Voodoo 2016 Festival Review: 11 Scary Good Performances

Tool, Arcade Fire, Puscifer, and Cage the Elephant haunted the Halloween weekend


    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
    Contributing Writer

    Click through to read up on our top sets of the weekend and see our photo gallery.


    11. The Weeknd

    The Weeknd // Photo by David Brendan Hall

    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.


    10. Mutemath

    Mutemath // Photo by David Brendan Hall

    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.


    09. Puscifer

    Puscifer // Photo by David Brendan Hall

    “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”.

    Puscifer // Photo by David Brendan Hall

    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

    Preservation Hall Jazz Band // Photo by David Brendan Hall

    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.


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