The festival sold out far in advance and drew a crowd of mostly twenty-somethings in tanks and shorts, even though until body heat warmed up the rooms, it was pretty chilly both days. Set along the Mississippi River, in the warehouses, ballrooms and parking lots of Mardi Gras World, where many Mardi Gras floats are stored, the industrial setting stood out compared to the usual grassy fields of most festivals. The vibe fit the bill though: Kendrick Lamar, EDM superstar Calvin Harris and the return of hip-hop oddball Kid Cudi all headlined. Other notable acts included Public Enemy, up-and-coming Atlanta rapper Trinidad James and Primus.
In just its second year, Buku's youth was pretty apparent. Schedules and maps were hard to find, and the few available printed festival guides included some inaccurate set times and map features. In addition to artists spray painting graffiti to auction off for charity, the list of non-musical attractions included a skate ramp and something called "Fort Buku," neither of which I could find.
The hip-hop and EDM dominant lineup also left the handful of bands that didn't fit either of those descriptions, like Primus and Best Coast for example, scattered throughout the festival's three main stages and without the excited crowds they deserved. The wide-ranging stage lineups had their benefits though, especially the fact that for some of the smaller acts, you could show up 10 minutes before start time and get to the very front of the crowd.
My Friday started with 19-year-old Odd Future wunderkind Earl Sweatshirt, performing one of his first solo sets since his return from boarding school in Samoa about a year ago. Despite a big crowd, Earl seemed dissatisfied with his performance. "I feel like the odd man out," he said in the middle of his set of mostly new songs. Even with special guest Flying Lotus, the show lacked the energy of an Odd Future performance that the dance hungry probably hoped for.
Japandroids and Best Coast both put on solid shows despite relatively small crowds. Japandroids played a 45-minute-set that burst at the seams with fury and energy. The big festival stage gave front man Brian King a chance to run and jump around even more than usual. Best Coast played all their biggest songs -- "Boyfriend," "When I'm With You," and so on -- but fell victim to a crowd that shrunk with each song as fans headed to the main stage for Kid Cudi.
A clear separation took hold between the fans of each genre. I consistently could pick out a few of the same people in the crowd at each genre's shows, despite the hundreds or even thousands at the stage. Someone with a horse mask on a stick held up from amidst the crowd, (perhaps so his friends could find him) showed at most of the big EDM shows, and a pair of girls repeated threw their own dance party in the back of the crowd during the hip-hop acts. And then of course, there were the people in the regular festival garb -- patterned shirts and face paint, for example -- who seemed to be everywhere.
On the main stage, Kid Cudi put on one of the best shows of the weekend. A few people I talked to referred to him as a 50-50 performer, suggesting that half his shows are disasters and the other half are spectacular. Buku got the latter. Kid Cudi seemed happy and energetic, and even his newer material from his to-be-released album "Indicud" got a great crowd reaction. He smartly mixed his hits in throughout the set, with "Soundtrack 2 My Life" early in the set, "Memories" and "Day 'n' Nite" near the middle, and "Persuit of Happiness" as the finale. I didn't know what to expect, since Kid Cudi hasn't performed much recently, but as the set came to a close, he proved he's back and on top of his game.
Saturday's lineup, generally considered the stronger of the two days, featured Kendrick Lamar, Passion Pit, Calvin Harris and about a dozen more acts I wanted to see.
Rapper Action Bronson opened up the main stage and spent more than half of his set in the crowd. The bearded rapper, who weighs in at 315 pounds, climbed over the front railing and paraded through the audience, rapping, taking photos with fans and grabbing a beer as he went. It was a great way to start off the day.
My biggest surprise of the weekend came from Icona Pop, a Swedish synthpop duo best known for their song "I Love It." With two synths facing each other at center stage, the pair performed wearing matching black dresses, dancing and jumping on speakers between taking turns singing and making beats.
Hip-hop golden boy Kendrick Lamar, who easily could have headlined the festival, also exceeded my expectations. Wearing all white, he had a captivating presence and his recreation of his debut album "Good Kid, Maad City," called one of the best of 2012, was phenomenal. Throughout the set, he told his DJ to stop the music, and took off with a-cappella freestyles. Kendrick called out a fan in the front row from a past show and thanked her for knowing the words to all his songs, but from what I could tell, it seemed like almost the entire crowd knew all the words.
Passion Pit, who had the tough task of following Kendrick, kept the energy alive. It amazed me how despite the layers of alterations and high production on their songs, especially older ones like "Sleepyhead" and "Little Secrets," the band's live set sounds just as good. Michael Angelakos is a great performer, and with the help of weighty beats and heavy synths, I'd argue that Passion Pit puts on one of the best shows in indie rock today.
Headliner Calvin Harris didn't blow me away, although I did like the fact that his set consisted mostly of his own music, like "We Found Love" and "Feel So Close," instead of relying on others' as many of todays top EDM acts do. His stage set up, a LED-covered booth in front of another screen of lights, wasn't as specular as, for example, the Transformer-esque set up Skrillex uses at festivals or Deadmau5's LED light cube.
Both nights, after the headliners, three of the stages continued with DJs and electronic acts. On Friday, I chose to skip the continuation of the party in favor of getting some sleep, but I stuck around on Saturday for a bit. Definitely a good choice.
Major Lazer, whose set finished at 1:30 a.m., put on a phenomenal show. Diplo threw Vuvuzelas and fake money into the crowd, as three dancers jumped around stage with the sole purpose of keeping the show exciting. The set included lots of classic hip-hop songs, as well as some original Major Lazer music and the making of a Harlem Shake video, which should be online soon. I planned on staying past Major Lazer even, but by the time their set came to a close, I seriously didn't think I had the energy to keep going. I left wanting more though -- just how you always want to feel after a festival.
With hip-hop and EDM leading the way, Buku succeeded at what it set out to do. The music was loud, the bass was thumping and the 10,000 fans in attendance got the party they were hoping for, deep into the morning.
All photos by Brian Benton.