New Orleans has been unkind to young music festivals. Foburg attracted the wealth of touring artists on their way to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, but the festival fizzled out after a few years. Project 30-90's ambitious concept — an environmentally conscious, carbon-neutral music festival — was short-lived: its only festival was in 2009.
The BUKU Music + Art Project, an ambitious festival attracting top names in indie rock, electronic music and hip-hop, enters its third year with more stages and more bands on the bill. This year, BUKU hosts rap's freshman all-stars Tyler, The Creator and Chance The Rapper as well as rap royal Nas. Oklahoma's favorite sons The Flaming Lips lead the pack for BUKU's indie rock roster, which also includes Explosions in the Sky and rookie darlings The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Wavves and Sleigh Bells.
But BUKU's bread and butter are some of the biggest names in electronic music — including French producer David Guetta, elfin English artist Ellie Goulding and fellow chart-toppers Kaskade and Zedd. (In its inaugural year, BUKU featured Avicii, Diplo, and dubstep's golden child Skrillex.)
The festival — and its focus on electronic music — is the brainchild of Winter Circle Productions, the New Orleans-based concert promotion team that quietly outgrew its monthly underground electronic events at Dragon's Den and now manages blowout concerts at venues throughout the city. Formed in 2009 by Dante DiPasquale and Reeves Price, Winter Circle set out to book bands and artists the two Tulane University students couldn't see anywhere else in New Orleans.
"We didn't even know what the hell a production company was or what it did," DiPasquale says. "We were just flying by the seat of our pants."
Gravity A, the elder statesman of New Orleans' electronica scene, was booked for one of the first ever Winter Circle shows — at Blue Nile "where there were very few people," says Gravity drummer and founder Michael Fouquier. Gravity A returns to BUKU for its third year at 2:30 p.m. Friday on the Power Plant stage. "To have been there with them then and to have done countless shows with them in their history," he says, "and see them go from that show ... to all three years of BUKU, I'm proud to have been there from the ground floor up."
Gravity A's latest album, 2013's New Beginnings, has the kind of gushy synths, snap-pop 808 drum machines and slinky bass lines familiar to house and drum-and-bass dance floors, all laced with winding, mind-bending funk and live drums. Fouquier, who started playing drums at 10 years old, started the band in 2003 after sneaking into California's High Sierra Music Festival and catching the live electronica of Sound Tribe Sector 9.
"We found a VW Bug parked right up at the gates of the festival, hopped on top, hopped the fence and had a little bit of a wild night," he says. "I'd never seen any band play electronica live at that point, nor thought that was something that could happen."
Fouquier attended Disco Donnie's infamous raves and electronic shows at the State Palace Theatre, which hosted the glitter-covered all-night parties that barely glimpsed the future of electronic dance music, or EDM, that now dominates pop music's production teams. "There's a scene for electronic music everywhere now," Fouquier says. "There's always been an EDM scene in New Orleans, especially because it was ground zero with the State Palace."
Winter Circle also produces the monthly bass dance party, BASSIK, which has a strong focus on dubstep, which exploded from its birth in underground clubs into college parties and small towns. "Even Hattiesburg, Miss. has a huge dubstep night," Fouquier says. "It's everywhere now. It's hard to get away from it."
BUKU is co-produced by Huka Entertainment. Two of the four stages at BUKU (five if you count the S.S. Blu-Ku, a riverboat parked on the river for VIPs) are nearly exclusively for EDM artists — the "back alley" stage is new for 2014.
More new additions to the "project" part of Buku include Big Freedia's "twerk lesson" and there's an interactive fashion show (BUKatwalk), both on Friday. On Saturday, there's a Top Chef-inspired cooking competition called The BUKook-off. (Regular food vendors include Beaucoup Juice, Bratz, Y'all, City Greens, Woody's Fish Tacos and others.)
Also new for 2014 is BUKU Late, late-night club gigs beginning 11 p.m. Saturday featuring "Harlem Shake" creator Baauer at Republic and Toronto duo Zeds Dead at The Howlin' Wolf
"The festival circuit is kind of out of control, popping up left and right all over the country," DiPasquale says. "I think the key is focusing more on the festival identity, creating an experience that's unique for the fans. We strive to have a purpose besides throwing a big party for a couple of days."