For a young festival, The Buku Music + Arts Project sure cleans up well. Now entering just it’s second year of production, the New Orleans festival is making a name for itself as a generally slick experience: clear (loud) music that doesn’t badly bleed from one stage to the next, surprisingly clean facilities, and a gentle balance of “only in New Orleans” pluckiness with global appeal. Aesthetics are highly valued and it shows: entering Blain Kern’s Mardi Gras World for a festival is like walking through a float-themed art gallery interspersed with graffiti and neon; think Madame Tussauds meets a rooftop party in the CBD.
Expectations were high for Odd Future MC Earl Sweatshirt, who was one of the first performers to hit the Ballroom stage Friday night. Fellow Buku performer Flying Lotus kicked things off as he hyped up the crowd behind a custom Macbook. What followed was a less than engaging performance, however. Where a homecoming show in LA can earn Earl Sweatshirt high praise for performing new songs from his highly-anticipated upcoming release Doris, the party-happy ravers packing the Ballroom to the gills were less than amused. No amount of swag could save the usually charismatic rapper, who likened the performance to a threesome in which he was the odd man out.
Finding myself with a bit of free time before Brassft Punk, I decided to explore the finer things that the festival had to offer, namely the VIP boat with free booze. Folks fancying themselves as, well, fancy partiers dropped a nice chunk of change to hop aboard the riverboat usually known as the Creole Queen. The VIP experience included DJ sets mid-level, plenty of places to mingle, more bars than you can shake a stick at, and a bit of food that (strangely enough) cost $5 per plate. The bars had enough mixers to potentially justify a meal, though. Those who were hungry and didn’t mind the price were eager to eat and according to security, a majority of those people were artists and media. Thanks to my fellow hedonist compatriots, we were banned from the VIP boat the next day due to over-consumption of both food and booze.
Brassft Punk hit the Riverfront stage between Flux Pavilion and Primus 3D’s sets at the main Power Plant stage. Though barely large enough to constitute being anything more than a kiosk amongst the fest, those who played the Riverfront stage had control of the main stage PA and were able to reach a wider audience. The reimagining of Daft Punk classics from Preservation Hall recording engineer Earl Scioneaux were spot-on. Add to that a costume-friendly second line running on through the photo pit and VIP section and a truly awesome experience had been created. Somewhere out there the iconic duo is smiling fondly at the ingenuity of New Orleans.
Another fully-fleshed experience was set to hit the main stage soon after in the form of Primus 3D. Nestled between blow-up astronauts whose faces contorted to the music stood one of the largest 3D video walls you’ll see anywhere. Quad surround sound blasted Primus’ energetic set into something truly special as the Buku masses either moved and grooved or dropped their jaws in awe. Primus’ set catered to all kinds, seamlessly running the gamut from early classics all the way to the self-referential glory of Green Naugahyde.
Conversely, Best Coast brought the energy level down quite a few levels as their beachy mix of stoner rock washed over fans at the Ballroom. Though Bethany Cosentino and company certainly delivered with a solid performance, they may not have been the best fit for Buku. Heading into that aforementioned Float Den right after, there stood layers of screens and a proclamation that the musical chameleon Flying Lotus had returned. Playing by far one of the strongest sets of the entire festival, FlyLo was an expert curator mixing long-forgotten gems with unexpected samples and selections. A security guard casually remarked that he wasn’t sure if FlyLo would have any songs but that they’d instated a 15 minute photo rule just in case.
Soon it was back to the main stage for potential headliner Kid Cudi. Something nice about Buku is that neither time nor billing seemed to dictate who was the clear frontrunner at the festival. Legends like Primus and Public Enemy played mid-festival sets while ambient DJ sets dominated the waning hours of Friday and Saturday night. Cudi delivered a powerful performance, interspersing freestyles with select cuts from the Man on the Moon saga. The Ohio MC seemed to take a more laid back approach in his delivery and for the inebriated masses, that was as good as bedtime for them.
My evening come down just happened to be one of the three comedy shows gracing the Back Porch stage. Though sparsely attended given its midnight slot, The Real @christrew Show endeared itself to those who stuck around, including the ubiquitous FlyLo. Special guest Hannibal Buress drew from the loud and ridiculous side of Buku, poking fun at everyone from Kid Cudi to the poor inebriated souls who tried to hula hoop and maintain their fast fading composure during the show.
Sunday kicked off whipping and howling as both stormy winds and the just as volatile Action Bronson graced the Power Plant stage. The hefty MC brought deft rhymes and heaping servings of tracks off his much hyped Rare Chandelier mixtape. Though the Buku masses were just barely waking and walking to the riverfront, those who made it early were surely glad they did.
Swedish songstresses Icona Pop brought the house down at the Ballroom stage. The duo came on like women possessed as they blew through tracks off their critically acclaimed eponymous debut. When Icona Pop sang “We Got The World” there was not a soul in attendance who didn’t think they’d grabbed it all to themselves. Spellbinding vocals chanted musical incantations atop driving soundscapes.
On the other end of the spectrum stood music legends Public Enemy. It’s hard to believe that the iconic rappers are all in their 50’s given their seemingly endless energy. The S1W was in full force as Chuck D ravenously rapped his way through classics “Don’t Believe the Hype” and “Bring the Noise” along with many more crowd-pleasers. Flava Flav added more than just timekeeping and occasional yelps of “yeah boy!” to the set. The hype-man-turned-reality-star played appreciative artist to Chuck D’s surprisingly playful persona. As Chuck D danced and play fought his way up and down the stage the only thing the MC swapped his mic for was the widest smile seen all Buku. Who says you can’t have fun and still fight the power?
It’s only fitting that the future of rap follow such greats. Where most fans mentally saw each day breaking down to say, Primus vs. Public Enemy, many wondered how Kendrick Lamar would compare to Kid Cudi and vice versa. Dre protege Lamar clearly won out, however. Dressed all in white, the deft rapper had festgoers in the palm of his hands from the start. Chants of “pussy and patron make you feel alright” surprisingly rivaled the overkill of sound blaring from the Power Plant stage, (which many residents complained about) mixing right in with Lamar’s own vocals.
Technical difficulties stalled Alt-J, who were set to go on just 15 minutes after Kendrick Lamar in the Ballroom. One poor audio engineer raced from instrument to instrument as the band pointed up and down to the changing levels. An eager audience sat for well over half an hour with the promise of Preservation Hall Jazz Band joining the indie rock quartet as motivation to stay put. Though many fans were soured on the Leeds indie rockers due to tardiness alone, Alt-J generally overcame the technical difficulties for a solid performance. The added bonus of Pres. Hall took Alt-J to a whole other level and made for quite an introduction to a city they’d never played in before.
Big Freedia closed things out for me. Though minor sound issues prevented ass from truly being everywhere, the queen diva brought the bounce to Buku. From there on out, Buku took it slow. As DJs spun to their hearts’ content on the VIP boat and fans either headed home or out to the Republic for an energy boost care of Diplo, the two day marathon of a festival had finally come to a close.