Eighteen years in, a new production company takes over operations at Voodoo Music + Arts Experience, held annually over Halloween weekend at New Orleans’ City Park – trick or treat?
By all accounts, it was the latter with C3 Presents’ newly instated presence (after Live Nation acquired them and the festival a couple years back) offering a number of vast improvements to the three-day event. First off, there were no overlaps between adjacent stages, which virtually eliminated any sound bleeding. Second, the copious flushable toilets reduced bathroom wait times to a minimum. And finally, a creepy cemetery/mortuary, complete with animatronic zombies and professional actors, highlighted the ground’s center, finally putting a kibosh to the festival’s historical lack of Halloween-themed art installations.
It felt like a total facelift and that extended to the festival’s brand itself: A blue skull haunted the entire scene, adorning the main Altar stage, watching over the central plaza as a statue, and following everyone home on various merchandise. Attaching the experience to an icon is a damn smart business tactic and it automatically makes the festival feel more iconic. If all goes accordingly, the skull could eventually become a signature insignia of the festival — much like Bonnaroo’s triquetra symbol. And those are just the enhancements obvious to the general public. The artist, media, and VIP areas also were spruced up, chock full of more treats and comforts.
Beyond those details, C3’s scheduling expertise also contributed to a stellar experience: Friday revved up with a hip-hop and R&B-heavy roster (The Weeknd, Rae Sremmurd, G-Eazy, Tory Lanez), Saturday was saturated with distortion (Tool, Ghost, Bully, All Them Witches, even Die Antwoord and Cage the Elephant, to an extent), and Sunday bottled up the local diversity of the Big Easy (Preservation Hall Jazz Band ,Beats Antique, Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals, the Chainsmokers). Though there was certainly crossover between genres each day, those somewhat distinct breakups made one-day passes more valuable for those with narrower music tastes, while also still satisfying peeps that desire a dash of everything.
All that said, it’s still the artists’ and fans’ efforts – namely, dressing up each day in the most elaborate, outlandish, creative, hilarious, and disturbing costumes. (Special note: Even though his set was lacking, G-Eazy wins Best in Show for his full-on Joker look, replete with some convincingly insane cackles between songs). Chalk it up to the fantastically festive, incomparably creative spirit of New Orleans, where the entire month of October is like one long costume party. That feeling carries over into Voodo, making it the most masterful and memorable Halloween-oriented music festival in the United States.
–David Brendan Hall
Click through to read up on our top sets of the weekend and see our photo gallery.
11. The Weeknd
After two major cancellations this month – see: NYC’s Meadows Fest and Austin’s Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix – one might’ve expected even a slight amount of backlash leading up to The Weeknd’s Friday night headlining set at Voodoo. On the contrary, the absences fanned the flames of excitement — the Canadian singer born Abel Tesfaye easily drew more heads than any other act of the three-day fest, packing the Altar stage space to the point of limited dance-mobility.
Backed by an enormous lighting rig that appropriately evoked some spooky Close Encounters vibes with freeform rotations and blinding light panels, the singer rewarded his faithful throng from the get-go with 2015 hit “The Hills” followed by the live debut of “False Alarm” (outside of Saturday Night Live, which caused the initial scheduling hoopla). Though, aside from the occasional hyped up jump or sashay toward his fans, his performance often took on something of a going-through-the-motions pace.
Still, Tesfaye won extra points for dedicating slow jam “As You Are” to those who held out at the barricade all day to see him, and ultimately earned a spot among the fest’s most thrilling acts for busting out “Starboy”, the slick title track tease to his upcoming third album, for his flashy finale.
It’s always special when a long-running band gets to play the main stage at a massive fest in their hometown, even if it’s early in the day when the crowds are thinner. Such was the case on Saturday with Mutemath, who appeared jovial and energized as they tore through staple cuts (‘Typical”, “Spotlight”) and newer tunes (“Changes”, “Monument”), all of them laden with enough pop-perfect beats and bubbly synths to get most of the modest-sized audience dancing with near-equal enthusiasm to frontman Paul Meany. (That said, no one’s moves could compare to his keyboard headstand and subsequent rocket-legs launch during “Blood Pressure”.)
Aside from an obvious outpouring of love, the band’s local status also afforded Meany the opportunity to bring out a special guest — his five-year-old daughter Amelia — to faux-shred on a mini-pink guitar during spacey instrumental jam “Reset” while he wailed behind her on his keyboard. Toward the end, Meany co-manned a homemade-looking synth-guitar with Amelia, who ran her hands up and down the neck, conjuring bizarre yet fitting frequencies for the final freakout. Adorable family chemistry for the win.
“Say goodnight to these gentleman, they’re leaving tomorrow,” said Maynad James Keenan toward the end of Tool’s Saturday night headlining set, beckoning toward his three band members. “I’ll see you all at 4:30 on the Pepsi Stage — double duty for grandpa.”
The shadowy singer’s pseudo-jest manifested in dual form: Indeed, every Tool fan with a three-day pass came to see Puscifer’s Sunday afternoon set, culminating into the largest crowd on any smaller stage all weekend and, likewise, all of those fans finally, literally saw Keenan in turn. While he remained nearly invisible in the shadows, dressed in riot gear and reflective sunglasses during much of Tool’s show, he performed in clear view Sunday alongside co-vocalist Carina Round, whose heavenly cadence perfectly complemented his during soaring choral cuts like “Galileo” and “Toma”.
Of course, though his eyes were for once unobstructed, Keenan was still disguised in a tiger lucha libre suit and wild-maned wig to match a gaggle of variously themed wrestlers acting out a choreographed combo of signature slams and ballet moves. Those actor-dancers added strength to an hour-long set that was as much performance art as dynamic sonic display, proof that — contrary to perceptions that paint him as a recluse — Keenan is willing to reveal more of himself, including the occasional genuine toothy grin, on smaller stages.
But not without a caveat that doubled as a dig at Donald Trump: “We put out a video that some people interpreted as political,” he said in reference to the following song “The Arsonist”. “We would like to remind those trolls that comedy and parody first neatly under the entertainment umbrella … however, we entertainers will stay out of politics, if politicians stay out of entertainment.”
08. Preservation Hall Jazz Band
Members of New Orleans’ own Preservation Hall Jazz Band have played eight of the last nine Voodoo Fests in some official capacity, so it’s perhaps no wonder that they took on somewhat of an earlier slot among this year’s Sunday fare.
It meant that there weren’t nearly as many people watching their 1:30 p.m. Sunday set, so even more kudos is deserved for a performance that resonated as if the field was full. Two masked dancers Chance Bushman and Giselle Anguizola, from local dance group the New Orleans Jitterbugs, served as inspiration to groove through a particularly hot early afternoon while the 7-piece outfit brass-blasted and wailed through catchy cuts like the ccumbia-toned “Halfway Right, Halfway Wrong” and a cover medley of the Jackson 5’s “ABC” and Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke”.
Every tune featured extended solos from each of the massively talented players, a call-and-response format that saw the audience, however small, singing at raucous volume. With so much NOLA history among their outfit – their oldest member Charlie Gabriel, 84, is a descendent of the city’s music royalty and director/tuba player/bassist Ben Jaffe is the son of Preservation Hall’s founders – the early-bird set served as an appropriate and masterful warm-up to a day packed with soulful sounds.
07. Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals
Each time Anderson .Paak has performed at a fest this year, his energy seems to increase tenfold. To kick off his Sunday main stage set, he and his backing group the Free Nationals harnessed the spirit of Halloween to amp things up another notch by dressing up as hair metal rockers (wigs and aviator shades) and head-banging to Gun N Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” as they took their places on stage.
.Paak switched styles with a sort of controlled mania, starting out with some charismatic raps (“Come Down”, “Milk n’ Honey”) while strutting the camera platform in front of the stage to some funky beats, then dropping back to the drum kit to sing/rap/story-tell (“Put Me Through”, “Room in Here”) in his signature rasp. Late in the set, he cut a deal with his audience: “New Orleans, if I do this new fucking song will you turn up?!”
Cheers abounded in response, and .Paak proceeded to blaze through a new rap reminiscent Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta” cadence. “Don’t I look like a million?” he asked during the refrain. In front of what was likely one of his largest audiences of the year, the apt answer to that query was an affirmative in the form of thousands of hands in the air.
06. The Claypool Lennon Delirium
It’s already uncanny how much Sean Ono Lennon’s voice sounds like his late father, John Lennon. Yet when it’s paired alongside Les Claypool’s creepy snaps and snarls for their collaboration The Claypool Lennon Delirium, one might start to hear the sinister sonic signatures of, say, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Granted, the music they make errs on the side of uplifting, with Claypool emanating more feel-good vibes than he ever does with Primus.
Intermittent smiles from both players throughout Saturday’s set confirmed those sentiments. Along with various textures – a talkbox for Lennon (“Breath of a Salesman”); funky, bow-produced standup bass lines from Claypool (“Boomerang Baby”); a top-hat-wearing keyboardist and drummer — the band hypnotized their audience with a palette of psychedelic sounds as varied as the sunset hues glowing around them.
Though Claypool did don a pig mask for one tune (kinda in the Halloween spirit, though he uses it routinely), neither songwriter is much of a showman in this outfit, relying more on their powerful live proficiencies to captivate their crowd. To that end, one-two renditions of Pink Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine” and The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” rounded out the performance in spellbinding fashion, with Lennon adding waves of borderline metal guitar licks to the latter’s cacophonous, cathartic conclusion.
“Deja fucking vu, New Orleans,” said Maynard James Keenan Saturday night, after wrapping up the band’s rollicking opening epic “Third Eye”.
Before this headlining turn, it had been 15 years since the Los Angeles-based quartet last played Voodoo, so perhaps the frontman, decked out in riot gear this night (one of his usuals, not a Halloween getup), was referring to the feeling of standing on the same stage, because the set list – despite having only one more album to draw from — only repeated five selections from the previous performance.
Oddly enough, the only song pulled from 2006’s 10,000 Days was “Jambi”, which featured mesmerizing visuals depicting a six-sided star seemingly extracting and storing white balls of energy from the head of drummer Danny Carey. As usual, the band never appeared on any video screens, so such picturesque patterns provided the thrust of the shows extrasensory experience beyond sound.
Similar to how their music takes its time building and releasing tension, so did the visuals: Openers “Third Eye” and “The Grudge” showed absolutely nothing on the screens, “Opiate” ushered in a stained glass window pattern to match its pseudo-religious lyrical undertones, and “Ænima” and “Stinkfist” fulfilled the Halloween vibes with creepy creatures and lasers.
All in all, Tool was a perfect fit for the festivities, as Keenan saluted everyone: “Happy All Souls’ Day weekend.”
04. Sir the Baptist
Succinctly defining the music of Chicago-bred artist Sir the Baptist (born William James Stokes) isn’t easy, but he attempted to try anyways during his Sunday afternoon set: “I’m not a rapper. I’m half rapper, half singer … somewhere in the middle like a preacher.” Even without that proclamation and multiple references to “church,” Stokes’ set took on the air of a moving Sunday service where he preached diversity through his music’s stunning variation and striving to attain knowledge through his literal words.
With arms and legs flailing as he continuously bounced and bounded across the stage, Sir the Baptist served up a sermon of gospel (an intro sans Sir with his two backup singers leading the charge), island/dub vibes (“(Creflo) Almighty Dollar”), old-school hip-hop (“What We Got”), new school urban fusion that might give Chance the Rapper a run for his money (“Deliver Me”), and plenty of ‘80s Prince and Louis Armstrong (dat growl) influence throughout.
Though he certainly employed Christian themes during the show, he did it in such a way that didn’t feel overbearing, instead communicating a celebration of life as a gift – and a party: “We poppin’ bottles and it feels like …”
“Heaven!” everyone sang back wholeheartedly.
Sonically speaking, Reignwolf (stage name for Seattle’s Jordan Cook) emulates a lot of rockin’ styles, but punk rock is not one of those. That said, the manner in which he performed Friday night on the smaller South Course stage was decidedly punk in terms of his untamed approach.
The title of opening cut “Hardcore”, his latest single, is perhaps a nod to that ethos, but the song itself sounded like the three-way lovechild of Delta blues, Soundgarden, and Jack White. Throughout that one and a few other similar tunes like “Alone”, “In the Dark”, and “Are You Satisfied?”, Cook became so impassioned in his shredding and flailing that he fell to the ground multiple times and knocked over his mic stand, grabbing up the mic with one hand and wailing into it while he wrangled swampy, distorted hammer-ons from his guitar neck with the other.
For his wildest move, he took his guitar and kick drum down to the barricade for the entirety of “Electric Love”, asserting himself as one of the fest’s most badass rock stars by shrieking and pounding out the song while his fans held the equipment steady.
02. Cage the Elephant
Cage the Elephant frontman Matt Shultz’s vampire teeth with bloody chin was one of the most cliché Halloween getups of the entire weekend, but it made for a perfect metaphor in the sense that the shaggy-haired frontman continually fed off the Saturday night crowd’s energy to power his non-stop barrage of jumps, kicks, mic stand swings, cross-stage runs, crowd-surfs, and explosive vocals.
From the kinetic one-two punch kickoff of “Cry Baby” and “In One Ear”, all the way to supernova set closer “Teeth” (an apt tune to end on given Matt’s costume, or “skateboarding accident,” as he jokingly called it), the Iggy-Pop-incarnate singer and/or his brother Brad were constantly in and out of the crowd, riling fans countless ranks deep into a fun-loving frenzy.
Truly, the crowd response was perhaps more impressive than their limitless energy, a quality they’ve always maintained, but one that’s become a much more massive kick in the teeth as they’ve moved onto main stage status. The sheer number of fans – easily tens of thousands (at every fest they’re playing now) – singing back all the lyrics to old and newer anthems alike (“Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked”, “Cigarette Daydreams”) pushes Cage the Elephant past the point of mere popularity toward a destiny of becoming rock legends.