Weather forecasts for the weekend were dire, but organizers of the 2016 Buku Music + Art Project faced them with optimism, announcing that the annual event would go on, rain or shine.
And they were rewarded: The Mardi Gras World grounds saw only a sprinkle of rain on Friday, and on Saturday night, even with river breezes coming off the Mississippi after dark, it was warm enough that attendees in the briefest of festival costumes seemed comfortable.
Buku is now the de facto opener of New Orleans’ music festival season, and watching one fan — clad in neon alien-face pasties and an abbreviated tutu — dance ecstatically to Pretty Lights’ closing set on the Power Plant stage, it certainly felt like springtime.
Just 5 years old, Buku is still in its formative years, so each iteration brings leaps and bounds of growth in programming and operations.
Closing down the outdoor main stage at 11 p.m. last year, for example, helped to curb complaints about sound traveling across the water to invade residential neighborhoods too late at night.
Bottleneck traffic at the single entry point, however, remains a problem. Some fans reported that it took a half-hour or more to make it through the slow-moving entry line, which sometimes has to stop entirely to let trains pass on the tracks that border the festival site.
This was the third year that Buku has sold out its 15,000 daily capacity for both days in advance of opening its gates, and Mardi Gras World doesn’t offer much room to expand the festival footprint. Buku, in fact, already has a riverboat docked next to the main stage to provide a VIP area.
That means organizers need to get creative with the space they’ve got. And they have: The Back Alley area, a nook behind the Float Den that hosts local and underground DJs, increased its draw this year with a new stage and an amped-up roster of performers.
Another new stage, plus a new wooden floor and booth seating, graced the Front Yard area, where six local groups got free rein to curate three-hour showcases throughout the weekend.
On Friday, students from Upbeat Academy — Buku’s nonprofit after-school program, which teaches student musicians the digital skills behind hip-hop and EDM production — performed.
On Saturday, rapper Katey Red and others presented a bounce showcase organized by Big Freedia, who did double-duty nearby as a food vendor, serving up cornbread and greens in an airbrushed chef’s coat. Afterward, Mr. Quintron and WWOZ’s DJ Brice Nice offered a sly lesson in the roots of electronic music, spinning synth- and sample-heavy early disco and rap on vinyl.
The festival’s ongoing evolution is driven by trial and error, but also, co-founder Dante DiPasquale said in an interview, by a policy of keeping ears to the ground.
“Every single request that’s made,” from the festival’s street team or by fans engaging on Buku social networks year-round, “there’s a note or tally being taken,” he said. “I pay a lot of attention to that.”
This year, that attitude brought Buku another slate of buzzy, of-the-moment hip-hop and electronica including, on Saturday, the rapper Future, who just landed his second album in a row (February’s “EVOL”) on the Billboard 200’s No. 1 spot, and the wildly talented 24-year-old Odd Future alumnus Earl Sweatshirt. Both rappers’ latest albums (the latter more so than the former) are dark, doomy and heavy in production.
It’s worth noting that at the dance-driven festival, their charisma kept the crowd rapt during both sets. On the opposite end of the spectrum was the Swedish trio Miike Snow, delivering layered retro dance-pop that would have been the perfect soundtrack to a 21st century John Hughes movie.
Closing out the main stage Saturday, Pretty Lights — which employed a gang of New Orleans sidemen on 2014’s Grammy-nominated “A Color Map of the Sun” — was one of the few Buku acts to staff a full band, weaving live horns and guitar with video-game bleeps and bloops and winding, trancy waves of synthesizer and organ.
Fog rolling in off the river mixed with the output from fog machines, as thousands swayed under a roof of colored laser beams.