Two centuries ago, New Orleans' sprawling, bucolic City Park was a swampy oak forest and native home to the Accolapissa and Biloxi tribes. This Halloween weekend, tribes of mischief-minded music fans descended upon Voodoo Music Experience, the city's 12-year old carnival macabre and de facto benediction for the summer's epic festival season.
Dashing between four stages and lounging underneath the park's 14,000 live oak trees, attendees absorbed a wide-ranging mix of local acts – including celebrated veteran Dr. John and Berlin transplant/mad scientist Quintron – alongside headliners Soundgarden, Snoop Dogg, and the Raconteurs.
Friday kicked off at the decidedly un-rock-and-roll hour of 10 a.m. with rousting, roaming performances by New Orleans' punk-minded marching band, Noisician Coalition, and erection of classic amusement park rides and Road Warrior-esque sculptures. Early afternoon unfolded on the Preservation Jazz Hall-curated stage with the surviving members of Morphine reverently revisiting their back catalog with help from local bluesman Jeremy Lyons on slide guitar and two-string bass, while darling duo Mates of State buoyed moods with their sparkly indie pop over on the "Le Ritual" mainstage.
With temperatures dipping to levels more associated with their Pacific Northwest stomping grounds, a recently reunited Soundgarden took to the mainstage shortly after 9 p.m., flexing warm muscles acquired through a recent string of stateside dates and time spent in Seattle studios working on their forthcoming new album. Once again frontman Chris Cornell remains renaissance handsome and in possession of an acrobatic vocal range, but was in many respects upstaged by bassist Ben Shepherd, whose imposing frame, sinister swagger, and effortless execution of the elephantine-heavy bass lines made renditions of fan favorites "Outshined" and "Loud Love" quake with angular menace. Their nearly two-hour set hit all the requisite highlights, including "Spoonman" and "Black Hole Sun," and closed with the two-pronged encore of "Beyond the Wheel" and "Slaves and Bulldozers."
The only other heavy act of the festival was Mastodon, whose surprisingly subdued set late Saturday afternoon focused on the cleaner sounds of their latest, The Hunter. They were followed by the elder punk statesmen of Social Distortion delivering a high-octane, if frill-free set of their classic, SoCal anthems, including "Story of My Life" and their trademark cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." Over on the Le Carnival stage, fellow Angelinos X blazed their way through their career-defining Los Angeles album, with co-band leaders Exene Cervenka and John Doe holding their own admirably, while perpetually stoic guitarist Billy Zoom led one observer to remark that he appears to be looking more like Christopher Walken as the years go by.
Later that night, while his 23-year old protégé and recent collaborator Kreayshawn performed on the Le Plur Stage, Snoop Dogg gave props to the home team by donning a Saints' football jersey, but delivered a rather underwhelming set. Though helped somewhat by the presence of live bass and drums, the even mix of old and new material was marred by his uneven flow (apparently the teleprompter he deployed wasn't actually helping matters) and uninspired call-and-response interactions with the crowd (say "beee-atch" was about as deep as that dialog went). While not without its moments, most notably on the final medley of "Jump Around," "Drop It Like It's Hot" and "Who Am I (What's My Name)," the end result felt more half-baked than fully blazed.
Snoop would be wise to take a lesson from master Louisiana bluesman Bobby Rush, whose set earlier that evening on the Preservation Jazz Hall stage was a study in elegant pimping. With a pair of bejeweled back-up dancers and a ribald sense of showmanship, Rush and his five-piece band charmed the crowd senseless with odes to the feminine form and the pains of perpetual heartbreak.
Sunday was anchored by a handful of classic acts, including Kinks frontman Ray Davies, whose deep catalog digging clearly pleased an adoring throng, despite occasional battles with an out-of-tune guitar and slow-to warm vocals. Cheap Trick drew an impressively oversized crowd to the Le Carnival stage, including an audibly enthusiastic Steve Zahn and a handful of fellow Treme cast members. Though rumors that singer Robin Zander was lip-synching some of his vocals swirled, it didn't seem to dampen anyone's appreciation for anthems like "Surrender" or "I Want You to Want Me."
[UPDATE: In an emailed statement, Cheap Trick sound engineer Bill Kozy said, "No pre-recorded vocal tracks, or any musical content whatsoever, were 'flown in' or palyed back during the Cheap Trick performance at Voodoo Fest in New Orleans on Sunday, October 30, 2011 (nor anytime EVER in the nearly 10 years I have worked for the band). I use (antiquated?) analog gear to mix the band, and Robin Zander's vocal is not manipulated with any pitch correcting or ‘auto tuning’ devices at all. If anything, a 30-year-old Yamaha effect unit is used for a touch of chorus on the vocal, and I also employ my very analog fingers to tap on a delay-echo foot pedal to do things like repeat the word 'crying' in the song “I Want You To Want Me” or add long delay, and sometimes an 'Elvis' slap repeat to the vocal as the particular song dictates."]
The increasingly cool temperatures thinned out the crowd by the time the Raconteurs took the stage at 7 p.m. to close the evening. Ex-White Stripes leader Jack White and co-leader Brendan Benson are clear comrades, egging each other on while shimmying around sly, blues-based riffs finished with more sweet top notes than the ramshackle rawness that defined the Stripes' early work. Their more elegant execution was a respectable capper for the long weekend, and as the happy, slightly chilled and heavily costumed crowd spilled back out through the former forest, it was easy to see why this city remains perpetually proud of not only its own storied music history, but its ability to throw one hell of a cool Halloween party.