Additional words by John Flynn.
The smell of lobster po’ boys and boiled crawfish is thick in the air, as crowds of festivalgoers make their way down Magazine Avenue towards the entrance to New Orleans’ Mardis Gras World. The venue is a one-of-a-kind urban promised land, whose grounds are home to the Big Easy’s iconic Mardis Gras Day parade floats and an abandoned early 20th Century power plant that has become the official backdrop of Winter Circle Production’s BUKU Music + Arts Project.
BUKU’s position at Mardi Gras World is perhaps its biggest prominency. The destination provides the ultimate unique locale for festival organizers to craft a singular experience rooted in the spirited history of one of America’s oldest cities. Located on the banks of the Mississippi, its outdoor stages are set in plain view of a rusted-out power plant. The festival’s newest stage, dubbed The Wharf, is quite the intriguing addition, with wooden shipping crates standing as it’s center piece aesthetic. While BUKU veterans were initially disappointed in the organizer’s elimination of the boat stage, their apprehensions seemed to melt away as they danced their hearts out to the house beats of Green Velvet, Walker & Royce, and Bonobo, among others.
As festivalgoers from many walks of life scurry through the grounds with grins on their faces and all sorts of potions in their hands, one can see the minute mental moments of reflection of their faces, where they pause briefly to take in the Mississippi River air, contemplating the performances the next two days has to offer. The seventh annual edition of BUKU, it seems, thrives off of the palpable hype pulsing through the veins of wide-eyed 20-somethings seeking total sensory assault.
The festival is a match made in heaven for such a demographic, offering up some of the biggest names in EDM and hip-hop — from Bassnectar, Porter Robinson’s new Virtual Self project, and the goddess of Neptune, REZZ, to Migos and Lil Uzi Vert — along with a plethora of other styles for those looking to forsake sonic overload for something a bit more subtle in SZA, Sylvan Esso, and MGMT.
It is this sort of eclectic line-up that the festival prides itself on. One might be dancing to the hypnotic builds of Honey Dijon and, upon a turn to the left, see the Mississippi River as freight boats glide by. Turn to the right, and the gutted power-plant provides an industrial backdrop to Illenium and Gryffin‘s feel-good soundscapes. BUKU’s premier indoor stage, the Float Den, is set inside a 300,000 square foot working warehouse — the very one where the city’s elaborate Mardi Gras floats are created and stored.
Beyond dance music, Friday night brought an abundant array of more popular spectacles. Two stalwarts of contemporary hip-hop/R&B, Migos and SZA, made and appearance, while hitmakers MGMT brought a taste of indie flavor. As the beginning synth from “Time To Pretend” sets in, swells of festival goers could be seen rushing to the stage to catch the band in action. Their booking helped fill a niche for attendees that existed outside of the EDM and hip-hop dominated culture.
While Migos’ performance was cut to a mere 30 minutes due to their tardiness, SZA’s surpassed all expectations. Despite an ankle injury cutting her set ten minutes short, the artist hit her notes in stride. At a time where SZA is quickly becoming one of Generation Z’s largest pop stars, her elegance on stage made for something downright magical. As far as Migos set goes, you’d have to ask one of the thousands of panting kids that exited the stage promptly after, but it goes without saying the Atlanta trio put on a spectacle of a performance.
Friday also marked the debut of Virtual Self’s US festival performance. As the Porter Robinson alter alias descended on the festival, surges of fans flocked into the Float Den to catch the performance. Given his set time and location on the more intimate stage, his set was a huge success. As the melancholy tinged synths from “Ghost Voices” bounced off the warehouse’s walls and the dance floor hit peak movability, it became clear that the alter ego has nearly equated Robinson himself.
What Robinson has crafted in this current reiteration of his live performance is painstakingly artistic and novel. With lights shooting up in parallel lines from the stage’s see-through flooring panels, to the multitude of lasers so perfectly timed to his uncanny drops, Virtual Self’s set stands as a fully immersive visual and auditory spectacle. Even if his IDM, jungle-infused, era-accurate trance, early hardcore, and j-core blended sound doesn’t tickle everyone’s ear drums, one simply could not walk away from the set without an immense respect for what the Robinson is doing — that is, recycling early electronic sounds into a rollercoaster journey of new-wave sounds.
Saturday’s diverse range of sets made for a great follow up, with artists like REZZ, Isaiah Rashad, Sylvan Esso, and Illenium drawing large crowds. Bassnectar also made a welcome appearance, slamming his most sought-after tracks upon his audience — from “Raw Charles” and “Cozza Frenzy” to “Hologram,” and “Lost In The Crowd.” He also paid homage to the city of New Orleans in his deliverance of his bass-bolstered remix of Buku’s “Front to the Back,” while making time to drop in a tune by NOLA-based bass music duo, sfam, so as to promote rising local talent. However, it was REZZ who molded these bass worshipping disciples into pure balls of energy with her hypnotic performance. No longer human, the audience transformed themselves into slow moving entities at the hands of the Niagara Falls native’s industrial-tinged rhythms set to the frequencies of the planet Neptune. Indeed, the slotting of REZZ to close out the festival after Bassnectar was a bold, deliberate, and keenly-astute decision by organizers.
The most notable aspect of BUKU fest was the organizer’s intentional booking of strong female headliners — a highly laudable move that deserves recognition in an age of the #MeToo Movement, where female artists and consumers have begun speaking out against sexual assault at the hands of powerful male industry professionals. With additional lineup support from Alison Wonderland, Bishop Briggs, No Name, and Clozee, it was clear that the Bukweens were out in dominant force. Their presence transformed the festival vibe into a refreshing modality of equality and empowerment, further spotlighting how the music industry masses are waking up to the fact that females are disproportionately represented at the top tiers of dance music.
As BUKU thrives and grows with each passing year, the Winter Circle-produced event has earned a reputation as the South’s premiere outdoor, urban, spring time festival. It’s become clear that these organizers know what they are doing as they expand the venue seamlessly, create insane stage productions, and curate cutting-edge line-ups. If you haven’t experienced the magic of Mardis Gras World already, you’ll want to make sure to include BUKU Music + Arts Project as the kick-off event of your next festival season.
All photos by Vibesmith, unless otherwise noted