The BUKU Music + Art Project returned to the banks of the Mississippi River last weekend for its third, and arguably best, installment. The festival organizers clearly care about delivering a unique experience, and their efforts paid off in everything from the vibrant street art to the abundance of surprise performances throughout the weekend. And with attendance capped around 14,000, it was a breeze getting a good spot for most sets (unlike some of the other major music fests in town that shall remain nameless). Throw in an eclectic roster of top notch international touring artists and you got a festival that’s as close to perfect as they come.
The grounds of Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World seem like they were made just for BUKU thanks to the mix of old and new in an industrial setting overlooking the mighty Mississippi. Most shows at Mardi Gras World only take advantage of the Ballroom area (a great space for music with two floors and impeccable sound), but the addition of a stage in the actual warehouse where the floats are made and a huge outdoor stage in front of the old Entergy power plant solidify the look of the fest. Last year there were major complaints about sound traveling down the river from the main stage; it seemed the volume was toned down a bit, and the louder artists were confined to the indoor stages this time around. But this is New Orleans, so the usual grumblings from the cranks are to be expected.
The lineup was truly eclectic, featuring some of the best and most exciting names in modern rock, hip hop, and EDM. Although it would have been nice to see more local artists on the bill, New Orleans’ music scene was more than adequately represented by the likes of Generationals, Big Freedia, Khris Royal, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Local electronic band Big History got the chance to play their biggest stage yet, as they delivered an upbeat set to start the second day of the fest. The chance to play in front of a crowd like that can be a game changer for a small local band, and Big History proved they were more than ready for the challenge.
When it premiered in 2012, BUKU focused exclusively on DJs and rappers. Since then, the lineup has added more bands while still retaining the electronic and modern sound that defines the festival. On Friday night, Sleigh Bells pummeled the masses in the Float Den with a high energy set of their thunderous dance rock led by force-of-nature frontwoman Alexis Krauss. Other standout rock sets include local guitar pop band Generationals, whose precise and engaging set on Saturday afternoon proved their national attention is well deserved, and the epic symphonic rock of Austin based band Explosions in the Sky.
Live rap shows can be hit or miss, but BUKU’s hip hop offerings were top notch and featured some of the best performances of the weekend. Legendary New York rapper Nas performed his classic album Illmatic in its entirety for the first time and set the bar high for all the rappers that followed. Schoolboy Q, who had the #1 selling album in the country last week, lived up to the hype with a set in the Ballroom after a delay kept him from the main stage.
And then there was Chance the Rapper. The 20-year-old MC from Chicago has been blowing apart just about every internet music site since the release of his incredible mixtape, Acid Rap, and his live show combined all the best genres of BUKU into one glorious celebration of love and life. Taking the stage wearing overalls and a Dodgers hat, Chance led his crazy talented band through most of Acid Rap as the crowd lost its collective mind and hung onto his every word. The band effortlessly followed the rapper wherever he took them as he worked the crowd with the style and expertise of a seasoned rock star. After leaving the stage a few minutes early, the masses stuck around to beg for one more song. Just when it seemed like he wasn’t coming back, the young rapper reappeared, tore through “Juice,” and had the ecstatic look of someone who just realized their wildest dreams were coming true. Here’s hoping he makes good on his promise to come back down here soon.
The fest also managed to celebrate the rich local culture of New Orleans by offering an extensive array of local food options and featuring a slew of local artists at the BUKU Bazaar. BUKU’s third successful year firmly established its presence amongst the ranks of the other major music festivals in town, while maintaining the quirky identity that keeps people returning year after year. Amongst the seemingly endless list of mega music festivals across the country, BUKU continues to stand out as a diverse, exciting, and unique music experience that never loses sight of their ultimate goal: fun.