Cooking Gumbo, Whipping the Voodoo: Anderson .Paak, Arcade Fire, and More Haunt New Orleans
As it enters adulthood in its eighteenth edition, the City Park fixture is more complicated, charismatic, and costumed than ever.
During the Voodoo Music + Arts Experience, it’s hardly unusual to see the same people over the course of the weekend wearing incrementally filthier costumes. At New Orleans City Park’s sprawling festival grounds, this is especially true for younger guys in full-body foam pizzas, bananas, and other “funny” foods. Three tall, middle-aged men made it through Sunday in all-white A Clockwork Orange droog-inspired outfits without a speck of dust. Among the seas of gothy teens and inflatable dinosaurs were painted skeleton faces and a few David S. Pumpkins (but never together, sadly), Mario and Luigi bros (always bros), floral print shirts, and very lazy Raoul Dukes and Jokers. (Also in this year: Native American headdresses, still, somehow. Thankfully retired this year, finally: the face-covering, full-body spandex onesie.)
The annual Halloween-weekend music festival turned eighteen this year. A huge chunk of this year’s crowd wasn’t even born when Moby headlined on Halloween 1999. Its creation filled a vacuum for an alternative festival in the South—particularly in New Orleans, where the spring’s two-week-long Jazz and Heritage Festival maintains a yearlong grip on “big” festival hosting duties. Voodoo has managed to survive and grow from the early-aughts window when alt-rock radio still mattered into the fall mammoth it is today, still inspiring endless debate over who’s playing, whether it actually sucks now, or how it’s not the same. And it’s better for it.
There were a few failed experiments in between, like that brief stretch where you could camp there, or when the festival slowly, painfully, unveiled its lineup on social media, or when it stuck its EDM stage smack in the middle of the grounds at the height of dubstep hysteria.
For millennials, before the global magnifying glass began to hover over the city after Hurricane Katrina, it was a safe space, and the only space, to see a dozen things you’d never see over the course of a year, keeping a generation of young music fans in touch with a national “alternative” pop culture while New Orleans remained firmly off the radar for many touring bands.
Its timeline reads like middle schooler discovering new music. There was Third Eye Blind and Moby in 1999, Eminem in 2000, No Doubt in 2002, and the trifecta of Sonic Youth, Pixies, and Beastie Boys in 2004. Its post–Hurricane Katrina one-off move to Memphis and its return in stride with M.I.A. and Rage Against the Machine in 2007, R.E.M. in 2008, then Justice and the festival maybe considering moving to a different time of year in 2009 (it didn’t). There was Drake in 2010, Odd Future punching a photographer in 2011, Neil Young and Skrillex and the birth of the festival’s EDM dominance in 2012, and The Cure and Nine Inch Nails in 2013. Slayer opened for Outkast on Halloween 2014 at what has turned out to be Outkast’s last concert. In 2015, heavy rains and an ocean of mud forced organizers to cancel the festival’s third day, marking its first-ever closure. The night before, John Lydon opened a US tour with Public Image Ltd. by shooting snot out of his nose.
The festival is now produced by C3 Presents, which also oversees Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza, and it leans more into the “experience” part of “music and art experience.” It doubled down on its Halloween gimmick and all its inspired amenities, with giant-sized prayer candles with actual flames shooting from them, along with a haunted house and adjoining graveyard. Actors playing graveyard dead blended in almost too well with the crowd.
On opening night, G-Eazy—as Jared Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad—could’ve done the same. He toasted to New Orleans, a sort of second home for the East Bay rapper, and admitted to sneaking into Voodoo when he lived here. His brand of expensive, energetic boast-rap (complete with pyrotechnics) stood in contrast to Rae Sremmurd, who blasted their songs from a computer immediately thereafter.
The Weeknd’s narcotic R&B—darkly seductive, weird and ecstatic—perfectly sums up where Voodoo is in 2016: a hypnotic mess of contradictions and sex and drugs and rock and roll and dancing. A triangular light fixture rose from the stage accompanied by the gut-busting synth blasts of the ubiquitous hit “The Hills.” It’s strange to watch The Weeknd try to command a massive audience and stage production while seemingly alone on stage with nothing but his falsetto, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind.
Saturday’s lineup skewed more on the “rock” side, with the festival’s prestige alternative rock band slot dedicated to Tool, closing out a run of 2016 shows. After the endless stirring of rumors of new songs and a new album in the works, the band quashed them mightily. For their second 2016 performance in New Orleans, Tool stuck to a tidy, heavily atmospheric nine-song set. “Deja fucking vu,” said singer Maynard James Keenan. A few strands of lights on the nearly blacked-out stage was the focal point, surrounded as it was by massive screens turned off for the band’s performance. There were no closer looks. Just the band’s enveloping, idiosyncratic heaviness.
Earlier in the day, Bully shredded the shit out of a smaller stage, testing the limits of the festival soundboards typically fitted for more technical arrangements. And everyone in Sean Lennon and Les Claypool’s Claypool Lennon Delirium wore hats, though it was unclear whether they knew they all were wearing hats. Lennon also wore a donkey tooth necklace for the occasion, he said. A gorgeous Mellotron helped replicate a pitch-perfect “In the Court of the Crimson King,” an epic moment in a set devoted to a lot of noodling.
On Halloween Eve, Anderson .Paak and The Free Nationals literally bounced onstage to Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” wigs and ripped-up band T-shirts in tow. Paak demonstrated his versatility as a performer, moving from MC to raspy-howled soul man to funky drummer to all of those things at the same time. The band, clinging to the stage, teased a few moments from “Let’s Dance” before closing with Venice’s dance track “Luh You” amped up a dozen clicks.
If Halloween falls within a two-day radius of the weekend in New Orleans, then the weekend is Halloween also. Nights are fair game for costuming downtown, and it’s kind of insulting if you’re not decked out yourself. Arcade Fire, who have relocated part-time to the city, shared glimpses of new ideas at a small, secret masquerade gig the night before the band’s headlining slot on the festival’s closing day. There, the band largely stuck to a hit list, going off book for a brief “Ghostbusters” theme riff—with Win Butler encouraging brother Will to go for a sax solo, which he hilariously failed to do—and an audience acapella singalong for something new. Win, with a park-sized crowd hanging on the band’s every note, took a few opportunities to run down his shit list: “Fuck British Petroleum,” “fuck private prisons,” and hey, you know how to prevent abortions? “Condoms.”
But this was also the band’s first “real” concert in the city since making their second home here (though they’ve certainly made their presence known). Their sincere, repeated thanks to the city wasn’t the typical condescending waves bands drop into the end of their sets to sell you how good your little town is. They meant it.
“It makes me proud to be an American in New Orleans,” Butler said. “We have to protect what’s sacred and beautiful about this city. There’s not much of it left.” FL