Voodoo Festival Taps Into New Orleans’ Stubborn, Spiritual Roots

When I entered Voodoo Festival in New Orleans’ City Park last Friday, the first scent I caught was a familiar one — but not for a music festival. Sage, incense, and other smudge sticks were burning across the festival grounds, centered in the marketplace in the middle of the festival, where local vendors had quite literally set up shop.

This was my first time in New Orleans, so the overt presence of handmade talismans and homeopathic products surprised me at first, but I should’ve known from the start that the spiritual would be a foundational element for any event that took place in this city. Since the festival coincided with Halloween weekend, the spooky factor was ramped up to 11.

Tucked in between the four different stages — and the packed Toyota Music Den, where I caught a killer Preservation Hall Jazz Band set on Sunday — a maze of spooky venues had been erected. There was a Mortuary of smoky, lit-up graves complete with haunted house, a Lightning Skull art installation, and a path of massive candles that purported to offer forgiveness at the end of your journey. I didn’t venture down their path to find out, though.

Later in the trip, our driver would explain that Voodoo is recognized as an official religion in New Orleans, and a rather terrifying ghost tour would unpack some of the other supernatural forces at work in The Big Easy. On Friday — and throughout the rest of the weekend — little paranormal moments popped up in between a set of sparkle pop from Brooklyn-based duo Chairlift, turnt, slinky hollering from Rae Sremmurd, and face-melting blues-rock fusion from Reignwolf. The city’s wonderfully weird independent streak even seemed to overpower The Weeknd’s cold and immaculate toxic R&B.

For instance, back in VIP section of the fest a Tarot card reader patiently worked her way through an always-present line of people waiting to get their cards read. Behind her, nestled even deeper into the darkness, a barber shop had been set up in homage to the core role shops like this play in this city’s culture and community.

Acts like the Swedish metal band Ghost, Die Antwoord, and the long-missed Tool peppered Saturday’s bill, bringing a very welcome but heavy darkness into the mix. Saturday was also the day I found out that the entirety of City Park had been underwater during Hurricane Katrina, and the festival itself was taking place on resurrected land.

On a slightly lighter note, amid all the bars, stages, and booths, were the lit-up barrels of Funyuns, scattered throughout the grounds as a welcome respite from the crush of drunk-hunger — and a reminder that individualism can come in all forms and varieties. At the brand’s booth near Voodoo’s electronic music haven, the Le Plur stage (The Chainsmokers headlined), you could take a quick Boomerang-style video/gif with friends and test your “Funyuns breath” — a colorful cloud of multicolor smoke erupting based on your recent consumption.

While the original onion flavor has never been a reliable staple in my snack rotation, the discovery of “flamin hot” Funyuns was a game-changer. It’s a bit of a stretch to call the experience spiritual, but I had a moment of communion with these spicy chips during the DJ Mustard set in the early evening on Saturday. Then, when Mustard dropped YG, Drake and Kamiyah’s “Why You Always Hatin?” I screamed every word with perhaps a little too much passion. I blame the hot Funyuns.

Though a slew of huge names from out-of-town showed up for the event, it was more or less locals who brought Voodoo home on Sunday evening. After their own intimate surprise show the night before, Arcade Fire took what might as well be a hometown stage for their headlining set on the final night of the weekend.

Since the release of 2013’s Reflektor Win Butler and his wife Regine Chassagne, two of the founding members of the band, have been living in New Orleans. The magnificent second line the band threw earlier this spring in honor of David Bowie helped cement them as pillars in the community, and the crowd seemed thrilled to sing along with a hit-heavy setlist.

Toward the end of their show Arcade Fire turned things up a notch, and announced they’d be incorporating the crowd into their new record (“If you sing well enough,” Butler joked.) After modeling a chant for the crowd, he encouraged them to sing it back, and presumably recorded the result for inclusion on the band’s fifth LP, which is looming after they played new material in the earlier, private show on Saturday.

It offered a visitor like me the chance to feel like I was contributing something to the city, and leaving with a part of it in tow. And if that memory wasn’t enough, the sage and lavender I bought from Marie Laveau’s Voodoo shop on Bourbon Street would be.