Each year since 1999, the Voodoo Music + Arts Experience has taken over New Orleans’ City Park for a weekend around Halloween. Now, Halloween in New Orleans is a lunatic experience to begin with. People are drinking by mid-morning, in costumes, some in fractured costumes and whatever’s left from the night before. Add a festival to that, and you have a particularly crazy weekend in a city known for crazy weekends.
The issue with Voodoo is that, though its setting and circumstances should allow it to be one of the most memorable festivals of the year, its lineups are sometimes a bit of a mixed bag. There’ll be big headliners, and the rest of the festival will usually be a bunch of smaller and lesser-known names, or acts that pop up at every festival everywhere. The upside is that Voodoo often features a lineup that also boasts several names you won’t see on the typical festival lineups of the preceding summer; it’s just a matter of, depending on the year, whether those less-obvious acts are ones you want to see.
This year, the festival was anchored by three very different and, in their own ways, exciting headliners: the Weeknd, Tool, and Arcade Fire. (Die Antwoord and that odious duo the Chainsmokers also had headline slots.) During the daytime, you had reliable favorites like Chairlift — who are still touring behind Moth, the underrated album they released earlier this year — and Band Of Horses, a group that’s always a steady purveyor of a solid indie-rock show. Mayer Hawthorne was around, like he always seems to be, and performed a crowd-pleasing set that managed to include not only a cover of “Walk This Way,” but also “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” Occasionally, there was the possibility of stumbling on a new act that surprised and impressed. I’d been hearing about Bully for a while, but never managed to catch them live; their scuzzy grunge was ideal for a mid-afternoon set under an unforgiving Southern sun. Likewise, Nashville’s All Them Witches proved to be one of the highlights of the weekend, churning through a stoned, sludgy set that same afternoon.
Friday night had the one-two of Rae Sremmurd and the Weeknd. The former’s set was, uh, wild. At some point, an audience member threw their phone onto the stage, and the Rae dudes proceeded to film themselves rapping and toss the phone back to the fan. This prompted a few dozen more phones getting catapulted up onto the stage, and besides dodging phones while trying to continue rapping, they did a pretty good job of giving a few dozen more fans a little personalized video. (As a bonus, Slim Jimmy was dressed up like a character from Dragon Ball.) It was an invigorating set from rising young stars, preceding a set by a dude who just ascended last year. The Weeknd’s live show doesn’t have the reputation of being the most engaging thing. And after Rae Sremmurd, it definitely felt pretty stilted and going-through-the-motions. That being said: The Weeknd is a massive star now, and there’s power in hearing a huge crowd sing along to “The Hills,” “Can’t Feel My Face,” and now “Starboy.”
While the Weeknd doesn’t have the same gravity as some of his contemporaries when he steps onstage, it’s hard to say he didn’t do a better job than the bizarre Tool set the following night. This was one of the big draws of Voodoo this year: that Tool, who only perform or tour sporadically, were headlining (in the slot occupied by Ozzy Osbourne last year, making for another heavy Saturday night). While the band sounded great as they entered the first salvo of their psychedelic, proggy metal, there was something missing. And that something was frontman Maynard James Keenan. You could hear him at least but, uh, I don’t know where he was. From where I was standing, it basically looked as if Keenan stood somewhere backstage and let the remaining three members stand static out there by themselves. Someone told me he was hiding behind the drumkit and was dressed as RoboCop. The Weeknd needs more presence in an abstract way…the issue was more literal at Tool’s set.
All that being said, you can’t totally knock a festival where, on the final day, you have a performance from hometown heroes the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to look forward to, all leading up to the climactic festival-closing set from Arcade Fire. Look, it’s been said before, but it’s hard to overstate: This band was built for moments like these. They have all of the anthems, and those anthems feel, somehow, 20 times more massive when you’re in a huge festival crowd. There were still no new songs — and, oddly given the context, no second-line Bowie tribute parade with Pres Hall, like they did at Panorama in the summer — but getting another greatest-hits set from the Arcade Fire before their next album cycle certainly didn’t hurt. All the classics were there, with material like “Here Comes The Night Time” now fitting in alongside the older favorites perfectly — especially when the cannons go off and shower the crowd in confetti. “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” got a disco-rock Clash outro. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” was the effervescent singalong it always is.
There was a brief moment of real-life as Win Butler introduced “Intervention” with some comments against Trump, but otherwise Arcade Fire were there to do what they do best: bring the big, transcendent melodies to help you forget about life for two hours. It all culminated with “Wake Up,” because it always does. Because how could it not? That giant rallying cry, sung by thousands of people, is the exact way festivals are supposed to end. As it echoed out over the fields, I began to make my way out of the festival. I swung by the restroom and heard a guy say “Dude, pissing while on Molly feels fucking great!” Hey, another successful Halloween weekend in New Orleans.