Voodoo Music Experience: 30 October – 1 November 2009 – New Orleans, LA

Jane's Addiction

October in New Orleans may be the perfect time for a rock festival. The city’s warm temperatures and clear skies surely factored into founder Stephen Rehage’s decision to stage the inaugural Voodoo Experience over Halloween weekend in 1999. In the decade since, Rehage and his crew have fought through hurricanes and red tape to position Voodoo as the last great destination festival of the summer concert season. With more than 70 acts on six stages, this year promised to be the most successful yet. In terms of national attention, though, nothing could compete with the big opening night coup – Voodoo scored the returning Eminem’s lone U.S. performance of 2009.

Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t cooperating. After a blissful Friday afternoon, the temperature plummeted. Icy rain soaked City Park, and concertgoers were soon wet and dispirited. Seeking shelter, many wandered into the Preservation Hall Tent, where they were warmed by the sweet Delta Blues of Little Freddie King. Well over sixty, King hails from McComb, Mississippi, and was playing the chitlin circuit long before many of his audience members were born. Between slugs of Red Bull, King delivered gritty riffs and gleeful solos. Cold forgotten, the crowd began stomping its feet, mud and all.

Thousands of fans braved the rain when French electro-pop duo Justice took the Playstation Stage. Gaspard Ague and Xavier de Rosnay may be leather-clad, mustachioed hipsters, but their sound is more 1995 than 2009. Justice’s music is infinitely danceable as nubile, distorted samples decorate the spliced up, building, throbbing bass. Their remix of MGMT’s “Electric Feel” is masterful. That being said, it’s hard to get too excited about a couple of guys and some turntables. Fifteen years ago, groups like The Crystal Method, Prodigy, and Underworld introduced mainstream America to club-based electronica, spawning some brief (and embarrassingly premature) talk of the death of rock and roll. Justice’s note-perfect recreation of The Chemical Brothers’ “Block Rockin Beats” may have sounded great, but it served as an uncomfortable reminder: we’ve heard it all before, and it was better the first time.

Guess who’s back?

After a four year hiatus, Marshall Mathers’ much-anticipated return to stage brought Rolling Stone Magazine, Fuse TV and the Associated Press to Voodoo. The massive crowd was thick with hard-core fans, many of whom looked like they’d stepped straight out of the “Slim Shady” video. These were Eminem’s people, and not one of them would’ve faulted their hero for phoning it in on his first night back in four years. The show opened with a short and stylish horror film about an insane asylum, featuring Mathers as the deranged psychopath, of course. The Real Shady indeed.

Surrounded by elaborate lighting and pyrotechnics, Mathers prowled the stage. Behind him, a colossal screen displayed images of brightly colored prescription pills (Mathers was recently in rehab for prescription drug abuse), clips from music videos, and the splashy, animated panels of a Punisher comic book. All this lavish razzle-dazzle would have been necessary if Mathers had been off his game, but that was far from the case. If anything, he seemed refreshed by the hiatus, delivering his hits with sincerity and gusto. Mathers’ pathos is balanced by his precision, and the words come fast and furious, but never rushed or slurred. Songs from his new album, Relapse, were paired with old hits like “Lose Yourself” and “Stan”. Mather’s soundcheck reportedly lasted three hours, and it showed. His performance was terrific: flawless transitions; a thoughtful setlist and the kind of effortless charisma that takes a lot of work.

While I can appreciate Mathers’ talent, his music can feel limited—though different in style, he and Kanye West dominate a niche genre—rap for people who don’t like rap. Mathers’ music is accessible, uncomplicated, and easily recognizable. His beats lack the complexity of Lil’ Wayne’s, and his lyrics lack the creativity of Cam’ron’s. As rappers go, he is fairly non-threatening, as his boyish face calls to mind a juvenile delinquent, even as he poses as a thug. In “Without Me”, he makes the cocky but apt comparison between himself and Elvis because both made their fortunes by repackaging black music and selling it to white audiences. But Elvis couldn’t have been just anybody, and the same is true of Eminem. Mathers has more than talent; he has the dedication, the drive and the good sense to realize that even one of the biggest stars on the planet ought to show up on time, rap his ass off, and thank the crowd for the opportunity.

Saturday, October 31st: the muddy fields were swarming with zombies. As New Orleans’ Fleur de Tease preformed their famous burlesque show in the Bingo Parlor, two lines formed outside. One of the lines was for those getting zombified, which involved face painting, complete with realistic gore, the dirtying and rending of clothing, and a few pointers on perfecting “the walk”; and another where zombies could register, with Guinness’ book of world records officials. The zombies were attempting to defeat the world record for the largest gathering of zombie and it was a valiant, albeit unsuccessful, effort.

A few stages away, in the Preservation Hall tent, several zombies danced happily to the honeyed tones of local trumpeter LeRoy Jones. Jones and his band played along, seemingly indifferent to the bizarre spectacle of a costumed Jesus shaking his hips with a prostitute and a pirate cavorting with a leprechaun in the audience. Even the invading bass beats from electro-pop quartet Mutemath couldn’t phase Jones, who beamingly said “Thanks for coming when you got all those other big name bands on them other stages—I’ll bet you can hear them…we can hear them, too.” Jones’ serenity was justified. By the end of his set, the crowd had nearly doubled in size, as concertgoers drifted towards the smaller stage on their way to see a bigger act and ended up staying for the whole set, forgetting all about their destination.

Another New Orleans original, Rotary Downs, played the Bingo Tent. A mainstay of the local indie scene, Rotary Downs delivers a somewhat watered-down, preppier version of the genre bending alt-rock made famous by Pavement (think Coldplay’s radio-friendly take on the ethereal Radiohead). While they didn’t bring down the house, their music is strong and serviceable, and it’s always nice to see a local band hold their own alongside the national acts.

If Led Zeppelin and the White Stripes had a baby, they would name it Wolfmother. Their music is hard-edged, guitar-driven rock with a heavy blues influence (think caffeinated Black Keys). Frontman Andrew Stockdale, haloed by a massive afro, wails like a madman, and new drummer Dave Atkins brings the band a fresh energy and momentum. Nothing revolutionary, really, but the crowd of head-bangers, crowd-surfers, and pot-smokers were having a predictably pleasant hard rock time, and the band got spirits up for the two big headliners.

In the late ‘80s, Jane’s Addiction turned the Los Angeles glam metal scene on its ear with dirty lyrics and intense, melodic rifts. Through a series of reunions and other projects, founding members Perry Farrell and Dave Navarro find themselves far more famous, and reaching a far broader audience, than they could have imagined twenty years ago. In their latest reunion tour, the first to feature original bassist Eric Avery, the band revisits their favorite themes, namely addiction, shoplifters, death, and prostitutes. The band’s angst-ridden subject matter is paired with a playful sound, which gleefully meanders between intensity and exuberance, often resolving itself in the latter.

Moreover, the generation of fans born after the release of Nothing Shocking now sees the band as rock royalty, and its members know how to work it. At Voodoo, Farrell burst onto the stage in a shiny caped costume, theatrically downing half a bottle of wine and mugging carnivorously as the audience screamed. Throughout the show, Farrell played to the crowd, performing acrobatics, making out with backup dancers while circling around Navarro, and each pop of a flashbulb seemed to give him more energy. For their last song, “Jane Says”, the band invited about one hundred of the best-costumed audience members to join them on stage. Band members danced with demons, fairy princesses, cartoon characters, and of course, zombies. The result was silly, celebratory, and very much a reflection of the band’s music: intensity resolving itself in cathartic release. Jane’s Addiction reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously and by recognizing the frivolity of life, we somehow make it meaningful.

With the meaningful portion of Saturday night out of the way, the crowd turned its attention to a reunion of a different kind. For over forty years, Kiss’ founding members, Gene Simmons, 60, and Paul Stanley, 57, have maintained an incredibly lucrative musical marriage. Like McDonalds, part of the Kiss’ formula is branding, and fans who buy tickets to a Kiss concert get exactly what they’re paying for. This year’s Kiss show is virtually identical to the one played during their return to make-up in 1996, and that show was likewise a carbon copy of the shows that launched them to superstardom in the late 1970s.

For the price of admission, you get the following: Simmons spewing blood and levitating to a perch atop the massive lighting rig, a guitar solo punctuated by sparks shooting from the neck of the guitar, Stanley flying over the crowd, ten-foot, multi-colored flames shooting into the air at regular intervals; and tons of explosions, hair, and outstretched tongues.

With the exception of the ever-agreeable “Rock and Roll all Nite”, Kiss’ music (yes, there’s music) is more or less the same middling-hard rock tune over and over. At times, you find yourself examining the stage to determine where the next flurry of bombs will be coming from. Nonetheless, you have to give Ol’ Starchild and Demon credit for knowing their business and as promised, it’s a hell of a spectacle. Simmons and Stanley can still work a stage with the best of them, and they’ve kept themselves in good enough shape to prevent the act from looking totally absurd (relatively speaking, of course). To that end, they’ve also replaced aging original members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss with talented young players Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer.

The makeup makes maneuvers like this easy. Eventually, Simmons and Stanley could be replaced, as well, and Kiss could go on indefinitely. Why not, as long as there’s money to be made? Curiously, there’s a sincerity underlying all the Kiss phoniness. Seconds before confetti cannons explode, Stanley bellows: “ You wanna hear about global warming? You’ve come to the wrong show!” Simmons loves to quip “I am a firm believer in the idea of being selfish.” From lunchboxes to pinball machines to caskets, Kiss is little more than a marketable product. To their credit, they never claim to be otherwise.

With Kiss’ fireworks still ringing in their ears, thousands descended on City Park for Voodoo’s final day. Many gathered to hear ‘90s favorites The Pogues. If you go to see the Pogues, you expect a little drunkenness, a little rowdiness, and a little slurring of words. You expect punk-rock Irish drinking songs. You don’t expect Belle and Sebastian or Andrew Bird or anything. But too-drunk-to-stand-up-let-alone-form-complete-sentences-or-do-anything-else-other-than-howl-tunelessly? Come on, that’s just depressing.

Shane MacGowan is fifty-one, but he looks like he’s in his late eighties. It was a toss-up whether he’s suffered a stroke recently, was totally out-of-his-mind-blackout-drunk wasted, or has already destroyed any brain cells he once had with drugs and alcohol. When the Pogues’ set was over, MacGowan wouldn’t leave the stage and continued to moan into the microphone long after it had been turned off. Eventually, he was escorted (read: carried) off stage. The Pogues used to be fun, but now that the fun has reached its logical conclusion, they’re nothing but a walking advertisement for rehab.

The Squirrel Nut Zippers brought their laid-back 1930s sound to the Bingo Parlor, and many found relief in the sweet harmonies of guitar, ukulele, and violin. Singer Katherine Whalen looked dashing in a black velvet matador’s costume, and Jimbo Mathis led the band in a set that was both swinging and serene. Later that night, The Meat Puppets took the same stage, and delivered solid, soothing grunge. The Meat Puppets looked old, but they sounded great, and their show was so packed that people had to stand outside of the tent to listen.

But the unquestioned highlight of the day, and perhaps the entire festival, was the penultimate performance from Oklahoma-based Flaming Lips and their lovable frontman Wayne Coyne. The band, now in its twenty-seventh year, has earned a reputation for putting on a great live show. Expectations ran high—Voodoo veterans still recall the band’s fantastic set in 2006—and the Flips didn’t disappoint. At the beginning of their show, each member of The Flaming Lips entered the stage through a hole in the middle of a giant, lit-up screen. The entire stage, including the band’s instruments, was painted bright yellow and orange, and the air was thick with yellow and orange confetti and giant yellow and orange balloons to match. Then Coyne got into a giant hamster ball and launched himself out into the crowd. Girls dressed like polar bears danced onto the stage. At one point, one of the polar bears decided she was too hot, stripped down to nothing, and danced naked on the stage. Not missing a beat, Coyne serenaded her, kneeling at her feet.

When the band played a beautifully improvisational version of “Do You Realize?”, the audience sang along. During “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots”, thousands were laughing and jumping up and down with the music. The air was thick with good will and it felt like the sixties, but with more confetti. It’s rare that a band is able to produce that kind of mass euphoria. I fully intend to dust off all of my Flaming Lips records, and will be the first in line to buy tickets to their next show.

New Orleans has its share of problems: a high crime rate, corrupt politicians, and a broken school system, for starters. Years after Katrina, the city is still trying to rebuild. That being said, the city can throw the best damn party you’ve ever seen. Voodoo is run so well that all of the inconveniences of the typical festival seem to melt away. The lines for food and drink are short and fast-moving, the site is clean, and the staff is friendly and helpful. There are places to sit down and places to cool off and there are multiple performances happening at any given time. Festivals like Pitchfork and Bonnaroo often feel like survival tests, but at Jazzfest and Voodoo, concertgoers can relax and enjoy the music.