Anytime a major music festival’s ownership and/or promotion changes hands, there’s bound to be a few hiccups in the beginning as new money, strategies, and procedures take root. So when Live Nation Entertainment acquired the annual Voodoo Experience in New Orleans about a year ago, there was some worry about the preservation of the event’s unique nature. For 15 years under the production of Stephen Rehage, it was a true representative of the Big Easy’s core culture: laid back, brimming with excellent cuisine and beverages, musically more diverse than any other mainstream fest (save for perhaps Jazz Fest and Bonnaroo) and generally just one of the best Halloween party spots on the planet.
Yet Live Nation played it smart by keeping Rehage on board during the transition – they even gave him an executive position as president of the company’s North American Festivals division – and the overarching vibe from 2013’s festival to this year at NOLA’s beautiful City Park remained fluid.
That’s not to say the operation was flawless – observant attendees might’ve noticed that most of the same interactive art pieces, signage, and carnival rides were simply rehashed and rearranged. And in the name of everything held holy at these multi-day events, why oh why did they schedule Ms. Lauryn Hill for a main stage spot? She’s well-known for her tardiness and, sure enough, showed up about 45 minutes past her scheduled six p.m. Sunday set time. Granted, she sounded fantastic once she finally got up there, but promoters did the right thing by shooing her off after just 20 minutes so that remaining Ritual Stage acts 30 Seconds to Mars and Arctic Monkeys could play their full set times.
Aside from that minor malfunction, though, everything else ran like clockwork and the most important tradition – musical diversity – was well preserved. Nearly any sonic style you could think of was present across the three days: hip-hop (OutKast, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Action Bronson, Yung Nation), rock ‘n’ roll (Foo Fighters, Arctic Monkeys, the Wild Feathers, Rise Against, Slayer, Death From Above 1979, Melvins), EDM (Skrillex, Zedd, Pete Tong, Pretty Lights), and plenty of Lousianna locals (Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Benjamin Booker, Big Freedia, Rebirth Brass Band, Givers, Royal Teeth).
Still, more than the organizers or any artist, it was the spirit of the fest’s fans that kept the candle of creativity burning and provided the grandest spectacle. On Halloween, people of all ages and walks donned some of the most imaginative costumes I’ve ever seen – from homemade Egyptian royalty outfits, to Elliott from E.T. the Extra- Terrestrial (complete with attached bicycle basket and tiny alien wrapped in a blanket), to a custom-designed Krang outfit (the supervillain from the oldschool Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, for all you youngins).
And when All Hallow’s Eve had passed, the widespread masquerade continued – it was a treat to see ghouls and Teletubbies joining forces in the circle pits during Slayer, and likewise, it was amusing to note the massive number of Super Mario Brothers enthusiasts roaming the grounds each night (mad props to the group that pulled off the complete Mario Kart cast, colored balloons and all). Major kudos go out to all those that went the extra mile to stretch Halloween into a three-day celebration – it’s all of you that year after year make Voodoo an Experience, not just another festival.
Best Two-Man Act
Twenty One Pilots
I love the Black Keys and the White Stripes as much as the next garage rock disciple, but I’ve never seen Dan Auerbach or Jack White do a fucking backflip off an upright piano. Twenty One Pilots drummer Joshua Dun nailed one on a dime Friday at Voodoo fest. At one point, he also beat the hell out of his skins while “crowd surfing” atop a makeshift plywood drum platform, and vocalist Tyler Joseph likewise caught air to rival Michael Jordan a couple times throughout the midday set. He even went so far as to climb the soundboard scaffolding.
Though they did incorporate copious costume changes (masked burglars, skeletons, and aliens — oh my!), it wasn’t just acrobatic antics and gimmicks that made their run one of the afternoon’s best. Joseph and Dun craft disarmingly catchy tunes like “House of Gold”, “Car Radio”, and “The Run and Go”, which combine varied styles including hip-hop, reggae, punk rock and piano rock (á la Cold War Kids). It may be difficult to pinpoint their musical focus, but one thing’s for sure: they were the best two-man show all weekend and a much needed uplifter among an understimulating Day One lineup.
Best Punk Act That Isn’t Totally Punk
“I wanna go home and tell people there’s a punk scene in New Orleans — is there?!” asked Rise Against frontman Tim McIlrath after kicking off the Chicago-based band’s set in rollicking fashion with “Ready to Fall” and “Give It All”.
The audience’s reaction didn’t completely affirm that; not many people were too eager to mosh when McIlrath asked for it, but plenty held their fists high and sang along heartily. Kudos to these boys for doing exactly what the latter tune insinuated, putting 110 percent into the performance with insanely high kicks and jumps (guitarist Zach Blair is always a treat to watch), delivering the right amount of positivity combined with raucous rage.
Though the band’s seventh and latest studio album, The Black Market, is their highest charting to date, the group played it safe with the setlist, electing only to play the lead single, “I Don’t Want to Be Here Anymore”. I suppose defiantly sticking to the old-school shit in the face of commercial success is punk as fuck in its own way.
Most Sinister Halloween Show
For the frontman of a band whose songs mostly deal with themes of death and the apocalypse, Slayer frontman Tom Araya is a mightily congenial fellow.
“I wanna thank you very much for coming here today — you came, so we came,” he said after roaring through “Disciple”, “Hate Worldwide”, and two ‘80s-era classics, “Mandatory Suicide” and “Chemical Warfare”, during the band’s Friday evening main stage set.
Yet those sincerely upbeat tidings were quickly followed by two of the band’s most morbid tunes, “Postmortem” and “Necrophiliac”, the latter prefaced by a defiant sneer and a warning from Araya: “You ready? We’re about to go on a long roller coaster ride.”
Nearly everything after that was a celebration of the most sinister pre-’90s thrash metal — key cuts like “Captor of Sin”, “Hell Awaits”, and “Black Magic” transformed once innocent-looking fans costumed as Little Bo Peep, Peter Pan, or Alice in Wonderland into snarling, moshing minions of evil. Gotta hand it to Slayer — the passing of founding guitarist Jeff Hanneman and recent (re-)departure of drummer Dave Lombardo haven’t impeded their pace one bit, but only fanned the flames of inspiration. If next year’s much anticipated and still-untitled 11th studio album (the follow-up to 2009’s World Painted Blood) manages to channel the menacing energy of this night, it might just spark the most impassioned bloodlust among hardcore thrash metal fans in decades.
Best Halloween-themed Music
Rebirth Brass Band
I won’t lie, I didn’t stay for more than a small chunk of Rebirth Brass Band’s Friday night set on the intimate, locally focused Flambeau stage. I’d reached the no-food-for-hours threshold long before that and needed to break away for nourishment.
But the jam session that I did witness from one of the Big Easy’s most revered brass bands in history was enough to mark it down as best Halloween-focused set of the weekend. Right out of the gates, the nine-piece outfit launched into a blaring rendition of the Ghostbusters theme song, pulling at the heartstrings of so many generations as they led the callback of “Who ya gonna call?” between flawlessly executed bouts of galvanic trumpet/trombone solos and improvised percussion breakdowns. Hands down the best All Hallows’ Eve dance-off I’ve witnessed in years.
Most Underwhelming Halloween Show That Still Meant Something
If there were high expectations for any show among those landing on Halloween proper at Voodoo to rise above and beyond, it was OutKast’s headlining set on the Ritual stage. Seriously, with his reputation for wacky outfits/wigs and jumpsuit quotes, Andre 3000 would be the one to dress up in something extra special for this occasion, right?
Unfortunately, there was nothing extra in the way of spectacle — in fact, there was less than at previous fest stops as the outfit’s visual cube was missing from its dead-center spot. Yet it was still impossible not to look on in reverence given that this marked the final date of Andre and Big Boi’s lengthy reunion tour. The question loomed: Was this their last show ever?
The message on Andre’s jumpsuit this evening (“I don’t know what else to say”) seemed to answer that with a resounding yes, though neither rapper gave fans the satisfaction of knowing for sure by making a statement onstage. When Big Boi repeatedly queried, “Trick or treat?” toward the end of the set, a glimmer of hope emerged that they might at least bust out some deep cuts not included during the past year’s run. But that didn’t happen either.
Still, watching the two close out the night with “The Whole World” (sadly without Killer Mike, who was busy performing with partner El-P as Run the Jewels on Letterman) with giant grins plastered on their faces conjured an unerring feeling of gratefulness. Mad props to one of history’s greatest hip-hop groups for returning with such auspicious fervor to thoroughly indulge its adoring fans across so many locales. RIP, Outkast (?).
The Louisiana Band Most Deserving of a Main Stage Spot
Most Louisiana-bred bands who played at Voodoo were relegated to the small Flambeau stage, each one taking advantage of intimacy with close friends and loyal fans to put on some of the weekend’s most gripping engagements. An exception was Lafayette’s Royal Teeth, who all but wasted a Friday afternoon main stage spot with a snoozishly one-note, too-pretty pop performance.
After witnessing Givers — who hail from that same town — draw by far the largest and most exuberant crowd to that stage Saturday night, it was clear that they should’ve been given that prime billing instead. They would’ve owned it.
Case in point: Since my last encounter with them at Coachella 2012, a few months after the release of their debut LP, In Light, Givers’ musical maturity and stage presence have increased a thousandfold. That was especially apparent during test runs of new songs, which saw percussionist/vocalist Tiffany Lamson effortlessly channeling the haughtiness of tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus in both robust vocal pitch and wild yet tack-sharp tribal drumming.
Co-vocalist Taylor Guarisco and his three backing boys likewise seemed to have acquired extra chops in the choral department, their soaring harmonies often culminating into something like the most euphoric anthems by Local Natives. If they’re given the chance (and they should be), expect these masterful melody-makers to sweep audiences off their feet on much larger stages during the 2015 festival circuit.
Best Big Easy Spectacle
Anytime you see Big Freedia, if you know the drill, you know you’re in for a spectacle. The self-proclaimed queen of bounce music always comes armed with a maelstrom of mind-boggling ass shaking that is ultimately impressive, if not at first slightly disturbing. Though the usual shtick would’ve sufficed to impress, the Queen Diva clearly wasn’t satisfied with delivering the same ol’ show to this adoring hometown crowd.
Instead, Freedia revealed a special production that fell somewhere at the crossroads of Cirque du Soleil, Broadway, and the music video for Sisqo’s “Thong Song” — but with a New Orleans twist. As he kicked off the opening beat, DJ Rusty Lazer shouted, “This ain’t no regular shit!” That proved to be true when a lone violinist dressed in golden Victorian-era garb and powdered wig took the stage for an extended solo. His solemn playing drew out Freedia, who emerged slowly from the shadows wearing an elaborate purple headdress with matching cape that was paired with a regal black-and-gold body suit (go Saints?).
A moment later, she was joined by male dancers whose garb mirrored the violinist’s while her female backups turned up in Plantation-era hoop skirts with matching wide-brimmed hats and parasols. The ensuing dance routine was more tempered than the following rump-in-your-face rumpuses surrounding mainstay tracks like “Rock Around the Clock”, “Make Ya Booty Go”, and “Azz Everywhere”, but it was truly more visually stunning than anything pulled off by any other Voodoo artist. Guess that’s how you do it when you’re bona fide Big Easy royalty.
Most Improved Since Reuniting
Death From Above 1979
When I saw punk/noise-rock duo Death From Above 1979 make their initial return to the stage after about five years away in 2011 at Coachella and again at FYF Fest, I honestly thought it sounded like a shit-racket. Drummer Sebastien Grainger’s vocals were grating, to say the least, and the mix was so loud and muddied that all I wanted to do was run in the other direction.
By contrast, on Saturday at Voodoo fest, they were incredible. Maybe it was a better mix, maybe Grainger took some vocal lessons, or maybe my tastes have changed. Regardless, it sucked me (and a surprisingly massive main stage audience) in at every turn. I wanted to dance, scream along, and head bang with what little hair I have.
I’ve gotta think, though, that the improvement has much to do with what I heard off the band’s sophomore album The Physical World, which was all 11 tracks save for “Nothin’ Left” (given that most songs run 2-3 minutes, they were still able to squeeze in six more from their 2004 debut You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine). Tracks like “Right On, Frankenstein!”, “Trainwreck 1979”, and “Always On” exuded a new sense of pleasing melody combined with the familiar flurries of sonic chaos. Doubtless I wasn’t the only new fan they acquired this day.
Most Versatile Act
Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue
If Big Freedia is the queen of Voodoo Experience, local brass badass Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews is the undisputed king. I mean, he practically has a residency; last year he wasn’t even on the bill and showed up to toot his horn during Macklemore’s main stage set. This year, it was his turn to shine all his own. Well, not all on his own … he had his brothers in backing band Orleans Avenue, who can switch seamlessly from jazz to heavy rock within the span of one jam, helping him out.
But as he asserted Sunday evening amid the glorious glow of New Orleans’ magic hour, he’s the focal point of that group’s versatility. It was sort of like watching the Roots wrapped up into one dude: he started with an instrumental banger on trombone, easily switched over to masterfully soulful vocal duties on “The Craziest Things”, then scooped up his trumpet for a more funk-flavored instrumental piece. His voice channeled the late great Ray Charles (who he often covers via the classic “I’ve Got a Woman”) on fiery closing number “Fire and Brimstone”, but not before he jammed out once more on a trumpet medley that included vocal snippets of Limp Bizkit’s “Rollin’” and Big Tymers’ “Get Your Roll On”.
Of course, those latter forays only included the sung hooks, but Shorty could probably bust a mean rap verse if he tried. He should try.
Best Rock Show (ever?)
Full disclosure: I love Foo Fighters. They are one of my favorite rock bands of all time. So, hell yes, I’m giving them a shining review. But I’m also a responsible music critic, and I’m willing to admit that there are a handful of hit songs — “The Pretender”, “My Hero”, “Learn to Fly”, “Times Like These”, and “Best of You” — that I would be totally fine with never hearing on the radio ever again.
Yet, Sunday night during their two and a half-hour, fest-closing set at Voodoo Experience, they took the annoyance of those tunes and — on extended jams laced with the screaming riffs of three electric guitars (via Dave Grohl, Pat Smear, and Chris Shiflett), a bone-rattling rhythm section (nods to Nate Mendel and human pile driver Taylor Hawkins), and one of straight-ahead rock’s fiercest vocalists (Grohl again) — transformed them into something wholly new and exciting. Thing is, they always manage to do that onstage, which is part of what makes them one of the greatest live rock groups of the last two decades (they celebrated 20 years as a band this year).
This sentiment also stems from their attempt to make every show special in its own right by busting out choice covers, frequently hosting special guest sit-ins, and generally paying some sort of contextual ode to the city they’re playing in.
“Ask anybody in this fucking band,” began Grohl after a screaming, true-to-the-spirit cover of Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ bout Love”. “The city that stood out the most and we had the most fun in [while recording eighth studio album Sonic Highways] was New Orleans. The thing I love is that music is such a big part of this city, and you guys preserve it and keep it that way. If everyone marched down city streets dancing on signposts and shit, the world would be a better place.”
That love shone through during blazing runs on the only song from the upcoming album, “Something from Nothing”, which is truly fraught with some of Foos’ most ferocious tri-axe riffs, and two more choice covers, a jazzy-to-heavy version of Tom Petty’s “Breakdown” and a Hawkins/Grohl duet on the Queen/David Bowie collabo “Under Pressure”. Yet the band’s full embrace of Big Easy culture didn’t fully shine through until Grohl invited Trombone Shorty out for a cookin’ jam on first album cut “This Is a Call”.
After an epic moment like that, the customary show closer, “Everlong”, took on new meaning. It’s a word that incontestably describes Foo Fighters’ ongoing legacy.