Forgive me for romanticizing, but no other city in the country has the character New Orleans has. To anyone unfamiliar with the city, it exists at the crux of several identities – a historic tourist destination, a hub of creative energy, and a hedonistic party city.
The nightlife, in particular, is both world-class and unpretentious. Rather than gaudy frills and flair, there is simplicity, openness, and (sometimes brutal) honesty. Anyone with the slightest modicum of likability will have no problem making new friends. Conversely, anyone with the slightest modicum of entitlement or prejudice will draw the ire of everyone at the venue.
Year after year, Voodoo Fest remains one of New Orleans’s biggest attractions.
It also coincides with Halloween weekend. But there’s much more to it than a music festival weekend. In a city full of creative souls, the costuming is some of the best in the country. The after-hours parties often run all night (and beyond). And despite the influx of out-of-towners, the atmosphere manages to remain open and friendly. Almost as if New Orleans somehow brings out the affable, easygoing partier in all of us.
There was no end to the list of after-hour parties happening each night. Revelers across the city packed almost every bar and music venue. So in a bout of manic ambition, I took it upon myself to assume the role of “underground afterparty expert.” Here’s how it went down.
Why the underground?
I’ll fully own up to my bias – I have an attachment to the underground. When I first moved to New Orleans, I came across this scene while digging through local Facebook events for something, anything, that had the music I craved.
Granted, it’s a small scene. New Orleans rarely attracts the kind of heavy-hitters that a city like LA or New York would. But if it lacks major headliners, it more than makes up for it in the talent level of its local DJs.
The discrepancy between talent level and local press coverage is glaringly obvious.
Part of it stems from a pervasive attitude of condescension towards any form of electronic music. In a city where jazz and blues reign supreme, the words “house music” and “techno” carry a deep stigma. It often evokes images of drugged-out teens dancing mindlessly to abrasive, repetitive music.
The city, and the region is also reeling from the hangover from the State Palace era, spearheaded by the larger-than-life Disco Donnie. For a period of time between the late 90s and early 2000s, New Orleans was the definitive rave capital of the South. The federal government even took notice, and enacted the RAVE Act in a misguided knee-jerk attempt to “protect the kids.”
After the devastation of Katrina and the blatant overreach of the RAVE Act, the scene had to start over from scratch.
Without a voice for the New Orleans underground, there’s little to no perception of legitimacy for a scene that is so open, accepting, and communal.
Locals are quick to dismiss it. Out-of-towners must trawl through Resident Advisor or hear about events through word of mouth.
Someone had to give it a voice.
I couldn’t pull off this feat alone, so I sought out the help of my friend Gabe Peixoto, an aspiring nightlife photographer. I wasn’t worth a damn at photography so I needed all the help I could get. Our arrangement was simple – he’d do the camera work while I’d do the writing.
With clarity of purpose, we had our carte blanche to party until dawn each night and call it “journalism.”
Gavin Rayna Russom & Trax Only
The first destination led us to Poor Boys Bar, one of my favorite places to drink in New Orleans. For reference, a High Life goes for $2.50, a godsend for a broke writer such as myself. New Orleans-based collective Trax Only hosted this afterparty, with LCD Soundsystem’s Gavin Rayna Russom headlining.
As the night progressed and the dance floor warmed up, partygoers packed the venue. Bouffant Bouffant, Father Figure, and Kathi took turns on the decks, each contributing their unique music tastes in an opening set that was harmonious rather than disjointed.
Gavin Rayna Russom took over the DJ booth, and the entire venue completely filled to capacity. The DJ spanned house, techno, acid, and even some left-field 80s throwbacks. In addition, the light fixtures and the visuals complemented the music perfectly. Trax Only has a proven record for throwing some of the best afterparties in New Orleans, and this night only reinforced that notion.
As the night progressed, everyone began to pair up and the claustrophobia from the packed space started to kick in. It was time to go.
My next destination took me to Spektrum, a weekly house music series located in the Warehouse District of the city. The weekly party is easily one of the best-kept secrets of New Orleans nightlife, and showcases some spectacular local DJ talent. Although smaller than most other club venues, the intimate setting gives it a more communal atmosphere than any other dance floor in the city.
Javier Drada, a Miami native and longtime New Orleans mainstay with nearly 3 decades of DJ experience, put meticulous care into perfecting the space. It paid off; the sound was powerful but not overwhelming, the dance floor had a perfect mixture of intimacy and openness, and the crowd of regulars made every Friday and Saturday (the night for Spektrum’s techno counterpart) seem like a family reunion.
Despite the large number of out-of-town revelers, the same communal atmosphere remained. As the guest DJ Bryan Normand played, I found plenty of room to dance without bumping into anyone.
Around 4:30am, I decided to forego the inclination to party until the morning and left early. One of the biggest lessons about New Orleans nightlife, especially on a major weekend, is to pick and choose your battles.
After all, I had two more all-nighters to go.
First stop of Saturday night was Kompression, a monthly house and techno series masterminded by Unicorn Fukr (Erik Browne) and Herb Christopher (Chris Gomez). Going on 7 years and counting, Kompression claims the title of “longest-running and currently active dance music series” in New Orleans.
Kompression is a rave for grown-ups. Its masterminds emphasize excellent DJing as well as excellent sound. As a result, it brings out the true enthusiasts from all age groups out of the woodwork every month.
The night’s headlining acts were Pezzner and Kevin Knapp. Although they didn’t have immediate name recognition from dance music enthusiasts in the city, Kompression regulars placed full trust in Unicorn Fukr and Herb Christopher’s curation. The headliners were excellent DJs in their own right, and each had their own catalog of productions that mirrored their dedication to proper dance music.
Each headliner played an extended 3-hour set, with Pezzner first up. Donning a suit, the DJ looked and sounded like a consummate professional. His demeanor was calm and subdued, but the crowd responded enthusiastically to the mixture of house and tech house he played.
Outside the venue, an impromptu dance party raged on, reflecting the spontaneity and camaraderie that embodies New Orleans.
Time seemed to accelerate on Saturday night. Before I could settle in, Pezzner was halfway through his set, and I received a text from a friend at another afterparty nearby. Octo Octa was playing a warehouse rave, and it was time to go.
Octo Octa & Trax Only
Soon after, we approached the unmarked warehouse, not knowing what to expect. The only telltale sign of a party was the mass of cars parked outside. As we walked past the smokers lingering outside and entered the building, the familiar sights and sounds of a rave emerged. Costumed partygoers. Pounding, acidic techno music. An atmosphere of unfettered free expression.
Most of our group passed through check-in, but a door person saw Gabe’s camera and stopped him. Earlier in the night, I advised him to say, “I’m with media” if he encountered any suspicious looks or restrictions.
For this warehouse party, I was wrong to think that way.
A few minutes after I entered the main room, Gabe walked in with a serious expression on his face. He explained that the door person questioned him thoroughly, asking him why he brought a camera and what his intentions were.
It was then that the realization washed over me.
This wasn’t just a club or a party space. The warehouse was sacred, a place of free, unhindered expression. Taking pictures within its walls was almost inappropriately voyeuristic. Out of respect for the party’s ethos, we agreed not to photograph faces without explicit consent from the subjects. Instead, we’d focus on the DJs and the atmosphere rather than the partygoers.
Up until this point, I’d never been to a party that hearkened back to the golden age of illegal warehouse raves. Rather than attempt to be hyper-aware of my surroundings, I allowed myself get lost in the experience. There was no attempt to ID tracks or carry on conversation. There was only dance, blissful release, and a sense of wonder.
By 5am, the crowd thinned out and Bouffant Bouffant took over the decks. What happened next is something I can only describe as a religious experience.
Steadily, the music became more melodic, the mood darkened, and the intensity escalated. The tracks blended together and conveyed a tale of longing, sorrow, perseverance, and hope all at once. At one point, it was too intense for me to handle. I moved to the adjacent room to sit down, and let the music take over. Over an hour passed by as I sat in blissful solitude. Once I’d had enough, I left to catch the remaining hours of Kompression.
I returned to my first destination of the night, but the change in setting was too jarring for me. Making sure to remain inconspicuous, I stayed for half an hour before going back home. I needed time alone to reflect after such a moving experience at the warehouse.
“I hear you’re quite the DJ these days,” I blurted out at Billy Kenny in an attempt to mimic what I thought was British humor. We both stood in line outside the restroom, and the half-assed joke was my first interaction with the night’s headliner.
“Who, me? Never!” he responded without skipping a beat.
My first and only destination for Sunday night was Church*, another series spearheaded by Unicorn Fukr and Herb Christopher. Church* placed more emphasis on bass, bringing artists from a wide range of subgenres ranging from dubstep to drum-and-bass to tech house. Like Kompression, this weekly series is on its 7th consecutive year, a remarkable feat for a city with a complicated relationship with dance music.
After the resident DJ openers, the night took off with Doctor Jeep, who played an eclectic mix of deep dub and drum-and-bass. The highlight of his set was a drum-and-bass remix of “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” showing off a cheeky side to the DJ.
Once Billy Kenny took over, the DJ went into a frenzy of activity behind the decks, traversing the entire map of what house and tech house music had to offer. There were Dirtybird tracks, remixes of popular songs, and the occasional out-of-left-field entry that made revelers dance and scratch their heads at the same time. This was Billy Kenny’s calling card – meticulous unpredictability. At certain points, resident MC Werd2Jah even took over to ad-lib over some tracks. It added another element of unpredictability and spontaneity to a set that was pure fun.
A couple hours into the set, word quickly got around that some “surprise guests” were on the way to the Dragon’s Den to play an impromptu back-to-back. Around 4am, the celebrity guest DJs marched into the venue, took over from Billy Kenny, and began their set.
I’ll spare the pleasantries – they played like shit. If they “killed it” in any way, it was the vibe of the dance floor. There was no chemistry between the two – one of them played some respectably listenable techno, while the other played what I can only describe as “basic EDM.” The latter would even congratulate himself with nods and fist pumps every few minutes.
Within minutes, more than half the dance floor cleared out.
Any managers or agents should take note – it’s a bad look to walk into an underground event without regard for its vibe or target audience.
We left, frustrated with this encroachment and lack of regard for continuity. Through no fault of the party’s organizers, the “surprise guests” commandeered the event. Thankfully, this was a minor blip in an otherwise perfect weekend.
Late afternoon on Monday, I woke up to a call from Unicorn Fukr; Billy Kenny needed a ride to the airport. I was exhausted and sore, but I begrudgingly accepted. As I drove to the hotel to pick him up, I chose a set by DJ T. as my soundtrack for the drive.
Only minutes after we set off, I noticed an especially memorable track during the set. We both exchanged glances – he knew what to do. Without hesitation, he whipped out his phone and Shazam’d the track (for the curious, the it was “Arquipelago” by Gui Boratto). In that brief, almost telepathic exchange, I realized how similar we were in our compulsion to always (and unabashedly) dig for good music.
As we continued our drive to the airport, we talked Kerri Chandler, touring, and how difficult it was to choose the right words for text messages (especially when it came to reassuring friends going through a breakup). If I had any doubts about Billy Kenny, whether it was his passion for dance music or likability as a person, they were gone. This guy was the real deal.
I dropped him off, drove back home, collapsed into bed, and began my post-Voodoo hibernation. Somehow, despite acclimating to nightlife in New Orleans, the weekend drained everything out of me.
Not to worry; I knew I’d be back at it again next weekend.
Feature image courtesy of Gabe H. Peixoto. For a full gallery of the weekend, visit the photographer’s web page HERE.
All opinions are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of River Beats.