NEW ORLEANS — There's a sort of intangible awfulness in the air over Bourbon Street — a heavy, damp mix of stagnant water, alcohol and cigarette smoke that lurks around the empty balconies, shuttered windows and boarded-up storefronts.
The normally packed streets and sidewalks are nearly empty. The rows of tiny bars are brightly lit but almost abandoned, with pitchers of neon-colored (and perhaps inappropriately named) hurricanes — the strongest drink on the strip — sitting untouched and sweating in the clingy night air.
An unmistakable whiff of testosterone is in the wind, too: There are few women in town and even fewer children. Seemingly the only people in the Crescent City are relief workers — firefighters and roofers and laborers in Pantera T-shirts and mesh ballcaps — all cruising Bourbon looking to blow off some steam, be it with a few rounds of drinks or a fistfight or two. So understandably, everyone's a bit weary, a bit punch-drunk and perhaps more than a bit on edge.
If ever there was a city in need of a lift, it's New Orleans. Everywhere you look, there are constant reminders of Hurricane Katrina — smashed cars, crumpled buildings, garbage — and the citizens of the city are desperate for a brief respite from it all. They long for a return to normalcy amid all the madness; to laugh and jump and scream and just forget about everything for a while.
Which is why this weekend's Voodoo Music Experience was so important. A Halloween-weekend tradition since '99, Voodoo has always served two purposes: First and foremost, it pays tribute to the city's diverse and deep musical culture (while also snagging top-of-the-line acts like Green Day, the Killers and the Beastie Boys in previous years), secondly, it gives kids and adults a chance to dress up like pirates, pimps, policemen or whatever, and totally rock out.
So when Katrina washed out this year's Voodoo Fest, people were more than bummed: It was a crushing blow to a city that had already sustained too many crushing blows. Event organizers realized this and hustled to get the show going in some form. Throughout September, they rifled though a list of host cities: Austin was mentioned as a possibility, then Memphis. But in mid-October, after a call from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and former N.O. resident Trent Reznor, promoters announced that for one day only — Saturday, October 29 — Voodoo would return home, with another show taking place in Memphis on Sunday (see "Voodoo Music Experience Returning To New Orleans For A Day").
So on Saturday, crowds of relief workers and New Orleans residents packed Riverview Park, dug their heels into the still-damp turf and braced themselves for a day filled with reverie and rock. And in keeping with the spirit of Voodoos past, some of them even dressed up like pirates.(Check out photos from the festival.)
Local mook-rockers Ghost got things started on one of the festival's four stages at the decidedly un-rock hour of 11 a.m., playing a half-hour set heavy with pop-culture shout-outs (including but not limited to the Terminator, Lieutenant Frank Drebbin of "Police Squad" and Darth Vader — twice) which the crowd greeted with surprising glee. As soon as Ghost wrapped it up, the action switched to the main stage, as Toronto bass/drums duo Death From Above 1979 launched into a thudding, thrashing set that had the audience members prone to white belts spazzing out, and more than a few grey-haired roadies shaking their heads in disbelief.
The crowd ping-ponged from stage to stage for most of the day, as sets began every half hour. The stacked schedule made for some rather interesting mash-ups, as sets by glam-punk pioneers the New York Dolls, jazz-rappers Digable Planets and synth-poppers the Bravery smashed and crashed into one another from different points of Riverview. Not that the crowd minded: They dashed from one band to the next, stopping only to scarf down gumbo or slam a few So-Co concoctions.
They treated local acts like royalty, too. World Leader Pretend received probably the loudest cheers of their young careers, and blues-rockers Cowboy Mouth had the crowd eating out of their hands during their set, which was loaded with call-and-response vocals. Meanwhile, across the field, Queens of the Stone Age strode onstage, and the audience braced themselves.
The Queens did not disappoint, stringing together a hit-filled performance that got the moshpits stirring and the beach balls flying. Frontman Josh Homme stopped the set, demanded for some of the inflatable balls to be sent his way, grabbed a couple, held them aloft and paid tribute to those assembled before him.
"This is what New Orleans has got," he laughed. "Big f---ing balls."
It wasn't the only time Homme used the stage to voice his views. Just before launching into "Little Sister," he paused and urged everyone to write their congressmen, saying that it was time to shake things up in Washington, D.C. It was a move that was a bit unexpected for the businesslike frontman, but it spoke volumes about the seriousness of the day.
On the other hand, Reznor and Nine Inch Nails preferred to do their speaking through thrashing waves of guitar crunch and glitchy computer drones. Bathed in moody violet-and-white lights, NIN ripped through a retro set ("Head Like a Hole," "Terrible Lie," "Closer") with Reznor hanging off the mic stand like a beat-down boxer as Aaron North flailed his guitar with reckless abandon. Reznor brought actor/rapper Saul Williams onstage to shout out New Orleans' beleaguered Ninth Ward (and the Bronx), then NIN backed Williams in a performance of his song "List of Demands (Reparation)."
Voodoo Music Experience 2005 Photos
Then, just as he had done at MTV's ReAct Now telethon in September, Reznor brought the house down with a somber performance of "Hurt." Alone on the stage, illuminated only by a single white light, he pounded the tune out on an electric piano, delivering each line with a pained, weary tone. And when the final chords faded out, Reznor thanked the crowd for coming, then gave a brief, heartfelt farewell.
"Good night," he whispered. "And good luck."
And then the crowds filed out of Riverview Park, tired and a bit muddy but happy. They all knew that it was going to take more than good luck to dig their city out of the ruins and to get their lives back on track — but at least for one night, they weren't constantly reminded of that fact.
And their exit created another positive sight: a serpentine line of traffic. The last time many of the audience members saw so many taillights, they were fleeing New Orleans. Now, they were heading home.