The Voodoo Music Experience has become a pretty big deal in New Orleans, drawing visitors from all over the United States and beyond. A couple left the cold of Maine to come down to the south to see Soundgarden … on a freezing windy night that chilled fans to the bone. Another couple came for the weekend especially to see The Sheepdogs because they had missed them in their hometown of Memphis. The lure of great music in a great music city is like flies to honey: too tempting to ignore. Other cities have big festivals but New Orleans is New Orleans. “I don’t know what you’re stepping in when you’re down there on Bourbon Street,” joked Stone Foxes singer Aaron Mort, “but it’s been a fun time … And then the festival today was awesome”.
Playing an early morning set on the last day of Voodoo could have turned into a naptime lullaby but a couple of bands made the most of their time slots, not giving in to slumbering early risers who hadn’t had their coffee (or first beer) of the day. Miracle At St Anna screamed and guitar-riffed to holy hell to wake up their small congregation while The Stone Foxes took the spirit of fun and rolled out a killer set that had people wandering over from other stages to join in. “You know, we played pretty early and you don’t know what to expect,” Mort said later in the afternoon while New Orleans legend Dr John was playing behind us. “But we actually thought it was a pretty good turn out for being 10:30. I don’t think any of us would wake up that early to go to a festival (laughs)”.
But people did, by the thousands. Although the crowds appeared smaller than in previous years, the first day weather and economy undoubtedly taking its toll, the eclectic mix of old and new, super-legendary and on-the-cusp pleased those that did fork out the dough and haul out the coats. Experiencing Soundgarden alone was worth every penny and every shiver. And the Seattle kings of rock were definitely the most anticipated artist on the Voodoo bill. Everyone you talked to was waiting for Soundgarden. Playing in the headlining slot, the wait passed quickly with “openers” Band Of Horses and My Chemical Romance giving energetic sets, the latter band in Halloween costumes of medieval troubadours and warriors.
Soundgarden opened up with “Searching With My Good Eye Closed”, stormed through “Spoonman” and “Let Me Down” and hypnotized with “Jesus Christ Pose”. Through twenty-two songs the band soared and took us all on a journey we haven’t seen in a very long time, and the band has not lost its fire. Plopped down in the middle of a Chris Cornell solo acoustic tour, the band is seemingly on the verge of something new. The rapport between band members is still sparking and the music is still quite alive, with maybe a few more nuances and rough-around-the-edges battle scars that only time can create. Kim Thayil sits back and monsoons so unobtrusively it’s scary while Ben Shepherd attacks his low-hanging bass with nimble fingers and hardened stare. Matt Cameron is simply one of the best drummers in rock & roll, hands down.
About half-way through their set, Cornell decided that wearing a jacket was pretty darn lame. “I’m taking this stupid jacket off. I’m embarrassed to be wearing a jacket … I’m even more embarrassed to be handing it to a crewmember”. Thanking his followers after virtually every song was a nice gesture from a man who admitted onstage that he doesn’t remember a whole lot of shows because of alcohol pollution, New Orleans being one of them. He did, however, remember very clearly that while on their way to an early days club date in New Orleans they were stopped by police outside the town of Lake Charles. They found a tiny bit of weed and the band was hassled for it in the process. The incident seemed to still be in Cornell’s craw as he stated, “If you can die from stupidity, they died from that a long time ago.”
Ending their remarkable set with guitars hemorrhaging and begging for mercy, Soundgarden, although heavy on the bass sound almost to the point of blocking out other instruments, set the standard for all other main stage acts to live up to. Only one band came closest. The reconvened Raconteurs, featuring the impressive guitar artistry of Jack White, grabbed Voodoo Fest by the balls and squeezed. So unassuming on the stage, you never knew what hit you by the time they finished, closing out Voodoo Fest with audience mouths hanging open. Does Jack White do anything wrong on guitar? His solos were quite simply amazing. “Rich Kid Blues” featuring spooky bluesy atmospheric chords was a definite highlight of the whole festival. Chill bumps crawled over your skin as White took his guitar to new Netherlands, not only on “Blues” but on “Shades Of Black”, “Hands”, “Steady As She Goes” and “Blue Veins”. Switching to acoustic guitar on several songs, most memorable being “Together”, and keyboards, and alternating vocals with Brendan Benson, White has proven to be the musician of the century.
Legendary artists are not a dime a dozen. They have earned their well-worn wrinkles and callused fingers and we love and respect them all the more for it. Dr John, with Irma Thomas lending some hometown jazzy soul vocals to his amazing set, The Original Meters back together to funk it up on a howling Sunday night before The Raconteurs held court, and the irrepressible Ray Davies, were shows NOT to be missed.
Davies, especially, was on everyone’s list, from The Sheepdogs to “TREME” actor Steve Zahn, who chatted with me about being happy to be back in New Orleans once again. Although he had missed the other days of Voodoo, he was glad to be here watching Davies. As Aaron Mort put it, “It’s a pretty good day of music”. Davies came out to a roaring reception. Tall and still lanky with the wide grin in overdrive, he gave us some acoustic ditties and some well-loved rockers. “This song has followed me ever since I was in The Kinks,” he joked before jumping in the air to start “All Day & All Of The Night”. He introduced the classic “Sunny Afternoon” with “If you know it sing along; if you don’t, learn it real quick”. Talking comfortably with the fans and adding in humorous tidbits about songs old and new, you realized what a professional musician is supposed to have: complete connection with his audience.
Which is something Odd Future had but in a more negative way. Providing the only bad vibes of the Experience, photographers were harassed by someone in the band, who actually slapped their cameras. This kind of uncalled for behavior spoiled a free-spirited lets-all-get-together-with-the-music-&-have-a-good-time vibe that Voodoo tries so hard to encompass.
Bringing some hard-edge rocking to day two was the reformed Mastodon and one-of-a-kind Social Distortion. X, the California punk pioneers, blazed a ride through their entire Los Angeles album, and was definitely the best show on Saturday, despite Blink-182 rocking the main stage and Snoop Dogg getting his weed rap on. They stormed ahead with old-fashioned punk-infused music from their days of yore. Making note of the weather, John Doe asked the crowd, “It’s New Orleans, how did it get so cold?” Following their set, Doe went over to the Pablove Foundation tent to perform some acoustic songs for charity. Jesse Hughes, the fanatic frontman of Eagles Of Death Metal who was at Voodoo with his side-band Boots Electric, was also performing. This is how you can tell the men from the boys: take away the feedback and Marshalls and put a beautiful acoustic guitar in their hands. Both men had the goods.
“It’s a cool experience to see a band live before you hear the recording,” Mort explained to me about getting to discover new bands at festivals. “You learn a lot seeing how eclectic music is and from just experiencing it”. Newer and younger bands were in full swing at Voodoo. Both The Stone Foxes and The Sheepdogs were on fire during their back-to-back sets, energizing mid-morning crowds and winning over a lot of new fans. Honey Island Swamp Band jammed some good blues mixed with a funky splice of Big Easy rock and the afore-mentioned Boots Electric merged humor and foot-stomping hallelujah hootenanny for one of the most pure enjoyable sets on Saturday.
All in all, Voodoo has once again proven to be a young fan’s spiritual Babylon and the older music lover’s back-to-youth sanctuary. “For the most part, I’ve discovered some really cool music along the way”, The Stone Foxes Aaron Mort reiterated about festivals and Voodoo did not disappoint in 2011.