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 (?).