Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, AL is May 16-18, 2014 - www.hangoutmusicfest.com

Voodoo and Treme: We Do What We Need To

Black night is falling. The stars are incredibly close. Jack White is mining the past to an adoring crowd in City Park. The Saints are being crushed in Denver. I’m heading to Buffa’s to watch Treme.

I’m really torn by what I witnessed at the Voodoo Experience. I want to thank Neil Young and Crazy Horse for playing the best or maybe second best show of the twenty-something I’ve seen by them over the years. Only the Madison Square Garden Rust Never Sleeps show was on the level of what happened Friday night. Others of course have their own moments. But those who were obsessed with Young’s age completely missed the point. Neil Young and Crazy Horse put it all on the line Friday night. They gave us everything they had and they have plenty. During “Walk Like A Giant,” Young kept turning to the band and shouting for more, punching both arms emphatically in the air like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments parting the Red Sea. He wanted more and he got it. Nothing was left behind when they finished. The grandeur of the coda, where Young got Crazy Horse to mimic the sound of a giant walking in immense, crushing strides for what seemed like 10 minutes, was truly astonishing.

Young was not fooling around. He threw the gauntlet immediately with “Love and Only Love” from the critically undervalued Crazy Horse masterpiece Ragged Glory.

“Love and only love will endure… Hate is everything you think it is.”

The raw, open-hearted emotion that Young can bring to a song is best served in this anthem to unabashed passion, to following your heart at all costs. Call him a hippie and he’ll cop to that with a chip on his shoulder. You got a better solution, Mitt?

And “Fucking Up,” another Ragged Glory track, what a moment. You think this is about drugs? It’s about you fucking up getting the meaning of the song, bro. It’s about me making every mistake in the book. It’s about all the times Neil’s father took him down a notch. And it’s about getting off the floor and trying your best the next time. Let’s all sing along to our folly and move on.

“Ramada Inn” may be the best song Neil’s ever written. It’s simplicity and complexity, redemption and the horror of the abyss, all at once. And of course the saving grace is love. What else do we have, ever? “She loved him so… she did what she had to.”

A close friend told me this set changed her life. Truth.

At other points Voodoo left me wanting to run away screaming. The sound was often so bad, bleeding so intensely from stage to stage. I want to offer a personal apology to anyone who went to see AWOLNATION on my recommendation. I based that pick on recordings, but the band sucked the tailpipe so hard in person I was left aghast. And the abomination of the Red Bull stage was truly appalling. Has Dev gotten here yet? I mean, the Preservation Hall stage ran like the German rail road but it seemed nobody played at Le Plur when they were supposed to. Of course everybody was so jacked on ecstasy they didn’t care as featureless automorons spun aural wallpaper for the stunned denizens. Frank Zappa had an apt description for this. It’s not music, it’s “lifestyle accessory.” And of course it’s the future of pop, of course. Pop is supposed to reflect mass culture, and American culture is becoming so completely homogenized that it’s inevitable it will sound like this for the forseeable future.

As for the future of Voodoo, the sparse crowds indicated that the once vast chasm in booking philosophy between the Jazz and Heritage Festival and Voodoo has dwindled to a razor’s edge. Jack White has played Jazz Fest, as has Young. That leaves Metallica, which isn’t much of an edge. Voodoo still skews younger than Jazz Fest but there’s really not as much variety and when the mainstream rock support acts are as bad as this year’s bunch the edge disappears completely.

Over at Buffa’s, sitting in the back room watching Treme with an audience of people who populate the screen in front of you is an experience that offers a stark contrast to the mall of Voodoo. Treme is showing us what is happening to our culture. New Orleans, a city full of creative people — not just musicians and artists but artisans of every stripe, metal workers with soul and street sweepers who are honored in their community — is being remade in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. As Desiree points out incredulously in episode six, “Careless Love,” as she looks at the empty lot where her house once stood, “It’s like they don’t want us to come back.” For Desiree “us” is the African American community, but anyone who lives as an artist is part of what’s endangered here. In Treme the vision of city planners is to institutionalize culture and literally corral it — in Armstrong Park for the proposed jazz center, but also in City Park for Voodoo, at the Fair Grounds (or perhaps City Park in the future) for Jazz Fest, or elsewhere as long as it can be tagged with a dog collar. But definitely not on the streets, at the second lines, in the neighborhoods, or the corner bars where music grew and is still nurtured. All that is under siege. Our future is endangered, and nobody is going to help us except ourselves. If we don’t listen to Neil Young and do what we have to, do what we need to, we’re going to lose everything that matters to us.

–John Swenson