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New Orleans Voodoo Experience: More Than A Music Festival

October 30 – November 1, 2009
New Orleans, LA

Jane's Addiction

Jane's Addiction

The Voodoo Experience in New Orleans is in its eleventh year and still going strong.  This year’s event attracted a reported 100,000+ people during Halloween weekend. The line up – which included Eminem, Jane’s Addiction, Kiss, Mutemath, Wolfmother, The Flaming Lips, Lenny Kravitz, Janelle Monae, The Black Keys, Gogol Bordello, Silversun Pickups, and Widespread Panic – definitely helped draw the sizable audience.  In addition to the impressive line up, the festival benefits from taking place in New Orleans during Halloween weekend, and offers a diverse range of entertainment and New Orleans cuisine.

Janelle Monae

Janelle Monae

In the spirit of Halloween, Friday was disguised as a warm sunny day, only to reveal its stormy nature following a captivating set by Janelle Monae.  Earlier this year, I attempted to see Monae in Austin during SXSW.  However, the club where she performed was too small to accommodate the crowd.  We made it inside the venue, but couldn’t see Monae through the packed audience. Nonetheless, we could feel her energy and she sounded great.  Monae’s SXSW appearance peaked my interest enough to ensure we arrived at The Voodoo Experience in time to catch her set (even forgoing a visit to Cafe Du Monde).

Monae is an engaging performer whether she’s dancing with fervor or singing while elevated on a chair.  She commands the stage and the audience with her expressions and energetic dancing, but Monae doesn’t let you forget that what she came to do is sing.  Her voice is beautiful and music is a full-body expression for Monae.

Marching band

Marching through the mud

“The day wouldn’t be complete without muddy feet,” became the mantra of this year’s Voodoo Experience after Friday’s torrential downpours turned the festival grounds into a muddy obstacle course for the remainder of the weekend.  Contrary to what you may expect, the wind, rain, cold temperatures, and mud, added to the experience as good-humored music fans and dedicated musicians braved the elements, in the name of music.

Silversun Pickups

Silversun Pickups meeting fans before the storm

Due to the heavy rain and winds, Silversun Pickups had the option of rescheduling their set and playing a club in New Orleans later that night.  Just moments before they were due at the main stage, the band decided to perform their set as scheduled, at the festival grounds, during the worst part of the storm. Their fans were appreciative and didn’t seem to mind enduring the pounding rain while the band played.

The New Orleans Bingo! Show

The New Orleans Bingo! Show

Knowing we would see Silversun Pickups in LA the following week, we opted for shelter and took cover in the Bingo! Parlour circus tent during the storm.  Thankfully, Voodoo Experience offers a wide range of quality entertainment.  Inside the Bingo! Parlour we were treated to none other than The New Orleans Bingo! Show.  This isn’t your grandma’s Bingo — The New Orleans Bingo! Show includes aerialists, clowns that smoke and drink, dancers, and theatrics that transport you to another era.  Clint Maedgen takes the lead on vocals, pump organ, keyboard, guitar, tenor saxophone, squeaky dolphin, and more.  At the same time, an aerialist hangs upside-down above the crowd, doing tricks on the trapeze.  Dancers and clowns add to the experience.  Not only did we forget about the rain, we forgot where we were. The New Orleans Bingo! Show kept us dry, smiling, and dancing for an hour and a half.

“If you were in New Orleans and you didn’t see Eminem, then you missed everything!!” the Starbucks barista told us as he handed over our Saturday morning caffeine.  Friday night’s performance was Eminem’s first full concert in 2009.  Well, we missed it, and the city wouldn’t let us live it down.  With the constant reminder of our Venti lattes in hand, we hailed a taxi to the festival Saturday. “Did you see Eminem last night??” the driver asked when we told him where we were headed.  Before we could answer the question, the driver proceeded to tell us that Eminem last played The Voodoo Experience nine years ago.  “Eminem,” “Eminem,” “Eminem” – you could hear his name ringing throughout the festival grounds early Saturday as fans reminisced about the set he played Friday night.  Just when we were beginning to feel like we might have missed the highlight of the festival, The Voodoo Experience hit us with a wave of great music, exceptional live performances, and the reminder that there’s more than one highlight at Voodoo Experience.

Mates of States Fans

Mates of States fans sing along

When we arrived Saturday afternoon, we were greeted by sunshine and the uplifting music of Mates of State.  Costumed fans sang along as Kori Gardner (keyboard/vocals) and Jason Hammel (drums/vocals) played their catchy tunes.  Mates of State got the crowd amped up which turned out to be essential because that energy was necessary for the back to back music that hit next.

Mutemath's Paul Meany

Mutemath's Paul Meany raises the bar

Mutemath played immediately following Mates of State.  Not only did they further set the tone for the day, they raised the standard for live performance in general.  A separate review of the Mutemath show will follow because enough can’t be said here.  Between their brilliant music, Paul Meany’s voice and keyboard handstands, Darren King standing on top of his drum and diving into the crowd, Greg Hill’s guitar pedal wizardry, and Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas on bass and whatever else he could get his hands on, Mutemath quickly became a favorite of festival goers.

Gogol Bordello

Gogol Bordello

It should be noted that in addition to the music reviewed here, there were at least 3 other artists performing concurrently on other stages at the festival.  Since I still haven’t mastered being in 4 places at once, I stuck with a friend’s recommendation and caught Gogol Bordello.   Now I know why this band has been on my to-see list for a while.  Gogol Bordello had the majority of the audience jumping, clapping, and singing along throughout the duration of their set.  When their show came to an end, the crowd demanded an encore and  Eugene Hütz and the dynamic band delivered an even more energetic, lengthy encore.

Wolfmother

Wolfmother

The Voodoo Stage and Playstation/Billboard.com Stage faced each other on opposite ends of a running track.  So when Gogol Bordello finished their set on the Playstation/Billboard.com stage, we turned around and walked toward the Voodoo Stage to catch Wolfmother.  I’ve seen Wolfmother perform at other festivals, but something about their set at Voodoo blew me away and exceeded my expectations (which are high).  First of all, I was able to hear Andrew Stockdale’s amazing voice in a way that I hadn’t heard before.  The entire band seemed to play much tighter than when I saw them previously.  This may, in part, be due to the fact that two of the original band members have been replaced.  I ran into Stockdale and Ian Peres a few times during the festival.  In addition to being exceptional musicians, they are extremely funny and kind.  Although, there was that incident with Hotshot Robot. . . More on that in the additional, forthcoming Wolfmother review.

Wolfmother with a beheaded Hotshot Robot

Wolfmother with a beheaded Hotshot Robot

So up until this point, you’ve got Mutemath, Gogol Bordello, and Wolfmother absolutely crushing it.  Fans, whose feet otherwise may have been tired from standing, were blessed to have the cushion of mud to soften the impact from 3 hours and 45 minutes of incessant jumping. Some people began losing their voices from screaming and out-singing their neighbors and others opted to forgo food and restroom breaks so they wouldn’t miss anything.  These are bands who just got on stage and played music.  No light shows.  No dramatic stage set-ups.  No real spectacle.  They entertained, they crowd surfed, and at times they banged on things in an unconventional manner, but they did not succumb to an over-the-top stage setup or seizure-inducing light show.  And they don’t need to.  Mutemath, Gogol Bordello, and Wolfmother can blow you away simply by playing music.

Cut to Jane’s Addiction and Kiss, who rounded out Saturday’s line-up.  These are seasoned musicians who’ve been doing this forever.  Perhaps they add spectacle just to keep themselves from getting bored – who knows? The question is: do they need it?

Jane's Addiction

Jane's Addiction

I’ve seen Jane’s Addiction several times over the years, including a very cool “rehearsal show” at a sound stage in LA.  Sometimes they’re great.  Sometimes they’re a little less than great.  But irrespective of my subjective opinion of any given performance, Dave Navarro and Stephen Perkins always nail it.  If Navarro weren’t a musician, I think he’d carry a portable stage around with him, set it up daily, and just strut around.  And I’ll bet people would watch him too – that guy was born to be a performer.  It also doesn’t hurt that he can PLAY guitar.  Perkins, I could listen to or watch for hours, even if he were playing unaccompanied.  He’s a phenomenal drummer.  It’s also good to see Eric Avery back on bass.  It was original Jane’s doing what they originally set out to do – play music and entertain.

Kiss

Kiss playing (safely) with fire

Kiss, on the other hand, I had never seen live.  That band is all about spectacle.  Although, being live music veterans, they’ve learned to do things in moderation.  Sure they’ve got face paint, hair, and silver and black outfits, but forget pyrotechnics (perhaps because paint is highly flammable).  So when they perform, Kiss simply shows images of flames surrounding them on screen.  The part about not using pyrotechnics is not entirely true – there was a nice fireworks display at the end of their set.  While there were a lot of fans who have been with these bands for many years, it was nice to see a new generation of music fans enjoying Kiss and Jane’s Addiction at The Voodoo Experience.

Sunday was another beautiful day in New Orleans.  By this point, there were enough paths made through the mud and it was considerably easier to navigate the festival grounds.  We spent much of the day enjoying the non-music activities offered.  We checked out several food vendors and sampled desserts including fried Oreos and white chocolate bread pudding ice cream (be on the lookout for New Orleans Ice Cream, rolling out nationwide!).  We stumbled upon the special Vooboo  stage set up for kids and watched families enjoying the festival experience together.

JJ Grey

JJ Grey

Eventually we made our way over to see JJ Grey & Mofro.  I had been curious about JJ Grey ever since this I saw this clever music video.  Well, they left the barbies at home for this show, but JJ Grey & Mofro were able to get the crowd groovin’ on their own.

Trombone Shorty

Trombone Shorty

Next up, Trombone Shorty.  The first time I saw Trombone Shorty he was opening for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band in Los Angeles.  He was so good that I actually forgot where I was and thought I was in New Orleans.  So to see Trombone Shorty in his hometown of New Orleans was better than a fried Oreo.  Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews has been playing New Orleans clubs since he was 12 years old.  He’s now 23 and if there had been tables to dance on at Voodoo Experience, people would have been on them.  If you have the opportunity to see Trombone Shorty, then do it (even if The Flaming Lips are playing at the same time).

The Flaming Lips

The Flaming Lips shooting confetti

That said, we did head over to catch part of The Flaming Lips‘ set.  I know I just suggested you do one thing and then I did the opposite thing, but with that experience behind me, I stand by my original recommendation — see Trombone Shorty.  I do like the Lips, but the sole reason we ventured across the muddy field to see them was out of sheer curiosity, to see if they did anything different.  I’ve seen them perform for years.  I stopped seeing them perform for years.  I revisited them during their tour this summer.  And then, thinking they may pull out something new for the festival crowd, I saw them again at Voodoo Experience.  If you’re somebody who doesn’t like change, rest easy – The Flaming Lips are doing exactly the same thing they were doing years ago.  The show begins with Wayne Coyne rolling out on top of the crowd in a large bubble.  Then, there’s confetti, enough balloons for everybody to play, and furry creatures dancing on stage.  Songs may be performed in a slightly different tempo – “Fight Test” was played ultra slow at Voodoo – but essentially a Flaming Lips show is a Flaming Lips show.  They provide good old-fashioned fun that you can always count on.

Voodoo Experience

Voodoo Experience: good times guaranteed

Similarly, New Orleans Voodoo Experience provides good fun and music you can count on.   However, that may be the only constant.  New Orleans Voodoo Experience is truly unique and offers a diverse range of entertainment and activities.  There’s something for everyone at Voodoo Experience – that’s why more than 100,000 people showed up.

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