Voodoo opened this year's festival with LCD Soundsystem crowding the stage before Kendrick Lamar emptied it.

james murphy lcd soundsystem photo by patrick ainsworth for my spilt milk
James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem at Voodoo 2017, by Patrick Ainsworth

When LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy sang, “I can change, I can change / if it helps you fall in love” Friday night, nothing made you think he would. It’s not that Murphy was a cad, though. On the opening night of Voodoo 2017, it became clear that LCD Soundsystem songs are construction puzzles. How do you fit together drums, keyboards, percussion and vocals to construct hypnotic dance rock grooves? Murphy’s vocals were simply one more part of the puzzle, and whatever semantic meaning the lyrics carried took a backseat to the way they fit into the composition. 

That’s not to say that the lyrics don’t matter. When Nancy Whang sang/spoke “You can’t normalize” in “Get Innocuous,” the flatness of her language and the Debbie Harry-ness of her delivery suggested a pedestrian dysfunction, a tone in sync with the hypnotic half-life under the disco ball that hung over Voodoo’s Altar Stage. Similarly, Murphy sings about being too old in “You Wanted a Hit,” and the details of the song mean less than the air of melancholy that makes sense with the piano melody that starts the song.

Melancholy was an easy sell for the unshaven Murphy, whose eyes were sadly shaded by the lights overhead and his furrowed brow. He has never fit the rock star mode, and in a shapeless white T-shirt and salt and pepper scruff, he looked more ready to mow the lawn and work in the shed than front a band. Still, he made sense in front of LCD, which isn’t a conventional band either. The show’s about its collective identity as a dance groove machine, and it’s masterful at that in concert. Many dance bands require the precision of the studio to micro-align parts for perfect syncopation, but LCD can do it live and the songs are better for it. On 2005’s LCD Soundsystem, “Movement” feels hopelessly mannered with Pat Mahoney’s hurried snare strikes pushing the beat at a quick, stiff pace. Friday night, Mahoney was no less relentless, but Al Doyle’s guitar feedback became a physical, almost destructive force, particularly when smoke started rising over the stage as if something was melting down. 

The band’s aesthetics are similar to those of the DJs on Voodoo’s Le Plus stage as songs flow out of each other in ways that seem both natural and startling. “Movement” gave way to “Someone Great,” and it made perfect sense, even though it only shared an insistent throbbing with the five minutes before it. 

Still, even that song carried little emotional weight despite loss being its theme. It was telling that they covered Chic’s “I Want Your Love.” Part of Chic’s affect was that singers Norma Jean Wright and Alfa Anderson sang emotional lyrics in a limited—almost numbed—emotional range. In “You Wanted a Hit,” Murphy said that there’s more to the band than music, and the show didn’t back him up. At the same time, it suggested that a show about music was plenty.

lcd soundsystem photo by patrick ainsworth LCD Soundsystem at Voodoo, by Patrick Ainsworth

After an Enter the Dragon-like video introduced Kendrick Lamar’s alter ego Kung Fu Kenny and his development of martial arts skills in pursuit of “The Glow,” an explosion brought Kendrick Lamar to the stage. He came out alone to an empty stage, where he performed “DNA” from DAMN and the rest of the show to pre-recorded backing tracks. Last year, a similar solo performance defeated The Weeknd, who looked lonely and lost on the big stage. Lamar’s songs are larger, and he’s a more dynamic, outgoing performer. He commanded the stage and if anything, the lack of a band helped Lamar get over with the crowd since fans got to hear the songs the way they know them.

Lamar has already proven himself able to reinvent himself in superficial ways while staying true to himself. He has done so from album to album and from tour to tour. His last four appearances in New Orleans were all very different shows from Voodoo, where he was Kendrick Lamar, pop star. He wasn’t talking to predominantly African-American audiences as he did when opening for Kanye West on the Yeezus tour, at two Essence Festival shows, and one at the Civic. He and his Voodoo audience had less in common than he did with his previous shows, and while Lamar has clearly made peace with that reality on the arena tour for DAMN that started at Coachella, a dimension of what made Lamar special in previous shows was missing. Fewer people heard their lives in his songs at Voodoo than at his previous shows, no matter how hard they tried to identify.

“This is a special occasion, do you agree?” he asked the audience. No surprise—the audience agreed. Later, Lamar said, “I think I’ve got some of the most dedicated fans in the building,” then amended that to “most loyal fans.” Again, they agreed, so he started “LOYALTY.” Lamar wasn’t quite the same moral authority that he was at the Civic, nor did he speak to his audience’s lives as he did at Essence. He didn’t deny his life and songs either, though. It gave him his musical life, and after a second Kung Fu Kenny sketch to catch his breath, Lamar returned to the stage with a bracing national indictment of “XXX,” chopping out the syllables with merciless intensity.  

Throughout, Lamar showed what has become his trademarked verbal dexterity, but when he slowed things down almost an hour into the set for “PRIDE,” the long day and lack of compensatory charms onstage started to shake off the less committed. After a little crowd work to decide which part was loudest, Lamar came back with another important word—“love,” he announced—which led to the slow jam “LOVE.” It took flowing from that into “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” to get the crowd to snap back to attention.

Kung Fu Kenny made a final video appearance, where he successfully found “the glow”—literally, a glowing light—between a black woman’s legs. The thread of Christianity that runs through Lamar’s work invites you to view that as the birth of The Light, but the smile on his face when he discovers it says Lamar might interpret the moment less metaphorically.

The set ended with “Alright” with less emphasis on “we hate po-po,” perhaps because the whole show in a sense answered a Fox News critic who in 2015 announced that he didn’t like Lamar. That voice started the show, and by the time Lamar closed with “HUMBLE” and a brief fireworks show, it was clear how little that Fox commentator knew him. As a show, it didn’t have the same electricity as Lamar speaking directly to the people who’d lived his songs, but it was still impressive to see him figure out how to be himself in the spaces his success has taken him.