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Voodoo Music Festival – Big changes and an unexpected name

28th October 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

Since its inception in 1999, the Voodoo Music Experience, now dubbed the Voodoo Music + Arts Experience, has gone through many changes though perhaps none more so, with the exception of the post-Katrina 2005 event, than this year.

The Voodoo Fest (Nov. 1 through Nov. 3, 2013), which has been infused with heavy metal, rock, rap, electronica, jazz, bounce, rhythm and blues, reggae and more, had always been presented in City Park and pretty much settled into the area just behind the New Orleans Museum of Art. It now moves to City Park’s Festival Grounds that opened in December 2012 and this summer hosted the Louisiana Seafood Festival.

The other big change is that the WWOZ community radio station and the Preservation Hall tents, two particular favorites among local fest-goers, as the saying goes “ain’t dere no more.” The comparatively small venues, which were usually located near each other and away from the humongous main stages that this year will present superstars like Nine Inch Nails (Saturday, pm), provided “New Orleans own little corner of the fest” atmosphere.

“It was beautiful while it lasted,” says Ben Jaffe, the owner of Preservation Hall and tuba player and leader of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. “I do believe that things have a life span and we had done what we needed to do,” Jaffe explains of the demise of the stage that was founded in 2006. “For the first few years, it was in cooperation with the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund as a way to create job opportunities for local musicians. One year turned into seven years. We’re playing on the main stage (Fri., 6:05 pm) this year opening for Macklemore {& Ryan Lewis} (Fri., 7:15 p.m.) and Pearl Jam (Fri. 9 p.m.). That’s what we’re excited about.”

It seems very odd that WWOZ stage would close down the same year. The only explanation given came through an emailed excerpt from the station’s newsletter that spoke of the high cost of broadcasting live though there was no specific mention of the Voodoo Fest.
Voodoo Fest’s Unexpected Pleasure

To find the name Smokey Johnson among the high-profile superstars performing at the Voodoo Arts + Music Festival could certainly be considered an unexpected surprise. The New Orleans drummer, an originator of funk and master of jazz who spent over 20 years with Fats Domino and co-wrote, with the great Wardell Quezergue, the now classic groove “Ain’t My Fault,” hasn’t truly appeared in public since 1993 when a stroke and then the amputation of his leg made sitting behind a drum set an impossibility.

“I have my sock cymbals and I got that hooked up with my tambourine and my cowbell and I play – that’s what I do,” says the always amiable Johnson who will be part of Grammy-winning keyboardist/vocalist Dr. John’s all-star band at Voodoo Fest (Friday, 9 pm). He’ll be in the percussion section that will kick with greats including drum giant Herlin Riley and longtime Professor Longhair sideman Alfred “Uganda” Roberts. Big Chief Monk Boudreaux is sure to be wielding a tambourine too in an ensemble that boasts this city’s cream of the crop with bassist George Porter, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, saxophonist Roderick Paulin, and keyboardist Ivan Neville plus trombonist Sarah Morrow. As Lee Dorsey used to sing, “Holy Cow!”

“We’re just tryin’ to put somethin’ together where I could get everybody who is top of the line and go with it,” says Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) who played the very first Voodoo Festival in the pouring rain. “I’m just trying to keep everything flouncing in good directions. Smokey’s my partner no matter what. He’s always going to be there. You can’t get away from people like that.

Johnson echoes Dr. John’s sentiments saying, “That’s my partner. We’ve known each other since I was 17 years old and I’ll be 77 on November 14. That’s my boy. I curse him out; he curses me out,” he adds laughing.

Though Johnson hasn’t been seen playing at clubs or festivals, each second Friday of the month he puts the beat out with his rhythm “rig” with a group of well-known veterans to perform for the elderly residents at the newly opened St. Margaret’s at Mercy facility. Some of the regulars at the performances, which are sponsored by the Jazz Foundation of America, include saxophonist Red Morgan, vocalist/keyboardist Al “Carnival Time” Johnson and drummer Willie Cole.

“Smokey is so f***in’ off the hook, that’s his blessing,” says Dr. John. “I just remember back in the game when we’d be searchin’ for stuff and he always came through and good times were had with whatever he did.”

Johnson, who presently lives in the Musicians Village, credits growing up in the Treme neighborhood for his interest in music and his sound that rolls with a second line feel. He looks forward to sharing the rhythm section with Porter who he hasn’t worked with in many, many years. “When I used to play, I used to play,” he notes meaning he was definitely all over the scene be it rhythm and blues gigs or hittin’ on jazz with greats like saxophonists Red Tyler and Fred Kemp.

“Tell the people I’m still here and I love them,” Johnson affectionately signs off.

“Smokey – he’s old-school and ratty,” Dr. John says in describing the drummer to those who have never experienced him. “Everybody is gonna be there and it’s gonna be swinging and that makes me feel great.”

This article originally published in the October 28, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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