I arrived in New Orleans with lofty expectations for BUKU Music + Art Project. 2018 marked my fourth consecutive year at BUKU, making it my longest-running current festival streak after missing Electric Forest and Movement the year prior. As you attend a festival year after year, you expect it to evolve, and BUKU certainly did that this year. Making massive changes while still keeping the beautiful vibes alive, BUKU made 2018 its biggest and best year yet.
BUKU Project is consistently innovating the festival game, topping itself every year. This year, amongst big venue changes that worked out beautifully, BUKU Project also quietly became one of the most gender inclusive festivals around with nearly a quarter of the acts on the lineup represented by females. While that may not seem like a lot, in a festival landscape where some festivals struggle to put more than one woman on the bill (cough, Lost Lands) having that kind of representation is a step in the right direction.
However, it’s not enough to hail female performers simply for showing up. BUKU Project deserves credit for booking such a great slew of female talent. But the true glory goes to the female artists themselves for putting on standout performances all weekend long, proving that women are thriving and not merely surviving in the festival game. From CloZee’s opening set to REZZ’s otherworldly closing set, girls ran the world in the Float Den, and artists like SZA, Honey Dijon, and Sylvan Esso proved that women could pack in whatever stage they performed on.
BUKU’s significant venue changes were met with skepticism entering the weekend. Gone was the beloved S.S. BUKU, the riverboat that once hosted debaucherous VIP-only performances from future stars like Mija, Louis The Child, and Illenium. In its place, the barren riverfront had a brand new stage, The Wharf, which hosted the best in house and techno throughout the weekend. The Back Alley, formerly my beautiful escape from the chaos of the bass-filled Float Den, was the new home for the VIP elite, relegating their all-you-can-drink parties to the far corner of BUKU land.
However, despite all of the heated debates on Facebook and the “RIP Back Alley” messages I sent to my friends, BUKU’s venue changes proved to be a fantastic decision. The Wharf created ample space to dance, and the stage itself was an homage to previous renditions of the Back Alley, making it feel like I was still there, but with the added bonus of having room to breath. Moving the Power Plant stage to the other side of the tracks was also a great move for space, although active trains did occasionally derail our stage-hopping plans.
Day one of BUKU Project started off beautifully, with brunch, sunshine, and a questionable amount of pregaming in the parking lot. Once inside the festival, CloZee opened up the Float Den in magnificent fashion, drawing a early-afternoon crowd that rivaled REZZ’s opening set last year. After escaping the Float Den and navigating the new layout, I made it to Bishop Briggs, and was rewarded with one of the best performances of the weekend. As a solo live artist playing on the main stage, there’s a lot of space to occupy, and she commanded attention from every corner of the crowd. Her talent and stage presence is undeniable.
BUKU’s Friday lineup was stacked from start to finish with one of the most diverse rosters of artists I actually care about commanding my attention on every stage. MGMT and SZA owned the main stage with some of the most unique performances of the weekend. Alison Wonderland and A Day To Remember had everyone headbanging at the same time on two different stages with two completely different sounds. And Virtual Self, the baby Porter in new form, absolutely tore down the Float Den to close out an incredible first night.
However, the true winner of day one was The Wharf. BUKU’s newest stage and biggest source of controversy going into the festival proved to be one of the best decisions they could have made. Walker & Royce, Honey Dijon, Green Velvet, and Bonobo all threw down incredible sets at BUKU’s new home for house and techno, and the extra space made all the difference. While the spring breakers packed in the sweaty Float Den, the BUKU vets (us old people) danced the night away in the cool air alongside the Mississippi. While I did my fair share of raging alongside the babies in the Float Den, The Wharf provided the perfect escape from the chaos, and Bonobo was the most beautiful way to end night one of BUKU.
Normally I’m one to party the night away after BUKU, wake up still drunk from the night before, and enter day two haggard and slightly late to the party. However, I’m old now, and danced too hard on day one, and went home immediately afterwards. This allowed me to show up early enough to catch Elohim, who turned out to be the true star of the weekend in my eyes. Early in the day, before darkness took over and my perception of reality was altered, Elohim captured my heart in The Ballroom. Her adoring fans crowded the stage, and she filled the room with love. Elohim is truly a star in the making, and her magnetic energy captures you whether she’s behind her keyboards or thrashing to the music in front of the crowd.
But not everyone was present for the love and the music . As I watched from the balcony, taking photos and silently weeping to myself, a couple of bros sauntered up to the railing and crudely remind me why festival culture still has a ways to go.
“Bro, she’s so hot.”
“I told you dude, that’s why I wanted to check her out.”
If you’re here to see an artist just because you find her attractive, just stay at home and lurk her Instagram feed. It’s garbage humans like these that give female electronic artists the stereotype of only being popular because of their looks. People don’t go to see Diplo because of his rocking dad bod, or follow Porter around because of his beautiful long locks. Eventually the dudes left, probably to high five each other about butts, and I continued to bask in the glory of Elohim.
As the day progressed, I caught a portion of an overly aggressive set from Hippie Sabotage, and left to check out my beloved Back Alley for a bunch of free drinks, and an incredible set from Ducky. Tucked into the back corner of the festival, Ducky blew away the VIP crowd with a diverse set that ranged from dubstep to techno to happy hardcore, and everything in between. The crowd, high off her energy and unlimited alcohol, raged beside the river with a fervor topped only by Ducky herself, who danced with reckless abandon behind the decks.
BUKU Project has always been able to expertly overcome setbacks, and this year was no different. With no weather issues on the horizon, it seemed like BUKU was set to go off without a hitch until Lil Uzi Vert cancelled unexpectedly Saturday night, breaking the hearts of people I probably didn’t want to hang out with anyways. BUKU immediately put up a message on social media and the main stage screens calling out Lil Uzi Vert for cancelling for no reason, and promising to donate his booking fees to Upbeat Academy. They also replaced his main stage set with a beautifully executed set from Gryffin, who fit the space between Illenium and Bassnectar perfectly. While I understand the disappointment for people who were there to see Lil Uzi, BUKU dealt with the problem flawlessly, and inadvertently fixed the scheduling conflicts I was drunkenly tying to navigate in the process.
Between all the stage-hopping, whiskey and wine chugging, and endless dancing, one thing remained constant at BUKU, and that was the incredible humans that populate the festival. BUKU is a meeting ground for beautiful souls, and every year my group of friends at the festival expands. There hasn’t been a year of BUKU where I didn’t make new friends, fall in love, and leave with a full heart.
As the night came to a close, I’d like to say that I quietly reflected on another beautiful weekend at Mardi Gras World, but that wouldn’t be true at all. I gathered my friends, and we raged the last hour away to REZZ, who absolutely obliterated the Float Den, where she opened a year before. Whether you’re a casual fan or one of her thousands of obsessed cult members, you can’t deny the talent and work this alien creature puts into her production. The music was ear crushing, the visuals were mind blowing, and as we dragged our sweaty bodies to the car for more wine and an after party rendezvous at The Saint, I didn’t feel sad that it was over, I was just glad that it had ever happened.
Photo Credit: Elohim, Bishop Briggs, Ducky by Jared Winkel. All others by Alive Coverage via BUKU.