“There’s nowhere else in the fuckin’ world that celebrates music like this city,” said Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl during the band’s Saturday night headlining set. “It’s on every corner, in every bar. You name me one fuckin’ city where it’s okay for a band to march down the street with 700 people behind them drinking and it’s okay. There’s no other city like that – you know that right?!”
Though the question was clearly rhetorical, chances are that the thousands of music fans watching that evening – even those who hailed from other cities around the globe – were answering internally with a resounding “yes.” Voodoo has always branded itself as a music and arts experience, and in its 19th year, with help from C3 Presents, the festival increased that factor tenfold with an expanded haunted cemetery and countless other aesthetic improvements.
Still, what’s made the three-day event special is its consistently damn-good music rosters, and this year was no exception: Friday featured LCD Soundsystem, Kendrick Lamar, and Galantis in what was essentially an unbeatable triple-headliner scenario (they each got 90 minutes with Prophets of Rage sandwiched in between); Saturday was anchored by the titanic rock of Foo Fighters and the dazzling production of DJ Snake; and Sunday wrapped with respective EDM and rock heavyweights Dillon Francis and The Killers.
There’s also the whole Halloween element every year, which offers a feast for the eyes as most fans double down on their costumes. Yes, New Orleans peeps are notorious partiers, though that spirit de fête is perhaps more a reflection of the city’s lust for life in the face of a particularly rocky history, which has run the gamut from slavery to devastating hurricanes.
Andrew McMahon ruminated over this idea during his Friday evening set, drawing parallels between his recovery from cancer to the city’s ability to bounce back after Katrina (he played the year after in 2006 as part of Jack’s Mannequin). “It was great to see your smiling faces at that time, and [since then], I’ve loved the spirit of New Orleans,” he said.
What is that spirit precisely? Perhaps it’s resilience. Every year, Voodoo Fest embodies that feeling without pause – resilience of love for music, for arts, and for an experience that brings people of all stripes together to celebrate life.
10. The Killers
Despite the inclusion of only two new songs (“The Man”, “Run For Cover”) off their latest (rather excellent) album, Wonderful Wonderful, and the fact that most of the rest of their set has become decidedly old hat, The Killers get a spot on this list for being the only band to really step up to the plate in terms of honoring Fats Domino, who passed away at age 89 the Tuesday prior to the fest. Sure, Dave Grohl offhandedly dedicated a solo during “Learn to Fly” to the Louisiana legend, but the Killers tackled a full-on cover of Domino’s 1955 single, “Ain’t That Shame”. Even better, they got a bad ass assist from local heroes, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who stuck around to make Sam’s Town staple “Bones” sound bigger than ever.
09. Ron Gallo
If you were among those who partied too hard on Saturday night, Ron Gallo provided the perfect pick-me-up — that is, if you were close enough. My one gripe is that his trio’s no-holds-barred ethos didn’t necessarily translate well on the enormous Altar stage. But fans of the snarky psych-punk movement shouldn’t sleep on his music; “Hallogallo”, “Entitled Man, Keep Your Hands Down Your Pants”, and “All the Punks Are Domesticated” off his cleverly titled debut album, Heavy Meta, sound like a meeting between Thee Oh Sees, early Wire and some of the more eccentric kraut rock of yesteryear. Which isn’t to say that the tunes don’t sound fresh – they do. Even a coda of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” resounded with new life when Gallo inserted his own erratic version of the signature solo, though nothing could compare to the screaming slide riffs he brandished by using a skateboard (instead of traditional beer bottle) during “Kill the Medicine Man”.
“For those of you who don’t know, the end of our album cycle is imminent,” said Whitney drummer/singer Julien Ehrlich toward the middle of the band’s Saturday evening set. “So when we called out to play shows like this … it’s overwhelming.” That sort of sentiment recurred throughout the Chicago outfit’s show. They seemed genuinely alarmed when the house lights came up and their audience continued to grow even with no shields nearby from the night’s icy gusts. Those moments only increased the feeling of wholesomeness that’s attached to the make-the-best-out-of-heartbreak-themed tunes off their debut album, Light Upon the Lake. By the time they closed with “No Woman”, all of the band members were nailing their respective parts and wearing grins that – despite the uncomfortably arctic temperature – looked noticeably wider than any other show of this festival season.
07. Post Malone
Post Malone says some seriously bizarre shit on stage. But he seems incredibly self-aware and because he’s extremely artistically astute, it actually comes off kinda charming – like an adolescent making mistakes along the way to something bigger and better.
“This is my favorite part of the show because there’s not that much singing, so I have time to smoke,” he said before lighting up a cig for the Pharrell Williams-produced “Up There”, one of a dozen or so bangers that entertained the weekend’s most sprawling audience on any side stage by far. “If you have anything to smoke, do it: cigarettes, weed, meth, PCP—I wanna see the fattest clouds.”
It’s hard to get behind such an endorsement, but it was easy enough to write off as a facet of Posty’s childlike ridiculousness. And no, that didn’t detract from his performance either, which saw him dedicating “Too Young” to the victims of the Las Vegas shooting, Tom Petty, among others; proving his true musicianship with the acoustic guitar-led “Feeling Whitney”; and closing things down with super-hits “White Iverson” and “Congratulations”.
06. Bibi Bourelly
While she could probably make a monetarily satisfying career out of penning songs for others (see: Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money”), it’s a good thing that Bibi Bourelly has ventured out on her own as a performer. Her Friday afternoon set signaled the emergence of an artist destined to reach significant heights by owning her sardonic wit and brash attitude and evoking the easy, natural soulfulness of the late-great Amy Winehouse. To that end, Bourelly proved masterful over both slick, venom-infused call-outs (insurmountable self-love on “Perfect”, middle fingers flying on “Sally”, and more fuck-you-I’m-a-boss defiance during “You Won’t Bring Me Down”) and gospel-infused sweetness when she debuted a stripped-down ballad about finding “sugar behind the pain,” which she said was written “shit-drunk at a bar right here in New Orleans.” That level of sheer genuineness on stage easily made up for ending about 12 minutes early than her allotted set time.
05. The Head and the Heart
Maybe it was the fact that Halloween was two days away, but it felt like there weren’t that many artists in costume at Voodoo this year. Mondo Cozmo made a good stab at it on Friday with their drag getup, but the Head and the Heart swooped in Sunday to claim best in show with guitarist Josiah Johnson as Slash and frontman Jonathan Russell as a near-perfect Freddie Mercury. Seriously, he buzzed his hair, donned all-white with a gilded belt buckle, and even man-sculpted the singer’s iconic mustache.
Infused with the spirit of glam legends, the band’s already-resplendent sundown set – the ultimate atmospheric cherry on top for uplifting ballads like “Another Story”, “Let’s Be Still”, and “Rivers and Roads” – became even more glorious. In particular, Russell’s movements were imbued with far more star-powered smoothness, which added what felt like a necessary increase in showmanship for the Seattle group’s anthemic cover of Crowded House classic “Don’t Dream It’s Over”.
04. Foo Fighters
Though their non-festival show is traditionally three hours long, Foo Fighters managed to make 13 songs in 90 minutes feel nearly as grand by doing everything big: They employed a massive light show; ignited a diamond-shaped jumbo-tron to showcase each member’s larger-than-life rock chops; indulged in epic extended jamouts (“Rope”, “Times Like These”, “Best of You”); and inspired a loud sing-along to Queen’s “Under Pressure”, led by Taylor Hawkins and featuring a random-yet-badass collaboration with Rufus Taylor, son of Queen’s original (and current) drummer.
The only thing not enormous enough was Dave Grohl’s voice. He sounded hoarse throughout most of the show — in hindsight, he really should have let that one fan with the sign sing “My Hero” — and unfortunately killed the choral gravitas of new song “The Sky is a Neighborhood”, one of two tracks pulled from last month’s Concrete and Gold. Granted, this particular evening was fucking cold, and Grohl was undoubtedly battling the wind every step of the way. Fortunately, he warmed up enough to bust out the evening’s other new track “Run”, which sounded as heavy as it does on record.
Though some Halloween costume participation would’ve been a major bonus, Grohl ultimately racked up extra cool points for delivering the most heartfelt NOLA tribute of the weekend: “There’s nowhere else in the fuckin’ world that celebrates music like this city,” he said. “It’s on every corner. It’s in every bar … you name me one fucking city where it’s okay for a band to march down the street with 700 people behind them drinking. This is a beautiful, strong city full of beautiful people that understand music is the food of life, and that’s the only thing we’ve got, right?” Pretty much.
03. Kendrick Lamar
With the DAMN. Tour’s incredible production value – ninjas swirling around King Kendrick for the opener kicker “DNA.”, an optical illusion trick worthy of David Blaine during “PRIDE.”, and a Fourth of July’s worth of pyro and fireworks to drive home set finale “HUMBLE.” – the Compton, CA-bred rapper’s Friday night headlining turn should’ve been the set of the fest by all rights. Unfortunately, none of those elements – so dazzling and essential at his Coachella tour opener to tie together the tale of Kung Fu Kenny – save for the final flame plumes and fireworks were present, making it more of a standard Kendrick show. (In fact, without anything in the way of thought-provoking graphics beyond the kung fu clips, there was far less food for thought than most his To Pimp a Butterfly shows, too). Then again, “standard” for Lamar constitutes the sharpest, most engrossing hip-hop artist performing on any stage right now. So, as usual, he rallied the masses for aggressive sing-alongs (“Backstreet Freestyle”, “m.A.A.d. City”) with more ease than any other performer on the bill, and made lightning fast lyrical deliveries (“FEEL.”, “Alright”) look like child’s play. Not his most innovative production, but nevertheless still regal as fuck.
02. LCD Soundsystem
LCD Soundsystem could’ve played the same set they stuck to for the bulk of their 2016 reunion run and it still would’ve been stellar. Each go-around felt more vivid than the last, a sure sign that the band’s reformation was for the right reasons. This past September’s American Dream confirmed it: Stylistically, the experimental rock octet didn’t skip a beat, expounding upon their previous gems with even more shades of late-70s-to-early-80s-era punk and New Wave tones, not to mention some of the most moving and relevant poetry of the past few years. The spirit of risk in reuniting to make a bold new record after going through such a public breakup was reflected in their Friday night runner-up rally on the Altar stage.
New scorcher “Call the Police” made for a kinetic kickoff (James Murphy got so into it that he karate-chopped his mic stand to the ground), mid-set “Tonite” was the disco-inspired, house-pulse antidote to moodier “Someone Great”, and the pummeling punk ethos of “Emotional Haircut” seemed to win over most of the skeptics. There were scores more on-the-fence folks because they were essentially the hype-band opener for Kendrick Lamar and many had already been waiting hours for his headlining set, but, though a cover of Chic’s “I Want Your Love” fell flat, the all-in response to classic closing double-whammy “Dance Yrself Clean” / “All My Friends” proved yet again that LCD’s ability to remain relevant and cross-generationally engaging is far from fading.
01. Black Pistol Fire
Crystal Castles’ Ethan Kath might be a garbage human, but at least the electronic duo’s run of canceled tour dates – which included Saturday’s Voodoo performance, one of a dozen-plus stops dropped after former singer Alice Glass released a letter alleging 10 years of sexual, psychological and physical abuse by Kath – meant that a few (more deserving) artists got better time / stage slots.
One of those was Austin-based, Canada-bred garage rock duo Black Pistol Fire, who were originally scheduled to open the day on the Wisner stage, but got bumped an hour later to open the much larger main (Altar) stage. Given the group’s typical balls-to-the-wall performance style – contingent upon singer/guitarist Kevin McKeown’s maddened daddy long-legs shredder antics, which usually propel him into the audience at some point – there was a slight worry that the larger setup might cause a disconnect.
But from the blistering intro tune “Lost Cause” – one of a handful representing explosive new album Deadbeat Graffiti – McKeown (with drummer Eric Owen’s unforgivingly heavy beats egging him on) refused to let that happen. By song two (“Hipster Shakes”), he’d already teased the action to come by jumping onto the stagefront speakers, and after thrashing through a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well”, he spent the bulk of “Where You Been Before” prowling the photo pit as he prepped for the impending blues-stomp-mashup of “Run Rabbit Run”, Son House’s “Grinnin’ in Your Face”, and Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love”. That impassioned medley emboldened the final release of blue devils needed for the frontman to launch himself and his baby-blue Epiphone full-on into the throng of fans, who by this point were losing their shit left and right.
McKeown crossed the finish line with jeans ripped in multiple places, a thoroughly dirtied (formerly) white T-shirt, a bloodied nose bridge and, doubtless, a slew of new converts, including all the video guys and security guards, who I overheard on multiple occasions gabbing excitedly about “the most amazing show” – truly, the exemplary festival set — throughout the rest of the weekend.