October 26-28, 2012
As an unabashed Jazzfest vet, I approached my first Voodoo with excitement and a hint of fear. The mix of rap, EDM, and the often indefinable, sprinkled with the best of New Orleans contemporary and traditional, on a bed of arena headliners, eclectic rockers, funk and blues artists, is uniquely Voodoo. Look, I’m an old school guy who knows enough to be dangerous to himself. Not a banger, a mosher or a surfer. I know Skrillex drops bombs that turn your bones to jelly and have never been to a Metallica show in my life, but I approached Voodoo with anticipation and an open mind. After all, there was Mr. Neil Young touring with Crazy Horse for the first time in eight years. Gary Clark, Jr.’s, blues without boundaries and the omni-bluesusical Jack White closing it out.
OK, so much for the obvious. How far would I go to connect with my inner Voodoo? Would I make it to Borgore (an Israeli DJ formerly of a death metal band), the total bizzaro of South African rappers Die Antwoord or Electric Daisy Carnival main stager Nervo (all three made “Rolling Stone’s 10 Must See Acts at Voodoo Fest”)? Maybe Voodoo would leave me forever changed and socially morphed. Or play it safe, reveling in New Orleans talent like the Soul Rebels, George Porter, Jr., Lil Band O’ Gold and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Hmmm. At Jazzfest, FOMS (“fear of missing something”) always runs high. At Voodoo, where I should be and where I could be was a kind of personal dare.
City Park is one of New Orleans’ great spaces and home to Voodoo since it moved from Tad Gormley Stadium (near the top of the park). It’s a relaxed setting of endless greenery and moss-draped oaks, crossed by footpaths and waterways. Perfect for the last big fest of the year and a contrast to the nearby fairgrounds that host Jazzfest. The weather was spectacular; a mix of late summer warm and crisp autumn cool. The five stages are easy to access and not more than a 10-minute walk from one end to the other.
Unlike Jazzfest, Voodoo goes well into the night and the weekend before Halloween in New Orleans gooses the id of the crowd even higher. Corsets and fishnets, the entire food chain (yes, that giraffe had just enough headroom to clear the porta-john), dudes in tutus. Just another day in NOLA.
‘nuf with the travelogue. Friday’s schedule was packed with Gary Clark, Jr., The Avett Brothers and Neil Young & Crazy Horse at the Ritual (main) Stage later in the day and rich with other bands I throughout. I headed to the Preservation Hall Stage, which featured local talent during the weekend. Both the Pres Hall Stage and the nearby WWOZ/Bud Light Stage are insanely intimate and, early in the day, they had the feel of a backyard barbeque. I needed an infusion of big horns right away and found it with the TBC (“To Be Continued”) Brass Band. Yup, officially back in NOLA. Next move was the soul pop of Brooklyn’s Andy Suzuki and the Method. Not quite blue-eyed in sound, but definitely soul directed, the instrumentation of fiddle and djembe (an African hand drum) augmented Suzuki’s strong vocals and keys to create vibrant, easy on the ears material. Back to the Pres Hall Stage for Little Freddie King and his traditional duckwalk , after which he threw in a little James Brown (ala “Sex Machine”) along with the usual blues staples. Guitar “Lightnin” Lee joined Little Freddie for a few tunes of dueling 3-ball red Lucilles. Stuck close by for C.C. Adcock who was sporting some impressive hardware including a steel Thinline Tele that he played with tons of tremolo and a hard tailed hollow body Flying V replete with whammy bar. Accompanied by an upright bass and two drummers facing off on a riser (giving the appearance of interlocking kits), these guys were howlingly loud and kicked up some stompingly serious boogie.
As the day was picked up, I had to be strategic heading up to Gary Clark, Jr.’s 5 o’clock start time and the bigger names that followed. New Orleans’ 101 Runners’ tribute to Big Chief Bo Dollis was my next move and I arrived mid-set with Mardi Gras tunes on full boil. Rolling Stone pointed me next to Delta Rae, a family band featuring rooted arrangements and sweet harmonies. They hit nice Mumford-like notes without the sadness or overearnestness that befalls many of their contemporaries that played well with the younger crowd. I can see why RS called them out and look forward to hearing more than the few tunes I heard. The Le Plur/Red Bulletin Stagepulled me away for a taste of Nervo, the sister EDM act. Now, I’ve been to Electric Daisy Carnival about as many times as I’ve been (or will be) to Burning Man, but I have to say the energy was playful, totally fun and infectious. Maybe it was the safety of the daylight, but I kind of got it in my own I don’t do this thing sort of way. Then the 80s called. Thomas Dolby was playing at the Le Carnival Stage. Dolby was one of the most successful to mix effects, danceable beats and tech with sophistication and rock that was neither the cousin of 70s electronic manipulation à la Kraftwerk or the pop candy of Duran Duran. It was 80s music with a brain. Early tunes included “Europa” (a personal favorite), the band had more strings than electronics and keys, and Dolby himself lent a very affable presence. Thoroughly enjoyable.
Time to get my roots on with Gary Clark, Jr. at the Ritual Stage. With his ACL set scorched in my brain (which I streamed) and a show-stopping Jazzfest set in the Blues Tent (opposite Springsteen), any chance to see Clark, Jr., at this point in his career is an opportunity to witness prime time talent on the rise. No surprise he draws well at big festivals, even though two years ago only a few had really heard him. I could only stay for the first few tunes, but as soon as he hit stage it was if a huge Texas storm had just taken a blue sky day and tossed the place. The Texas shuffle of “Don’t Owe You a Thang” was especially smokin’. Next stop, George Porter, Jr. and His Runnin’ Pardners back at the OZ Stage. I appreciate Porter, Jr.’s playing even more in non-Metersesque settings (that he brings NOLA funk to Dead grooves with 7 Walkers is especially a treat) and Pardner Brint Anderson’s Les Paul and slide are well matched. After a taste of George, The Avett Brothers hit the Ritual Stage, their thrash banjo-cello attitude showing why they have such a great festival following. These guys are the anti-ramble, wielding bluegrass instruments like sharp knives, and have unstoppable energy. After a few of Avett Brothers tunes, I couldn’t miss Malian stringer Cheick Hamala Diabate. Diabete, a Washington (DC) resident, is a griot (West African troubadour of sorts) who has collaborated with Bela Fleck and performed for the US Congress, and builds musical bridges between traditional griot instruments and their western counterparts. His banjo playing and jamming were remarkable and one of the days many highlights. One last stop before the headliner, one more special Voodoo collaboration at the Pres Hall stage that brought together George Porter, Jr. and Johnny Vidacovich, with Skerik and Mike Dillon of Garage a Trois, and the legendary “Kidd” Jordan. Jordan swapping and merging tenor squonks with the crazed and incredibly innovative Skerik over a hard groove from Porter, Jr. and Johnny V. was not to be missed, except for Neil Young.
Neil Young has been headlining large arenas, sheds and festivals for his first tour with Crazy Horse since 2004 and his body of work remains seminal to my personal soundtrack (and has since the 70s). Young’s last performance in New Orleans at the 2009 Jazzfest is the stuff of legend. Seriously. After shredding the strings of Ol’ Black at the end of his “Day in the Life” encore, the swollen skies opened up just when the last note faded. This night was mild, and the skies clear, as Young and the Horse took the stage for a 2-hour set that can only be described as primally charged. Largely sticking to a set list consistent with the tour to date, Young was fresh from a gig in Tuscaloosa with the Horse the night before and his annual acoustic Bridge School benefits the prior weekend. The tour has featured nuggets from early 90s Young and Crazy Horse including “Love and Only Love” (the opener) and “F*!#in’ Up” from “Ragged Glory”, tracks from the just released “Psychedelic Pill” and obligatory classics.
With just a few exceptions, the set was pure cronk. Jurassic and thunderous from start to finish, perhaps never more so than with the seemingly endless coda to “Walk Like a Giant”. There was the 10+ minutes of the song and the 10+ minutes to the finish that was reduced to nothing but sustain, distortion and apocalyptic howl. Young was literally hugging the top of his stack, squeezing every last possibility for noise out of the thing until there was nothing left to give. At one point in the middle of “Giant” Young, back turned, raised his arms and shook his fists at the heavens as if channeling planetary frustration through his Les Paul to get the Almighty’s attention. He got mine. Nothing like the junkie ballad “Needle and the Damage Done” to take the edge off after that.
Later in the set, with a long pick scratch down the neck and some time machine humor, Young launched into a raucous “Mr. Soul”, before closing with “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” upon which the 40-something woman next to me proclaimed, “old guys know how to rock!”. Now there’s some Voodoo wisdom for ya. He came back with “Like a Hurricane” as an encore, at one point drifting on the words “somewhere safer”, as if repeating them would make them truer. It all ended in a ritualistic roar with Young deconstructing Ol’ Black yet again, then disintegrating into a primordial rumble that had him nudging the barely beating carcass of his guitar like a big cat over a fresh kill. A fitting end to Voodoo Day 1.
The great thing about Voodoo is sleeping in. While gates open 11ish, the music can go another 12 hours. Especially in NOLA, it is important to recharge, so rolling in around 3 seemed reasonable (as much as I wanted to check out Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, it just didn’t happen). My first Day 2 stop was the Soul Rebels Brass Band at the OZ Stage. The Rebs are Jazzfest fixtures, and get around plenty during festival season. By the time I hit their set, they were working Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” into a joyful, brassy lather. Contemporary Cajunistes Feaufollet were a worthy detour at the Pres Hall Stage before catching some of the Revivalists set at the Ritual Stage. I’ve written a lot about them lately and what I saw of their Voodoo set only reaffirms a New Orleans band playing vital rock and roll that is going places (with a Soul Rebels walk on that made them sound even better). Ingrid Lucia Presents the New Orleans Nightingales was a showcase for female vocalists of blues, jazz and traditional persuasions backed by a crack band with Alex McMurray on guitar and a 5-piece horn section including Bonerama’s Craig Klein. Irma Thomas (who I missed) is always a draw, but it was great to hear a wide range of stylings in a back-to-back format from Debbie Davis, Alexendra Scott, Banu Gibson, Meschiya Lake, Holly Bendtsen and others.
One of my must do Voodoos was Dave Stewart, who I had not seen perform since the Eurythmics days. Stewart’s recorded collaborations with Annie Lennox swung radically from the sythn-pop, tech heavy (and beautifully executed) cool of “Sweet Dreams” and “Here comes the Rain Again” to the fiery funked up rhythm and soul of “Would I Lie to You” and “Missionary Man”. Knowing he had taken a bluesier, rootsy direction in recent years had me very curious. Stewart came dressed for the Voodoo vibe with a band that included Nashville guitarist, Tom Bukovac. The set liberally featured material from last year’s “Blackbird Diaries” as well as Stewart/Eurythmics hits including “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, “Missionary Man”, “Here Comes the Rain Again” and a “Sweet Dreams” mash up with the Soul Rebels (they were everywhere). From the outset, Stewart and his band were also one of the most photo friendly and audience engaging acts I have covered in a long time. He was frequently playing to the pit, freely posing and smiling, and having a great time every minute he was on stage. A lot of artists could take a page from his book.
At the Ritual Stage, I hit the start of LA’s own Silversun Pickups gasoline-fueled set then circled back for some timeless reggae courtesy of Toots and the Maytals at the OZ Stage, where Toots was given a generous 90 minutes.
Unfortunately, I was not shortlisted to shoot the headliners, including Metallica. Sometimes things work out the way they’re meant to. Anders Osborne’s set with VOW collaborators Johnny Sansone and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux in front of a few hundred was another highlight. Opening with the thrumming urgency of “On the Road to Charlie Parker”, it felt like they’d been playing for hours, and they just dug in from there. I’ve heard Sansone perform “Lord is Waiting the Devil is Too” many times, but this night he was truly a man possessed by the spirit. I mean scary potent. Oh, and only at Voodoo could you check a guy in an Anders costume and everyone is in on it.
After Anders’, I slid over for the very end of MyNameIsJohnMichael’s set. Spanky horns, uptempo arrangements, great energy. I’ll make sure to catch them come Jazzfest time, if not sooner.
I managed to get to some of Metallica’s set. These guys put on a highly entertaining and totally energized performance, with world class staging and lighting for a festival setting that is second to none. Consummate professionals, for sure. Me, I was pretty spent after two full days and some two dozen plus acts, and just wasn’t feeling my Metallica (I’m a little old for fireworks and explosions, anyway), but I totally get why they are kings of their scene.
Sunday was lighter on acts that pulled me, a perfect opp to go outside my bandwidth. I started with some New Orleans Bounce at the Le Carnival Stage and the younger, totally buoyant crowd way in to all the shakin’ it on stage. Long, tall Marcia Ball at the OZ Stage could not be passed up, even it was a drive by en route to the prog-metal weirdness of Coheed and Cambria (classic Voodoo whiplash). “Afterman: Ascension” the latest installment in the band’s ongoing epic mythology, sits at no. 5 on the Billboard charts, somewhere between Ellie Goulding and Mumford & Sons. Formed in 1995, each of the band’s six albums to date are concept pieces for the “Armory Wars”, a science fiction storyline written by singer/guitarist Claudio Sanchez. I can’t say I really got it for the early tunes I made, but the sound was big and crunchy, more metal than prog. And Sanchez’s mane makes Jim James look like he just got a no. 2 at the local barbershop.
Needing to chill, I quickly checked out Borgore at the Le Plur/Red Bulletin Stage. This former drummer of the Israeli death metal band Shabira (not a genre I’m overly familiar with) is all dubstep and according to Wikipedia, “some songs have been compared to horror movies, farm animals, and sex”. Not sure I got that anymore than I am a dubstep aficionado, so I pressed on to Lil Band O’ Gold back at the OZ Stage to bring me back down. Lil Band O’ Gold is somewhat legendary in New Orleans circles, featuring C.C. Adcock on guitar, Steve Riley on accordion (delayed by weather) and David Egan on keys. Perhaps most impressive were the vigorous vocals and playing of 75 year old drummer Warren Storm. A joy to have finally caught up with these guys who represent the best in New Orleans roots music. Then there is the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Few names are more synomonuos with New Orleans musical traditions. With Big Al Carson sitting in on vocals, the Pres Hall Band swung and sang there way through a spirited set capped off by a warm rendition of “Goodnight, Irene”.
Skrillex (only at Voodoo could you bounce from the Pres Hall Jazz Band to Skrillex). Holy crap. These weren’t bombs, they were cannonballs to the chest. I can only relate the visceralness of the sonic/visual experience. The music itself just poured over me, submerging me behind a wall of visuals and sound that left me in a puddle. And that was for the 10 minutes I could shoot.
Voodoo wrapped with a closing set by Jack White and (for this night only) The Buzzards. With upright bass and pedal steel adding raw texture, they stayed low to the ground, gritty, pushy and fiery, delivering a set of shape-shifting blues rock that was a wholly satisfying conclusion to my first Voodoo Experience.
So, at the end of it all, did I Voodoo well? I went places I’ve never been, found shelter in the New Orleans rhythms and brass I love and heard 30+ acts over the three days. It is just this mix that is hard to duplicate anywhere else. The traditional and the contemporary, the edgy and the extreme, the local and the global, headliners and up and comers. All set in “this stew called New Orleans” (as Paul Sanchez puts it). I’m not off the reservation yet, but maybe a little closer to the edge than I was before. That’s a good thing. Voodoo done me right.
You can check out many of the Voodoo Experience 2012 performances on Voodoo TV. The event would not be possible without the good people of Rehage Entertainment (RE). RE owns, operates, produces, books and manages the Voodoo Experience, which has twice been nominated for Pollstar’s festival of the year.