Last weekend's festival at Mardi Gras World had dance music at its core, but the sonic textures and lights were a big part of the event.

Pusha T photo by Patrick Ainsworth
Pusha T at Buku, by Patrick Ainsworth

My Buku 2014 started well with the house-meets-Mike Post-TV-theme-songs of Classixx, and some chill happy hour time at the Back Alley Stage, where Kid Kamillion performed with the Crescent City Connection looming overhead. It’s hard to imagine a nicer night for a festival - comfortably cool and clear, particularly by the river at Mardi Gras World. Here are Friday’s highlights:

Nas

Nothing wins over a young audience like songs that make being young sound dramatic. Nas' Illmatic achieved that by assigning life or death stakes to his teenaged existence, but scaled down to an identifiable level. Seeing Nas onstage able to talk 20 years later about how the story ended (he lived) took some of the urgency out of the material, but the set stood strong on Nas' songcraft and old school flow. The dangerous-by-proximity feeling the audience that came to the album since and rapped along - complete with rap hands - helped.

Nas by Patrick AinsworthNas at Buku, by Patrick Ainsworth

Sleigh Bells

Sleigh Bells’ blend of heavy metal guitar, EDM rhythm tracks, and sugary pop was at its most compelling in Buku’s Float Den, where it could be outrageously physical. The two guitars crunched, each driven through four Marshall cabinets, and the bass thumped listeners’ chest while the percussive ticking was closer to machine gun fire. Alexis Krauss was part rock goddess and part cheerleader, singing and sometimes rapping without no pretensions of authenticity. 

As assaulting as that might sound, Sleigh Bells was good fun. They weren’t testing their audience or seeing what they could get away with. They simply make a very specific, physical kind of dance music that’s best when it defines the atmosphere of the room. With each successive album, I get less interested in their recorded work, but this was my third time seeing them and I’m more into their show each time.

Sleigh Bells photo by Patrick AinsworthAlexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells, by Patrick Ainsworth

Other Notes

- The high energy charge of Wavves effectively marked them as punk rock, but anyone can play hard. I heard punk in singer Nathan Williams’ snotty whine, and I’d have connected with the band more strongly if he tried harder to fight the power than piss off mom and dad.

- A lot of rappers help themselves by bringing live bands on tour. For a while, live DJs behind rappers sounded lousy live, and bands made shows more physical. But this weekend, i was glad Nas, Pusha T and to a lesser extent Schoolboy Q played with DJs (Schoolboy’s worked a laptop). DJs are central to the development of hip-hop as well as the sound of the songs, and I want to hear them when I can. Chance the Rapper - who I missed - was the act that everybody talked about on Twitter that night. He brought a band, but that wasn’t why people were buzzing. 

- The juvenilia at Miley Cyrus’ show Tuesday was disconcerting, but the attendees at Buku wearing stuffed animal backpacks, fairy wings and the like served as reminders that the operative reference for Cyrus’ MTV Video Music Award performance and much of her current tour is EDM culture.

- After the crunch of Sleigh Bells and the wackiness Tuesday of Cyrus, Ellie Goulding seemed too weak and proper to hold my attention. I don’t think fans are crazy for liking her music, but Friday night she seemed very conventional.

Ellie Goulding photoEllie Goulding, by Patrick Ainsworth

Kaskade photoKaskade, by Patrick Ainsworth

Saturday’s Highlights

Friday drew a good crowd; Saturday packed significantly more people into Mardi Gras World. By Phantogram’s early evening set, the Ballroom was packed and would stay that way for most of the rest of the night.

Chromeo

It’s hard to imagine a better circumstance for the Montreal-based duo. A dance-oriented crowd had people ready to respond, but it Buku’s not so EDM-centric that there would be people too snobby for their brand of early ‘80s electro-funk. The good-natured burble of retro synths and robo-burble of a Vocoder caused people to fan out on the perimeter of the crowd. A team of breakdancers brought their cardboard out to show off their old school moves as well. 

Most of the show came from the band’s first two albums, but the visited the upcoming White Women with three songs including “Come Alive,” which sounded great, and “Jealous (I’m Not With It),” which also blew up the dance floor.

The Flaming Lips

During The Flaming Lips’ show, a friend tweeted, “Sadly, very underwhelmed,” and I understand where he’s coming from. Much of the set barely had a pulse and even when they played favorites, they did so in ways that muted the fun. Until the end, “Race for the Prize” was performed too slowly to deliver its uplifting sweep, and the concluding “Do You Realize?” - while still emotional - had a similarly challenging arrangement.

But Wayne Coyne has become one of America’s favorite freaks, so the people around me were rapt anyway. “I love you Wayne; it’s me, Annie,” a woman near me shouted a mere 50 or so yards from the stage. And while the show wasn’t candy-colored celebration with confetti cannons, it was still remarkable as Coyne stood on a podium behind a giant knot of lighted tubes with strings of light hanging above him. The show worked with icier tones, strobes, and punctuating blasts of smoke, and the combination with the mechanically, abrasively textured sound of many of the songs could be overwhelming at times. The crowd loved the band’s glacially paced cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” but for me, the more powerful cover came just before it with an almost unrecognizable and thrilling version of Devo’s “Gates of Steel,” with a busy Stephen Drozd rhythm guitar scrubbing frantically against crashing chords and a slowed down melody.

The Flaming Lips - "Gates Of Steel" (Devo cover) from stereogum on Vimeo.

Other Notes

- Much of Saturday was about sonic textures. That was certainly the case for The Flaming Lips, but it also was for Phantogram, who made me believe dream pop could be good live, perhaps because the dream verged on a nightmare. Explosions in the Sky explored what an electric guitar on the edge of feeding back can do. Of course, the EDM DJs were all about texture, and to some extent Chromeo and its love of retro synths are as well. In fact, indie rock bands Generationals and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart sounded great but a little monochromatic by comparison.

I also covered Buku for The New Orleans Advocate.. That story includes news on Schoolboy Q, noise control efforts, and Buku's beefed-up security.