Governors Ball is the music festival for people who don’t like music festivals. The financial investment and amount of involved in attending (and actually enjoying) one of the big three summer music fests (Bonaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza) or one of their lesser competitors (Washington state’s Sasquatch!, Gulf Shores’ Hangout Fest) is significant. Luckily, events like those create a demand for a mid-size festivals that can still boast a stacked line-up while providing an alternative experience for concert-goers who don’t want to camp for three days with 150,000 people.
New York City’s Governors Ball falls perfectly into the latter category. After only two years, the festival organizers seem to be embracing the fact that Gov Ball could eventually become the Big Apple’s signature summer indie music event by expanding the programming to include an entire weekend and solving many of the travel issues that plagued the inaugural run in 2011 by not placing the event on its namesake island (where you can only arrive, and depart, via ferry leading to transit lines nearly a quarter of a mile long). We at Prefix wanted to take a closer look at this young festival to see how it stacks up against the bigger events in the summer concert season. Here is our report card of the proceedings.
Bands – A-
The music line-up was curated with quality over quantity in mind, and vaguely divided up between the dancier, electronic acts (Duck Sauce, Major Lazer, Passion Pit) on Saturday, and the more straightforward indie rock (Cults, Modest Mouse, Fiona Apple, Beck) of Sunday which brought an interesting dynamic to each day’s crowd. Basically, Saturday was more neon clothing and Molly, while Sunday was more pot and arms-folded-no-dancing-indie-rock-concert-stance.
Santigold’s early afternoon performance featured twin, beret-wearing dancers in sunglasses, looking like militant members of the Girl Scouts, who slinked on stage while the opening strains to “L.E.S. Artistes” began to trickle out of the speakers, but you could already tell the levels weren’t high enough on the monitors to be a really immersive experience. Santi came on stage and cruised through the soaring chorus of “Artistes” while stiffly dancing with her Black Panther Girl Scouts, but the set seemed to be plagued by the mid-day festival malaise. Santi hit other high notes with “Lights Out,” “Creator,” which came closest to inducing a dance party, “Disparate Youth,” and quick run through of her vocal part in Major Lazer’s reggae/dub firestorm “Hold The Line,” which got everyone dancing again, but in general the performance seemed like a warm up.
Major Lazer’s set at 4:30pm ended up taking the dazed afternoon crowd to another level. Rapid fire dancehall drums came suddenly shooting out of the speakers as two hype men walked out stage followed by two mohawked female dancers and immediately worked the crowd into a frenzy.
Diplo finally made it out on stage in a dapper white shirt and vest but his partners in crime for Major Lazer, British producer Switch, and the daggering monster hype man Skerrit Bwoy, were both absent. Soon, however, the show was a sunbaked blur of crazy Carribean beats and loopy samples that were aggressively forcing everyone to dance uncontrollably. Diplo flew through the gorgeous “Keep it Going Louder,” the day’s second rendition of “Hold The Line” (which Santi didn’t come out for) and “Pon De Floor,” for which an unsuspecting 20-something male audience member was pulled on stage to get violently lap danced (I guess?) by the two mohakwed hype-women. After about eight bottles of water were dumped in this guys face while the two women whipped their wet mohawks all over his body, one of the other hype men yelled “HE JUST GOT WATER BOARDED!”
As the end of the set approached, which was aided at one point by the inclusion of what had to be the massive bass drop from Skrillex’s remix of Benny Benassi’s “Cinema,” eventually 90 percent of the crowd had their shirts off, including Diplo, and were waving them over their heads. A very trancey rendition of ML’s latest single “Get Free” feat. Amber Coffman closed and it seemed like everyone suddenly realized that Diplo and co. just took the first day of Gov Ball by the jugular.
For Rhymesayers stalwarts Atmosphere set at the Honda Stage, I found myself in the middle of the pit watching mc Slug nail everyone one of his densely verbose rhymes and feeling the puffs of air density from the live band’s bass hits. A hip-hop set in sunlight during a festival day that’s comprised mostly of more dance-oriented acts isn’t an easy task, but the crowd intensely responding to Atmosphere’s enthusiastic stage presence and technical prowess. “Sunshine” and “God Loves Ugly” hit the hardest, with Slug announcing during the latter for “All the beautiful people to be quiet!”
Chromeo came out back on the Hype Machine stage flanked by similarly coiffed backup dancers/singers that apparently wandered off the 1986 set for Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.” Their tight brand of neo-disco bounced and got pockets of the audience dancing, but in comparison to Major Lazer’s set from an hour and a half earlier, it seemed down right precious. Chromeo benefitted from the magic hour time slot, with the sun going down right behind the stage, but I felt like the entire performance was more pretty than visceral. As my Belgian friend explained, “They were good but did not put the crowd on fire.”
I was reticent to let my expectations get to high for the Passion Pit simply because I’ve heard so many mixed reviews of their live show. Lead singer Michael Angelakos has even admitted his vocals sound very different live because they are multi-tracked with something like forty vocal parts on record, and that clean, limber falsetto is much more human without the studio support. Regardless, Passion Pit came out as the penultimate act on the first day just as night fell, and boasted a huge quilt of background LED lights that was easily the most complicated lighting rig of the festival.
The opening strains of “Moth’s Wings” started the set and the crowd immediately responded. Angelakos’ voice sounded predictably human but not limp, and earnestly hit the high notes well enough that I wasn’t grimacing in awkwardness like I expected. They rattled off most of 2009’s Manners, but “The Reeling” and new single “Take a Walk” brought the house down and the entire audience was doing a lot of jumping up and down while smiling. That many bursts of day-glo synths and big bouncy bass lines are bound to have that effect on an already revved up crowd, and our small group of friends started assimilating into other dance circles in a fairly seamless manner.
The performance came to a solid end with an anthemic rendering of “Sleepyhead” and the band left the stage, but quickly returned for what had to be the only encore of the festival. A quick “Thank you!” and they launched right into the jubilant, synth drenched opening moments of “Little Secrets.” The entire crowd began jumping in unison and my moderate expectations became completely obliterated. Shouting along to the “higher and higher” portion of the chorus while pogoing with a young woman I just met, and glancing around to see all of my friends going equally crazy, forced a cheshire grin across my face that didn’t subside even in light of Kid Cudi’s mediocre performance.
Unfortunately, the less said about the Kid Cudi set, the better. As a closer, it initially seemed to me like an inspired choice, but I realized later that mostly had to do with my love for Crookers remix of “Day n’ Nite” than any one song that’s released over the past three years. The crowd was obviously largest for Cudi’s performance, but almost immediately there were sound issues bubbling up in the way of repeated screeches of feedback and wonky levels. “I’m gonna take you on a tour through the entire Kid Cudi catalog,” he said while casually strutting across the stage, which, believe me, sounded even dumber live than it looks in print considering he has only two albums under his belt. That forced Matt and I to start yelling “DOMINGO!!” because someone has to rep CRISP. AMIRITE, CUDI? He worked through a handful of mid-tempo cuts that sounded like photo-copies of outtakes from 808s and Heartbreaks when performed live (Belgian Thomas said: “If I wanted to be depressed, I’d go back to my apartment”), and his sing-song sort of rap style became unusually grating and out of tune. It was disappointing considering I really enjoy a handful of lushly produced cuts from his debut album, but we all concurred that Passion Pit was the real end to the festivals’ first day and made our way to the buses along with the rest of the sunsoaked zombies recovering from a 10 hour run.
The festival’s second day was, as expected, a completely different crowd. A lot of hoola hoops, frisbees, hackie sacks, and pot made their way around the festival grounds, and this time, I was all by my lonesome exploring the quirks of the indie rock half of Governors Ball. I just managed to discover the Sennheiser Silent Disco (everyone wears nice wireless headphones which a DJ pipes music into and dances around while the outside world looks at a silent dance party), which is probably a staple at most music feasts, and was equal parts fascinated/creeped out. It was like watching the last scene of Blow Upwhen the mimes play tennis, only instead it was hipsters dancing to Eminem’s “My Name Is.” I popped into the tent to try it out, just as the crowd let out a weird yelp before I put my headphones on, which apparently was in reaction to Supergrass’s “Alright.” I think I’m still trying to sort out how I felt about the experience.
Creepy headphone promotions aside, the point of Sunday was to get as physically close to the Fiona Apple performance as possible, considering the open air and daylight time slot could potentially wreak havoc on the 34-year-old chanteuse’s renown, subtly devastating live show that seems to work best in a cathedral or something of that ilk.
Luckily, I was wrong, as Apple and her band launched right into the most upbeat and down right jazzy song in her back catalog “Fast As You Can.” The track had Apple alternating between a clenched fist, nervy vocal delivery, and some wonderfully hippie-ish dance moves that seemed to get the crowd in enough of a mood to sway back and forth. Most of her tracks, besides the ballads of course, focus on fairly syncopated percussion hits and pounding piano lines, which provides a solid rhythmic back bone and translates extremely well live. Sure, the finer points of her range got lost in the mix, but it was nit picking. By the the time Apple’s Idler Wheel… staple “Anything We Want” came on, and she gave a quick twitch during the line “Looking like a neon zebra/shaking rain off her stripes,” most of the crowd seemed to be mesmerized. She sang with her whole body, and her toned arms seemed to be constantly flexing and relaxing with each fluctuating vocal delivery. She ran through the hits like “Sleep to Dream,” new tracks “Every Single Night,” andExtraordinary Machine stand out”It’s Not About Love,” and of course closed with a stunning rendition of “Criminal.” She delivered the emotional performance that critics have been raving about since her appearance at South By Southwest in March, and couple her live talents with Idler Wheel’s success, and it’s safe to say Fiona Apple is probably the most important female singer working today.
The other acts, for me at least, suffered in comparison simply because Apple is such a singular talent firing on all engines at this point. Explosions in the Sky did what they do best: deliver loud, emotional, post-rock that’s as expansive as a Terrance Malick film. And it turns out I still get chills/a little misty during the climax of “Your Hand in Mine” (Clear Eyes, Full Hearts…) and will always refuse to miss even a minute of their live performances.
Modest Mouse played a dynamic set that bounced around most of their big hits (“Gravity Rides Everything,” “Paper Thin Walls,” “Bukowski,” “Satin Coffin”) and let Issac Brock showcase his legendary skills at stage banter (“We just opened for Metallica the other night, and you guys are a way more attractive crowd…and your probably have jobs…and don’t live in your parents basements”).
Beck closed the night out and still embodied the electric-Bob-Dylan persona he took on during the recording of his 2010 album Modern Guilt, playing a handful of songs to start the set from that album, before touching on hits fromGuero (“E-Pro,” “Girl”) Sea Change (“Lost Cause”), a resoundingly successful run through of Odelay high points (“Nocavaine,” “Minus,” “Devil’s Haircut,” “Where it’s at”) and of course Mellow Gold’s “Loser.” It was great to see these classic tracks played live but there was an intangible energy that seemed to be missing compared to some of the acts who brought their “A” game. For me, Fiona Apple, Major Lazer, Atmosphere, and Passion Pit won the weekend.
Location and Weather – A
The strategic location of Randall’s Island and thoughtful layout of stages, bathrooms, and beer and food vendors (along with the island’s varied topography and multiple tree canopies) created a concert experience nearly headache free from a logistical, or line-waiting, standpoint. For those who didn’t take the ferry or drive to Randall’s Island, it was easy to hop on the 4 train and get off at 125th Street to board the 80x shuttles that were waiting with relatively no line. People on the bus were unusually friendly, passing bottles of Svedka and Jameson back and forth, taking pictures. No one was over the top, obnoxious, or stressed out from getting to the event itself. Again, making the transportation relatively effortless, coupled with damn near perfect June weather (86 degrees and blue skies) greatly contributed to the friendly, happy vibes Gov Ball attendees had in spades.
Staff & Organization – A
I barely interacted with the staff at all besides a handful of happy, helpful beer and food vendors, but lines were so manageable for almost anything that there was never a need to consult any of the workers. The locally sourced food stands were a plus, giving a wide variety of dining options at reasonable prices (I ate a huge plate of chicken teriyaki with rice for $8), while water ($3) and alcohol prices were never unreasonable ($6-$10).
The organizers boasted the fact that there were no overlapping set times between the two stages (Hype Machine and Honda), and while that didn’t force any Sophie’s Choice situations between conflicting performance times, Gov Ball felt like a marathon simply because you could make every show by running back and forth between stages.
The only way to stop and take a break was to consciously decide you were missing a show you could feasibly attend. A friend of mine summed up the day best as we ran back from the Atmosphere set, planning to get food/water/bathroom breaks just as Chromeo took the stage: “Wait, was that Chromeo? Okay we aren’t eating.”
Overall – A
Governors Ball gives NYC its destination music festival without all the snags and soul-crushing realities of the mega-huge money-sucking events that act as tent-poles for the entire summer concert season. As long as the organizers don’t mess with the formula for success by expanding more. Gov Ball is on my calendar now for the next decade, and it should be on yours as well.