Tropical storm Olga was no match for the 20th Voodoo Festival
Story: Jennifer Rolf and Cory Weaver
Photos: Cory Weaver
Halloween weekend in New Orleans is a destination for revelers of the macabre. But, since 1999, the city has played host to an underrated music festival, the Voodoo Music + Arts Experience. The three-day festival annually attracts some of the biggest names in the music business, and 2019’s festival wasn’t taking a backseat to past festivals.
If you ask the locals, they’ll tell you “it always rains during Voodoo fest!” Why would the 20th Voodoo Festival be any different? Not only did the event's first day endure an on-and-off bout with weather, it was welcomed by Tropical Storm Olga.
Fans who arrived early on Friday were either clad in ponchos and waterproof boots or they ignored the torrential downpours and wind that brought sideways rain at times—soon finding themselves shirtless and barefoot. The festival grounds of City Park became swampy and marsh-like, but to successfully trudge through was a badge-of-honor type endeavor, and a little tropical storm wasn’t going to keep the show from going on.
Opening acts like Michigander and grandson took the brunt of the storm and rocked their way through their whole sets. Michigander, a.k.a. Jason Singer, swooned his way through his set to a smattering of rain worshipers, prompting him to say, “It’s a good thing we don’t have that many songs.” Nevertheless, the foursome brandished their version of mid-2000's pop emo—think Death Cab for Cutie with a smidgen of battling depression rather than break-ups.
As Olga sank its teeth deeper into NOLA, grandson, a.k.a. Jordan Benjamin, hit the stage and really set the tone for what was going to be an epic Day 1. With a newly shaved head, the political lyric-laden Canadian turned up the volume and coincidentally, the volume on the rain, too, as the downpour ensued for the first five songs of his set.
Nevertheless, grandson bounced around stage, ripping lyrics from songs like “Despicable” and “Blood/Water,” while a rain-soaked Ramon Blanco shredded on guitar. The downpour and the fact they were standing in a swamp didn’t keep a crowd of nearly a thousand festival goers from gathering to see the energetic singer-songwriter/alt rocker.
The monsoon-like weather had the sound cutting in and out—reminiscent of the days when you listened to CDs in your car and the track would skip when you hit a bump in the road.
But Benjamin threw a proverbial middle finger to the inclement weather and shouted to the crowd, “I don’t care who the fuck you are! It’s sunny, the weather is beautiful and you’re at a grandson show! When I say jump, I want you to jump! When I say get down, get down and if someone falls, pick them up! Now turn to the person next you and make friends!”
Moon Taxi’s set was simply better than the 4 p.m. slot they were assigned. They also endured some of the heaviest and wettest weather of the day. Their nonstop, song-after-song approach to their one-hour set made for a distraction from the rain as they performed hits like “Two High,” “All Day All Night,” “Not Too Late,” “Good As Gold” and “Morocco.” The Nashvillian quintet even made room for a show-stopping cover of “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish.
As the rain started to slow, Bishop Briggs took over the 5 p.m. slot an hour after grandson performed on the same stage. Her charisma is second only to her vocal prowess, and she was relentless bouncing around stage in a red jumpsuit—less Nordstrom, more Michael Myers. She launched into her newest hit, “Champion” off the bat and then rattled off song after song from her 2018 album, Church of Scars, with “Wild Horses” and “Hi-Lo.” An energetic crowd that knew nearly every lyric to the songs she offered up made for a sincerely grateful Briggs.
Brandi Carlile hit the pause button on the heavy stuff as she took the massive main stage. The Americana, country-meets-rock heroine walked on and owned the audience and stage. Being the precursor to Guns N Roses seemed imperfect, but the 37-year-old made the billing an obvious one. Flanked on both sides of Carlile were twin brother guitarists, Tim Hanseroth and Phil Hanseroth, who helped heap a lot of rock onto her hit “The Story.” She powered through her allotted hour and fit in a cover of Zeppelin’s, “Babe I’m Gonna Lose You.”
The 7 p.m. slot had four acts with comparably different styles: EDMer Peekaboo; a mash-up of spoken word meets rap in the artist Hobo Johnson and the Love Makers; hometown rocker Ryan Hall; and Interpol.
Interpol drew one of the largest crowds of the day at the Wisner stage and treated their set as if it were their own headlining gig. The indie-rock power trio’s hour-long set was one song into the other. A lot of old favorites like “Untitled,” “The Heinrich Maneuver,” “NYC,” “Rest My Chemistry,” “Slow Hands” and “Obstacle 1” dominated the setlist and a few songs off the newest album, Marauder, were littered throughout. After playing more than 135 shows worldwide since 2018, Interpol showed no signs of disinterest—lead vocalist Paul Banks even seemed a bit taken aback by the enthusiasm of the waterlogged crowd that filled the bog well beyond the sound booth.
Guns N’ Roses dominated the final slot of the evening on the main stage, playing a three-hour set. The spectacle that is Axl Rose, Slash, Duff Mckagen and St. Louis native Richard Fortus is a hard one to miss or walk away early from—as you’re just not sure what you’ll miss if you do. As GNR hits like “Welcome to the Jungle,” “November Rain” and hit covers like “Live and Let Die” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” were dominating the festival grounds, SNAILS and Big Gigantic put on noteworthy hour-long sets. As Day 1 of the festival drew to a close, it was obvious that the day (and night) belonged to the fans for enduring the weather, and indie-rock reigned supreme.
After sloshing through the muck and rain on Friday night, the blue skies were a welcome sight on Saturday. The day’s events were pushed back an hour so the crew could attempt to drain standing water and lay down hay and pine needles, but muddy conditions prevailed and a good pair of rain boots were still essential.
With so many festival goers dodging puddles, it caused backups at times when trying to get to another stage quickly. The dark conditions at night made it slightly more treacherous, but we were determined to catch as many acts as we could—with occasional diversions to the irresistible NOLA food court.
How appropriate is it that a band named Sun Seeker was one of the first three bands to open the festival on Day 2? After a day of rain sponsored by Tropical Storm Olga a day before, it was completely different on Saturday afternoon. As the self-described “cosmic American music” quartet from Nashville played an inspired set with tracks off their first full-length album, Biddeford on Third Man Records.
If you were feeling sluggish walking into the grounds on Saturday, a beeline over to the Seratones would have changed your mood. The Shreveport rockers incorporate bits of funk, soul and hard rock, which results in guitar-heavy dance-able grooves. Lead singer A.J. Haynes, donned in a lacy yellow top and orange ruffled skirt, exuded sex appeal with her lusty, melodic vocals and lyrics to match; she bantered with the crowd and kept them engaged and even laughing at times. Supporting their second album, Power, the five-piece’s performance included the new LP’s title track, “Chandelier,” “Crossfire” and “Gotta Get to Know Ya.”
The sun soaked main stage called for a little SHAED. The indie-pop three-piece made up of Chelsea Lee and twin brothers Max Ernst and Spencer Ernst played an abbreviated 45-minute set. Lee was decked out in a bright neon pink sleeveless dress accompanied by a matching blazer cape that glowed as brightly as her vocals in the warm afternoon sun. She passionately belted out lyrics to the hit platinum single, “Trampoline” and had a little fun with “ISOU,” cracking smiles and visiting both band mates at their stations on stage.
Described as an EDM artist, Elohim and her vocal pop ability would say otherwise. She was impressive from start to finish. She commanded her sample machines, keyboards and excitable vocals with ease in collaboration with a large video screen backing her, matching each song.
Top, left to right: Alex Benick of Sun Seeker, Chelsea Lee of SHAED, A.J. Haynes of Seratones and Elohim.
Young the Giant helped kick off the evening portion of the festival. Upon taking the stage, lead vocalist Sameer Gadhia, sporting a mustard yellow cardigan, let fans know that this was going to be a different kind of performance—they had multiple flights canceled trying to make it to New Orleans and arrived without some of their gear. Gadhia called it “divine intervention” to be standing on stage. Fortunately the band was able to borrow equipment from other musicians, but some signature synth sounds were missing from the set, which meant that the audience got to experience YTG in unique fashion. The setlist opened with “Oblivion” from their latest LP, Mirror Master. Other singles from the album included “Heat of the Summer” and “Superposition.” They also covered older hits such as “Apartment,” “Something to Believe In,” “Cough Syrup,” “Mind Over Matter” and “Silvertongue” And they ended the set with their usual closer, the crowd-pleasing “My Body.”
Admittedly, we only caught half of Denzel Curry’s set at the Austin City Limits Festival a few weeks prior to Voodoo Fest and we weren't making the same mistake twice. The Floridian rapper came out in a New York Rangers hoodie and the hype was on. A huge crowd gathered and steadily bounced and arm-waved throughout the set. Curry’s constant pacing from side to side was only broken when he decided to show off his leaping ability and jump straight up and down—at times it looked like he was floating. His relentless set included “ZUU”, “Ricky,” and “Shake 88” from his newest album, ZUU.
A wave of excitement could be sensed among the large crowd awaiting The National to take the stage on Saturday night. And once the band made their appearance, it was clear that lead vocalist Matt Berninger, clad in his signature look—dark button-down shirt and black pants with a sport coat—was ready to entertain. From his initial hello (“we were just here 15 years ago”) to his serious fascination with a bug on stage (he directed the cameraman to cut to it), he was no doubt having a good time. Even during a seemingly genuine moment, when he sweetly dedicated “I Need My Girl” to his daughter, he pretended to forget her name. “Beth…er uh, Jenny…sorry, no, Isla.”
“You Had Your Soul With You,” a track from their latest LP, I Am Easy to Find, kicked off the set. Berninger was backed by Kate Stables and Mina Tindle (the latter, a.k.a. Pauline De Lassus, is the wife of guitarist Bryce Dessner), who provided the perfect harmonization and accompanying vocals. During “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” Berninger’s baritone voice, on the tail end of a world tour, strained as he belted out the unforgettable lyrics, “I can’t explain it, any other, any other way,” as loud as he could.
The band, who is celebrating 20 years together, has never been shy about letting the world know of their political leanings. “Fake Empire” was dedicated to “the woman” in Roe v. Wade and featured a horn section that stepped forward toward the end of the song. The night ended with “Terrible Love” as Berninger made his way into the photo pit and began interacting with a welcoming crowd. Once back on stage, he threw his red Solo cup and the remaining contents into the first couple rows, waved and exited stage right.
Claire Cottril, known in the music world as Clairo, began her night as the National’s set was ending, and had a sizable crowd of her own. The 21-year-old, who has made quite the name for herself the past few years, kept the crowd captivated with songs from her first full length release, the critically acclaimed Immunity, including “Bags” and “Sofia,” which have seen regular rotation on the Sirius XMU channel. Her heavily streamed single, “Bubble Gum,” was another crowd pleaser.