New Orleans – The face of New Orleans’ Voodoo Music Festival – formerly known as The Voodoo Experience – has changed many times over the past several years. The festival’s venue City Park – a state-run park that sits on the northern end of the Crescent City – hasn’t been altered too much, but the festival itself was moved from its former home along the Roosevelt Mall to the park’s specially-designed Festival Grounds in 2013, which also happened to be the last year I attended the festival before moving out of the Big Easy the following spring. The festival’s management has also changed hands over the past few years, and now is run by the same company as Chicago’s Lollapalooza, C3 – bringing an air of professionalism to the previously sloppy atmosphere the festival has been admittedly steeped in for the better part of this current decade. Voodoo Fest has been known to disappoint New Orleans fans in the past for billing mostly local bands (in an effort to cater to those traveling to the city from out of town), but this year the festival seems to have finally hit its stride for the first time since 2010, billing powerhouse headliners like Tool and Arcade Fire, as well as a slew of fantastic supporting bands filling out the lineup. As with any festival, a healthy ambiance of pageantry permeates the grounds each year, enhanced by the fact that it is annually held during the weekend closest to Halloween. Voodoo also boasts some of the best up-and-coming acts of today, so here are a few of our favorites from the first day of the event:
Oxford rock quintet Foals has been touring relentlessly for the past year behind the excellent 2015 LP What Went Down, the band’s fourth full-length since its inception in 2005. Foal’s hour-long set on the festival’s main stage (the Altar Stage) took place just around the time the sun was starting to set behind the park’s many sprawling, Spanish moss-draped oak trees, bathing the entire area in pale golden light. Songs from What Went Down dominated Foals’ set (as was to be expected), but that didn’t keep the band from whipping out crowd favorites from Foal’s first three LPs, including cuts from debut LP Antidotes (“Olympic Airways,” “Red Socks Pugle”) and the expansive Total Life Forever ballad “Spanish Sahara,” which carried the evening into delicate twilight. The band’s rendition of What Went Down track “Mountain at My Gates” also aided in lulling the crowd into a state of brief solemnity, but the final three songs were quick to shake any comfortable cobwebs starting to form in any audience member’s mind, blasting through lengthy, pounding renditions of “A Knife in the Ocean,” “Inhaler” (perhaps the best song off of Foals’ third LP Holy Fire; a song structured perfectly for the festival stage), and the cacophonous title track off What Went Down, which closed the set amidst a frenzy of perfectly-executed guitar and a dazzling strobe display. As Foals’ set came to a close, the trees around the park started glowing under the warm haze of blue-gelled spotlights, marking a bittersweet finale to Foals’ show, and the band’s tour as a whole.
Brother-sister duo Wild Belle (formed by siblings Elliot and Natalie Bergman in 2011) is a hard act to put into simple terms. Wild Belle’s sound bounces around like a flat stone on a placid lake, echoing ripples of reggae, electronic, jazz-funk, and pop tinted with psychedelic flashes. The duo was expanded into a five-piece, thanks to three touring musicians, with Natalie Bergman taking the helm as lead vocalist, while Elliot Bergman provided instrumentation. The band’s 2013 debut Isles was followed up this year with sophomore LP Dreamland, songs from which dominated the hour-long set on the South Course stage. Wild Belle’s mellow sounds were given new light at Voodoo, Natalie’s raspy, Joplin-esque vocals slipping through the crowd like liquid sandpaper. Newer songs like the howling “Coyotes,” blissfully enigmatic “Losing You,” the illustriously funky “Giving Up On You,” and title track “Dreamland” were offset by Isles songs “Another Girl” and dub-soaked ballad “Love Like This” (dedicated to ‘the lovers in the crowd’). A handful of sing-alongs peppered the set, including a rousing political song entitled “Throw Down Your Guns” – which saw the crowd singing the refrain with Natalie – and set-closer “Keep You,” another reggae-infused track that was the duo’s first proper single. Wild Belle gave one of the most eclectic and surprising sets of the evening, and I left thinking to myself, “Man, I can’t believe I waited so long to see that band.”
Tupelo, Mississippi hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd – consisting of brothers Khalif (“Swae Lee”) and Aaquil (“Slim Jxmmi”) Brown – was a last minute replacement for New Orleans-born rapper Kevin Gates, due to his recent incarceration stemming from an assault on a fan at a recent show (Gates was given an homage at the beginning of the set, as Rae Sremmurd’s DJ/producer led a chant of “Free Kevin Gates” during his introduction). The brothers Brown were perhaps the most energetic act to take the stage on Friday, spraying the crowd with water and appearing in costume, albeit briefly, as they both ended up shirtless within minutes of their beginning. The two had no problem hyping up the crowd at the Pepsi Stage with their performance antics and forceful rhymes, asking the crowd questions like, “Do girls in New Orleans know how to shake dat [sic] ass??” The brothers threw themselves into their set with fiery verve, plowing through songs from their two releases SremmLife and SremmLife 2 (released in 2015 and 2016 respectively), including “Come Get Her,” “By Chance,” “Throw Sum Mo,” and “Real Chill.” The duo also was not shy about voicing political opinions as the brothers tore into an improvised verse immediately following a playfully angry rant about the evils of Donald Trump; following suit behind G-Eazy who had vocalized similar outlooks on the neighboring Altar Stage during his set that took place directly before Rae Sremmurd’s. Though many were disappointed with Gates’ cancellation, the crowd was thrilled with Rae Sremmurd’s dynamic hour on the stage, and it would not be surprising in the least if, at the end, one was heard saying something along the lines of, “Kevin who?”
The festival’s first headlining set came from Canadian-born indie R&B darling The Weeknd (real name Abel Tesfaye). The Weeknd surfaced a handful of years ago with his trilogy of mixtapes (House of Balloons, Thursday, Echoes of Silence), and became a crossover hit as he took the mainstream by storm with his subsequent full-lengths Kiss Land and especially last year’s Beauty Behind The Madness. The set was bookended with his two biggest hits from the latter LP, kicking things off with “The Hills” and playing the unapologetic “Can’t Feel My Face” – an extremely well crafted song comparing drug addiction to interpersonal infatuation – as the set’s penultimate number. A surprising amount of The Weeknd’s collaborative efforts were featured throughout the show – including Future’s “Low Life,” Drake’s “Crew Love,” and Ty Dolla Sign’s “Or Nah” – yet none of his associates appeared to perform with him, which was somewhat strange, considering all three of those songs are credited to the other artists (unfortunately his Disclosure collaboration “Nocturnal” was not performed). Tesfaye utilized an intricately lit floating steel triangle as his backdrop, one that erupted with sparkling pyrotechnics during his final two songs. The Weeknd’s new LP Starboy is slated to be released next month, yet only two new songs made their way into the set: the raucous “False Alarm” and the title track “Starboy,” which The Weeknd recorded with electro-house giants Daft Punk, and which served as the set’s final song. There were many in the crowd (myself included) that were hoping beyond hope that Daft Punk would show up to perform the song with Tesfaye, but the elusive robotic duo was nowhere to be found (which, honestly, is not surprising in the least). Nonetheless, the festival’s Friday headliner provided a solid hour or so of songs (no encore, though), and though he may have lost his signature tumbleweed of dreadlocks that has been featured on his head for the past several years, he certainly hasn’t lost his vocal talent, his overtly sexual persona, or his electrifying performance skills.
Voodoo Fest’s first day saw some great costumes, beautiful weather, and plenty of great music. The weekend has just begun, so stay tuned to Best New Bands as we bring you coverage of the weekend’s remaining performances!
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Photography by Corey Bell for Best New Bands.