Voodoo Music + Arts Experience 2016 Day 1 Highlights: The Weeknd, G-Eazy, Rae Sremmurd & More
The Voodoo Music and Arts Experience -- Voodoo Fest, if you’re nasty -- launched Friday afternoon (Oct. 28) with a cutting-edge mix of rock bands (Seratones), EDM (Cheat Codes), throwback soul (Mayer Hawthorne), and rap and R&B (G-Eazy, Tory Lanez and headliner The Weeknd).
Here’s a rundown of how Voodoo’s first day went.
2:30 p.m.: EDM pop trio Cheat Codes plays Voodoo Fest near the beginning of the day, warming up a crowd on Le Plur Stage. The trio performed its club hit with Kris Kross Amsterdam, "Sex" -- a riff off Salt-N-Pepa’s 1991 song "Let’s Talk About Sex.” It’s a hook Cheat Codes discovered by accident and ran with, matching an already-composed instrumental. “If we had [sampled] the actual song, it would’ve sounded corny,” the group’s Matthew Russell said before its set. “But it wasn’t corny for the time, it was actually edgy for the time.” Now, it’s a fun club hook. Interpolation: the ultimate cheat codes to a club hit.
3:15 p.m.: Seratones is finishing up its set with "Trees,” cutting its set short due to technical difficulties. The band, fronted by lead singer/guitarist A.J. Haynes’ commanding voice, delivered a rip-roaring set nonetheless. Haynes sat down with Billboard to talk about the band’s origins and self-branding Seratones on their own terms as young band.
“That’s what we are,” she says. “I think a lot of people throw a lot of words together because we pull from a lot of influences, it’s just part of who we are as people. But we’re a rock ’n’ roll band.
4:40 p.m.: Brooklyn synth-pop band Chairlift draws a relatively small but ready-to-sing-along crowd to the South Course Stage, beginning with "Look Up,” the lead track from its latest album, Moth. After the bubbly funk grooves of "Polymorphing,” lead singer/keyboard player Caroline Polachek takes a moment to address the intense adoration of the band’s audience. "I'm already getting marriage proposals?" Polachek jokes dryly during the late afternoon set. "It's still light out. That's pretty good." The band -- the other half of Chairlift’s core drummer/multi-instrumentalist Patrick Wimberly, saxophonist Danny Meyer and guitarist/drummer Joey Postiglione -- goes right back to business, though, serving up new arrangements of "Amanaemonesia,” "I Belong In Your Arms,” and its 2008 Apple commercial hit "Bruises.”
Before Chairlift’s set, Polachek talked with Billboard about the band’s worldwide influences, which in turn has made the group a globetrotting act three albums into its career. The band tours Australia and Singapore, Tokyo and the Philippines to end out the almost a full year of touring behind Moth.
“It’s not something I think about consciously [appealing to international listeners],” Polachek said. “I grew up in large part in Tokyo, so my introduction to [music in] the U.S. was sort of foreign. It’s such a mystery to me how to break into these places like China, Russia or India. I listen to music from these places, but it’s impenetrable as far as playing there. It is interesting to see markets like Southeast Asia and Australia, these places love Chairlift. The U.K. is our best [touring] market but Australia a close second.”
5:10 p.m.: Soul revivalist Mayer Hawthorne pulls a solid crowd at the Pepsi Stage in the midst of his set with a medley including Johnny Mathis’ "Without Us" and "I Wish It Would Rain" (a tribute to, not a cover of, The Temptations). Hawthorne keeps it sexy with "Lingerie and Candlewax" and the infectious single from his dancey DJ crew Tuxedo crew, "Do It.” His choice of covers are seamless as they are impeccably chosen, riffing through a bit of Aerosmith’s "Walk This Way" into his she-did-me-wrong 2012 single "The Walk,” with its sublime horn lines. He finishes with another well-folded-in cover, Tears for Fears’ "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" reimagined as a classic soul jam.
After his set, Hawthorne sat down with Billboard to discuss Party of One, an EP released that day. "I’m trying to be like Gucci Mane this year, man," he says, having put out an LP Man About Town in April. "I wanna just put out so many songs that people just can’t believe it. Like, ‘How is this guy doing it?’ I’m trying to just crack people over the head with more and more music. I’m constantly coming up with new ones everyday.”
6:30 p.m.: Speaking of Gucci, rapper Tory Lanez kicks off a nighttime of pulsing lights and trap bangers at the Pepsi Stage. Lanez enters to epic introduction music after bits of scratched up songs by his DJ. The rising Toronto rapper slams into a bit of "New Toronto" before hyping up the crowd. "If you got more than $20 in your pocket put your hands up!" he yells. "If you're STD-free put your hands up!" "Juvenile Freestyle" and the Alicia Keys-sampling "N.A.M.E." follow. "You're probably on drugs tonight!" he mused to his adoring fans, introducing his harder-edged remix of Drake's dancehall jam "Controlla.”
Lanez’s live show was a study in contrasts to the night’s headliner, fellow Torontonian The Weeknd, with a blinding rapid-fire light show and stark visuals, showing some legitimate superstar hustle and ambition from his opener on I Told You ("I Told You/ Another One"), his first studio album. Lanez’s raw lyrics, in-your-face charisma and catharsis, but -- like The Weeknd -- a beautiful singing voice along with rough rhymes. What The Weeknd does with despondence, Tory Lanez does with aggression.
Lanez is yet to mint a bonafide hit, but "Luv" -- near the end of his set -- is awful close. He draws a large and hyped crowd hip-hop heads tonight -- the dope-boy swagger of "Real Addresses" and "Traphouse,” inspiring a vocal sing-a-long -- but a Drake or Future-type pop breakthrough doesn’t seem far away.
7:40 p.m.: When performers talk about how some cities they’re playing in "second homes" amid adoring crowds in cities they’re not immediately identified with, sometimes it seems like just stage patter or bedside manner. Not with Oakland’s G-Eazy; the first festival he attended was Voodoo Fest. (He snuck in when he was an undergrad by the name of Gerald Gillum at Loyola University, he said.) Doubling down on that, his manager Matt Bauerschmidt stole the show about an hour into the Ritual Stage set, proposing to his now-fiancée on stage to a storm of pyrotechnics. In a joy that betrays the menace of his Jared Leto-in-Suicide Squad Joker costume, G-Eazy beams, "This is the best night of my motherf---in' life!"
It’s an exuberant climax to a set that starts a little late, with "Random" (as in, Eazy bragging, "This shit ain’t random," I’m the best out here) then "Gotta Lotta", "I Might", "One of Them", "Order More" and "Calm Down." Then he brings it down a touch with "This is a public service announcement." He busts back out with a political statements of sorts: “F--k Donald Trump!" into a cover of YG’s "FDT (F--k Donald Trump)".
He brought it down for real this time with "Let’s Get Lost" with a special appearance by Devon Baldwin and his hit "Me, Myself and I" with special guests, New Orleans brass band The Soul Rebels for a confetti-dropping finale, fitting for a headliner. G-Eazy says three years ago, he opened a day of Voodoo Fest ("I played in the morning!" he said). Now he’s playing before The Weeknd to a crowd almost as big.
8:40 p.m.: Rae Sremmurd's DJ bumps Kevin Gates’ catchy rap hit "Two Phones" as a "Free Kevin Gates!" shout out rises from the crowd. Gates was sentenced to 180 days in jail shortly before he was set to play this slot at Voodoo Fest. But the young bucks of Rae Sremmurd didn’t miss a beat as last-minute fill ins, entering to 20th Century Fox Studios’ opening theme as entrance music.
It’s part of a continuing rampage for Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi, carrying on with its rampage of crazy-energetic performances at festivals and at club gigs around the nation, a constant source of touring since their January 2015 debut, SremmLife, through this August 2015’s SremmLife 2. The young duo got down to business with "No Flex Zone" and "Somebody Come Get Her" to start their set. Now based in Atlanta, the duo’s Mississippi-native drawl translates especially well with a New Orleans crowd. Plus there’s nearly uniform recognition of their viral and rap-chart hits: "No Type" persists, "Unlock the Swag" swings and "Stuntin’ On My Ex" gets the fellas and ladies in the crowd cheering against each other.
"We ain't no politicians but we don't f--k with Donald Trump," Jxmmi says early in the set, indulging in anime cosplaying with a Dragon Ball Z Halloween costume. It’s an intro to "Up Like Trump", a snide and clever takedown of the Republican presidential nominee. Their verse off Ty Dolla $ign’s "Blasé" and their track "Real Chill". The duo polishes off with "Black Beatles" and a pulsating crowd somehow more energetic and just as young as they are. Sure, the duo can joke about how they’re just now old enough to drink legally at Voodoo Fest, but despite any relative or perceived inexperience, they’re hardworking ingenues at the front of a new wave of rap.
9:45 p.m.: Abel Tesfaye, better known by his royal stage name The Weeknd, wastes no time: the one-two punch of "The Hills" and new song "False Alarm.” It’s followed by "So Gone,” the slinky "Often,” "Acquainted,” his verse on Future’s "Low Life" and "Might Not." Tesfaye slows it down a bit, dedicating "As You Are" to some of his most-dedicated fans in the front row.
He does his best Michael Jackson yelps and squeals on "I Don’t Mind,” which starts to recall the the late Prince as well, as the largely purple hue of his stellar light show meets the song’s live guitar solo. "Losers" is next, with its clacking handclaps and The Weeknd takes it back to his first LP for "High for This".
He closes out with Fifty Shades of Grey hit "Earned It" and the smash "I Can’t Feel My Face.” As his set draws to a close -- virtually exhausting tracklists from his two studio albums, which have launched him to global fame -- it grows in visual contrast to its beginning: torrid and swirling visuals, muted dark colors, curtains and walls of light and color that look opera-inspired, a band of virtually flawless accompanists cast as silhouettes against that massive wall of light, finishing with a pyrotechnic ending from the UFO-shaped triangle lighting rig overhead. He says it’s the last song to the crowd and they chant the title. They know what it is. If this doesn’t translate to a career-best first-week sales for his third record, out next month, what does?
Tesfaye’s finale -- giving the crowd what they want, given his new stage fixture -- was the slick "Starboy,” the Daft Punk-produced title track from the forthcoming album. That he and Torey Lanez could be so young, accomplished, primed for success from the get go and are all from the same city is just beyond. Truly, something’s in the water in Toronto and it made its way down to New Orleans Friday night.