For bands that would have been headed to City Park this weekend for the 2020 Voodoo Music + Arts Experience, Hurricane Zeta would have presented a most unwelcome complication.
“Can you imagine the number of phone calls and text messages we would have gotten from agents and managers?” festival director Don Kelly said early this week, as the storm took aim at southeast Louisiana.
“But that would be a good problem to have. I’d gladly be taking those calls than not.”
He’s not taking those calls, of course, because the 2020 Voodoo was canceled back in April as the coronavirus pandemic persisted.
In tribute to the festival that wasn’t, WZRH-FM, aka Alt 92.3, plans to spotlight songs from past headliners this weekend. Voodoo’s social media channels will be soliciting pictures and memories from fans. For those fans who want a souvenir of the “lost” festival, Voodoo 2020 merchandise will also be available for purchase.
“We’ll be looking back fondly,” Kelly said, “and looking forward with resolve.”
Joe Krown can finally climb down from the bed of that pickup.
Owned by Live Nation and produced by its C3 Presents subsidiary, Voodoo likely would have presented its now-standard mix of rap, mainstream rock, alternative rock and electronic dance music for what would have been its 22nd edition. Last year, that mix included Guns N’ Roses, Post Malone, Beck and Bassnectar.
When the plug was pulled on the 2020 event six months ago, the decision struck some observers as premature. As it turned out, it was the right call, given the lingering pandemic and restrictions on large gatherings.
But back in April, “everybody was still wondering where this (pandemic) was going,” Kelly said. “We were looking at how bad the numbers looked in New Orleans — the city was a real hotbed (of infections). A lot of other shows started shutting down, bands were canceling tours. At that point, you evaluate it all — is it realistically possible?”
The decision to scrap a festival can be emotional. “It absolutely is, on a personal level,” Kelly said. “We put in a bunch of work. Some of that work (for 2020), some of the booking and planning, started before last year’s event. So it’s tough personally.
“But you have to step out of that and decide what is best for the fans, staff and artists. Sometimes the right decisions are the tough ones, but those are the ones you have to make.”
Unlike the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the Essence Festival of Culture and the French Quarter Festival, Voodoo hadn’t revealed its 2020 roster before it was called off.
“We would have been in a more difficult position if we’d already announced the full lineup and gone on sale,” Kelly said. “That’s a different scenario. We were in a better position than some other shows.”
He declined to name any acts that were booked for this year. “It would have been a good Voodoo lineup. Now we’re moving on to the next one.”
Some of those acts may be rebooked for 2021. But the cultural landscape changes quickly and Voodoo strives to be of-the-moment.
“Someone may be at a certain level one year, and the next year they have a much bigger profile. By the time you get to 2021, they may have had a hit song and may warrant a completely different spot, or they may have fallen off the face of the earth.”
During a Guns N’ Roses concert at the Birmingham Race Course in Alabama on June 30, 1991, a clump of mud thrown from the crowd struck mercuria…
Overall, what does Kelly think the future holds for festivals in 2021?
“I don’t have a crystal ball. But we’re planning next year’s festival and anticipating it will go forward as long as we have approval from the city and state. We’ll be back bigger and better than ever, but we’ll follow whatever guidelines are in place.
“I 100% believe live events will be back. There’s a demand for it, people are longing for it and bands are looking forward to getting back out there.”
To that end, Kelly and the C3 Presents team staged the NOLA Drive-In Summer Concert Series on the grounds of the UNO Lakefront Arena on consecutive weekends in July. Tank and the Bangas, Galactic and the Revivalists each sold out the 250 parking spots for their respective shows.
If the coronavirus pandemic couldn’t stop the Revivalists’ hometown concert, then neither would rain.
More drive-in concerts are in the works, Kelly said, possibly even before the end of the year, although “that might be ambitious. But I do think we’ll do more. I don’t think they’re over with.”
While testing the waters with those first three, one question was whether attendees would obey social distancing rules about staying near their vehicle and wearing a mask when walking to bathrooms.
“When you do something like that, you have to see what works on a basic operational level,” Kelly said. “Part of it was, what is the fan response?
“But people were so enthusiastic to see live music that they had no problem staying in their space and wearing a mask to go to the bathroom. The shows were a resounding success. Fans loved them, bands loved them, the vendors were appreciative to have a gig to work on.”
Going forward, Kelly and company will fine-tune the drive-in formula, and maybe try other types of socially distanced concerts.
“Let’s see what we can do if we think about live events in a new way. See what makes sense, is safe, and is allowable in the phase we’re in.”
Meanwhile, he’ll likely spend Halloween at home Uptown with his family. For Kelly’s older kids, Voodoo is more of a Halloween tradition than trick-or-treating. “They’ve grown up with the festival. They love it. It’s part of their Halloween experience. This year will be very different.”
For him, too. He won’t be in City Park rebuilding stages after Zeta, or filling in muddy bogs around the festival site. Not that he’d mind.
“It’s strange the things you miss. I told (City Park CEO) Bob Becker recently, ‘I wish I was calling you complaining that the grass needed to be cut.’ I gladly would have dealt with that.
“But we’ll do it again next year.”