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Voodoo Fest Review: Rockstars, Ragers, and Rain

Co-written by Casey Fitzmaurice and Charlie Gabriel

voodoo.jpg(Photo credit: Visit New Orleans)

“It’s not the day you wanted, but it’s the day you got. So what are you going to do about it?” 

This sentiment, shared by Canadian-American singer grandson at the start of his Friday afternoon set at the Voodoo Music + Arts Experience in New Orleans, became a central theme of the weekend. Torrential rains from the edges of a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico led to shortened sets and technical difficulties, while City Park turned into a giant mud pit for the rest of the weekend. Armed with ponchos and rain boots, my friends and I were much more prepared for it this time; last year, the rain came on the eve of the festival, and the unexpected levels of mud on the festival grounds ruined more than one pair of shoes.

While the effects of the rain were still felt after the first day, the weather actually cleared up quite nicely. I have to commend the festival organizers for keeping a close eye on the situation and knowing when not to pull the plug. Other festivals may have cancelled the entire weekend over Friday’s weather and the resulting field conditions, but Voodoo properly understood that inclement weather is just a part of living in the Crescent City. Without the threat of lightning, they trudged on, and outside of a cancellation by Bea Miller the festival resumed as scheduled. This was our experience.

 

Day 1

 

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We started the day hoping to watch Michigander open the South Course stage with a collection of indie anthems that has earned him opening slots on tours with bands like Hippo Campus and Twin Peaks, but traffic delays caused by the weather allowed us to only hear the very end of his set as we hiked from our car to the festival. I thought I could pick out “East Chicago, IN” in the distance, my personal favorite of his songs, but we were still so far from the festival that it was hard to really listen to it.

As we got closer to the gate, Magic City Hippies began their set on the Altar Stage, Voodoo’s Verizon-sponsored main stage, where the Miami-based trio ripped into songs like “Franny” and “Limestone” as they serenaded our entrance to the festival. We were able to make it to their set in time to see a beautiful, rain-soaked rendition of “Fanfare,” perhaps my favorite song from the indie-funk band. Frontman Robby Hunter and friends were completely drenched by the end of the set, but they leaned into it in a way that gave their set twice as much energy as the weather could have possibly taken away. It was a fitting last show of 2019 for the band. 

Magic-City-Hippies-2720Magic City Hippies singer Robby Hunter and drummer Pat Howard (Photo credit: Glide)

A side note about Magic City Hippies: This was one of my favorite bands on the lineup coming in. I first discovered them in the lead-up to this year’s Bonnaroo, and their seamless blend of funk, indie, and hip-hop immediately stuck out to me. Their Thursday night set at the Manchester, TN festival only confirmed my fandom, as the band’s electric energy and energetic stage presence gave new life to their already-great catalog.

I had an opportunity to talk with the band after they dried off and rebounded from their set, and we had a fascinating, 30-minute conversation about the band’s rise, Hunter’s evolution from a one-man-band to a trio after adding drummer Pat Howard and bassist John Coughlin to the fold, their highlights from 2019 (playing for 9,000 people at Bonnaroo), what they were looking forward to in 2020 (an upcoming 36-date tour in the early part of the year), their creative processes (ironically, “Fanfare” was the one song they never thought would make the record), their favorite songs to play live (“SPF” and “Float” were popular amongst the band), their influences (Anderson .Paak and the Red Hot Chili Peppers both came up, which should come as no surprise) and how they got through the grind of being a bar band for years before breaking through to the next level. On this last point, Hunter had an especially interesting point about how if you have “even a modicum of musical talent, you kind of owe it to everybody else” to put it on full display and let the world hear it.

Tables may or may not have been knocked over under the bar tent of the press lounge during our conversation.

Unfortunately, my phone decided to drink some rainwater through a crack at the bottom of my screen that went unattended for months, and my phone completely stopped working. While my phone had an SD card in it, the voice memo of the interview was saved to my internal storage, so the file became unretrievable. My intention was to make this interview a stand-alone piece, but without a transcript to work with, that seems impossible. In this sense, the rain claimed two victims, my phone and the article.

It wasn’t the day I wanted, but it was the day I got. So what was I going to do about it? 

75354838_783070952115245_3856221642090872832_n.jpgStill Woozy

After initially freaking out a little bit, I decided not to let it affect me and to continue to enjoy the day, regardless. Still Woozy put on a much more lively set than I expected. His collection of songs, which includes some great bedroom-pop tunes like “Lava” and “Habit,” are generally really vibey and mellow, so I didn’t expect him to be as animated of a performer as he was. However, his enthusiastic, carefree spirit was evident from beginning to end. A seemingly-impromptu song dipped into punk territory with its call-and-response chorus of “Oh, what the f*** you gonna do?” echoing grandson’s sentiments from earlier in the day. His cover of Mac DeMarco’s “Still Beating” excited much of the crowd. 

moontaxi.jpgMoon Taxi (Photo credit: Camille Barnett, Mid-City Messenger)

From here, we went to check out Moon Taxi at Altar. The band knew exactly how to revamp a drenched crowd. Like most artists, their setlist was compiled to include the old and the new. From “All Day All Night” to “Morocco,” I was alarmed by the amount of hits that I recognized. I first saw the band back in 2015, and this experience was vastly different. So many people were singing along this time, and so many more joined in when a popular track was played. I was surprised to hear their audience-inclusive cover of “What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes, and even more shocked when they performed a remixed version of Billie Eillish’s “Bad Guy.” That attracted almost as much attention as frontman Trevor Terndrup. He was completely in his element throughout the performance, and his smile seemed infectious. This was definitely one of the happiest crowds at the festival thus far, and Moon Taxi was certainly a cause of that. 

bbBishop Briggs (Photo credit: Glide)

Bea Miller’s cancellation made our decision to check out Bishop Briggs next a little simpler, and despite having heard “River” about twenty times too many in my life, she put on a perfectly fine set that didn’t really appeal to me musically, but made me appreciate her as an artist a little bit more. Her humble, quiet-but-confident personality made it much easier to get into her set. As we walked away to get some food, she launched into a medley of emo hits like Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out,” Panic! At The Disco’s “I Write Sins, Not Tragedies,” and My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome To The Black Parade” that thrilled the crowd.

brandi.jpgBrandi Carlile (Photo credit: Atlanta Music Guide)

Brandi Carlile’s set at the Altar Stage came next. I’m not sure what expectations I had, but they were viciously blown away. I knew that she was talented, but she completely owned the stage for the duration of her set. Her musical offering provided a little something for everybody: beautiful, a cappella three-part harmonies in “The Eye,” an unforgettable, show-stealing performance of “Fulton County Jane Doe,” a driving, belting presentation of “The Story,” and a moving finale in her Grammy-winning epic “The Joke” that brought tears to several people around me in the audience. This may have been my favorite set of the entire weekend.

Anyone trying to follow Carlile was in a tough position for this writer, so whoever the next band was really had to bring it to get my mind off the show I just watched. The band up to the challenge? Hobo Johnson & The Lovemakers, who became popular as a meme after releasing “Peach Scone” in an attempt to win an appearance on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Series. To their credit, they’ve been able to turn this into an appearance on the show, and have released a critically-praised album since then. However, for my personal taste, this show didn’t land with me at all. I can understand why someone would really like their set, but to me, it just sounded whiny with a lot of unnecessary screaming that led to a lot of lyrics being drowned out in the noise.


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Guns n’ Roses (Photo credit: Billboard)

For better or worse, it served as a palette cleanser for what came next, legendary rock band Guns n’ Roses. Despite their age, they still brought the house down. They were given an eye-popping three hours on the Altar Stage, a Voodoo record. We left about twelve songs into the set simply because we were physically drained from the bad weather earlier in the day, but don’t let that fool you: this set was a highlight. Slash, in particular, proved that he’s every bit as good as the hype would suggest, with mind-bending solos on almost every song. Controversial frontman Axl Rose impressed me as well; for as long as he’s been destroying his vocal cords singing metal sets, he sounded just as powerful and distinctive as he did in the ‘80s. The band’s cover of Wings’ “Live And Let Die,” as well as two of their mega-hits in “Mr. Brownstone” and “Welcome To The Jungle,” all stood out to me. They proved the power of a well-executed hard rock show and earned the respect of a new generation of music fans, ending the first day on a high note.

Day 1 Highlights: Brandi Carlile, Magic City Hippies, Guns n’ Roses

 

Day 2

 

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Unfortunately, way too much of the earlier part of Saturday was spent at an AT&T Store in Hammond, LA trying to buy a new phone. I can’t really complain about the upgrade, but it set us back a couple of hours. Meanwhile, much of my group had never experienced New Orleans before beyond Voodoo Fest, so we took a much-abbreviated tour of the city before arriving to the second day of Voodoo. This caused us to miss a few early sets — Pink Sweat$, Mattiel, and Hello Yello would have all been nice to see.

Realistically, though, Saturday was largely about two bands for us: Young the Giant and The National.

Young The Giant started while most of the group was stuck waiting in line to get in, so about half of that set was heard from a distance. We got in just in time to hear the end of their hit “Cough Syrup,” and the conclusion of their show was a four-song tour de force comprised of “Superposition,” “Tightrope,” “Silvertongue,” and “My Body.” The latter really got the crowd moving, dancing and singing along to every word of their 2010 hit.

73342329_945704022470639_5487547076919164928_n.jpgThe National guitarist Aaron Dessner

After the set concluded, we camped out to get a close spot for indie-rock favorites The National. The twenty-year-old band released one of my favorite albums this year in “I Am Easy To Find,” and after a disappointing Bonnaroo set where I couldn’t hear anything over the BLARING kick drum, I was ready to see what their live show was actually like. My experience was much more favorable this time, with frontman Matt Berninger and company delivering one of the top-two sets of the weekend. Above all, they never let you forget that they’re a rock band first and foremost. A massive guitar solo on the end of “Hey Rosey” from guitarist Aaron Dessner more than punctuated their live rendition of one of my favorite songs from the new record.

73381368_261353384780951_233221753579503616_n.jpgThe National frontman Matt Berninger

A little less than half of their songs came from their most recent release, with the rest of their 13-song set being filled with some of the excellent work they’ve released over their tenure. “Don’t Swallow The Cap” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” were extraordinarily popular set choices among the crowd, and songs like “Mr. November” and “I Need My Girl” also stood out. After asking the audience to make some noise if they had all of their rights, Berninger remarked, “I’m hearing a lot of men out there right now,” before breaking into “Fake Empire.” A closing performance of “Terrible Love” concluded the best show of the night.

Next, we took on The Glitch Mob and Clairo. Our group was split in terms of interest, so I decided to check out a little of both.

I started with Clairo, although admittedly I didn’t stay very long. The Carlisle, Mass. native presented her lo-fi brand of indie-pop in a way that didn’t really grab my attention, and the smaller-than-expected crowd was, at least around us, full of talkative teenage girls that weren’t as focused on the performance as one would hope.

73322770_2631109870508581_5800045336848236544_n.jpgThe Glitch Mob

Meanwhile at the Le Plur stage, Voodoo’s EDM sanctuary, The Glitch Mob was a surprise to say the least. The trio combined EDM and techno, with a bit of rock and the inclusion of a saxophone. I expected strict dance music, and received an exaggerated guitar solo with a brass reprise. They played pop, techno, dubstep, and hip hop. They combined so many genres that my feet didn’t know what to do, but I must have had a good time because I definitely injured them during the performance.

After Clairo and The Glitch Mob, the dueling headliners of Beck and Bassnectar gave us another chance to test two shows out.

beckBeck (Photo credit: NOLA.com)

We started with Beck, who wasted no time kicking off his set with his 1994 smash hit “Loser.” After wholeheartedly singing along with the crowd, we danced along as he played through songs like “Up All Night” and “Wow” before leaving to see Bassnectar for a little bit.

Admittedly, EDM is rarely my thing. I like it when it has a funk or jazz flair to it (The Floozies and Anomalie both jump to mind), but generally, it’s uncommon for me to really sink my teeth into a DJ set. There’s a very good reason why Bassnectar is so much bigger than many other DJs, but I personally haven’t figured it out yet. It just sounded and felt like a basic EDM set to me, but I understand that I’m not the right person to give takes on this set. We wound up circling back to Beck, where I was able to hear two of my favorite songs of his — “Blue Moon” and “E-Pro” — before walking out of the festival to his set-closing number “Where It’s At.”

Day 2 Highlights: The National, Young The Giant, The Glitch Mob, Beck

 

Day 3


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Sunday was our earliest day out at the festival, and for good reason. The festival’s hours were 12:00-9:00, as opposed to 1:00-11:00 the previous two days, but Mobley’s appearance on the South Course stage was enough to get to the festival early. The one-man-band/producer/composer/multimedia artist certainly has many talents, which was evident from his effortless transitions from piano to guitar to drums. At one point, he brought up some audience members to participate in the show by becoming a human drum sampler. 

You heard that right. This man literally invented a machine that allowed four people to become a drum machine. Don’t believe me? Here’s a video.

I had the chance to talk with Mobley after his performance, and we’ll be posting that interview soon, but anyone who watched his performance will remember how talented he is and how much potential he has. “Torch” and “Solo” were both highlights.

After catching up with the rest of the group, we checked out Folk/Americana outfit The Ghost of Paul Revere from Portland, Maine. Their sound reminded me of a less overtly-country Zac Brown Band, with some stunning harmonies and an incredibly talented lead singer. They presented a catalog of music that reminded me of home. “Wild Child,” in particular, struck me as one of the most impressive vocal performances of the entire festival. I loved their personalities, too; their banter with the audience and with each other was both funny and relatable.

73073222_414763719215113_5024775530575036416_nDuncan Fellows

Duncan Fellows started their set at the South Course stage next, and they were one of my favorite “finds” from the lineup. Their video for “Fresh Squeezed” is one of the most fun and interesting music videos I’ve ever seen, so watching their set became a definite priority. Like their online demeanors suggest, they consistently came off as the life of the party, walking out with their faces completely decorated in skeleton makeup to ring in the Halloween spirit. The face-painted five-piece from Austin, Texas brought their dynamic blend of indie and folk-rock to a very receptive crowd, even if the home New Orleans Saints game led to all of the early crowds being notably smaller. What impressed me the most was their ability to deliver kickass ballads in addition to their more upbeat material. “Eyelids Shut” was my personal highlight of the entire set, a slower song that channeled a bit of Band of Horses while still uniquely their own.

Duncan Fellows wasn’t going to be easy to top, but Hippo Campus was up to the challenge with a collection of hits like “Buttercup” and “Bambi” that provided the perfect soundtrack for a sunny Sunday afternoon. The indie rock band has certainly come a long way since 2015, when “Suicide Saturday” was their dominating hit. Since then, they’ve introduced several brass instruments to their sound, which was a definite crowd pleaser. I was reminded of Moon Taxi, because the audience seemed just as content as they were in that rainstorm. 

73206247_420592928534910_2394932669726064640_n.jpgDanileigh celebrates with audience members on stage

After two great indie sets, we thought we would keep the trend going by checking out Temples, whose expressionless stage demeanor unfortunately seeped into their music. We were turned off by the pretentious vibe that we got from the band and migrated to Danileigh at the Wisner Stage. The former Prince protege was the exact opposite of Temples: a 24-year-old Def Jam singer and rapper with a hype man and a raucous energy. She invited a slew of audience members to dance with her on stage as she closed her show. 

73515749_823152414754333_6131893322093953024_n.jpgBring Me The Horizon

Bring Me The Horizon was definitely the most polarizing show amongst our group. The iconic emo/metal band delivered a stage show that was grandiose and epic, with masked men dressed like soldiers spraying machine guns filled with smoke and dancers flanking frontman Oli Sykes in an arena-ready presentation that called to mind post-apocalyptic scenery reminiscent of something out of Mad Max. With that said, the music itself is simply not for everyone. Many people in our group elected to sit outside of the crowd and wait as Sykes consistently called for mosh pits and delivered an experience straight out of Warped Tour. While I’m not a fan of the band or the genre in particular, I definitely felt thrown back to my 7th Grade emo phase. 

After the set was over and the crowd dissipated, we took the opportunity to camp for a decent spot for Post Malone. We heard Sheck Wes play “Mo Bamba” in the distance while waiting, and I feel like that’s as much as I need to do to satisfy my need to see the Harlem rapper.

73098392_1336234563204759_6695615544994824192_n.jpgPost Malone

Post Malone was almost otherworldly. The truth is, I’d barely ever listened to his music prior to this performance. There were several songs that I recognized from parties in high school, which seemed like a crazy coincidence at the time. “White Iverson” was especially familiar. It’s the type of song that can get a whole room singing along, or in this case, a whole fraternity. Unfortunately, after over an hour of waiting in such an impatient crowd, a group of loud and preppy college kids shoved their way in front of us. There must have been at least a dozen drunken greek life enthusiasts blocking our view, and several of them could barely even stand. They just kept multiplying. My first impression of the audience wasn’t very promising, but the show itself made up for it. The eclectic hitmaker performed an 18-track setlist with enough energy to sway the entire crowd. He just wanted us to let loose, and we happily obliged. He played several of his more popular songs from a variety of albums, including “Better Now,” “Rockstar,” and “Congratulations.” While I was unfamiliar with most of his music before, I’ve definitely had “Circles” stuck in my head since Sunday. The artist was so welcoming and energetic on stage, and I now understand what all the hype is about. He used his festival-closing platform to send a message of love and unconditional acceptance, a proper sendoff for a fantastic, memorable weekend.

Day 3 Highlights: Duncan Fellows, Mobley, Post Malone, Hippo Campus

***

I’ve attended several festivals over the years, and Voodoo definitely has a few advantages. Because of its location, the festival offers a wide variety of local cajun dishes. Alligator on a stick, crawfish mac and cheese, and homemade gumbo could always be found on site. Bread bowls were also a popular snack, and vegan choices were available as well. Like at most events, beer and cocktail tents were just about everywhere. Frozen cocktails were a whopping $17, which seemed insane considering how cold and wet the grounds were, but they came with a collectible cup that you could take home after the festival.

73287455_542249506341697_47236076091211776_nThis year’s carnival rides at Voodoo

Voodoo is certainly unique in that it offers a number of rides and attractions. There was a ferris wheel, and a circular rollercoaster-like ride. The park was filled with intricate designs and decorations, all of which had an eerie appearance. They even promoted a sizable haunted house sponsored by legendary New Orleans haunted house The Mortuary, which always had a long and winding line among the surrounding craft beer tents. 

73125652_420697828620381_7743979618423537664_n      A spooky, decorated building outside of The Mortuary’s on-site haunted house

Overall, 2019’s Voodoo Fest was an excellent experience, with New Orleans providing a perfect backdrop for a fall festival despite the weather. Brandi Carlile and The National put on the best performances, Post Malone and Guns n’ Roses were both better than expected, and Duncan Fellows, Mobley, and Magic City Hippies all provided fantastic sets earlier in the day. At a base price of only $155 for a 3-day wristband, it also represents one of the best value festivals in the country compared to other festivals of a similar caliber — Pilgrimage Fest in Franklin, by comparison, starts at $185 before fees for only two days.

Information on next year’s Voodoo Fest can be found hereBut should you decide to go, bring a rain jacket.

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