The whole point of last year was having to take the next step," says Stephen Rehage, the impresario behind the Voodoo Music Experience. "The festival has had a parallel life with lots of people from New Orleans this year. We were freaked out and didn't know where to land, but we had to take the next step." In a sweeping demonstration of faith, Rehage had gone ahead and thrown his seventh annual Voodoo event at the Fly on the river across from Audubon Park at the end of October 2005. A year later, though, Rehage was ready to bring back the festival in force.
"I went out and looked at the park, and the city was in such bad shape six months ago," he remembers. "I went to the City Park board, and said I don't have the resources to deal with what you guys are doing out here. There were still FEMA trailers everywhere and Marconi Meadows was in such bad shape. But we really wanted to go home, and do it in a natural setting." In the park, though, Rehage saw that the area closer to Carrollton Avenue and the New Orleans Museum of Art was reasonably intact; after clearing it with the neighborhood association, Voodoo was back in City Park.
In 2005, as in past years, Voodoo acknowledged New Orleans roots music somewhat perfunctorily, with a single, smaller stage set up for Mardi Gras Indian performances and local draws like Big Sam's Funky Nation and the Morning 40 Federation. WWOZ traditionally broadcast live from that stage. Beyond that nod to the event's host city and Rehage's hometown, Voodoo followed the standard template of a rock festival: monster headliners like this year's Duran Duran and Wu-Tang Clan with smaller stages and tents showcasing indie buzz bands and up-and-comers. Rehage, though, is a born-and-bred New Orleanian, and though the eight-year-old Voodoo Music Experience is his first music festival, he has definite ideas about where it should go.
"We're still in our infancy, compared to other festivals around the country," he says. "And we've ended up bigger every year. The storm made us focus on the fact that lots of musicians don't have reason to come home. A festival like this is hopefully a big enough paycheck to get musicians home." At last year's Voodoo, every act that traveled to New Orleans to play, including the New York Dolls and Nine Inch Nails, paid their own way from airfare to hotel. The only pre-Katrina contracts Rehage Entertainment honored fully were for local artists.
This year, they've added the Flambeau area, a section of City Park that looks way more like Jazz Fest than Lollapalooza. The section will include two performance stages -- a WWOZ/Southern Comfort stage and a Preservation Hall tent -- plus a crafts vending area and food from half a dozen local restaurants. Rehage envisions it as more than just an expansion of the festival's scope and demographic; it's part of an evolving master plan to bring New Orleans music history to the masses and show the linking thread between the Crescent City sound and the headlining acts who owe them an audible debt. It is, he hopes, a living demonstration of New Orleans' status as the cradle of American music.
"If you're from New Orleans, you know what a flambeau is," he says. "It's a beautiful visual of lighting the torch and shaking ass with Mardi Gras parades, marching down the street." With the Flambeau-area booking, Rehage hopes to show, literally, how that musical torch got passed.
"You can trace a line of transmission from the acts on our stage to the acts that are national draws," explains Jordan Hirsch, a spokesperson for the Preservation Hall-aligned New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund. Preservation Hall is highlighting traditional indigenous New Orleans music besides jazz by scheduling R&B legends to play in the fall and winter.
"The idea behind the whole project is to reach out to our elder musicians who want to stay active, but it's also about legitimizing R&B as an indigenous, traditional New Orleans style, similar to what Preservation Hall did in the '60s for traditional jazz. Voodoo is an interesting venue for this project, because it's an event born of the music that acts like Wardell Quezerque made possible. So [at the Preservation Hall stage] we can create an environment that's a complement, not a contrast, to the main stage."
Preservation Hall Band Creative Director Ben Jaffe has already taken steps toward integrating the traditional sounds of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band with more contemporary sounds. Over the past year, the band toured internationally with members of the experimental multimedia band Bingo! and set up its own tent at the gargantuan Bonnaroo Festival this past June.
"Stephen came to an event at Preservation Hall where Quezerque was playing, and he contacted us about doing something, and we came up with the Pres Hall tent. It's definitely the Bonnaroo model, but the difference being that we're here in New Orleans and there are so many more musicians we can work with." Over the past year, Jaffe's been working on a similar track to Rehage, on the ever-present post-Katrina problem of keeping New Orleans music vital.
"We realized how important Preservation Hall is," Jaffe says. "People imagine it as a symbol of the integrity of New Orleans music, and we want to use it not only to represent New Orleans jazz, but also people like Bo Dollis [who will be playing with the Wild Magnolias in the Preservation Hall Tent] and Wardell."
"We're all really curious to see how it comes together," he continues. "We put together what we thought was really exciting programming. If you hummed "Iko Iko" to any of the musicians at Voodoo, they'd know it, but how many of them would know it's Wardell's arrangement? And he's right across the field. We're also an attraction. We might draw an older Jazz Fest crowd, a whole new crowd who doesn't even know who the Red Hot Chili Peppers are. ... One year at Voodoo I went to a rave tent -- now there's a Preservation Hall tent. It speaks to the commitment Voodoo has to New Orleans and New Orleans music."
WWOZ general manager David Freedman agrees. The festival's partnership with the station, along with the WWOZ stage and live broadcast, includes 100 VIP tickets donated to WWOZ, to brand and sell on their own.
"I have a lot of admiration for what these guys are doing," Freedman says. "They came back last year, when it was not an economic proposition, and put on a flawless world-class event. And he doesn't have to do this. People are going to come and see Duran Duran. So from WWOZ's standpoint, it's great to see someone putting their money where their concepts are."
WWOZ program director Dwayne Brashears has been the station's person on the ground for booking and organization with Voodoo.
"I think this is really part of [Rehage's] effort to educate people who attend the festival about the music of New Orleans and the region, that it's not just drive-through daiquiris," Brashears says. "Everyone knows who the Meters are. But Amanda Shaw? Kermit Ruffins? And how do they not know who Kermit is? I think this is going to be a long, interesting relationship."
Rehage also hopes the musical-history trajectory between the acts will result in some real-time jams. Some of the programming, for example, in the Flambeau area is deliberately loose -- the first part of Sunday morning and afternoon is dedicated to Marva Wright's tribute to Mahalia Jackson. Kermit Ruffins will play and barbecue, and Rehage says that for six hours the area will be given over to open collaborations. "We're getting into the window now where all the artists are starting to pay attention," Rehage says. "National acts are going to be requesting local artists to collaborate with them onstage. Duran Duran came out of the studio to play New Orleans. They were in the studio, locked and loaded, not going to come out until the record was done, and they came out to do this. The Red Hot Chili Peppers rerouted their entire tour to do New Orleans. It feels like for the artist, it's a very special weekend, a very special event."
Paying tribute to roots music doesn't mean that the festival isn't thinking futuristically in other ways. When the festival was being booked, Rehage Entertainment set up a unique text-messaging system for fans to receive the lineup information on their phones in real time, band by band, as they were being booked. It was set up with all due mystery: after scrolling over an icon on an artist's page, fans saw one of several cryptic messages, including a Sidney Bechet quote in French. If they chose to sign up, they were added to the texting network, which will also provide more interactive surprises over the Halloween weekend. It's clever viral marketing, but it also created a feeling of excitement and community about the event. Rehage has other multimedia project concepts in the works that he hopes will expand the Voodoo experience and his evolving vision. One of the most interesting is the interactive map on the Voodoo Web site (www.voodoomusicfest.com) that's the most seamless blend yet of old and new in Voodoo's whole concept.
A Google Earth map of New Orleans is on the screen, with multiple locations of interest flagged. The choices themselves are diverse and seemingly unrelated: flagged sites include the Backstreet Cultural Museum, the Calliope projects, Jimmy's music club, and the Omni Royal Orleans hotel. They are points of interest chosen by actual Voodoo performers, who have written short blogs about their relationship with the space. It was at Jimmy's, for example, in the '80s, when the Red Hot Chili Peppers first decided to take the stage wearing nothing but strategically placed socks. In 1973, John Paul Jones set his room at the Omni on fire while smoking a joint with a drag queen during a Led Zeppelin tour. Fans can post comments or flag their own sites of interest, but probably most importantly, where else would they learn about the musical heritage of the C.J. Peete (commonly known as the Magnolia) projects, St. Augustine's Church or the Saturn Bar?
"Your average tourist from Green Bay isn't going to be shaking it at Donna's, covered in funk sweat," says Rehage. "They're at Pat O's, or on Bourbon Street, wearing a stupid T-shirt. So this is opening up New Orleans music to a younger generation, plus allowing them to tell their own stories. This year, it was what do we do, how do we do it, do you scale back. And no, it's not the time to scale back, it's time to just go for it. Let's hope it works."
- The Red Hot Chili Peppers return to New Orleans for Voodoo. The band first donned its tube sock-only look at a New Orleans club.