VOODOO Experience puts a magic spell on NOLA

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New Orleans is a city that is never void of an excuse to celebrate. Everything from food to death is a reason to party. But above all else, there is one thing that gets people in the partying disposition.

That one thing is music.

Whether in the form of a whispered blues standard on a corner in the French Quarter, or from the prominent and boisterous voice of a trombone blaring through the window of a smoky bar, New Orleans breathes music. The folks there are born and bred to think, play, create, and obviously enjoy music. With its forceful strength, it is a no-brainer that the city would host a world class music festival. In fact, it hosts two, but on Halloween in a city as steeped in lore as it is in anything else, there was only one place to be in the Crescent City: VOODOO Experience.

With humble beginnings, the festival has grown exponentially over the past 10 years since 1999, making a name for itself as one of the most respected yearly festivals in the nation. VOODOO’s success lies in, amongst other things, its uncanny melding ability to blend both local and nationally renowned acts together in the same pot.

VOODOO is housed on the beautiful campus of NOLA’s City Park and shares space with both the Botanical Gardens and the New Orleans Museum of Art.  The interior of the site is wonderfully landscaped with a heavy canopy of oak trees that provides both a cozy feeling and a place to relax if running from one stage to the next is not your bag for at least some of the time spent on the site.

Last year’s fest was marred with early morning and late night rains that turned the festival grounds into a slushy, muddy mush. Anyone with an extra pair of galoshes could have named their price. Dry feet, or dry anything, was a hotter commodity than gold. Fast forward to 2010, and for every ’09 inch of rain there was multiple ounces of sunshine. One couldn’t have dreamt for better weather conditions, with spring-like mid-70 degree highs that ushered in a cool but dry mid to high-50 temps in the evening. With no rain in the forecast until Monday, the three day festival was destined to have a wonderful run.

Friday

voo1a-48.jpgApproaching the main entrance to VOODOO, it was evident that something good lurked in the distance.  Like a monolith, a huge metal structure spelled out the word V-O- O- D- O- O, letting all festival goers know they were headed in the right direction.  The festival was split between six different stage areas and three different themes: Le Ritual, Le Flambeau and Le Carnival. All satisfied the appetites of VOODOO attendees’ hunger for a diverse mix of musical cuisine.  

Set up behind the New Orleans Museum of Art, the crowd-controlling turnstile type entrance served as the last barrier between the city of New Orleans and the world of musical bliss that VOODOO Experience would create for the next three days.  The highlight of local artists during the festival was a priority this year, not to be assumed that it was not important in the past.  Johnny Sketch and The Dirty Notes blasted on the Sony stage early afternoon to get things warmed up.

Johnny Sketch brings a strapping and thunderous sound that mixes blues and rock and roll inflections with a little funk mixed in for good measure.  Local fans of Johnny Sketch danced crazily under the warm sun while the band played delightfully on one of the largest stages.  After watching Johnny Sketch I planned to check out The Stanton Moore Trio, but following my ears, I was persuaded to run over and catch The March Fourth Marching Band, a musical circus event whose multi-member presence on stage matched the richness of the sounds they produced.

A March Fourth performance is akin to squeezing one’s choice marching band of his favorite school team onto a small stage.  The March Fourth Marching Band was a good fit for music fans in New Orleans who have a well-trained ear for the brass heavy offerings that they put down. Well-planned logistics made walks between acts quick, with stages being neither too far nor too close to one another.  Determined not to get sidetracked again I finally made it to The Preservation Hall stage for the Stanton Moore Trio.

voo1a-41.jpgArguably one of the best drummers around, Stanton Moore was joined by local legends Anders Osbourne and Robert Walter for an explosive VOODOO version of the Trio. With the emphasis on Osbourne’s vocals and guitar dominance, Moore took the back seat during this installment of the Trio, and in so doing proved that even the dominant drummer of a band that bears his name can be a perfect musical gentleman when the music inspires. His musicianship spoke loudly by remaining in the pocket, and this exhibition was an example of what can happen when someone is a member of a band and the sound is grown organically.

I would move right along to the VOODOO stage, the largest stage of the festival, where AM would be playing.  The sounds of AM gave listeners a taste of his indie-driven psychedelic tunes that some critics have coined “Future Pop.”  AM, a native of New Orleans, seemed delighted to dart through tunes from his newest record Future Sons & Daughters.  As the set wrapped, the next decision of the day was a cinch as I began to tread the short distance to the Le Flambeau section of the festival that was local-specific for Big Sam. I would not be let down.

Big Sam’s Funky Nation owned the SOCO/WWOZ stage. His catchy lyrics and fancy dance steps provided everything that the late afternoon needed.  As Big Sam played his trombone with what has become his signature bouncing traditional “BuckJumping,” the audience followed suit, creating for a dancing swarm of funk-a-mania.  This set was just one of the examples of how the first day had a momentum that just could not be stopped. 

Smack in the middle of all the music was VOODOO EATS, an oasis where everything from char grilled oysters to any kind of Po Boy sandwich imaginable was served with a style that screamed NOLA.  The refreshments were not to be confused with what one may have come to know as regular festival foods. There were no funnel cakes to be found.  Rather, the food choices were gourmet, served on environmentally friendly disposables, and priced under $10 bucks.  Having satisfied my taste for food, it was now time to feast on the rest of the day’s music. 

voo1a-76.jpgDead Confederate is a band that always makes me smile.  They have both a dedicated fan base as well as an underground buzz that seems to continually grow with each and every show that they play.  Lead singer, Hardy Morris, has a melancholy calmness with his delivery as in “Quiet Kid,” often counteracted with the heavy distortion of his bandmates’ drums, organs and guitars, many times seemingly without forewarning as in “All the Angels.” They are a unit that plays like a sloppy yet orchestrated ensemble. Right across the way from the Dead Confederate’s onslaught of sonic mystery was an artist many festival goers were excited to see, Jónsi. 

Set to play the Sony stage, the vastness of Jónsi‘s dedicated fan base was extraordinary. Many waited for hours that preceded the set, and all were abound with anticipation for the start of a show.  Because of the popularity of Jónsi’s main project, Sigur Ros, these admirers were in the right place for a rare treat from the native Icelander. Jónsi laid down beautiful soundscapes that went perfect with the setting of the sun behind him.

The sun finally fell and I spent the rest of the evening playing a virtual back and forth tug-a-war between the two largest stages. The indie-rock synthesizer infused sounds of Metric started next and were the first instance that lighting directors could play around with movers and spots, providing a stunning canvas of light that was outfitted by VOODOO’s immaculate rig interspersed with Metric’s.  As Metric ended their set, devoted Weezer fans were ready to rock.

Singing along to every word, the crowd went into frenzy as River Cuomo jumped from the stage to the crowd so that he could get closer to his fans.  The now signature mashup of MGMT’s “Kids” with GaGa’s “Pokerface” made its way into the set, along with some tracks from their latest album, Hurley, and of course, “Undone > The Sweater Song.” It was truly epic to see so many people in awe of the performance from a band that has now transcended both decades and fanbase. 

voo1a-81.jpgNow getting closer to the end of the night, MUSE served as the headliner on the VOODOO stage.  Heavy video production was in store to accompany Matthew Bellamy’s electric guitar and wicked vocals. LCD monitors flickered everywhere, even down to the detail of Matthew’s blinking shades. It was a loud, bright finish that resembled the eruption of a volcano. Most festival folks regarded the MUSE performance as the cherry on top of a great day of music, but Raphael Saadiq proved them wrong as they exited the gates.

This performance met the very definition of “sleeper.” Set on the Le Carnival Bingo stage, the front man of R&B band Tony! Toni! Toné! performed 60’s Motown-esque hits from his latest release, The Way I See It. Although many are unfamiliar with Saadiq or Tony! Toni! Toné!, it should be noted that he has sat behind the scenes in the music world, producing heavy acts such as Joss Stone, Mary J. Blige and John Legend.  Bingo was one of the smallest of all the stages, but no one told Saadiq and he and his band made use of every inch, providing a set that outshined that of Muse, which is saying a lot. It was a grand way to close out an amazing day one of the VOODOO experience.

Saturday

Saturday began a little more crunk than Friday did, as NOLA locals got keyed up about the now in-full-swing Halloween weekend that had come upon them and would surely be the source for the unveiling of a copious array of costumes. Saturday also brought out VOODOO citizens both earlier and in more congested volume than its preceding day had. It would eventually prove to be the most attended day of the festival.  

voo2a-20.jpg Just like Friday, the Le Flambeau stages served as the appetizing warm-up point, offering some bands from NOLA’s local fare.  FlowTribe were one of the first to hit the stage with their version of funk tinged rock and roll. Mastering call and response, they kept the crowd involved and moving from the beginning of their set to the end.

Needing a reason for something smooth and slower I jumped right next door to the Bingo Stage to catch Luke Winslow-King, whose set was like a step back in time, providing tunes that paid homage to the old school New Orleans’ style of jazz that obviously has had significant impact on him.

Saturday’s theme would remain local well into the day with the beautiful Mia Borders on the Voodoo stage and subsequently, Alvin Youngblood Hart, The Treme Brass Band, Rebirth Brass Band and The Basin Street Records Revue on the Le Flambeau stages.

A new section not seen in the VOODOO arrangement since 2004 was the Le Plur Stage. Sponsored by Billboard, the stage exclusively featured electronic/DJ genres. This is not to say that VOODOO has not hosted this genre in the past – they have. However, the dedication of an entire stage gave the genre more legitimacy, and ultimately was where the heartbeat of VOODOO could be felt loudest as its deep bass thump would be one’s greeter upon entry to the grounds each day. It was both the first and last thing that was heard. I witnessed Boys Noize and Crystal Method on this stage and mesmerized by the trance-like visuals and intoxicating low frequencies of both, it was entirely clear why these guys needed a stage of their own.

Making my way from technologically made and enhanced music, I would next find myself in for a dose of a punk circa 1990 sound with The Whigs. Watching this high powered trio, one could easily have assumed that front man Parker Gispert was hooked to an electrical livewire by the way he jolted around the stage. They rattled through tracks such as the angst riddled “Already Young” with both poise and fervor.

Next was Tom Morello’s Street Sweeper Social Club, a powerful quartet led by Coup’s Boots Riley.  It’s really unfair that one can’t help but make comparisons to the brisk and abrasive delivery of Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha when listening to Boots control the mic. He’s not trying to sound like Zach, but rather his accomplishments are overshadowed when paired with Morello, whose signature sounds are simply equated with Rage. The spirited cover of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” that was delivered ninja-style by Morello was a crowd pleaser and just seeing Morello do what he does was a treat.

voo2a-72.jpgDrake ‘s performance was a big deal to most, although he seemed to spend more time mumbling about label mate ‘Lil Wayne’s pending release from prison than performing. In so doing, he gave away a piece of his own identity as an artist, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind. They ate the entire performance up from start to finish.

The magic of VOODOO would combine large numbers of Drake fans with an even larger amount of folks waiting to see Ozzy Osbourne, who churned through both his solo hits such as “Bark at The Moon” and those of Black Sabbath such as “Paranoid.” Ozzy gave both the New Orleans metal heads and those who just wanted to rubber-neck exactly what they were waiting for: plenty of rock and roll classics and even more expletive filled ad libs. The crowd was in rare head banging form but, of course, Ozzy didn’t think that the crowd was crazy enough. Trying to take them to his maniacal place, he chose to spray the pit area and front rows with a mysterious foam material while cackling with his familiar howl. No one seemed to mind and the audience only got rowdier. Mission accomplished, Dr. Osbourne.

Sunday

Like the last bite of a really great meal, the final day had come for VOODOO, and with it,  the first true test of the festival’s logistic perfection.

voo3a-8.jpgLocal staple Walter “Wolfman” Washington and his Roadmasters didn’t get the memo and started their onslaught of bluesy tunes on time, as did the scantily clad interpolation of New Orleans’ own Fleur de Tease Burlesque review. Yeah that’s right, half naked bodies prancing around on the Bingo stage for art’s sake.  What other music festival gives you that?

The timeliness of Washington took a dive with Janelle Monae, however – she was at least an hour late, and everyone sat there and waited because of her reputation for putting on such an amazing show. When she did take the stage, her set was a spectacle in the best sense of the word. It was definitely worth the wait, but since we were not in a club, it single-handedly dismantled people’s scheduled music plans.

Being the last day of the festival one would think things would start to slow down, which would be wrong. Courtesy of The Le Plur Stage and performances from Paul Oakenfold and Deadmau5, the festival was as ablaze as it ever was.

With mouse heads all over the place in homage to Deadmau5, it was clear that something amazing was about to about to happen, and it did. Emerging at the top of an LCD-covered polygonal perch was the DJ that wears what is supposed to the head of a dead mouse on during his sets, hence the name, Deadmau5 (pronounced dead mouse). Bouncing and gyrating rhythmically to the beat, Deadmau5 dropped tracks that rattled bones and lit asses on fire. His light show was just as rousing as his music, often making devoted fans dance crazily or just sit there with a blank stare of amazement on their faces.

Le Ritual would pose as the big finish for Sunday’s celebration of music. MGMT honored Halloween by gracing the stage in full costume, paying homage to Scooby Doo Characters. They addressed the crowd with the Spanish word for hello and entered to their own version of the cartoon’s theme song. Their performance was whimsical, but since it was at a festival, it was too short.

My Morning Jacket was given the incredible responsibility of closing out the festival, and Jim James and company did the job well. Most of the hardcore My Morning Jacket fans I spoke to on the grounds said it was one of the best shows they had seen.

voo3a-108.jpgOpening the set with “Wordless Chorus” while dressed in angelic costumes, MMJ raged almost as hard as the crowd. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined MMJ for a few songs during the set, one of which was a tremendous cover of Black Sabbath’s title track, “Black Sabbath” in a tribute to Osbourne. After giving the crowd nearly two hours of music, James sincerely thanked them for their attentiveness and led the band into a fierce set ending “One Big Holiday” for very appropriate finish to what had been a splendid Halloween holiday for all.

VOODOO Experience has now secured its position at the top of music festival hierarchy.  Great music, great food, clean grounds, and wonderful weather were just some of the elements that made this it near perfect.  With only a few schedule glitches, it can stake its claim as a success once again.

Tickets for the 2011 VOODOO are already being sold on the VOODOO Experience website and surely some are already purchasing with only buzz based rumor in regards to who will play. They are not buying a band, they are buying a VOODOO Experience.

CLICK THE THUMBNAIL TO VIEW  Andi Rice’s SHOTS FROM THE Fest!

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