Stephen Rehage thought he was fine. It was Sunday, August 28th, and the independent promoter behind the Voodoo Music Experience had never evacuated for a hurricane and didn't plan to start. He had a 10-day supply of food -- "It was the first time I ever had food in my refrigerator," he says, laughing -- and he was ready to ride out Hurricane Katrina. Then he saw the black clouds roll in over City Park in New Orleans, the usual site for Voodoo. Then he saw his survivalist neighbor with a hurricane-proofed house pack the kids in the car and leave. Then he saw New Orleans weatherperson Margaret Orr break down crying on television.
"I grabbed my keys, got in my car, and left."
It's now two months after Hurricane Katrina, and Voodoo not only exists despite the hurricane, it exists in New Orleans and Memphis.
"It's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," Rehage says. "It feels really good right now and I'm in a good place, but it's been touch-and-go."
The challenges started with deciding where to hold the festival, because, he says, "there was never a thought of canceling it." Three weeks after Katrina, Rehage and his New Orleans-based staff -- many of whom lost houses in the hurricane -- met for dinner in New York. "I said, 'Listen, let's plant the flag. Let's do [it in] New Orleans.'" There was, as he puts it, "healthy debate," with many arguing that it was too soon.
"We came out of that meeting with everybody feeling that it was not the right time," Rehage says. With that, he and his staff set about trying to find a new home for the festival. He started looking at Austin, Miami, and Memphis, and once people knew he was looking to move the festival, another 10 to 12 cities called offering to host Voodoo. Still, he says Memphis was the frontrunner almost right away.
"The people of Memphis completely stepped up and made life completely easy for us," he says. "Memphis made the most sense. It has the same kind of vibe and spirit as New Orleans. It's kind of eerie, the energy it has is so similar. Maybe it's the river. Once I got here, it was a very easy decision to make."
Although city politics can be remarkably idiosyncratic, Rehage says dealing with Memphis was easy: "The politics here have been great. There hasn't been one glitch; it's been one big bear hug, really."
To thank Memphis for its support for Voodoo and its mission as a benefit for New Orleans, Rehage Productions has organized "Voodoo on Beale Street," a series of free shows featuring primarily New Orleans musicians, including Dr. John and the Neville Brothers.
The Memphis show is a benefit for rebuilding New Orleans, with the proceeds going to the New Orleans Restoration Fund, an organization Rehage created, because, he says, "we're trying to stay away from the black hole where nobody knows where the money goes." In addition, Voodoo is supporting New Orleans' roots-music station WWOZ-FM and YA/YA, a program that helps young New Orleanians learn through the arts. "They're important to preserve the culture," he says. "We're not trying to be everything to everybody. We're not the Red Cross."
At every step of the way, Rehage says, he and his staff have made decisions on the fly. "The festival has taken on the plight of a lot of people from New Orleans," he says. "You get your ass kicked, life's turned upside down, you take the next step and hope it's the right step." The most eccentric decision came when he announced that the festival -- previously announced as a two-day festival in Memphis -- would be split between Memphis and New Orleans.
"Trent [Reznor of Nine Inch Nails] was a huge part of bringing Voodoo back to New Orleans," Rehage says.
As much as he looked forward to the Memphis show, Reznor lived in New Orleans until late last year and thought it was important to play in New Orleans. Just as Rehage got what he thought were signs that he should leave on the Sunday before Katrina, now he got an omen that Reznor might be right when New Orleans civic leaders called just an hour or so after his conversation with Reznor wondering how quickly Voodoo could get back in New Orleans. At that point, Rehage decided to make the Saturday show in New Orleans happen.
"We ended up in a very welcoming city that took care of us, but at some point we had to go home and plant the flag," he says.
Voodoo Music Experience
Sunday, October 30th
Southern Comfort Music Experience
Various Beale Street venues
Thursday, October 27th, through Sunday, October 30th
All events free
Seven bands you need to see Sunday at the Voodoo Music Experience.
1. Nine Inch Nails -- Honestly, I'm not much of a fan, and maybe you aren't either. But in this case it doesn't matter much. Seeing Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson playing outside in a minor-league baseball stadium is Americana at its finest. Seeing the weirdo who made industrial music go pop, foisted Marilyn Manson upon the world, and named albums Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral at a minor-league baseball stadium is weird enough to be a happening. Would-be dark genius Trent Reznor (who essentially is Nine Inch Nails) was originally scratched from the Memphis lineup after Voodoo split in two, but his being added back to the top of the bill gives the fest a much-needed boost of star power. And here's betting Reznor will be cognizant enough of his surroundings to pay tribute to Johnny Cash when he plays "Hurt." -- Chris Herrington
2. The New York Dolls -- Remedying Memphis' perpetual dismissal by seminal underground reunion tours, the Dolls will be providing a nice break from the MTV2 monotony of much of the festival. In the mid-'70s, the Dolls were more of a heavy, sloppy, and decadent glam-rock band than the proto-punk pioneers they've come to be embraced as, though few bands have had a greater influence -- musically or aesthetically -- on the past three decades of hard rock. These days, original members David Johansen and Syl Sylvain make up the core of the reunited Dolls, which included Arthur Kane until he tragically succumbed to leukemia last year. This appears to be the festival's only dose of genuine, historic rock and should prove to be enjoyable ... that is, if you suppress the urge to throttle Johansen for contributing the music for more car commercials ("Hot Hot Hot") than any artist this side of Bob Seger. -- Andrew Earles
3. Queens of the Stone Age -- Re-added to the Memphis lineup over the weekend, Queens of the Stone Age are the metal/hard-rock band everyone can agree on -- long-haired devil-sign throwers, modern-rock radio listeners, underground metal snobs, and rock generalists can all come together to bang their heads to the smart, heavy, atmospheric sound of lead Queen Josh Homme and his rotating cast of bandmates. -- CH
4. The Decemberists -- Almost as odd a pairing of band and venue as Nine Inch Nails. This hyper-literate and oh-so-theatrical indie-rock outfit would be a choice booking at the Hi-Tone Café or Young Avenue Deli, but all-day outdoor music festival is an odd fit for a group that doesn't sound like it sees much sunlight. Decemberists singer-songwriter Colin Meloy concocts music that sounds like what Morrissey might have come up with if he channeled his agonies into flights of fiction and if he were backed by a shambling mini-orchestra instead of a nifty new-wave guitarist. Meloy isn't quite as morose as the Moz, but he has the same grandiose sense of humor. What the band does have going for them in this context: a great song about sports! "The Sporting Life," off the band's new album Picaresque, reveals the sensitive plight of a particularly put-upon high school football player. -- CH
5. The Secret Machines -- This trio's spacey, arena-sized indie rock craftily cherry-picks elements from across the rock spectrum -- Pink Floyd, Mercury Rev, the '80s alternative inflection in the vocals, and drums that can more than fill a sports stadium. -- AE
6. Carl Cox -- Like a DJ patriarch nodding in approval over at least two decades of dance/electronic music, Carl Cox had a hand embedded in several major movements, but it was the acid-house explosion of the late '80s where Cox's skills came to fruition through his signature simultaneous use of three turntables. Adapting throughout the '90s to dance music's fickle tendencies, and becoming highly successful in the process, Cox's blueprint can easily be seen as the harsher, more adventurous alternative to cushier mainstream contemporaries such as Paul Oakenfold. -- AE
7. The Giraffes -- With a sound that scarcely invokes gentle, leaf-chewing mammals, the Giraffes will bring up the organic metal end of Voodoo Fest, with less desire for radio play than co-headliner Queens of the Stone Age but 10 times the volume. Not to be confused with the pop band of the same name. -- AE
N'awlins Comes North
A guide to New Orleans artists in town for Voodoo weekend.
By Alex Rawls
Theresa Andersson -- Singer/violinist Andersson has led blues, funk, and R&B bands, but 2004's Shine finds her in a winning pop/rock context focused on her songwriting and the warmth in her voice.
Rebecca Barry -- Tenor sax player Barry is so adept at New Orleans jazz and funk that the rhythm section of Herbie Hancock's original Headhunters lineup recorded Rebecca Barry and the Headhunters with her during Mardi Gras this year.
Beatin Path -- As 3 shows, songwriters Mike Mayeux and Skeet Hanks take songs seriously, but live, they get loose, making country-rock for city folk.
Better Than Ezra -- This year's After the Robots shows Better Than Ezra has lost none of its knack for rock songs that make being young sound dramatic and beautiful.
Bonerama -- This variation on the brass-band tradition is led by four trombones, but this year's Live From New York shows Bonerama to be a brass band that loves to rock.
Cowboy Mouth -- If singer Fred LeBlanc asked his audience to run wild in the streets, they'd do it. Fortunately, he uses his powers for good, and the rock band has songs that don't get lost in the process.
Susan Cowsill -- Fans of Cowsill from her days with the Continental Drifters won't be let down by her debut solo album, Just Believe It -- red-blooded folk-rock that takes itself just seriously enough.
Dr. John -- Dr. John's music is deceptively ambitious, and lyrics that document Mardi Gras and voodoo are laced with details that hint at the reality of working-class life in New Orleans.
Ghost -- Ghost is New Orleans' entry into rock/hip-hop territory, albeit with more emphasis on skills than metal bluster.
Media Darling Records' DJ Quickie Mart and DJ Lady Fingaz -- Quickie Mart and Lady Fingaz are the most prolific DJs on the New Orleans underground hip-hop label, with tracks that are more old school than No Limit.
The Neville Brothers -- Last year's Walkin' in the Shadow of Life was one of their strongest, returning the group to its '60s soul roots.
Cyril Neville -- Cyril is the youngest and most overtly political of the Neville Brothers. He introduced world music to the Meters and the Nevilles' repertoire.
Ivan Neville's Dumpsta Phunk -- Dumpsta Phunk is as heavy and funky as imaginable. Melody and any other frill that might lighten the funk is left on the bus.
Papa Mali -- Slide guitarist Papa Mali is as striking for his lengthy dreads as he is for how completely the Shreveport native has internalized the New Orleans second-line funk.
Soul Asylum -- Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner has lived in New Orleans for the last few years, and, for this occasion, onetime Replacement Tommy Stinson sits in on bass.
World Leader Pretend -- On Punches, World Leader Pretend treats pop like something in a petri dish to test the power of a beautiful melody.