a single god damn motherfucking thing, because it’s almost a full moon and I’m in New Orleans on Halloween!” which summed up the sentiment of people at Voodoo that night, who exploded in applause.
The party kept building until Kiss took over and started their set with a bang—fireworks burst in celebration of Halloween, cuing a soundtrack provided by the Detroit rock mega stars. Their performance was what you would imagine— bright lights, thick smoke, abnormally large tongues. The theatrics and novelty of the Kiss show were entertaining—until they weren’t. Once the sensationalism wore off, Kiss revealed that it is musically vacuous and that without the absurdity of its stage effects, Kiss is boring.
My attention was diverted to the opposite stage, where the Flaming Lips were assembling their set for the following day. It was significantly more interesting to watch Wayne Coyne from a distance, as he directed his crew, than to tolerate the arrogantly long guitar solos and stage banter from Kiss.
When the show was over, I joined the energetic exodus of Voodoo fans ready to conquer the midnight hours of Halloween in New Orleans.
On Sunday, the entire city of New Orleans was hungover—including everyone at Voodoo Fest. The festival grounds were near empty all day, until just before sunset—just before the Flaming Lips went on.
I have seen the Flaming Lips live twice before Voodoo, and I cannot conceal my admiration for the group. My experiences of them are so engrained in me that I struggle to describe them to someone who has not been a part of their show.
At the beginning of the Lips’ Voodoo set, a stream of white light poured through a giant screen image of a woman’s spread legs, from which emerged the band, dressed in neon orange construction outfits. Wayne Coyne, the lead singer, wore a grey and pink suit as he rolled around inside a giant plastic bubble atop the audience. Throughout the show, confetti fell from above like the rose petals St. Theresa dropped from heaven. Large yellow and orange beach balls were tossed among the audience as everyone jumped and swayed in unison, wearing contented smiles and enjoying the poppy and cosmic sounds of the Flaming Lips. Dancing on each side of the stage were lucky citizens dressed in bunny costumes, moving their bodies with unembarrassed joy—particularly one young woman, who stripped naked and rushed to center stage where she and Wayne embraced. They shared the microphone until a stagehand patiently and gently led the nude enthusiast back to her rabbit suit.
The Flaming Lips played popular classics like “Race for the Prize,” “Fight Test,” and “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” and also revealed songs from their new album, Embryonic, including “Silver Trembling Hands,” and “Convinced of the Hex.” Wayne Coyne made a statement about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as “Taps” played, promising to play it every show until the war ended. “Looks like we may be playing this song forever,” he said. I looked into the eyes surrounding me and many had turned glossy—not just from drugs. The mood lightened again as “The Wand” incited uncontrollable head bopping and shoulder shaking. Wayne pointed to the full moon, and reminded the crowd, “It’s just so perfect to be alive right now.” This led into the obvious closer—“Do You Realize?”, leaving fans in a comforting daze of wonder.
Rebirth Brass Band was one of the best-kept secrets at Voodoo this weekend. This local favorite blends traditional New Orleans brass talent with contemporary hip-hop styling for an infused sound that is endlessly energetic. The audience did not stop bouncing until the trumpet blared its final note.
Robert Randolph and the Family Band thrilled the crowd with Michael Jackson covers, including “Gotta Be Starting Something” and “Man in the Mirror,” and continued to play the fun and groovy show that fans have come to expect and love.
I was pleasantly surprised by March Fourth Marching Band, an ensemble from Portland, Oregon. March Fourth did an impressive job holding their own as Northwestern hipsters proving themselves in the town that masters brass music. Members of the Prince of Wales Social Aid and Pleasure Club could be spotted dancing along side the stage in their peach and olive colored second line suits.
Most weekend-long, popular music festivals could take place in any location with the appropriate facilities set up—large stages, open fields, food tents, and lots of kegs. The mud and the music can blend together to make each festival feel the same as the last, and the surrounding city is inconsequential. But at Voodoo Fest, the locale is an integral part of the experience; Voodoo Fest could not take place outside of New Orleans. Many New Orleans musicians are fixtures in the festival circuit—Trombone Shorty, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, Porter-Batiste-Stotlz, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, and several others have played events all around the country, from Wakarusa in Kansas (now Arkansas) to Bonnaroo in Tennessee—so they are no strangers to the scene. The difference at Voodoo Fest is they have home field advantage. New Orleans musicians take ownership of the festival in their turf and contribute a rich texture to Voodoo Fest that allows it to exude musical vitality, even when its headlining acts disappoint.