Voodoo Music Experience – Day 1

Music Reviews
Voodoo Music Experience – Day 1

Voodoo Ritual: Rock ’n’roll medicine helps heal New Orleans

(Pictured above [L-R]: Mardi Gras indian, New York Dolls frontman David Johansen. Photos by Alison Fensterstock.)

In New Orleans, Halloween is traditionally a date of extreme significance. The costumed revelry in the streets is second only to Mardi Gras—and the Crescent City historically takes costumed revelry very, very seriously. And not only does the blend of spooky decadence and balls-out partying complement the city like chicory coffee to a beignet, the celebration also pops the cork off the long, hot, stupefying subtropical summer. In the best of times, Halloween in New Orleans spells relief, and this year, after the jaw-dropping devastation wreaked on the city by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a good party never seemed so important.

The annual Voodoo Music Experience, against all odds, brought the rock this Halloween to a city that desperately needed it. With the festival’s date falling almost exactly two months after the initial mandatory-evacuation order, the New Orleans landscape was drastically different, to say the least, than at the six previous festivals. Huge chunks of the city had been washed away, or—like Voodoo’s regular locale, Marconi Meadows at New Orleans City Park—had sustained enough damage to be totally unusable. And these damaged areas were populated not by eager partiers ready to cut loose, but by a scattering of dazed, recently returned residents mixed with haggard emergency workers, out-of-town laborers working to rebuild, and legions of National Guardsmen rolling in tan Humvees up and down the routes where Mardi Gras floats once paraded.

The Voodoo fest almost didn’t happen this year. Three days after the storm, New Orleans native and festival producer Stephen Rehage began plans to relocate the show, as a benefit, to Memphis, Tenn.’s AutoZone Park. It was only three weeks before the event that—with the urging of longtime New Orleans resident and Voodoo headliner Trent Reznor and the support of Mayor Ray Nagin—Rehage committed to having one day of the two-day fest on New Orleans soil, re-imagined as an invitation-only tribute concert for the first responders who’d been laboring in the city’s wreckage for the past two months. Headliners—including Nine Inch Nails, The New York Dolls, The Bravery, Digable Planets, Queens of the Stone Age and locals World Leader Pretend and Cowboy Mouth—donated their performances to the scaled-down festival, which featured two main stages parked at either end of a football-field-sized expanse alongside the Mississippi River, as well as a third stage featuring local acts like Kermit Ruffins, the Morning 40 Federation and Mardi Gras Indian tribes.

More than a few headliners had personal ties to New Orleans and had a few things to say about it. Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, who toured in 2003 with a New Orleans backing band, the Orange Eye, opened the song “Trash” with a long exhortation: “We know you guys like your Café Du Monde,” he cheered. “And it’s gonna be back, and better than ever.”

Potentially even better received than the glam-punk legends was Mayor Nagin, who bantered with the crowd after the Dolls’ set, backed by the Soul Rebels Brass Band. Although there were some dissonant visuals scattered throughout the day—groups of Guardsmen in uniform headbanging to local muscle-car rockers Supagroup, and a midafternoon appearance of four low-flying Army copters buzzing the crowd—somewhere in there it started to feel like New Orleans again, with locals sipping beer and cocktails out of plastic to-go cups and sporting snarky disaster-themed T-shirts. (“Got Mold?” “Katrina Gave Me A Blow Job I’ll Never Forget” and “I Looted New Orleans and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.” By the time Reznor took the stage after sunset, ripping into searing versions of “Terrible Lie” and “Head Like A Hole,” surrounded by a hypnotic light and fog show, the field was engulfed by a collective sigh of relief.

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