[13 November 2008]
The summer rock festival is a hallowed tradition, and the mere mention of a Lollapalooza or a Bonnaroo calls to mind more than a few indelible images: The restless multitudes massed outside the brimming porta-potties, the eight-dollar hot dogs washed down with twelve-dollar beers, so many sunburned and shirtless party warriors being carried to the quiet mists of the chillout tent. The sun is out; people are on vacation; sometimes it rains, and we get naked in the mud.
Things get dicey as the days grow shorter, and even in New Orleans’ humid subtropical climate, an autumn rock festival like the Voodoo Music Experience offers quite a few opportunities for things (the weather in particular) to go awry. Around midday Friday that danger seemed very real, and the darkened skies boded much ill for the weekend. July showers are one thing; an autumn deluge is another. Thankfully, the sun soon crawled out from behind the clouds, and the next three days were a string of cloudless afternoons and refreshingly cool evenings.
Now in its tenth year (“tenth ritual,” rather), New Orleans’ Voodoo Music Experience Festival has already made a sizeable mark on the city’s history: In 2005, forty-two short days after Hurricane Katrina decimated the Crescent City, the Voodoo Experience hosted a free day of music for anyone brave enough to come back; the event was hailed as the “first full-scale, large entertainment event within city limits” to take place after the August 29th landfall. Right around the time then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was making statements to the effect of, “We were acutely aware of Katrina and the risk it posed,” former-New Orleanian Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails was onstage backing poet/spoken word artist/musician Saul Williams on Williams’ “List of Demands”; sample lyric: “I ball my fist and you’re gonna know where I stand / We’re living hand to mouth! / Hand to mouth!” Given that the ineptitude of governmental response was already well established, and that a grossly disproportionate percentage of what was left of New Orleans’ population was in fact living hand to mouth, those were some pretty powerful words.
New Orleans is presently home to America’s largest reconstruction effort since, well, Reconstruction, and the city’s future is much less uncertain than it was three years ago (though Hurricane Gustav had quite a few of us worried). The Voodoo Experience has grown as the city has re-grown, moving past its humble origins to its present three-day, five-stage incarnation in New Orleans’ picturesque City Park. From the outset, the Voodoo Experience has sought both to bring national acts to New Orleans and to highlight the city’s uniquely diverse music scene; to this end, this year’s headliners like the Stone Temple Pilots, the aforementioned Nine Inch Nails, and R.E.M., were billed alongside local legends like Leo Nocentelli (formerly of the Meters) and his Funkin’ Truth band, Ivan Neville’s group Dumpstahphunk, and a raft of local brass bands, each one uniquely brilliant in the truest sense of the word. Such is the ethos of the city: Anything goes, as long as there’s dancing.
Day One – Friday
Friday evening’s first big act, Erykah Badu, is something of a sex symbol, though an unlikely one: Badu took to the stage wearing a shapeless plaid skirt, argyle socks, two loose fitting shirts and quite possibly the most voluminous hairstyle to grace the Voodoo Experience stage, which is no small feat given the mohawks, Afros, and beehives to be exhibited over the course of the weekend. Badu has always been more of a critics’ darling than a chart-topper, though the enthusiasm of the assembled crowd suggested that at least a few of the several hundred thousand souls who have thus far purchased Badu’s New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) were in attendance. In addition to her full band, featuring two backup singers and renowned jazz flautist Dwayne Kerr, Badu is flanked onstage by a drum machine and a laptop, perhaps a needlessly complicated setup since the real attraction is undoubtedly Badu’s voice. And what a voice it is: Dramatic, but not showy, compelling, but not overbearing. Throughout her set, Badu leavened the occasional grandiosity of her lyrical themes (love, injustice, etc.) with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor: When she sang, “I’m 36 / My hips and butt getting big,” the crowd’s response indicated that while the former may be true, the latter is patently false. Badu’s set suffered from some technical difficulties, with the sound at one point dropping out entirely, but Badu met all snafus with characteristic grace, clapping out (sans amplification) a syncopated rhythm and urging the crowd to clap along. It was almost a disappointment when the sound came back on and things started to go more predictably.
Badu’s smoothed-out music can veer dangerously close to adult contemporary, a distinction certainly not shared by TV on the Radio, whose recent release Dear Science showcases the band’s singular ability to blend grinding electronic noise with caterwauling horn sections, haunting vocal harmonies, and some good old-fashioned punk rock. Onstage and on wax, TV on the Radio is a force with which to be reckoned and without a doubt one of the most vital rock bands recording today. Throughout the set, de facto frontman Tunde Adebimpe projected indefatigable intensity, and the rest of the band followed suit; the album title Dear Science may suggest clinical coldness, but live, the sweat descends. TV on the Radio aren’t just trying to move bodies, though; there’s a whole worldview at play. In a recent interview, vocalist/guitarist/whatever-else-ist Kyp Malone told New Orleans’ Gambit Weekly:
“The road that we’re on, it’s clearly headed to destruction. And I’m talking like the fucking apocalyptic Christian I was raised to be. Everything around us is calling for change—not just cosmetic change, but real change. The icecaps are melting. We’re poisoning ourselves and the planet with our entire way of life. We’re going to run out of oil. All this on-the-brink shit is happening all over the place… I want to be optimistic, and I’m trying to optimistic that there is an opportunity in a pretty dark time—and getting darker-to change course.”
It is to the band’s credit that even at their bleakest (and Dear Science casts our modern age in a pretty bleak light), their songs still inspire the primal teenage urge to pump a fist, to jump up and down, and to sing along to nihilistic pop choruses like, “In my mind I’m breeding butterflies / Broken dreams and alibis / That’s fine / I’ve seen my palette blown to monochrome / Hollow heart clicks hollow tone / In time.” TV on the Radio give voice to the disillusionment and paranoia of the Bush administration in the same way Johnny Rotten gave voice to the Thatcher administration: Yes, there may be “no future,” but there are still some people making noise about it.
Friday’s headlining act has released only five albums of original material in sixteen years, but judging by the crowd’s warm-up chants of “S! T! P!,” enthusiasm for early ‘90s’ grunge rock still abides. Whatever trials Stone Temple Pilots lead singer Scott Weiland has endured (a long and destructive drug addiction; Velvet Revolver), his ability to command an audience is undeniable: Weiland looks like James Dean, sings like Jim Morrison, and struts like Mick Jagger; Tunde was great, but Weiland won the frontman-of-the-evening award, hands down. The band ran through future (present?) classics like “Big Empty” and “Interstate Love Song” (STP is one of those bands where, if the song titles don’t ring any bells, the choruses will) and gave still further credence to the long-standing hypothesis that what was once called alternative rock was really just plain-old arena rock, only with angst-y lyrics instead of fourth-grade innuendo. Truly, the band’s performance was Zeppelin-esque, and while silhouetted against the lightning and flames projected against the video screen backdrop, guitarist Dean DeLeo was a dead ringer for Jimmy Page, right down to his wailing Les Paul. This is not the sort of music one goes to if one is looking for sophistication; at one point, Weiland decided to descend from his rock god throne and clarify a few things that had obviously been troubling the audience. “There’s rock, and there’s rock and roll,” Weiland explained. “This is rock and fucking roll!” If any dissenters attended the festival that day, they must have already gone home.
Day Two – Saturday
It’s hard to believe in these confusing times, but there was once an era in left-of-center rock when the songs were simple, the singers were earnest, and it was sort of cool to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve. Despite the scaling back of No Depression magazine (the bi-monthly publication will now be produced twice a year), there are quite a few music fans out there still waving the flag for the likes of Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, and the Old 97s, who took to the Southern Comfort/WWOZ stage at the Voodoo Music Experience early Saturday afternoon. The Old 97s’ fan base seems like a loyal one, and I noticed more concert-goers in Old 97s t-shirts than perhaps any other band, save Nine Inch Nails. Onstage, Rhett Miller and company ran through an enthusiastic, cheerful set, and while the crowds might not have been what the band was drawing at the height of its popularity, they were nonetheless singing along to Miller’s good-natured country-rock like it was 1996 again.
He wasn’t the headliner, but at least for this attendee, Lil’ Wayne was the major draw of the Saturday lineup. Not since Louis Armstrong has a New Orleans musician sat at the top of an entire genre of music as Wayne does now over hip-hop. Wayne has been calling himself the best rapper alive since 2005 at the earliest; his braggadocio only garnered further recognition when, in a June review of Wayne’s Carter III, Judy Rosen of Rolling Stone wrote, “OK, it’s true: he really is the best rapper alive.” In the first week after its June release date, the aforementioned Carter III sold over one million copies; 50 Cent’s 2005 release The Massacre is the only other hip-hop album ever to do such numbers, and it’s worth noting that since 2003 Curtis Jackson has released only sixty or so non-G Unit tracks, and Wayne released at least fifty solo tracks in 2007 alone.
Appropriately, Wayne was scheduled to take the stage at 4:20 pm; unsurprisingly, he decided to keep the people waiting for a while. Wayne’s audience was happy to oblige; the assembled crowd seemed the largest and most enthusiastic of any over the course of the weekend. To keep spirits from flagging, Wayne’s DJ spun a surprisingly eclectic warm-up mix, with “Party Like a Rockstar” and “Baby Got Back” segueing into more-unexpected fare like “Born in the U.S.A.” and Tom Petty’s “Free Falling(!)” By the time the show started thirty minutes (and a few dozen disconfirmed Wayne sightings) later, the intensity had reached what could reasonably called a fever pitch.
And then Wayne took the stage.
On record, Wayne is one of the most theatrical hip-hop artists out there, and that theatricality makes his onstage performance a little more interesting than your standard MC-and-hypeman show. Voodoo was full of compelling performances; Wayne’s was the best. For a little over an hour, he ran through hit after unstoppable hit, stopping only to speak to the audience, and even his between-song banter was worth our attention. He said at one point:
“I want to tell ya’ll three things. One: I believe in God. Do you? Two: I ain’t shit without you, so make some noise for what you have created. Three: I am registered to vote. Are you?”
My personal bias crept into this article long ago, but I hung on his every word.
Wayne also did something I don’t know if I’ve ever seen before on stage, but that I’d like to see again: Seemingly with the utmost sincerity, he got down on his knees, he folded his hands, and he prayed. He asked God to watch over him, his family, the audience, and then stood up and with eyes fixed upward sang his chorus to the Game’s “My Life”:
“Dear Lord, you done took so many of my people but I’m just wondering why you haven’t taken my life. Like what the hell am I doing right”
True piety or not, I was moved. And I was moved again, albeit differently, a few seconds later, when Wayne swung his dreadlocks, tore off his shirt and launched into the bare-knuckle pummel of “A Milli”. The song ended with Wayne lying on his back, seemingly spent, but he quickly bounded up as Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” came over the speakers. Wayne lip-synced along, blew kisses, and flashed his literal million-dollar smile, and just like that, the weekend’s best performance was over.
After Wayne’s inarguable domination of the stage, there seemed little point in sticking around for the Mars Volta or Nine Inch Nails; no slight to either of those bands, but at that point the only music that seemed to make sense was home-grown. So for this festival-goer there was only one destination: the Preservation Hall tent, which offered smaller crowds, a more reasonable decibel level, and a steady string of New Orleans’ finest working musicians, all weekend long. As I approached, the Hot 8 Brass Band had already filled the tent with its raucous blare, and I stopped to thank my lucky stars that in at least one city in the United States, it’s actually kind of cool to be in the high school marching band. Also refreshing was the fact that musicians at the Preservation Hall, as opposed to the steady stream of inflated egos on display over the course of the weekend, set up their own equipment, asked little more of promoters than some red beans and rice, and left their festival performances right on time to get to the next gig. According to the Hot 8 Brass Band’s sousaphone player, who couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, the Hot 8 had three more gigs that evening. I suspect they were all just as amazing as the one I saw.
Following the Hot 8 was New Orleans bluesman Walter “Wolfman” Washington, who, from his red snakeskin boots to his matching Kangol hat was certainly the most nattily attired performer of the day. While Trent Reznor howled and brooded through his set a few stages away, the Wolfman positively beamed through his, and his good nature proved contagious. The band was tight, the guitar playing was solid, and Wolfman’s falsetto (and trademark wolf call) is peerless. Wolfman also seems like a pretty funny guy: “This is a song about a special someone,” he told the audience. “It’s called “Big D.” (laughter; pause) It’s about my wife.” Wolfman isn’t well known outside New Orleans, and perhaps never will be, but in this case as in so many others, the world’s loss is the city’s gain.
The final act to take the Preservation Hall stage that evening was New Orleans’ hardest working disc jockey, local legend DJ Soul Sister. Accompanied by Betty MacDonald and her nominally clothed Booty Patrol dancers, DJ Soul Sister spun all the right records to get the tent on its feet and dancing. For the most part, the records that got people moving the most were local; Juvenile’s “Back that Azz Up” is a great song in any town, but in New Orleans, it’s an anthem. Due in part of Lil’ Wayne’s success and the reunion of the Hot Boys, the group Wayne co-founded at all of fifteen years old, New Orleans hip-hop has been enjoying of late a greater acknowledgment of the city’s role in the genre’s development; this is, after all, the city where the term “bling” was coined. Louisiana’s hip-hop scene today isn’t quite the hit factory Atlanta was five years ago, but thanks to the efforts of DJ Soul Sister and others, the story isn’t quite over yet.
Day Three – Sunday
By the time Sunday rolled around, the festival itself seemed tired. Even at their noisiest, headliner R.E.M. is downright decorous compared to the Stone Temple Pilots or Nine Inch Nails. Consequently, many of Sunday’s bands blur together into one dehydrated haze: Tokyo Police Club were young, enthusiastic, and forgettable; Dashboard Confessional played two covers in three songs (Weezer’s “El Scorcho” and Pink’s “So What”, both at least as far as I can tell better than any original Dashboard song); and local one-hit wonders Cowboy Mouth played that “Jenny Says” song (“Jenny says / Turn off the radio / Jenny says / Turn off the light”) and a maudlin tribute to New Orleans. Rock festivals are like houseguests: After three days, one welcomes their departure.
Not to suggest the Sunday lineups didn’t offer anything worth seeing; nothing could be further from the truth. There was just a different feel in the air. For instance, nothing seemed more appropriate for a Sunday afternoon than the Blind Boys of Alabama. Whatever one’s religious persuasions, the Blind Boys’ music is some powerful stuff, and the group deftly mixes together the sacred and the profane to mutual benefit. Any given Blind Boy looks old as Methuselah, yet they all wear trendy designer sunglasses, and anyone expecting your typical church fare might have been surprised to hear frontman Jimmy Lee Carter announce into the microphone, in a voice as heavy as thunder: “Now, the Blind Boys of Alabama do not like a quiet crowd! We like a noisy crowd! Because the Gospel is good news, and you’re supposed to make a joyful noise!”
Joined onstage by Clarence Fountain, a former full-time Blind Boy who reduced his tour schedule due to health problems, the group seems capable of converting an ark-load of atheists with nothing more than a few vocal harmonies. The group delivered rousing versions of familiar numbers like “People Get Ready” and “Way Down in the Hole” (also known as theme to The Wire), and together with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, with whom the Blind Boys recorded their last album, they lead the crowd in an inspiring “I’ll Fly Away”. “Uncloudy Day”, however, was the emotional kicker of the hour; to hear a blind man sing a slow gospel tune about the un-cloudy day in heaven, and to feel the sun on one’s face; well, it was about as religious an experience as any I’ve had in a while. Whatever the Good Lord may think of rock and roll on a Sunday at a thing called the Voodoo Experience, one can hope the Blind Boys put in a good word.
Not long after finishing with the Blind Boys, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band moved over to perform their own spot on their own stage, accompanied by vocalist Big Al Carson, whose moniker, incidentally, represents the greatest understatement of the weekend. Unlike brash young upstarts like the Hot 8, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is proudly, even defiantly, traditional, and so none of the songs the band performed with Carson are really worth noting; what is worth noting, however, was the palpable New Orleans pride collected inside the Preservation Hall tent. By that point, news from London had come in that the New Orleans Saints had beaten the San Diego Chargers, and so when Preservation Hall director/sousaphonist Ben Jaffe jumped offstage, led an improvised parade (complete with parasols) through the tent, retook the stage, did the Saints’ traditional “Who dat dere gon’ beat dem Saints?” chant, and then set the band off on “When the Saints Go Marching In”… one thinks of Mardi Gras, of levees, of oysters and Spanish moss, and of this sinking city that will keep on partying until the whole thing’s underwater. Long live the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and long live New Orleans.
The impulse to spend the rest of the day with New Orleans’ finest was strong, but Lupe Fiasco presented a big enough draw to pull me away. Much hay has been made of Lupe’s moves to corner his share of the “dorky rapper” market; he does, after all, eschew more familiar money/cash/hoes tropes in order to rap about tennis shoes, skateboarding, and Star Wars. Onstage, however, Lupe is no dork. From his black leather pants to his black T-shirt and his black Ray-Bans, the live Lupe looks, talks, and acts like a rock star, and not even the punishing afternoon sun could wilt his unflagging enthusiasm. Overlooking an overlong, overly cheesy “love-is-all-around-you-so-you-should-love-everyone-love-love” pep talk, never once in his hour set did Lupe decide to slow down, and between opener “Kick, Push” and the “Daydreamin’” finale, the audience was presented with a compelling case that if those rumors of a third-album retirement have been exaggerated, Lupe Fiasco could make a viable bid to be our next best rapper alive.
Lupe Fiasco is only twenty-six, but has already flirted with the idea of hanging up his microphone; Sunday night headliner R.E.M. has been together for nearly thirty years but remains relevant. One is hard pressed to think of a band that has aged more gracefully. For their Voodoo set, the band offered samplings from every stage of its career, even reaching back to 1981’s Murmur to play “West of the Fields” (singer Michael Stipe told the crowd that the song was inspired by his experience living on the street in New Orleans, west of Elysian Fields Avenue). In the eight years since the millennium, R.E.M. hasn’t released another Murmur or Lifes Rich Pageant (not even another New Adventures in Hi-Fi), but where the persistence of the Stone Temple Pilots as a touring entity seems a somewhat crass capitalization on past successes, R.E.M.’s Sunday performance offered confirmation that the band is a band in the truest sense of the word. They write, they record, and they tour, as they have done since the Athens days, and they continue to do all three exceedingly well. Even on their first recordings, R.E.M. demonstrated considerable restraint and maturity, and the strategy has provided great returns. While the Scott Weilands of the world bounce between rehabilitation clinics and play chicken with the rock and roll lifestyle, R.E.M. is quietly soldiering on, song after song, show after show, and while they might lack the volatility that makes for good entertainment, they continue to offer plenty of dedication that makes for great music.
There are plenty of rock festivals in this country, and in many ways the Voodoo Experience is just another rock festival. That said, New Orleans is America’s most distinctive city, and I find it hard to believe that anyone can spend some time here and leave unchanged. One could come exclusively to see the headliners, and many did, but the celebratory spirit of the city is not easily ignored, and remains long after the weekend has ended. The only thing one can do is to make plans to return.