The 2017 Voodoo Experience opened at City Park’s Festival Grounds on Friday to picture-perfect Halloween weekend weather: mild and sunny with a chance of zombies.
Costumes abounded on the festival grounds. So did music.
Prophets of Rage consist of Rage Against the Machine with Cypress Hill’s B-Real and Public Enemy’s Chuck D and DJ Lord replacing spitfire vocalist Zack de la Rocha. At the second-tier Wisner Stage, the Prophets of Rage stomped through the RATM anthem “Testify” convincingly enough. Hyper-animated Tom Morello slashed the air with his guitar neck and traded bouts of "scratching" with Lord.
But something felt off, and not just the sound mix. Even with three-fourths of the original roster and some high-profile ringers, trying to replicate Rage's combustible alchemy is not easy, or even advisable. And at this point, the fist-in-the-air revolutionary patter and bombast feel perfunctory, and maybe even contrived.
The Prophets' new, Rage-esque “Hail to the Chief” was, predictably, a riff on the “F*** Trump” message spelled out on the back of Morello’s guitar. More of the same was not necessarily more.
Cutting out to catch veteran the modern rock band Afghan Whigs, who were performing at the South Course Stage at the same time, proved to be a smart decision. Voodoo was something of a homecoming for Whigs frontman Greg Dulli, a longtime part-time New Orleans resident and barkeep.
Unlike Prophets of Rage, he and his bandmates sounded like a fully fleshed-out, organic band of simpatico musicians. They built a sturdy wall of sound, with as many as three electric guitars churning at once.
Jon Skibic's especially urgent, chiming guitar part lit up a big "John the Baptist." Dulli, grandly debonair as always, took a turn on keyboards during a full-bodied cover of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence.” He channeled his inner Roger Daltrey on “Summer’s Kiss,” as drummer Patrick Keeler did his best Keith Moon.
After the Whigs’ “Into the Floor” segued into a forlorn take on Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer,” Dulli introduced the band, including New Orleans-based guitarist Dave Rosser. Rosser died of cancer in June; his bandmates saluted him at Voodoo with a “missing man” hat atop a microphone stand. Classy move.
LCD Soundsystem specializes in what could be considered “analog electronica.” Instead of synthesizers and prerecorded tracks, they deploy actual instruments, including a keyboard outfitted with dozens of plug-in wires, and flesh-and-blood musicians to conjure danceable material that owes a sizable debt to ’80s synth-pop.
The players and their voluminous gear filled the main Altar Stage. Frontman James Murphy, a middle-age guy with a paunch, occasionally channeled Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan — especially on the xylophone-inflected “Someone Great” — and comported himself like a much nicer Morrissey.
The band's music felt hand-made. They transitioned without stopping from “Tribulations” to “Movement.” For hard-working drummer Pat Mahoney, that meant picking up the pace of an already uptempo rhythmic pattern brimming with cymbal and snare strikes. Mahoney worked even harder to sustain the solid beat of “Home,” with its exuberant “whoa-oh” refrain.
“If you’re dancing and there are no women around,” Murphy counseled the young men in the audience, “you’re probably doing it wrong.”
He also expressed admiration for Kendrick Lamar, who would follow LCD Soundsystem on the same stage: “Be patient when we’re down there (in the crowd) and we’re trying to get to the front.”
Good luck with that. By the time Lamar — celebrated on a recent Rolling Stone cover as the “greatest rapper alive” — arrived, a vast crowd was packed in tightly across the field. The dense throng of many thousands seemed even larger than that for the 2016 Voodoo’s opening night headliner, the Weeknd.
Whereas LCD Soundsystem filled the stage with musicians and gear, for Lamar, the stage was empty except for the rapper. With the music all prerecorded, it was up to his charisma and microphone skills to carry the show and ignite the vast audience.
Wearing a Nike jumpsuit with one shoulder strap unbuttoned and hanging loose, Lamar checked all the right boxes for a contemporary rapper: linguistic dexterity, lyrics of substance, compelling back story, shifting dynamics between songs, memorable hooks.
He closed out the final night of the 2015 and 2016 Essence Festivals in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. His crowd at Voodoo was considerably whiter, younger and larger than those he faced at Essence.
“Y’all know y’all’s s***!” he said with an approving grin, as the Voodoo masses rapped along with him and reacted to the opening notes of nearly every song with gusto. The title track of Lamar’s “m.A.A.d. city” album was especially well-received. At his command, the throng started pogoing during “B***, Don’t Kill My Vibe.”
He called it a night at 10:45 p.m. with the staccato “Humble,” from his current album, “Damn.” Immediately, fireworks arced high above the Altar Stage, an appropriate finale to the verbal fireworks Lamar shot off onstage.