The 16th installment of the Voodoo Experience drew the biggest crowds in the history of the event, as well as some of the best names in modern rock, hip hop and EDM, last weekend. Despite an overabundance of logistical snafus, the festival was saved from disaster by some truly impressive sets from artists at the top of their games. I’m not sure if Outkast knew that thousands of people waited in line for three hours to see them, but as soon as they took the stage all anger dissipated into joyful celebration. Transcendent moments like this were the norm all weekend, arguably making this the year’s gathering the strongest Voodoo Fest in years, from a musical standpoint.
The dance-centric Le Plur Stage, for the first time presented by L.A.-based festival promoter HARD, managed to operate without a single hiccup all weekend thanks to the expertise of the seasoned party veterans of HARD. The time between sets was expertly curated to flow seamlessly from one performer to the next, leaving the dancing masses without a moment of dead air. The stage boasted an impressive lineup of both new (Flux Pavilion, Griz) and classic (Pete Tong) DJs, as well as three of the biggest names in the electronic dance world.
Zedd, Skrillex, and Pretty Lights are the type of artists who can sell out stadiums on their own, and placing them as headliners on the Le Plur Stage ensured a large crowd for all three days of Voodoo. Of the three, Skrillex was the undisputed champion with his robotic space dubstep that showed an unexpected restraint and made the cacophonous bass drops that much more rewarding. There’s still nothing quite like a Skrillex show, with synchronized visuals projected on massive screens, an interstellar light show, and thousands of people dancing like it’s their last day on Earth.
To the surprise of no one, Foo Fighters delivered a top-notch performance punctuated by Dave Grohl’s anecdotes about his new favorite city, complete with Steve Gleason hanging out onstage and Trombone Shorty throwing down solos. The Foos have made a name for themselves by making solid rock music that tends to play it safe, and the enormous crowd ate it up and seemed honored their city has gained so much adoration from Mr. Grohl.
Upon the initial announcement, Saturday night headliners Arctic Monkeys seemed like a gamble. But once their ghostly desert rock started washing across the chilly grounds, it was clear these guys had the festival headliner game down pat. Frontman Alex Turner looked like a greaser version of the devil as he snarled out lines like “Why’d you only call me when you’re high?” and the band shuffled and exploded with purposeful power. Anyone who said “Arctic who?” when they first saw the lineup won’t forget the band anytime soon after that excellent show.
Voodoo has an unclear opinion on hip hop: there’s usually a big name rapper or two on the bill, but always a dearth of lesser known hip hop artists. Outkast clearly owned Halloween night, tearing through all of their hits and taking an extensive foray into their classic cuts that kept the costumed masses in constant motion. The Atlanta duo had all summer to practice their live show and this final bow was a perfect encapsulation of the funky gangsta rap from outer space that no one else can touch. Andre 3000 reaffirmed his position as one of the greatest MCs to ever rhyme, while Big Boi had a blast on what could well be the last hurrah for the Mighty O.
Unfortunately, the other two rappers on the bill missed some basic classes in live performance. Action Bronson, a young rapper from New York beloved by the indie blogosphere, spent the majority of his set walking into the crowd to share in the herbal luxuries of the region while his hype man did little more than press “play” on iTunes. Lauryn Hill inexplicably started her set 45 minutes late not once but TWICE (after she was given time to finish at another stage) and played 15 minutes past the super strict 11:00 PM curfew. I could almost hear the irate residents of the neighborhood mashing on their computer keyboards about respecting the curfew as I walked out.
The local talent on the bill this year was top notch as well, with some of the best bands in the state playing alongside the artists that inspired them to make music. Tysson, John Michael Rouchell’s latest project, delivered an early afternoon set that exploded with energy and showed off one of the city’s best secrets. Givers’ performances in their home state are few and far between so the band was received with open arms by a sizable crowd in the early evening. Despite getting cut off before they could play their last song, the band delivered a varied, entrancing set that suited the electro-rock feel of the fest. Voodoo also makes room for some of the best brass bands in the city on its crowded roster, giving bands like Rebirth, Soul Rebels, and Bonerama the chance to show some out of towners how we do down here.
The “Deja Voodoo” series of post-fest shows helped keep the party going deep into the night and ensured decent crowds in the clubs around town. Thursday’s kick off with Voodoo vets Moon Taxi gave the Nashville band more room to stretch out their songs than a slot at the actual festival. The Halloween vibe was definitely in the air as the band indulged in extended psychedelic freak-out jams and covered Tears for Fears, Rage Against the Machine, and the Imperial March from the Star Wars soundtrack. Galactic’s annual Halloween show, also part of the series, was a perfect comedown after the dancing chaos of Outkast on Halloween night. Dressed as pirates, the master funkateers played the type of late night set that keep weary festivalgoers moving without hurting themselves.
I still can’t comprehend how in the world the team behind the event did not think to set up barriers for people to line up in as they waited to enter, or why security asked people to empty the cigarettes from their packs but chose not to pat people down. The bathroom layout was also a head scratcher, with only two groups of port-a-potties that forced thousands of people to walk through a narrow entrance into a secluded area. More than a few people were so turned off by the logistical nightmares of day one that they didn’t even return for the rest of the weekend.
But in the end it was all about the music. The MVP of Voodoo ultimately went to the man who filtered every genre at the fest into one funkified package: Trombone Shorty. As the sun went down on the final day, Troy Andrews and his band (featuring special guest Ivan Neville) managed to shift between rock, jazz, hip hop, funk, and pop with an ease that blew every other artist at the fest out of the water. Never sacrificing his integrity as an accomplished jazz musician, Andrews jumped all over the sonic spectrum to keep the party going. At a nearby stage, Andy Hull of indie rockers Manchester Orchestra noted that he had the best seat in the house to catch his favorite band and even asked the fans gathered for his set why they weren’t seeing Trombone Shorty. With talent like that on display, it’s unfair to expect people to see anything else.
For more on the festival, you can view our gallery below and visit photographer Steven Hatley’s extended gallery here.