NEW ORLEANS - New Orleans' Voodoo Music Experience, which celebrated its 10th anniversary over the weekend of October 24-26, incorporates the city's culture in ways that other festivals don't. While its New Orleans flavor isn't as pronounced as the springtime JazzFest, it's still a thoughtful combination of pop, hip-hop and rock with the blues and jazz that vibrate through the city's streets.
Six stages dotted New Orleans' picturesque City Park, with the two main stages separated by a football field and a half, and the remaining stages placed throughout the grounds. Sound interference was noticeable at times at the smaller stages, but was never an issue at the main stages, as one set started as the other stage's set ended.
Headliners this year were rock heavy - Stone Temple Pilots on Friday, Nine Inch Nails on Saturday and R.E.M. on Sunday. Nine Inch Nails' performance was easily the set of the festival. This latest tour is a brilliant multi-media experience, and Trent Reznor (whom I'd spotted the night before at a fantastic restaurant called Jacqui-Mos) was engrossed in his craft, toying with his new electronic gadgets and video screens, while classics like "March of the Pigs," "Closer" and "Hurt" echoed through the crowd. Reznor, who once had a home in New Orleans, was the first person to sign on to Voodoo after it returned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and made sure to thank the largely local crowd for continuing to support the festival.
R.E.M. also used numerous video screens and lights for its festival-closing set, but by the time singer Michael Stipe had commandeered the stage, the crowd's energy didn't equal the band's, and the mix of greatest hits and tracks from this year's Accelerate fell flat. At this point in its career, R.E.M. should be able to do whatever it wants, after writing some of the best songs of the '90s, so it's sad to see them morph into a nostalgia act. While songs like "Drive" and "Losing My Religion" still sounded relevant, the stage production and Stipe's political statements overshadowed the music. There's nothing wrong with Stipe encouraging everyone to vote for Barack Obama, as did many of the other artists at the festival, but his message would be better served if his enthusiasm didn't come wrapped in such a glitzy package.
A mixture of national and international popular artists and the city's finest musical institutions highlighted the rest of the weekend and made it difficult to decide what to see. Indie darlings like TV on the Radio, Mars Volta and Lupe Fiasco performed while Leo Nocentelli and Walter "Wolfman" Washington held court in a replica stage of Preservation Hall.
While the rock and hip-hop acts definitely drew the large crowds, it ended up being the little stages that made Voodoo memorable. Nowhere else can you listen to this quantity and quality of jazz and blues and still meander around to catch moments from Wyclef Jean or Ghostland Observatory. It all made for an interesting festival, and for that reason the Voodoo Music Experience is still a worthy musical destination.