I only made it to the Sunday installment of the tenth-annual Voodoo Experience this weekend, missing Nine Inch Nails CGI apocalypse and the time barrier being ignored by Lil Wayne, but I did have a near-perfect rock festival day. Waiting to go through security, I saw no less than three Parliament shirts, hoping that either they were a surprise addition about which I was unaware (they weren’t) was an omen of things to come (it was). I stopped in the New Orleans Bingo! Parlour which this year upsized into a bona fide circus tent. I wedged into the crowd, standing next to a muscly woman wearing a gold leotard and a fake moustache as I witnessed the Bingo! Show’s sub soul subversion, reducing R&B to a clatter and a croon, sirens and giggles, all with a primal throb standing in for a full soul revue. The fake moustache woman pushed past me, the first of approximately 10,000 people to do so that day thinking there must be a lot more spots up front, and made her way to a white rope dangling from the tent. She ascended the rope and set about a perfect trapeze accompaniment to Bingo! circus music of the damned.
As she dismounted, Clint Maedgen from Bingo! exclaimed, “That is so f*** in’ cool! I can’t believe you can do that!” and I felt the same way about the progression of the Bingo! enterprise over the years, having witnessed the early days of Liquidrone at M’s Fine and Mellow Café and practices in a house I shared with some then members in Spanish Town over a decade ago. Stuff like this is what sets Voodoo and New Orleans apart from other festival destinations.
You find yourself seeing bands you’d never see otherwise at these things. Dashboard Confessional was all anthems, all the time, pleasant enough like the slight breeze from the cusp of fall crossing City Park, but I wandered off thinking "Diet Journey." I was excited to see Kanye West protégé (does that make him a Kanygé?) Lupe Fiasco. I’m not sure why Lupe didn’t quite take off like I thought he would, pitting the sophisticated and the personal in glimmering, seamless hip-hop context. “Hip-hop saved my life” he says, and in return he gives it his all, but with all that gratitude and positivism there is little grit. The dismantled variation at the beginning of “Go Go Go Gadget” offered a bit of loose turf before it reverted to its Xbox-game paced natural state, but otherwise I couldn’t find any traction with his show.
I remain amazed by the shirtless masses that attend these things just to publicly nap in dog piles with their sunglasses their only remarkable features.
There are three constants in New Orleans festival life: cochon de lait, Deacon John doing a tribute to a New Orleans music titan you didn’t realize wrote all those songs, and mango sorbet; and thankfully, all three were to be had in a sumptuous triangle by the Preservation Jazz Hall tent.
Dirty Dozen Brass Band finally got the day up to liftoff velocity, pulling enough P- Funk tropes out of the air to morph into make that funk uncut, fulfilling the promise of all those Parliament shirts from the gate. Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings followed, opening a can of Tina Turner-brand whoopass on the vintage soul vibration for which they are known. With groups like them and Charles Walker & the Dynamites around, there might just be some hope for mankind after all. Checking my schedule, I made the gamble and left her shimmying to make it back to the Bingo tent for the Butthole Surfers.
It seems silly for a grown man to be typing this phrase, but I’ve been waiting to see the Butthole Surfers for about 20 years now, having been too sick to go when they played one of the first shows in The Varsity’s post-movie house days. If psychedelic music can be seen as a road, then down at the far end there is a set of skid marks leading to a flipped pickup, and smeared in the mud on the side is the name Butthole Surfers. Turns out there was no hurry to get there, as the elaborate multimedia setup for which the band is famous took longer than expected. During the Beckettian mic check, lead singer Gibby Haynes left his delay unit repeating “check…check…check” until it incited a chant from the crowd. Then he let it go on for a couple minutes longer, leaving some in the crowd who were familiar with the Surfers’ perverse strategies for provocation worrying that this might actually be the show.
But once every sound tech had been brow-beaten, the group launched into a full lysergic rock attack, three different seizure-inducing film loops beamed all over the tent. It was an explosion of the facets that make a rock show: the beat, the visuals, the vibration, everything blown to insane excess. Sensing the grumblings that a number of fans were missing R.E.M. on the main stage, the group graciously tore into a rather good cover of “The One I Love,” which, to me, could not have been bested by the actual thing a football field away. Finally at the end of the show, the fog machines erupted, giving the now amorphous din a physical form, filmstrips still projecting on them made the mass look like a supernova. The smoke continued to expand until it filled the tent, as the roadies turned off the hissing amps left to feed back on themselves. When you come to the expanse of a rock festival, especially one with a circus tent, you want spectacle, something huger than yourself, huger than the music, and I can think of no better finale than this.