Maybe the vibe resulted from placement at the end of the major music festival season, or perhaps it was a true reflection of the Big Easy lifestyle – in any case, New Orleans’ Voodoo Experience, held Nov. 1-3 in City Park across only four stages, felt like the most laid-back of this year’s multi-day events.
It was also one of the most diverse – continuing its tradition of mixing popular acts with NOLA locals – for better or for worse, depending on the day’s scheduling. Friday put Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, and Pearl Jam back-to-back on the main (Le Ritual) stage, which makes some sense after realizing that the latter acts are Seattle-based homies.
But Saturday had Paramore opening for Nine Inch Nails (loathing loomed large amongst the tirelessly waiting front ranks of NIN super-fans), and Sunday positioned Kid Rock before the Cure, creating a strange goth-versus-good ol’ boys hodgepodge in the evening’s final hours.
Yet, to the organizers’ credit, the eclectic blend above all reflected how the bash has set itself apart from other mainstream festivals while successfully extending the city’s Halloween tradition, year after year. As fest lineups and production elements have become increasingly homogenized over the last few years, Voodoo festival has learned to wear many masks.
And, for its 15th consecutive run – with music, local food, and art that evoked equal parts kickback and outrageous party – the event consistently delivered more treats than tricks.
Most Meaningful Performance
Team Gleason: Former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason, now confined to a wheelchair after battling ALS for several years, introduced the band Friday night. Guitarist Mike McCready donned a “Defend Team Gleason” T-shirt, while Eddie Vedder mentioned that Gleason wrote the setlist and was “a member of the band.” If Gleason really was responsible for those runs of “Jeremy” and the set-closing “Yellow Ledbetter”, the Voodoo crowd has a lot to thank him for.
Seattle love, ya’ll: After a comical Q&A where Vedder polled the crowd on how many people had been arrested in New Orleans (Vedder raised his hand) and how many thought they’d get arrested that night, the frontman suggested that fellow Seattle artist Macklemore (whom I spotted chatting with an exuberantly complimentary Vedder backstage after his show) would foot the bill for bail. Or, at least according to the Pearl Jam vocalist, he’d “give you 10 bucks to buy something at the thrift shop.” Here’s his number, according to Eddie: “206-938-840…” – one digit short, man!
Relevant politics: Vedder took time to bash BP for spilling oil into the nearby Gulf of Mexico and mentioned that “Severed Hand” was about the “rash of overdoses in the last six months … since they legalized marijuana in Seattle,” which, according to bassist Jeff Ament, is “obviously a work of fiction because that never fuckin’ happened before.”
And they covered two Mother Love Bone songs? Yep – another heavy dose of Seattle love that opened the encore, likely thanks again to Gleason, who hails from neighboring Spokane.
Best Energetic Buildup
He’s My Brother She’s My Sister
It began like any other neo-folk outfit… Stand-up bass, a little lap slide guitar, and a quirky drummer backing a male/female vocal duo. But, a few songs into its Saturday afternoon set, the group added a marimba player and, after a couple more songs, an impressive trio of highly harmonic male backup vocalists from tourmates Song Preservation Society. These carefully added layers of collaboration were key to their galvanic buildup.
How about those Edward Sharpe costumes? I’m mostly kidding, but with the boy-girl vocal juxtaposition of actual brother and sister Rob and Rachel Kolar to fill out their hippie-folk sound, there’s a striking sonic semblance to the interchanges of Alex Ebert and Jade Castrinos. That said, these guys actually wear shoes.
Tap shoes, actually. Percussionist Lauren Brown functioned as their “secret weapon,” drawing enormous applause and adding a good bit of swagger with her tap-break (she stands on a drum the whole time) on “Clackin’ Heels”.
“C’mon, conjure it Voodoo.” One of the most creative and relevant sing-along invocations all weekend.
But seriously, Edward Sharpe was there in spirit. The marimba player – also Rachel’s beau and father of her unborn child – was Orpheo McCord from the Magnetic Zeroes.
First off, Zoe Jakes. With elaborate costumes that ranged from a more Middle Eastern take on Princess Leia in Jabba’s palace, to Queen Elizabeth in a bikini, to a mythical fairy, the fluidly moving belly dancer was undeniably the centerpiece of the Oakland-based trio’s Sunday night set. It was all I could do to peel my eyes away and check out the graphics on the screens behind her.
Most impressive: that Les Claypool bit. The Primus frontman didn’t show up in the flesh, but his vocals and slap-bass thrashing could be heard on the song “Beezlebub”. And, his likeness could be seen in all its pseudo-horrific glory on the stage-spanning screens as they portrayed a captivating claymation sequence, with Claypool transforming into and melding with a series of gruesome monsters.
That other dancer doing the striptease: Apparently Jakes has an accomplice – her name got lost in the sea of cheering voices – who didn’t strip bare, but got pretty damn close. As drummer Tommy Cappel and multi-instrumentalist David Satori created a whirlwind of blissfully percussive chaos, the dancer shed layer after layer (at least a dozen) of jumpsuits until all that was left was a silver leotard. All the while, a gold-suited man wearing a fox mask groveled and hopped around behind her. I didn’t understand it, but my brain told me it was cool.
Was that a banjo making that sound? Yes, it was. Satori’s deft strumming was a fine compliment to the unending wub-wub emanating from his MPC. This one took the cake for musically eccentric electro – sorry, Big Gigantic.
Most Unruly Shred Hour
This guy doesn’t even have a Wikipedia Page… let alone a full album. Still, his Saturday afternoon performance was one of the wildest and most gripping of the fest. At one point, the artist born Jordan Cook was thrashing about with such abandon that he snapped his guitar strap and had to take a seat at the stage’s edge to prop his guitar up while nailing one-handed hammer-ons and wailing into the mic like Chris Cornel with his free grip.
“Somehow we ended up recording new music at Ani DiFranco’s house last night.” OK, that’s weird, but also cool. Especially if it helps you put out a full-length album sometime soon.
Apparently it also inspired the use of an electric mandolin: After Cook told his DiFranco story, he revealed that he’d written a song called “Mandolin Song” there. While the title lacked inspiration, Cook made up for it by absolutely shredding on the thing – which looked like a tiny Fender Strat with uncut strings as scraggly as the man’s hair – for a couple more tunes in lieu of his usual six-string.
Most Improved Sound
Why all the black, Madeline? It’s no secret that the duo’s new album, Static, was written after and inspired by Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion’s breakup, so it seemed only appropriate that Follin should don all black – dress and stockings – with matching nail polish. Her new “dark” look gave the much heavier new tunes an extra visual kick that helped Cults dominate the enormous main stage on Saturday.
Trippy video treatments: Good call. Cults was one of the only bands that used spliced video treatment, which consisted of some psychedelic dots and waves layered over shots of the group. Aside from Follin’s charming grab-the-dress-by-the-hem dance, they didn’t move much, so the enhanced visuals helped immensely.
Caught ya cheesin’: Though Follin and Oblivion are no longer a couple (those are both kinda doom-ful names, huh?), it was reassuring – especially as their sound has developed into something far more robust, impactful and likely to last – that they would still flash each other slyly satisfied grins at moments when the crowd got swept up in the music.
Matt & Kim
The cure for the tired fest-goer: No, not the Cure. Though Robert Smith & Co. did play convincingly – deviating from setlists of other recent fests, like ACL – to close Sunday, they were more like the comedown after Matt & Kim transformed one of the weekend’s largest crowds into a non-stop dance party beginning with drummer Kim Schifino’s impressive ninja jump-kick onto the stage.
“We’re like the Evans show: we take a lot of dance breaks.” Matt & Kim’s tunes are unabashedly pop, but hip-hop snippets laced throughout – including Ludacris’ “Move Bitch (Get Out the Way)”, Drake’s “Started From the Bottom”, and DJ Khaled’s “All I Do is Win” – prompted the two to intermittently abandon their instruments and booty dance at the stage front, which in turn riled up the fans nicely.
When life gives you lemons… A.K.A. no preference for special effects at a fest show, you just enlist Kim Schifino – the human power plant – to run through the photo pit, demanding that everyone blow up 400 multi-colored balloons as quickly as possible, then throw them skyward on the count of three. Complicity isn’t always good, but in this case it was beautiful.
Best Big Easy Flavor
Preservation Hall Jazz Band
The main course: When you realize that you’re witnessing an institution of the New Orleans French Quarter that has existed – albeit in shifting incarnations – for 50 years, you know you’ve selected the perfect midday entree. It wasn’t just locals that got their groove on Friday afternoon: the biggest main stage throng next to Nine Inch Nails’ was enraptured by seamless shifts from chill jazz standards to sizzlin’ swing.
If that rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” didn’t get you moving… you don’t belong at Voodoo, or in New Orleans for that matter. This ain’t Coachella, you damn yuppies.
Dr. John almost had it: With a sit-in from Ivan Neville on keys, original Meters bassist George Porter Jr. anchoring, and a slew of other local musicians pitching in, Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack’s Sunday evening set to close the Flambeau stage almost out-shone Preservation Hall. But, he didn’t have two tuba players … or two saxophonists, one of whom (Clint Maedgen) can also croon like Elvis Presley.
Best Fictional Song Segue
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
A long story, but it worked: After his first song, “Ten Thousand Hours”, Macklemore took a break to tell a lengthy (like five friggin’ minutes) tale. The gist was that he was walking around New Orleans, saw an inviting stream, decided to go skinny-dipping, and got his clothes stolen by some thugs. Then, while clutching his shriveled jewels, he encountered a “95-year-old lady” who beckoned him by saying (in his best crone voice), “Come closer child.” She then instructed him to hop on her back (???) and when he asked where they were going, she replied that, seeing as he had no clothes, they were going to “go to the Thrift Shop!” Womp-womp. But, hey, the story had some genuine New Orleans flavor and he did all the voices so well.
Plus, he had Trombone Shorty out there jammin’. The New Orleans horn player is galvanizing on his own, and thus did Macklemore a huge favor by adding some authentic sonic spice to a setlist that’s becoming all too familiar.
And way too short. Are you kidding me? You’re only going to play a 45-minute show that included almost 15 minutes of talking? Could’ve just played “Thrift Shop” again, and even that would’ve been better….
Most Charming Duo
Shovels & Rope
Who says you need a full band? Husband and wife Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst are plenty powerful on their own, and in some ways more dynamic than many of the bands that followed them Friday at Voodoo.
The Black Keys don’t ever switch places… but these two do often, and when Hearst hops on drums, Trent pulls off some mean riffs on his electrified acoustic hollow body, providing a balance to his wife’s sweeter strumming tones.
“Today is All Saints’ Day and tomorrow’s Day of the Dead, so it’s only appropriate that we do a murder ballad.” I think that’s kinda missing the point, but it was cute, and “Shank Hill St.” was a damn catchy tune.