New Orleans – Temperatures climbed to record highs on the second day of the 2016 edition of New Orleans’ Voodoo Music Festival, parching the ground and the collective thirst of the thousands of patrons that flooded through the gates to celebrate the central point of the event. While most of the attendees seemed to flock to the Le PLUR stage on the far side of the grounds to ferociously thrash their heads and fists and/or sink into the quicksand of K-holes, the festival’s other three stages were surrounded by music fans of all kinds, basking in the glory of everything from indie rock and hip-hop to heavy metal and psychedelic mania. Every multi-day festival seems to bring out the best and the brightest for Saturday festivities, and this year’s Voodoo was no different, as talented veteran acts (Tool, Les Claypool) were paired up with some of the most promising musical talents that have popped up in recent years. As always, Best New Bands was ready to take in the sights and sounds of the burgeoning brilliance featured at the event.
Nothing But Thieves
Some serious The Bends-era Radiohead vibes emanated from Voodoo’s Altar Stage on Saturday afternoon, as British alternative band Nothing But Thieves let loose the talents of its five members upon the gathering crowd traipsing across the fields of City Park. Vocalist Conor Mason’s formidable falsetto was underscored by the talents of the four instrumentalists filling out the quintet, toying with multiple genres—ranging from droning noise rock to heavily melodic psychedelic rock—and piled on a tasty balance of nostalgia and innovation. Numerous songs played came from the band’s sole, self-titled album (released last year) and many EPs, including the first song they ever wrote together as a band (“Graveyard Whistling”) and several singles (“Itch,” “Hanging,” “Excuse Me”). It’s always heartening to hear a band speak to the love they have for fans, but more so to hear of love and respect for other musicians, especially those who have come before them, laying priceless tiles of inspiration for those who follow. As imitation is the truest form of flattery, covering a heavily inspirational band is one of the most gratifying forms of tribute that an act can do to pay respects, and Nothing But Thieves’ cover of Pixies’ classic “Where Is My Mind?” was not only well-timed but brilliantly executed; a solid anchor for an already remarkable hour of music from the young band.
Gritty Nashville punk four-piece Bully plowed through its set on the Pepsi Stage with barely any time to breathe between songs. In fact, the four were so badass, that they did their entire show in just over half of the time they were given. At one point singer Alicia Bognanno asked the crowd if they were “freezing” out in the sun-drenched field, which was met with tentative chuckles, as temperatures had climbed into the mid-80s by that point, although Bognanno admitted to being cold herself. Perhaps that’s why they band blew through its dozen-song set so quickly, although personally I think all four had gotten into a zone of complete focus and concentration—which was quite noticeable, as the band’s four members barely even blinked, as they tore into tracks from Bully’s sole LP, 2015’s Feels Like. Seamlessly navigating the rocky terrain of songs like “Milkman,” “Brainfreeze,” “Too Tough,” and hit single “Trying” appeared effortless, even as they broke up the set with a couple of new songs (whose titles are unknown), as well as the slower, more punctuated “Trash.” When Bully concluded just thirty-five minutes into the given hour, a few seemed disappointed (some even expected an encore), but all-in-all, a wave of satisfaction washed over the crowd’s faces, and honestly, everyone seemed OK with it, although one avid fan screamed, “COME BACK SOON, PLEASE!” For the sake of the many music lovers in the city of New Orleans, let’s hope his wish comes true.
Austin, TX’s Shakey Graves is simply adorable. The blues/funk fueled Americana project helmed by singer-songwriter Alejandro Rose-Garcia has been a festival favorite over the past few years, inviting the love and admiration of many types of music fans, including those who have a penchant for jam bands, rock groups, even country music enthusiasts. Throughout his band’s hour-long set, the smile rarely left his face as he moved under the colorful lights of Voodoo’s South Course stage. His playful demeanor was refreshing and inspiring as he strummed ardently through songs lifted from his impressive catalog, charming sing-alongs from his many admirers pressing against the barricade at the front of the stage, most noticeably during favorites such as “Roll Your Bones,” “To Cure What Ails,” “If Not For You” and his enticing set-opener “The Pansy Waltz.” In the spirit of the upcoming holiday, Rose-Garcia and his crew of musicians bounced onstage dressed as those famous, pizza-loving reptiles, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Alejandro taking the role of Raphael, yet apparently he left his sais at home. It didn’t matter that Rose-Garcia did not have Raphael’s trademark daggers on him, however, as his words and his music, his voice and his charm are Shakey Graves’ true weapons—and they’re used only for good.
Cage The Elephant
Kentucky’s already classic rock outfit Cage The Elephant is no stranger to the festival stage, having been featured at countless events across the globe – including previous editions of Voodoo Fest – and the band’s stature as a festival mainstay was furthered by its incredible Saturday evening set on the Altar Stage, this year. Every member had no trouble showcasing his talents during the hour-long show, although vocalist Matthew Shultz was the clear star of the evening, as he thrashed around the massive performance space, parading across the tops of the subwoofers lining the front of the stage, with fake blood dripping down his chin as he sang. Cage the Elephant has decidedly focused on its own booming idiosyncrasies as band, as exhibited in songs like “Cry Baby,” “Cold Cold Cold,” and “Punching Bag,” yet Cage The Elpehant also diligently incorporates familiar styles from similarly impressive acts that got their start before Cage’s formative years. “Ain’t No Rest For the Wicked” brilliantly emulated the simple yet mighty rhythms of the White Stripes, “Trouble” hinted at a subtle tribute to Pixies, and “Mess Around” carried the familiar blues-tinged guitar exuded by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Shultz and his band are naturals when it comes to performing to large-scale outdoor audiences, and Cage’s Saturday night set was another chapter in its long and promising career as one of the most sensational contemporary live bands to grace the festival stage.
Swedish metal outfit Ghost—briefly known as Ghost B.C. in the USA, due to trademark issues—is one of those bands that goes above and beyond what most musical entities aim to do. Most bands simply get together, write music, record music, and perform music. Sure, certain albums or tours might have a specific theme or motif—often shaded under the everyday umbrella term of being “concept”—but rather than focusing on one portion of its career to explore the more esoteric, experimental approaches to music, Ghost has built an entire collective persona that is all-encompassing. Heading up the band is an enigmatic vocalist that goes by the name “Papa Emeritus III,” draped in flowing robes and adorned with cryptic black-and-white face makeup and a pope’s hat bearing an inverted cross (the Cross of St. Peter), to accentuate the band’s Satanic lyrical tendencies. The position of Papa Emeritus III—who has never been identified—has been filled by two previous singers (I & II) prior to the one who graced the Pepsi Stage on Saturday night, though there are theories that the role has actually never been transferred. The illustrious singer is flanked by five unnamed musicians (called “Nameless Ghouls”), whose faces are obscured by metallic-colored, mouth-less demon masks, each embodying five different elements: fire, water, wind, earth, and ether. Sounds nuts, right? Well, I’m just getting started!
Before slinking onto the stage, Saturday night, the band’s entrance was preluded with an eerie Latin chorale of Psalm 51, originally composed by Gregorio Allegri, in the sixteenth century, tainting the atmosphere with a sense of impending doom. As the Ghouls came on stage and began to play the opening notes of “Square Hammer”—a song taken from the band’s latest release, an EP entitled Popestar—the palpable darkness filling the air was electrified into a current of deafening sound. Papa Emeritus III then addressed the crowd, and was met with a surprising, equally deafening response from the crowd—though the cacophony rising from the audience was one filled with tingling excitement. Ghost’s set continued with unwavering intensity, featuring tracks from the band’s 2015 LP Meliora, including the thunderous tones of “Cirice,” “From the Pinnacle to the Pit,” and “He Is.” Papa Emeritus III, like many of this weekend’s artists before him, had no qualms in attacking a certain Republican presidential nominee, calling him an “idiot with a bad hairdo, sitting at the top of [his] tower, seeking a new job in November,” before adding that “HE’S NOT GOING TO GET IT!” And if someone as spooky as Papa Emeritus III were to say something like that about me, I would definitely be very afraid.
I feel I should say something here that deviates somewhat from the usual festival review content, as I feel it is important. As a festival that takes place around Halloween, in such a colorful city as New Orleans, it’s no wonder that the pageantry usually seen at festivals has been taken to the next level for this event. Unfortunately, some of the more racially insensitive attendees shamelessly adorned themselves with apparel that should not be worn by some people. Items like Native American headdresses were sadly abundant at Voodoo this year, as those who choose to apply them don’t understand the significance and reverence that these items are held in to the cultures that created them – they are cheap replicas that only further the idea that cultures and the symbols that they are entwined with are mere disguises or edgy fashion choices. I hate to editorialize, but New Orleans, you’re better than this. As a city with a history of renowned acceptance and diversity, it saddens me to see that there are those who are so blinded by their own selfish desires that they don’t realize how detrimental they are being to others, the city, and ultimately, themselves. Hopefully this is not a trend that will carry onto the next day, but there seems to be an inherent carelessness permeating these grounds this weekend that I hope can be addressed and eliminated.
Aside from that, Voodoo Festival continues to showcase its rebirth after the tattered, disorganized years the event has suffered through the past few years. The new talent here is electrifying and vibrant, and we look forward to seeing what the final day will bring.
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Photography by Corey Bell for Best New Bands.