The Voodoo Experience
26 Oct 2012: City Park New Orleans
Perhaps I embarked on too broad of a question when I started this article. It began with a meditation about the Voodoo Experience’s slogan, “Worship the music.” My mind immediately turned it into a question. Why do we worship music? That question’s answer could get incredibly technical. It could go to some really tedious places, like presenting scientific studies of the effects of sonic waves on the eardrums. A more manageable question is how we worship musicians, the givers, the providers, the orchestrators, the gods of music, and how that worship affects the concert experience. We tattoo their faces and their logos on our bodies, we hang their album covers on our walls, and we stalk their personal lives on the Internet. We analyze every lyric they’ve written and memorize every song they sing. We scream when we see them. We obey their commands from onstage.
By putting our musicians on such a pedestal, we set up an expectation that they will produce a certain show for us. Because of our devotion, we think we’re owed a specific experience. In their own particular and shared ways, every musician comes to terms with what his audience expects of him and how he will (or won’t) meet this expectation. Some performers at the Voodoo Experience, whose theme is worship and ritual, meet their worshippers’ expectations by delivering exactly what the audience wants. The performers play old hits, blast the bass, and shock their audience. But some musicians are more reluctant to give in.
It’s Friday night at the Voodoo Experience and the temperature is plummeting. Exposed skin pimples into gooseflesh. The cold prompts the more prepared audience members to snuggle into fleece jackets. The temperature is in the high 50s, which is the New Orleans equivalent of freezing. The audience stiffly waits for Neil Young to appear onstage. This must be why music festival season is in the summer.
A stranger removes her jacket and drapes it over my bare shoulders. Her name is Susie Lee, she says. She wears a beaded black shirt. She’s a little tipsy and sips wine out of a plastic 12-ounce glass. We share the same space of rail, right in front of the main stage.
While we wait for the crew to set up, she tells me about Neil. She loved him way before Harvest Moon, back when his face was smooth and his long dark hair fell into his face while he manhandled a Les Paul in Buffalo Springfield. A man standing next to her, wearing a ‘93 Jazz Fest t-shirt, jumps in. They look about the same age - late fifties, early sixties, with bright eyes and crow’s feet. They bought one-day passes just to see Neil Young and Crazy Horse. They talk about Young, finishing each other’s sentences so easily that I assume they’re friends or lovers. It turns out they’re just fans.
“Neil’s a little ornery,” says Susie Lee. “He won’t play his most famous songs, even if that’s what the audience wants to hear.” “It’s a little disappointing,” says the other fan, “but he’s a legend.”
That’s the sentence flung around most often in the Neil Young audience. He’s a legend. Hypothermia? Frostbite’s worth it. He’s a legend. Bored? He’s allowed to be boring. He’s Neil Young. He’s a legend. Tired of only seeing the back of his plaid shirt? Too bad. He’s a legend. Feeling like no one but Neil and perhaps his band know these songs? Doesn’t matter. He’s a legend. Leaving early? You’re out of your mind. He’s a legend.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse take the stage. Susie Lee nearly drops her cup. Young, who recently sobered up and released a memoir before this tour, launches into the first riff with little fanfare. The set begins identically to his previous tour dates: first “Love and Only Love”, followed by “Powderfinger”, then a few tracks from Psychedelic Pill. An hour passes and he hasn’t played a hit, although we’ve been treated to a cool jam session.
On this particular bitterly cold night in City Park, he subjects his audience to a nearly ten minute rendition of “Walk Like a Giant”. The lengthy songs try some of the audience’s patience. It’s a two-hour show with only thirteen songs. It becomes difficult to concentrate on the show at hand when the same song has been playing for five minutes and you’ve been staring at Neil Young’s back for an hour. Veterans of Phish and Grateful Dead shows would be unfazed by the song length, but those shows also provide the audience with trippy visuals.
Halfway through the show, Susie Lee is disappointed.
“Write that down,” she says. “I’m disappointed.”
She grasps the cold metal railing and waits for a song she recognizes. The string players huddle in a trifecta while they strum, with their backs turned to the audience. They look like horses seeking shelter from the wind.
“I’m getting another drink,” sighs Susie Lee.
If anyone knows about pleasing an audience, it’s Ingrid Lucia. In the wake of Neil Young’s performance, I seek out local New Orleans legends. Musicians saturate this city, live music filling its clubs and its streets on any given day. Lucia is one of the first musicians on my list. The week after Lucia’s Voodoo performance, she invites me into her warm Mid-City home. We discuss, among many other things, the way we worship music and how that creates demands on our musicians.
Lucia has been performing since she was eleven years old. She’s the daughter of famous wanderer, raft builder, and musician Poppa Neutrino. Poppa led his self-described Gypsy family band on adventures across the world. His lifestyle is chronicled in the book The Happiest Man in the World and the documentary Random Lunacy. During their exploits, Lucia and her family performed and became the band Ingrid Lucia and the Flying Neutrinos.
When reflecting on demanding audiences, Lucia recalls one memorable occasion in Mexico. Her family was a wandering band, looking for their next gig in the hills. A group of banditos held them at gunpoint and demanded the family to perform for them. They acquiesced, the entire family dancing the Charleston on a lonely dirt road.
Today, Lucia works as a professional musician in New Orleans. She juggles live gigs, album projects, and motherhood. In 2012, Lucia produced an album featuring New Orleans’ female vocalists and then spearheaded a special all-female revue at Voodoo Fest. She gives me the hardworking musician’s point of view.
“First I danced, then I began singing and creating this band that magnetized all of these people and opportunities. Then came the time when I started doing more corporate parties and no one cared at all,” says Lucia. We’re sitting across from each other at her dining room table, talking over a plate of chocolate chip cookies. “It got to be really frustrating and really maddening. Then you come to the point where you’re like, ‘Well, I could either get a day job or I could find a way to work through this.’ So there’s an evolution that goes on.”
Recently, the New Orleans songstress had a breakthrough. It hit her while she was at a gig on Frenchman Street, the geographic heart of New Orleans’ music. She plays the jazz clubs there, luring tourists into the clubs with her sultry canary voice. On this particular evening, she and her band were playing at Maison. It was the night of the Olympic opening ceremonies. Maison’s front stage is crammed between a large window, the bar, and a cluster of packed tables, wedging the band in between a cluster of activity. Servers, bartenders and patrons bustled around her, some listening, but most focused on food and drinks. One patron stood directly in front of Lucia and carried on a loud, drunken conversation.
“I didn’t yell but I was like, ‘Hey lady! What do you want to hear?’ I was really agitated,” says Lucia. “Afterwords, [guitar player] Detroit Brooks took me aside. He said you have to focus on what you want to do and it will happen.”
The next night, Lucia played at Hermes Bar in the French Quarter. Hermes is notorious with musicians for being a difficult gig. It’s loud and always overcrowded, which makes it difficult to catch an audience’s attention. Lucia’s voice silenced the entire room. “I just focused on that single idea - what message did I want to come across? And every person paid attention completely.”
Lucia describes her approach today as a give-and-take. She’s famous for singing ballads and traditional jazz standards but would like to explore new material with her audiences. She gives some simple advice that Neil Young doesn’t exactly heed.
“Give [the audience] what they want,” she says, “and then you can give them a little of what you want to give them.”
Anders Osborne, a friend of Lucia’s who produced her second-to-last album, emphasizes that the key to delivering to an audience is practice. This year, the American Patchwork musician will tour with Toots and the Maytals. It’s rare to catch him at a gig in New Orleans. When he does play, he sells out Tipitina’s, one of his favorite New Orleans venues. He played Voodoo Fest last weekend.
“I try to reach within myself,” Osborne says. He speaks slowly and hesitates before he answers questions. “You gotta do it a lot. It took me years to figure out the balance of when to let go of myself and be very animated within the music, and it took me years to learn when to control myself and be specific and articulate certain lyrics and tone. It’s sort of a manipulation that I do. From experience, I’ve learned that what feels good for me will work. You also make sure that the band synchronizes emotionally. You gel, you connect. When you do that, it usually transmits really well. The audience will applaud the whole thing that’s going on. It’s not so much us playing for them. It’s us doing it together.”
Compared to Osborne and Lucia, David Shaw is a newbie at showbiz. The Revivalists’ charismatic 27-year-old frontman lets me trap him at a Starbucks coffee shop for an hour and a half, picking his brain on the relationship of musicians and their fans. He’s just back from a tour opening for jam-band powerhouse Gov’t Mule. A clip on The Revivalists’ website shows one of their onstage jams with Warren Haynes, where Haynes whispers something in Shaw’s ear before they launch into a jam.
“He said to follow his lead,” says Shaw, grinning. Shaw didn’t.
“Every audience has that thing,” he says, settling back in his chair. “That one thing. And I just have to find that one thing that will get them going. It’s like a lock and a key.” On the rare occasion that the Revivalists’ and their audience fail to connect, he blames himself. “It’s me. I didn’t find that thing.”
His willingness to reach his audience shines through onstage. The lanky singer will do just about anything to get the crowd going. He jumps, he spins, he sings, he screams, he asks questions, he employs call-and-response techniques, and he sings his heart out. At the Revivalists’ Voodoo Fest performance, he wheedles his way in to the crowd’s hearts by coaxing applause, encouraging participation, and controlling the pace. The stiff crowd doesn’t warm up in the first few tracks, which is surprising when you consider that the Revivalists are a popular New Orleans band and they also put on a strong live show. Just when it looks like Shaw might not find this audience’s groove, the Revivalists’ play “Concrete”. It’s a song that Shaw uses to engage a crowd. Hands wave, feet move, people holler. He’s found the key.
In the interview tent, Josh Eppard smiles at his band mates and glows over his recent reunion with Coheed and Cambria. The tent looks like it was designed by Hugh Hefner. The couches and carpet are the kind of red that makes you want to borrow a black light from one of the teenagers at the Le Plur electronic tent and scour the fabric for semen and blood stains. Media and artists occasionally step into the interview to dip their sweaty hands into a well-stocked Red Bull freezer, which is completely devoted to housing regular and sugar free red bulls. Red Bull is a sponsor, keeping the crowd hopped up on cigarettes, youth, and who knows what else, extra caffeinated - just in case anyone is in danger of falling asleep while Skrillex rages. Eppard takes the interruptions well, happily handing Red Bulls out to the thirsty intruders. “What kind would you like? Sugar Free? Here you go.”
Prog-rock band Coheed and Cambria offers more to fans than music. They offer an entire universe to explore through comic books, a novel, and an upcoming movie. Constructed by guitarist/singer/songwriter Claudio Sanchez, the music parallels a complex storyline of a sci-fi saga. The high concept nature of Coheed and Cambria appeals to the kinds of fans who love The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Some fans have even changed their names to names from The Amory Wars. But don’t write them off as an peripherally sci-fi outfit: Coheed and Cambria’s 2012 album, The Afterman: Ascension, debuted at #5 on the Billboard 200.
“There was definitely a time when I thought we were going to be the next Nirvana - it just seems so shallow,” says Eppard. Eppard joined Sanchez in 1999. They played together for another seven years before Eppard quit Coheed and Cambria in 2006. “A fan would come up and I didn’t appreciate it. But you know, you take that away for a long time…”
He trails off for a moment.
“I was a horrible drug addict. When I got clean, I started a band called Terrible Things. Every night there’d be a kid with a keywork tattoo. It started to bring it home in my mind that this band really matters to people. What a gift. If I was never part of Coheed again, I was proud to be part of something that was different and something that mattered to some people.”
Today, Eppard says that the fans are as much a part of the show as he is. “I think about [our fans] every time we play and I’m tired. I think about how much I cared about some bands when I was a kid and how to repay that. It’s through the music.”
After interviews, I journey to the Le Plur stage. At Le Plur, the instrument of choice is a soundboard and a laptop. The crowd at this stage only asks for loud wub and pretty lights. From local Beverly Skillz to dubstep flavor-of-the-year Skrillex, the Le Plur artists deliver exactly what the crowds wants. Maybe it’s a prerequisite of dubstep and its Le Plur electronic sister acts that the crowd must be pleased.
Previously, Voodoo festival organizers crammed the stage by a lake, dooming uncoordinated, dancing teenagers to spill into the muck. This year, fest organizers took the mainstreaming of dustup into account when they designed stage areas. They placed Le Plur in its very own field, adjacent to Le Ritual. This turned out to be a prudent choice: Skrillex, who closed out Le Plur, looked like he attracted as large a crowd as Jack White, the festival’s main closing act. Skrillex’s success at Voodoo Fest reflects dubstep’s mainstream takeover, which has added in-your-face beats to Top 40 hits and sent soft-rock-loving refugees fleeing to indie acts like Mumford & Sons. The 24-year-old won three Grammys in 2012.
However, at Le Plur, there is no philosophic discussion of the meaning of dubstep’s popularity. The main question at Le Plur is if anyone has seen my friend Molly. The usual festival creepy drug dealers weave their way through the crowd, muttering offers to potential consumers. Outside of a festival, these guys would probably be known as someone’s garage-dwelling loser older brother, but here dealers are part of the scene that concentrates on making the music experience into a physical reality. Unfortunately, this ends tragically for a few attendees. According to NOLA.com, there were three overdoses including one that resulted in death over the weekend. All of the patients used a new form of synthetic hallucinogen known as 25-I, which was given to them by other festival attendees.
Teenagers and twenty-somethings gather at the edges of the crowd, decked out in Halloween costumes and rave gear. Girls wear fluffies around their ankles and hot pants with neon-colored words spread across their butt cheeks. One pair of buttocks declares, “I’d rather be sleeping.” Neon bandeaus strap in their breasts and their sweat glistens with body glitter. Three girls near the stage bob their heads to an unsubtle beat. Their ponytails swing in unison.
Skrillex understands that music is not something that this crowd wants to hear. His audience prefers to be beaten over the head by sound. The amount of noise generated by his amps is un-relatable unless you’ve attended a Bassnectar show or stuck your head inside of a jet engine. He announces his onstage arrival with an accompaniment of pyrotechnics - just in case you had no eyeballs or eardrums and therefore missed the onslaught of the strobing wall of LED lights and gut-wrenching scatta bass. He starts with “My Name is Skrillex,” just to make it clear that this is his show. The crowd, mostly in their teens and early twenties, bends with the sound waves. Fists pump and hips sway faithfully.
But it’s Die Antwoord that is the most anthropologically fascinating case study from the Le Plur lineup. The electronic rap-set duo from South Africa likes to rap about very unpleasant things and no one is quite sure if they’re serious, half-serious, or completely messing with the world. Frankly, it doesn’t seem like they know either. What they do know is that the audience really likes it when they throw things, grab their crotches, and rap in zef slang.
Perhaps even more interesting is the popularity of Die Antwoord costumes. On this Halloween weekend, the most common costume is anything Die Antwoord. Young men have the words “PRETTY WIZE” scribbled across their throats, imitating Ninja’s slipshod neck ink. Several yellow and pink Pokemons attend the festival, in reference (or reverence) to the suit that Yolandi used to don at Die Antwoord’s live shows. Headgear and T-shirts sport the word “ZEF,” the phrase for Ninja and Yolandi’s brand of South African slang. People love (or love to make fun of) this duo that they dress up like them for Halloween. Is it reverence? Is it joking?
Right before Die Antwoord takes the stage, an image of South African artist and DJ Leon Botha comes onto the LED wall. Botha, a close friend of Die Antwoord, suffered from progeria and died in 2011. His enormous, wet blue eyes blink at the packed crowd. Instead of shifting uncomfortably, the audience stands on their toes and try to catch the first glimpse of Yolandi and Ninja. A soundman emits a high-pitched shriek into a mike. He must be checking for Yolandi.
When Yolandi and Ninja come onstage, the crowd’s whoops are deafening. Yolandi’s every move and Ninja’s every crotch grab elicits a response.
“New Orleans, let me see your style,” Yolandi squeaks, peering at the masses with her hand at her brow. The tiny blond orchestrates the majority of the crowd-musician interaction. Her childlike size contrasts with the filthy lyrics flying out of her mouth. She shrieks like a Russian folk dancer, which sends the crowd into a frenzy. She grabs her crotch. She strips off her jumpsuit and her clothes, getting down to underwear. Ninja also strips to his signature Pink Floyd boxers by the end of the show. He likes to thrust his pelvis, a move guaranteed to liven up the crowd. When he does this move in his underwear the lump of his genitals visibly swings in his lightweight navy boxers. The audience cheers.
Die Antwoord’s appeal is something that has been a question mulled over by journalists, record labels, and concerned parents. A McGill University student even presented a paper examining the duo’s cultural significance at the 2011 convention of the American Anthropological Association. Reader, do yourself a favor and read a few interviews of Die Antwoord. You’ll laugh out loud and then one hard-hitting quote from Ninja will blow your mind. While they say some outlandish things, they also emphasize that creative control is their number one priority. They fired Interscope Records for lack of it, and, according to them, they hired Michael Jackson’s lawyers to be released from their Interscope contract. Their main appeal is that they don’t give a fuck.
Ninja is quoted in Interview Magazine saying that their show has nothing to do with their audience. A more accurate interpretation, judging by their crowd interaction and performance at the Voodoo Experience, is that Die Antwoord does not take cultural norms and expectations into account when they design the content. They come out hard, swearing, rapping, and throwing things, whether the crowd is going to be into it or not. Luckily, there’s a large market out there for wild musicians. This attack-style performance has earned them fans who now expect them to not give a fuck and encourage their antics. Anything shocking now satisfies their crowd. This strategy has worked so well that Die Antwoord has become a festival favorite and recently opened for Jane’s Addiction.
When they first released Enter the Ninja and appeared at Voodoo in 2010, the crowd was much smaller, but had a similar reaction to their antics. Judging by Die Antwoord’s packed festival and tour schedule, audiences worldwide wanted more.
At this point, it doesn’t really matter if Die Antwoord is serious or not. What matters is that a legion of twenty-year-olds and under, including people who are gainfully employed and perhaps even some who don’t have a serious mental illness, sincerely enjoy screaming lyrics like “Bitch, fuck me until you love me, faggot.” These phrases are probably not incorporated into the crowd’s everyday vernacular. The audience shouts their lyrics back to them: “I THINK YOU FWEEKY AND I LIKE YOU A LOT!”
When it comes to crowd satisfaction, Yolandi and Ninja strip to their underwear in front of thousands, kind of like that nightmare in middle school where you were talking at an assembly and then everyone laughed and you realized your clothes were gone. In this case, the crowd loves it. Die Antwoord ends with an encore of their most popular song, “Enter the Ninja”, which sends the crowd into a frenzy once more.
In the end, Neil Young caves. Sweat beads drip from Young’s brow. His upper lip is wet with snot. Now that he’s jammed with his band for an hour, the setlist includes crowd-pleasers. The first notes of “Cinnamon Girl” float through the chilly air.
Susie Lee perks up. “This is ‘Cinnamon Girl’!” she cries, tapping my shoulder. She knows every word.
If Neil Young were judged by the first hour of his set, the argument could be made that he’s an ornery old man or a legend who defies his crowd’s expectations. But the actual tour stats tell a different tale. On this tour alone, Neil Young has played “Cinnamon Girl” 15 times and “Mr. Soul” 13 times. He plays a nearly identical setlist at every stop, which is basically letting him jam and play new songs for an hour, then play a few tried-and-true favorites. In New Orleans, he ends the show on a sweet note by playing “Like a Hurricane”.
Due to his legendary status, he can afford to play what he wants first, then acquiesce by giving the audience what most of them want. He also probably doesn’t care that fans of his old music, who haven’t kept up with his newer albums, become impatient during the first half of his show. Just last week, Young was quoted by The New York Times about his 497-page memoir Waging Heavy Peace: “I read up on this sort of thing, and the worst thing you can have is a book that is too long. So if you are having trouble reading this, give it to someone else. End of chapter.”
Like Lucia says, Neil Young gives the audience what they want and then a little bit of what he wants to give them. However, he flips the order and first plays his new songs. He can afford to do that. After all, he’s a legend.
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