Editors’ Picks: Voodoo ’07

For nine years now, Voodoo Fest has been a place where beloved obscurities and major label heavyweights can share the same stage.  Some years this works to enormous success, such as it did on that monstrous day in 2004 that we were treated to the Polyphonic Spree, the Killers, Sonic Youth, the Pixies, Green Day, and the Beastie Boys all in an eight-hour span.
Maybe that’s what makes this year’s Voodoo so interesting.  None of the headliners have had radio hits since Clinton was in office and pop icons like Fallout Boy have been relegated to midday opening slots.  Hell, even Mute Math, the Great New Orleans Hope, has to settle for opening for Sinead O’Connor.  Of course, no one’s going to say that Plain White T’s should be closing out the night instead of the Smashing Pumpkins, and anyone who does is obviously not old enough to make any real administrative decisions.
The nostalgic scheduling nice touch, though.  As Voodoo becomes more ambitious, going back to the three-day format and booking more local bands than Southport Hall, it makes a better case for itself in the national spotlight.  At its best, Voodoo serves as a microcosm of the city that founded it: radio heavyweights for the Jeff Parish crowd, trendy indie for Uptown, DJs spinning for the CBD set, enough junk-noise bands to keep the Bywater bikes rolling, and jazz straight from the Quarter.  The festival may not get as much press coverage as Austin City Limits or Coachella, but what I love about it is that it stays true to its New Orleans character.  It’s a community thing, a weekend for building memories.
And that’s why I’m excited to see Rage Against the Machine.
It’s been eight years since the political rap-rockers last graced a stage here, joining forces with Anti-Flag and Gang Starr at the Lakefront Arena to fight something called the Battle of New Orleans.  I was fifteen, which is probably the perfect age to see a band like RATM: old enough to be pissed off, young enough to not understand why.  Tom Morello’s guitar fritzed out during “Bullet in the Head” and singer Zack de la Rocha had the flu, but I can still hear the sheer noise coming from the stage and see de la Rocha’s furious dreadlocks flying around the stage.  It was my first real concert, and even though it’s been years since I’ve listened to Rage consistently, I still count it as a defining moment in my life.
That’s all good for you, you might say, Bbut de la Rocha is nearly forty now; he’s cut off his dreadlocks in favor of a slightly classier afro.  He’s been wearing sweaters and making speeches to the UN about Mumia and fighting Taco Bell and McDonald’s.  He’s a poet, too, isn’t he?  While all of these things are true, there’s no reason to believe that Rage Against the Machine circa 2007 are any less pissed off.  If anything, seven years of George Bush’s ‘merica have served to further galvanize the group.  It was only five months ago at Coachella, the group’s first public performance in nearly seven years, that de la Rocha suggested that if this country were to use the same trial process faced by Nazi officers at Nuremberg, the current administration would be “hung, and tried, and shot.”  No word on what the point of trying and shooting a hanged man would be, but precision is never why we’ve liked RATM.  The difference between Rage and every other rap-metal group is that even when they were making very little sense, they did it with an honest passion.  People may have made fun of their politicization of, well, everything, but few have ever doubted their sincerity.  And I don’t care if you come from a blue state or a red state; “Down Rodeo” is an amazing rock song.  Rest assured de la Rocha will Bush-bait and be full of Katrina outrage.  He will be King Voodoo by the end of Friday night, I’m sure.
Not that Rage are the only act at Voodoo worth seeing; far from it.  Friday at mid-day, sandwiched quietly between doom-folk hero Dax Riggs and fear-rockers Porcupine Tree is former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell.  While the Truckers have been long-celebrated for their drunken marathons, Isbell always seemed a bit embarrassed by his bandmates’ antics at shows.  He often stayed in the darker corners of the stage, more content with smoking Parliaments and singing about fathers and sons than cranking out Neil Young solos and swigging from the bottle.  Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and the other Truckers would chug Jack Daniels to have fun; Jason Isbell drank because he had to, because it was the only logical response to everything he’d seen.  At least that’s how I like to imagine it.  It’s desperate, negative music with only occasional blips of hope, but that’s what some of the best country music has been about.
Like their brethren in Rage, it’s been quite a while since Smashing Pumpkins have cherub-rocked New Orleans.  By my count, Billy Corgan hasn’t been on a New Orleans stage as a Pumpkin or a solo artist since 1997’s tour in support of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.  This was at the height of all things Gen-X, one of those moments that aging hipsters recall in order to convince younger generations that they’re still cool; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard about the never-ending encore that night. But then you’ve got guys like me who were barely too young for the Mellon Collie tour but still feel a little cheated by the hodge-podge reunion.  We’ll complain about this not being the real Smashing Pumpkins until precisely 7:29 pm on Saturday.  Then Corgan will snarl about the world being a vampire and secret destroyers and other things that not even Interpol dare put in songs, and we will all collectively lose our shit and not particularly notice or care that the female bassist is not D’Arcy Wretzky and that James Iha is nowhere to be found.  Because these are our songs now, not theirs.  I can’t speak for everyone, but I feel like my entire adolescence was scored to “1979,” that every bit of incomprehensible frustration with the world exploded in “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.”  As much as I love Wilco and as powerful as Rage Against the Machine are, I felt something old inside of me skip a little bit when I read that the Pumpkins would be this year’s headliners.
And I know that these bands aren’t for everyone.  Some people will go to Voodoo this year just to see Quintron and the Bingo Show, and that’s awesome.  Some will go for the opportunity to see so many of our great local jazz and funk players on the WWOZ stage.  It’s even likely that some people will go to the festival without any real knowledge of any of the bands playing, and maybe those people will be creating their own special moments during Spoon or M.I.A. or, why not, Tiësto.  What sets Voodoo apart from the rest of the nation’s megashows is the same thing that sets New Orleans apart from the rest of the nation: our inexplicable willingness to share space with strange people.  So go out there and bump your Converse to a little jazz, or let some fuzz guitar in with the trumpets.  And don’t let anyone tell you it’s wrong.

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