Stephen Rehage is a big fan of City Park. That’s a lucky thing; as the founder and producer of the Voodoo Experience, the 2015 edition of which kicks off Friday, Oct. 30, he’s had to spend a good chunk of time there since the festival’s inception in 1999.
“There’s an amazing vibe to it,” he said. “They’ve got beautiful swans swimming in the lagoon. I used to go there to fish for minnows with my grandfather. I love that park.”
Music festival culture has exploded in recent years. Voodoo, founded the same year as Coachella and three years before Bonnaroo — the two biggest guns in the contemporary American festival business — helped shape the template for what has become one of the primary ways that fans experience live music in the 21st century.
As a music fan, Rehage likes that festival model.
“From a financial standpoint, one ticket price to see 100, 150 bands is a good value proposition,” he said. “And the way people tend to communicate now, through social networking and lots of electronic communication,” being out together at a festival is “a nice way to connect face to face.”
Even though it’s hard to toss a dart at the calendar without hitting a major multiday festival, he said, Voodoo retains a unique identity.
“New Orleans has always done an amazing job of having the city be the host, the background. Festivals here take on the flair of New Orleans,” he said. “I don’t think other cities have that luxury, the incredible music and culture.”
2015 will be the third edition of Voodoo since it became part of entertainment monolith Live Nation, which owns the House of Blues chain, Ticketmaster and, as of last year, Bonnaroo — itself produced by a New Orleans-founded company, Superfly Entertainment.
Voodoo has evolved over the past 16 years, to be sure. For one, it’s ridden at least two mainstream waves of popularity for electronic dance music. In the ’90s and early ’00s, when promoter Disco Donnie had made New Orleans a national rave center, he booked the festival’s dance tent. EDM has re-emerged as a major draw, and this year, superstar DJ Skrillex returns to the fest, presenting his Jack Ü project with New Orleans bounce fan Diplo. Deadmau5 also headlines.
It was during Skrillex’s set in 2014, in fact, said Rehage, that the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl ran into Steve Gleason and was inspired to have Gleason introduce his band.
“How cool is that?” Rehage said.
That’s the kind of organic hookup between artists that gratifies the producer most.
“It’s the season, that backstage vibe, the magic that happens,” he said. “Local and national musicians meet up, and next thing you know, they’re onstage collaborating.”
Since moving to City Park’s Festival Grounds, Voodoo has scaled back its footprint to four stages, which have themselves moved around as the fest settles into its new home.
Moving the EDM-focused Le Plur Stage to a more secluded corner has addressed the noise bleed issues that arose in Voodoo’s first year on the Festival Grounds, as the sound of electronic music travels differently from that of traditional, analog amplified instruments. And it’s created a special atmosphere of its own.
“People go to Le Plur, get their spot and don’t leave all day,” Rehage said.
This year’s booking continues to split the difference between local and national as well as retro and contemporary. Ozzy Osbourne, a returning headliner, was initially on the table as part of a Black Sabbath reunion, which was pushed back a year. His solo appearance, with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, Slash and original Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler, is the only U.S. appearance of that combination this year.
Closer to home, the exploratory New Orleans brass band the Soul Rebels will play Friday night backing indie New York rapper Joey Bada$$, and 1990s punk legends Babes in Toyland and Jane’s Addiction support Ozzy Halloween night, as does disco godfather Giorgio Moroder and John Lydon’s post-punk gang Public Image Ltd.
“What’s the energy behind it, does it carry well to a live audience?” Rehage said of his booking strategy. “We’ve always had the philosophy of, we do what we do.”