Two months ago, it appeared the Voodoo Music Experience would be another Katrina casualty. But you'd never have known it on Saturday, when the festival's trademark mix of local and national acts rocked Riverview Park.
Tuesday, November 01, 2005
By Keith SperaMusic writer
Build a festival, and New Orleanians will come.
Never mind that Saturday's Voodoo Music Experience fell exactly two months after Hurricane Katrina rendered the city temporarily uninhabitable.
On an afternoon of flawless weather, an estimated 15,000 attendees streamed into Riverview Park, the swath of reclaimed land between Audubon Zoo and the Mississippi River, for 12 hours of music and distraction.
In keeping with the blueprint of the previous six Voodoo festivals, the lineup alternated national headliners -- Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age, the New York Dolls, the Bravery, Secret Machines, Digable Planets -- with local favorites. The Rebirth Brass Band, Jon Cleary, Bonerama, Kermit Ruffins, Theresa Andersson and Big Sam's Funky Nation all returned to their hometown, performing at clubs as well as the festival.
Officially, Voodoo was a "tribute" concert for relief workers, military personnel and others who are rebuilding the Gulf Coast. Tickets were free; Red Cross volunteers, firefighters, police and members of the Montana National Guard turned out in force.
Blocks of tickets were also distributed to restaurants, bars, radio stations and the mayor's and city council offices to give away. Many ended up in the hands of locals who, by their very presence in the city, are fueling the rebuilding effort.
They reveled in the release of live music. Dancing to Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers, Uptown resident Linda Kelley summed up the day: "It feels like old times."
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That Voodoo happened at all required much determination and cooperation.
For six years, New Orleans native Stephen Rehage and his New York special events company, Rehage Entertainment, have staged Voodoo in City Park around Halloween weekend. Past shows have featured Eminem, Stone Temple Pilots, Tool, Snoop Dog, No Doubt and the Black Crowes.
The original roster for 2005 boasted Nine Inch Nails and the Foo Fighters in the headlining slots.
Then Katrina scuttled those plans.
Three days after the storm, Rehage and KKND-FM program director Sig met over coffee at the Four Seasons in Houston. The modern rock radio station had long served as Voodoo's main media sponsor. Katrina destroyed KKND's transmitter in Port Sulphur, knocking the station off the air until at least Dec. 15.
Sig and Rehage hatched a plan to revive Voodoo as a benefit.
"From day one, (Rehage) was hell-bent to make this happen," Sig said. "To make it happen for the right reasons."
Rehage considered moving Voodoo to the site of the Austin City Limits Festival in Texas, then chose AutoZone Park, the minor league baseball stadium in Memphis.
The Foo Fighters dropped out, but Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, who until last year lived in a Garden District mansion, reiterated his commitment. He and his manager, Jim Guerinot, proposed taking the idea one step further: They wanted to perform in New Orleans.
At first, Rehage's staff was less than enthusiastic. They felt that "it was not the right thing to do, not the right time to do it," Rehage recalled. "But if we had a chance to send that signal that New Orleans can pull it off, let's do it."
With the support of Mayor Ray Nagin's office, the Rehage team scrambled to build a festival in three weeks in a city still recovering from the storm. "Somewhere, somehow, some way" became their rallying cry.
The heavily damaged City Park could not host the event. So they moved it to Riverview Park, popularly known as The Fly. The grounds were a mess; Audubon staffers cleaned uprooted trees that had exposed debris from an old landfill.
The generators, forklifts and cranes needed to erect and power the stages were in short supply, as were 15-passenger vans for shuttling personnel and musicians. Rehage resolved not to siphon resources from the rebuilding effort.
"We made a commitment that we wouldn't go to the relief companies," Rehage said. "So we had to transport everything (from out of town)."
Headlining bands donated their time, but production costs still ran in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The plan was for corporate sponsors and ticket sales in Memphis to offset costs and make money for the relief effort.
Simply staging the festival in New Orleans was its own kind of relief effort. Voodoo hired mostly local sound companies, which, after two months of silence, gladly went back to work.
"There's a real positive energy," said Michael Paz, a sound engineer at Pyramid Audio. "And I haven't heard any whining. Let's keep it going."
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When Voodoo's gates opened Saturday morning, locals and visiting relief workers alike descended on a scene that seemed unaffected by the host city's troubles.
Booths served red beans, jambalaya, crawfish etouffee and booze. VH-1 crews taped performances for a future telecast. The two largest stages faced each other across a broad field; as a band finished on one, another immediately hit the opposite stage.
The usual stage sponsors -- Southern Comfort and RollingStone.com -- were joined by a new one: The charitable Web site www.neworleansrestorationfund.org.
Gallows humor abounded on T-shirts:
"Make Levees, Not War."
"I Looted New Orleans and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt."
Hardcore Nine Inch Nails fans were not the only ones wearing all black. Five members of a New Orleans police SWAT unit showed up in black fatigue pants and T-shirts that declared, "SWAT: The Final Option."
Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu made an early afternoon appearance to check on his 17-year-old daughter and lend support to the cause.
"This is a symbol of how quickly the music industry can get back on its feet," Landrieu said. "Plus it's a great opportunity for fellowship. Everybody feels like they've been living on an isolated island."
Mayor Ray Nagin, running two hours behind schedule, arrived at Voodoo in a "Bring New Orleans Back" T-shirt. He met privately with Reznor, fielded questions in the press tent, then second-lined with an amalgamation of the Soul Rebels Brass Band and Big Sam's Funky Nation to the main stage.
Some worried privately that the mayor would receive a less-than-warm reception from the crowd. To everyone's relief, his ovation was at least as loud as that for the New York Dolls.
"You just don't know how good you look!" Nagin shouted. "We're sending a statement to the world that New Orleans is back, music is back, our rhythm is back. Everything that people love about New Orleans is back."
He then asked for, and received, a moment of silence for the storm's victims.
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Across the grounds, Voodoo felt as much like a family reunion as a concert.
"To be able to play in front of my mom and dad again, to see them hanging out right in front, is a huge morale booster," said World Leader Pretend guitarist Matt Martin, following the local modern rock band's set. "Live music again? People have been dying for it."
New Orleans Fire Department Capt. Ronnie Beaulieu and several fellow firefighters liked what they saw, as they surveyed the field during the Queens of the Stone Age performance.
"I'm glad to see this, to show the city has a little breath in it," Beaulieu said. "The city is not going to lay down and die. We worked too hard these first two months for them to quit on us."
Visiting guests were equally enthusiastic. Brian Childers, a tattoo artist from Athens, Ohio, is a Red Cross volunteer attached to the organization's only hazardous materials team. He spends his days cleaning the "icky, gooey, nasty" residue of the storm.
En route to Voodoo, he and his co-workers came across a house fire on Broadway. As accidental first-responders, they rescued two dogs, then continued on to Voodoo. He's on his second tour of duty in New Orleans. "One reason I came back is everyone is so nice," Childers said.
For 22-year-old Josh Schwartz, deployed to New Orleans as part of a 205-member joint task force of Montana Army and Air National Guard, Voodoo was a brief respite from a month of night patrols.
"It's nice to get out and see people having fun," Schwartz said. "It's pretty crazy. I didn't think this many people would show up."
Officers had curtailed liberties after several soldiers recently "got a little out of control" at the Bulldog on Magazine Street. "Fifteen or 20 people would offer us drinks," Schwartz said, grinning. "How do you say no to that?"
But all was well at Voodoo, as the camouflage-clad soldiers posed for pictures.
"Some cities look down on you," Schwartz said. "I haven't seen that here. Everybody's been so nice, saying thanks, hugging us. That runs in line with all the Southern hospitality."
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Musicians occasionally acknowledged the unusual circumstances of this year's Voodoo.
Vocalist David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, the lone survivors from the original New York Dolls, led a punchy set of glam garage rock. "We know you guys like your Cafe du Monde," Sylvain said. "And it's gonna be back, Jacksons. Better than ever, and we're here to prove it."
Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme nearly moved to New Orleans, and counts many friends among the local rock 'n' roll community, including manager Jimmy Ford and Corrosion of Conformity guitarist and Le Bon Temps Roule owner Pepper Keenan.
Katrina's destruction hit home for Homme. He repeatedly urged the audience to e-mail congressmen and senators to "get off their asses" and aid in the relief effort.
Not surprisingly, local favorites Cowboy Mouth supplied the afternoon's emotional heart. The band was recording a new album, "Voodoo Shop," in Atlanta when Katrina struck. Guitarist Paul Sanchez lost his Gentilly house; he and his wife later salvaged little more than a ceramic heart by local artist Leslie Staub inscribed "Rejoice."
So the band wrote two new Katrina-inspired songs and debuted them during a typically celebratory set at Voodoo. "Home," sung by Sanchez, chronicled the destruction of "Dante's Inferno in the Superdome . . . this time even Fats ain't walkin' back to New Orleans."
"The Avenue" pays homage to St. Charles, Carrollton, Claiborne, Orleans. "Parades will roll again," sang drummer Fred LeBlanc. "I'll see my family and my friends, because this can't be the end of the avenue."
The song's final line earned its biggest cheer: "I never want to be from somewhere else."
"Jenny Says" was even more cathartic than usual. A reluctant Rehage joined LeBlanc's hand-picked, mostly female audience dance team onstage. In keeping with tradition, LeBlanc ordered the audience to the ground -- camera crews included.
"I don't care if you are from VH1," LeBlanc said. "You ain't playing us, so you got to work."
For years, LeBlanc has preached a sermon about the joys of New Orleans. It has never seemed more appropriate than at Voodoo. "Baton Rouge is nice," he said. "Atlanta is OK. I got nothing against Texas. But New Orleans is the greatest city in the world."
LeBlanc's farewell looked to the future: "See you at Mardi Gras!"
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For Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, Voodoo was a bittersweet homecoming. On Friday, he toured his former hometown for the first time since the storm.
All coiled energy, he focused and released his emotions via an intense, 90-minute set that closed out the main stage. A buff Reznor, wearing close-cropped hair and a black T-shirt, opened strong with "Head Like a Hole" and "Terrible Lie," gale-force anthems from his 1989 million-selling debut.
"It's good to be home," he said during the set's first pause.
Later, he introduced hip-hop and spoken word artist Saul Williams. Against an industrial rock/hip-hop hybrid, Williams spoke of the natural and unnatural disaster that unfolded in New Orleans. "We want to thank all the people who helped make a difference," he said.
Reznor's final gesture was his most potent. Alone at an electric keyboard, he unspooled "Hurt," his memoir of addiction's isolation. In 2003, Johnny Cash remade "Hurt" as his own obituary, a poignant, bittersweet farewell with an equally devastating video.
At Voodoo, Reznor reclaimed "Hurt" as his own. It became a communal moment of mourning for the city. The full band crashed in for the final coda against a blaze of white light.
"Good night," Reznor said, "and good luck to all of you."
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As attendees filed out at 10 p.m., one more New Orleans moment awaited: Trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and his Barbecue Swingers, holding court on a secondary stage.
During the spoken-word segment of "New Orleans Is," Ruffins rattled off the city's main ingredients: Fried chicken. Mustard, turnip and collard greens. Sweet potatoes. Vaughan's. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Bob French on Monday night at Donna's. St. Bernard. The Lower 9th Ward. The Treme Brass Band. Tuba Fats. Watching the Saints game after church on Sunday.
Then "Do What'cha Wanna," the theme song of his former band mates in the Rebirth Brass Band, built to a frantic, brassy crescendo.
"We're live in New Orleans! We're live in New Orleans!" Ruffins said. "New Orleans will swing again!"
That, more than anything, was the message of Voodoo.
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Music writer Keith Spera can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3470.