Biking up to City Park for the Voodoo Experience Festival, my senses were alight with stimuli. A swirling sweet cacophony of music sluiced through my ears and the most potent of pot entered my nostrils. It was a hot and sweaty afternoon at City Park; perfect weather for the start of a festival. 2012 marks the fourteenth consecutive year of the Voodoo Experience and already there were marked improvements from last year.
I don't know if it was the added sponsorship (shout-out to Scope mouthwash and a host of major media outlets!) or the addition of on-site camping that prompted it, but the festival had finally been cleaned up for the better. My first order of business was to check out newcomers Delta Rae, whose bombastic Americana made for a great live show.
Though their cover of Fleetwood Mac's “The Chain” felt a little busy, the band's ebullience kept the audience engaged and dancing. It was truly an auspicious start until I got my lay of the land and headed to check out perennial weirdos Die Antwoord.
“Well, this is where all the children are,” said one of my compatriots, Noisician Coalition member Jacob Germain as he surveyed the youthful audience. We're not talking about those now ubiquitous infants with oversized headphones in crayola colors, meant to look adorable and terrified. Any New Orleans high school wondering where all their students went for the day need only look in City Park. Though known more as strange hip-hoppers than electronic supserstars, Die Antwoord's set marked the first big name to grace the Le Plur Stage this Voodoo Experience. Seemingly since its inception, Le Plur was practically hidden from other stages towards the more swampy part of the park. After a successful run of sponsorship from Red Bull however, the stage has been uprooted and relocated.
This new space was presumably carved out to pit the two main stages against each other. For those of you not gingerly spinning your glowsticks right now, PLUR means Peace Love Unity Respect and is essentially a raver way of life. Just about every artist to grace the Le Plur stage is some incarnation of EDM.
Though not explicitly mentioning it, Voodoo is aiming to bill itself as more of a European festival (whatever the fuck that means) and promote EDM as a viable opponent to the rock gods closing out each evening at Le Ritual. This put the techno-centric stage in new territory and a little too close for comfort to Le Ritual. Many hoped that the idiosyncratic carnival rides in between would provide an adequate barrier. There was at least protection in the form of 50 Cent airbrushed onto the side of one ride, dully pointing a gun at passersby. Sadly even the random screams and clacks of the rides couldn't hide the fact that acoustics were going to be a major problem between these dueling stages. No amount of whooping from Yo-Landi or aimless freestyling from Ninja could erase the monster guitar emanating nearby like a nuclear explosion of blues from Gary Clark Jr.
The Austin guitarist was in top form as the sun began to set and the weather went from sweltering to pleasant. It's no secret that I'm a huge Gary Clark Jr. fan and have caught him at just about as many festivals as I've been able to humanly attend these past two years. I know his go-to song (“Bright Lights Big City,” which was splendid as always) and where he usually jams most as he ambles about the stage. After the recent release of his debut album, Blak and Blu, it seems Clark's swagger and confidence has been taken to a whole new level. The training wheels have come off and those introductory songs were transformed into slow burn jams well worthy of the festival's headliner, Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Even his explicitly jam-tacular “Third Stone From the Sun” felt more fleshed out; bluesier and full of improvisational life. Comparisons to Hendrix were frequently thrown around without the slightest hint of irony.
Soon the Avett Brothers took the stage and assumed the role of joyful Americana shaman, conjuring handclaps and sing-a-longs (“but only if you want to,” stressed Seth Avett) throughout their set. Though many of their hits draw deeply from the lovelorn longing of regret, tonight's set was for those warm nostalgic pangs that make you glad you experienced life at all.
“Kick Drum Heart” was quirky and joyful, with cellist Joe Kwon a whirling dervish throughout. “At The Beach” felt like a Jimmy Buffet throwback; perfect for a city who just saw the laid back guitarist play an acoustic set at this year's Jazz and Heritage Festival. A real treat was the Avett Brothers' reworking of Neutral Milk Hotel's “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.” Though only slightly altered, the arrangement definitely fit their style. A more adventurous choice like “Oh Comely” would've been more impressive but it's hard to deny the poignant beauty and thoughtfulness that the Avett Brothers put into the song.
Finally, it was the moment that every festivalgoer had been waiting for. As I assumed my rather cramped photography position on the left, Neil Young and Crazy Horse walked to their three mics laid out in the center of the stage and launched into “Love and Only Love.” Now that the Horse is back, the jams are plentiful, along with loads of new material. Current festival staples “Walk Like A Giant” and “Born In Ontario” were engulfing soundscapes that drew the audience into the master's world. Young, eyes closed and guitar wailing, looked like a man possessed.
Music is one hell of a drug. Mega-hit “Cinnamon Girl” showed up mid-set along with a true treat: the essential Neil Young and Crazy Horse song “Fuckin' Up.” Those who were weary of guitar and feeling electric (or fucked up themselves) drifted over to Kaskade while many wandered between Le Ritual and the WWOZ Stage where Bootsy Collins brought the P Funk for his birthday evening performance. The star-clad superstar turned 61 today and chose to celebrate by getting freaky in New Orleans. It was a predictable performance, albeit a fun one. Day one of Voodoo Experience ultimately succeeded in its goal of getting folks to Worship The Music, though hopefully the other congregations' joyful sound won't bleed into one another come tomorrow.