New York has seemingly been cursed in regards to big music festivals. For a state that produced the most iconic music festival ever, the city so nice they named it twice has not been able to get its festival on. There was the failed attempt to bring Britain’s Field Day a decade ago, which ended up at Giants Stadium with half of the artists intended (though that still included the likes of Radiohead, Beastie Boys, and Blur…). Coachella tried to come east in 2008 with All Points West (QRO ‘08 photos), which only lasted two years at Liberty State Park in New Jersey (difficulty in getting there and ridiculous alcohol restrictions didn’t help). In 2011, Music To Know Festival in the Hamptons was canned before it could happen, thanks to poor ticket sales (QRO preview of what would have been). That same year’s Governors Ball (QRO ’11 recap) had to move off of Governors Island the next summer to Randall’s (QRO ’12 recap), and its fellow Randaller that year, Catalpa (QRO recap), never came back. Oh, and there were also drug scares at Camp Bisco upstate in 2013 (QRO recap) that have caused it not to return this year, while actual drug deaths on Randall’s at Electric Zoo last September cancelled the final day.
And then, last year, even as Governors grew from one to two to a massive three-day event, it was hit by the city’s biggest storm since Sandy on Day One, forcing that day to close early, and leaving Randall’s a sea of mud for the final two (QRO recap). One could have been forgiven to just tell all tri-state area residents to give up on staying local, and just pack their camping gear for Coachella or Bonnaroo (or worse, visit Chicago, for Lollapalooza).
But instead, Governors Ball returned in 2014 in a major flourish – and major sun! Yes, it was hot on Randall’s Island all the way through, but that island was dry so you couldn’t complain. It was also still easy to get to (go from the busiest island in the world to a grassy festival with just a five-minute shuttle ride), and had four stages of great music, Friday-to-Sunday, June 6th to 8th:
At the Gotham Tent, Governors ’14 kicked off with active electrics from The Chain Gang of 1974 and Little Daylight. The Chain Gang only got to do a “short and sweet set,” but frontman Kamtin Mohager (QRO interview) was active throughout, whipping his hair. “We got up at like 5:30 AM for this, and it’s totally worth it.” The crowd at the Tent was pretty good, considering it was barely after noon on a weekday, and enjoyed both acts (with a very short stage turnover in between). Little Daylight brought a sweeter, more poppy electronica, “We came all the way from Brooklyn to be here…”
(later doing interviews in the press tent, Mohager wanted to make it clear to all the internet commenters that he did not ‘rip off’ his name from fellow Day One performers The 1975, who he’s actually a big fan of. But what about Death From Above 1979?…)
Over on the biggest stage, Jason Isbell opened it up with some authentic alt-country, though it wasn’t exactly the right day/year for them – this wasn’t the year Kings of Leon were (to) headline that stage (QRO photos of them at the GovBallNYC Stage last year). The time of day altered fellow singer/songwriter (and also listed without his ampersand band) Kurt Vile’s performance over at the Big Apple Stage, more grunge-twang than psych-rock, but either way, he’s still a dirty long hair.
After Ratking threw down beats and rhymes at the Gotham Tent, Janelle Monáe came on the main stage for a spectacle. There was a big crowd for diva – indeed, it was kind of surprising she wasn’t playing later in the day, considering what a production she put on, including synchronized outfits and dancers. Her star has been on the rise for a while now (including becoming a face for CoverGirl), and only looks set to rise further.
A more subdued set (admittedly, almost anything would seem subdued after Monáe) came from Washed Out. Main man Ernest Greene (QRO interview) was one of the originals in the bedroom-recorded chillwave movement, but seems to have moved to a more tropical sound (more acoustic guitar), live at least – though the still-sunny setting, even under the Gotham Tent (which was packed with folks looking for shade), certainly was way more in favor of tropical than chillwave.
The other side of the festival grounds saw two leading indie-songstresses, Jenny Lewis and Neko Case. Both originated in bands (Rilo Kiley and The New Pornographers, respectively), but both have now gotten to the point where they’re bigger solo than their ‘old bands’. The lovely ladies also have some style on stage, whether Lewis’ pseudo-seventies suit or Case’ skeleton tights. And they both lean to the alt-country side of things, though Lewis’ new material from the upcoming The Voyager seemed more discotheque, more nighttime eighties. And could have used more crazy funny from Case (this is the woman who ‘won the internet’ on @Midnight – QRO Music on Late Night TV), though she did screw up her capo before one song, and told the crowd to correct her next time…
One of the great things about Governors Ball is that, for all three days, the main stage’s second-to-last act (so third-to-last in total for that day) was big enough that they easily could have played there last/headlined. On Day One that act was Phoenix, who brought Phoenix-omania! Kind of the perfect band, with sing-alongs from the get-go, can one really add to what’s already been said about how great they are? What other band can the singer (Thomas Mars) always get a great crowd-surf?
The only question about TV On the Radio’s set was: why did it take so long for them to play Governors Ball? They’re only one of the most important New York bands in this century/millennium. Admittedly, it’s been a while since a new album, the last being 2011’s Nine Types of Light (QRO review), so the haters could say that they’re past their prime, but they’ve pulled it off with every new record they’ve released before.
Probably the biggest conflict at Governors Ball was the headliners on Day One: OutKast vs. Damon Albarn. But you could have easily have just labeled it: Past vs. Future. OutKast have a monumental legacy, basically introducing southern rap and breaking up the East Coast vs. West Coast duopoly, but that was off of not that many records. And they’re playing just about every festival in North America this summer (QRO photos of them at an earlier one), so at Governors Ball did their ‘usual’, including playing hit “Ms. Jackson” in the middle of the set, and André 3000 and Big Boi doing three songs solo, each – though when André did other big hit, “Hey Ya”, he was able to bring on Janelle Monae (see above).
Damon Albarn could just as easily do ‘classics’. He’s the frontman behind nineties Brit-pop greats Blur (QRO photos at a festival), plus in the last decade broken new ground sonically and visually in Gorillaz (QRO album review), but he came to Governors Ball behind his brand-new solo release, Everyday Robots (QRO review), which is its own new tour-de-force. For a record that’s all about how disengaged we are these days, it was an engaging show; perhaps because it was one of the first shows off of Robots, Albarn couldn’t help but be happy and engage. He did do Gorillaz’s “Windmill” with De La Soul, like he did last March at South-by-Southwest (QRO photos).
After the extravagance of Friday, Saturday at Governors Ball couldn’t go as big, at least not at its start. Sure, there was the acclaimed alt-metal act Deafheaven, electronic beats from Classixx, and relaxed rhymes from Chance the Rapper, but it was a more sedate, if still very hot, daytime.
That sun also turned Broken Bells, the side-project team-up of James Mercer (The Shins – QRO live review) and Danger Mouse, into a brighter set than even on their recent record, After the Disco (QRO review). Meanwhile, The Glitch Mob sounded like what you’d expect from a group named ‘The Glitch Mob’ to sound like, all big techtronica. The Naked and Famous weren’t naked, but one could see why they are getting famous, with the right mix of synths and guitars for today’s music scene (their set also revealed maybe the best spot on the entire festival grounds, the house-left of the Big Apple Stage, which was easy to slide up close to the stage from, and was right next to a water refill station that never had a line…).
Like Phoenix the prior day, The Strokes were the big-enough-to-headline act that played the slot before the headliners on the main stage. But this was a particularly significant performance by them, as word is the band is going on hiatus again while the various members do their solo projects, like singer Julian Casablancas + The Voidz on Friday or guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. (QRO photos at a festival in May). And it was a hometown show for the band that kicked off the indie-rock revival of this century/millennium. Sure, maybe they’ve never matched their debut Is This It, but the huge crowd belied the group’s supposed declining relevance, and it was still great, catchy, indie-rock, even if you didn’t recognize most of the songs they played – and did the rare festival encore return, with the rare, dropped-from-ITI-because-of-9/11, “New York Cops”.
From a band going on hiatus to a band returning from one, Spoon of course kicked off with a new song from their upcoming They Want My Soul, but then gave you a boatload of old songs that you love, like “Don’t You Evah”, “The Way We Get By”, “The Beast & Dragon, Adored”, and more. They even did hit single “The Underdog”, and this time managed to pull it off despite not having horns, replacing them with extra keys. The cheery, Billy Joel-esque nature of that song makes one forget how cool & chill the band is. The group was also in good spirits, joking that they’d just come from some European festivals (QRO photos days before at a European festival), but this was a better crowd, because they were the last act on that stage, so they knew that the people up front were there for them. They called it the best crowd they’d had in a long time – even one of the security guys in the pit lead/joined in clap-along at one point.
Who was so big to knock The Strokes down a spot on the main stage? One of the biggest artists in the world right now, the one-and-only Jack White. Whatever you think of his über-fame (did he really need a feud with The Black Keys?…), White is a full-on guitar god at this point, and is able to act like one. He may dress & look like a Williamsburg hipster (or, rather, Williamsburg hipsters may dress & look like him…), but he’s given to giant guitar wail solos straight out of the seventies. And while Meg White may be in the rear view mirror, he still closed with forever his biggest, best, breakthrough song, “Seven Nation Army”.
Under the hot sun of the final day of Governors Ball, SKATERS closed their Strokes-sounding set, though with some harder/wilder breakdowns. The rays worked in favor of the sunnier Caribbean sounds of Wild Belle. In particular favor of Wild Belle live in general is that they know how to handle saxophone solos from sax/keyboardist Elliott Bergmann – singer/guitar/sister Natalie Bergmann (QRO interview with both) takes a step back while Elliott leaves his keys, picks up his sax, steps forward, and crowd cheers.
(less of a cause for the crowd to cheer? Saw a fan get his about-to-be-lit joint taken away by a spotter/narc in security…)
The heart of the afternoon had competing sets by artists with mostly very different fan bases. While Frank Turner mixed between sounding like Celtic-rock or Coldplay, at the same time Earl Sweatshirt sweated to some beats. Those Sweatshirt fans (and Earl himself) migrated en masse from the Honda Stage to the Big Apple Stage for fellow Odd Future (QRO live review) member Tyler, the Creator, who did what Tyler, the Creator does (so many pale white arms in the air…). Meanwhile there was a dance party under the Gotham Tent for AlunaGeorge, which was followed up at the main stage by the sweet, if not exactly gripping Americana of The Head and The Heart (or J. Cole back on the Honda Stage).
Saturday might have had Jack White, but Sunday had The Kills! While Mr. White has gone full-on guitar god, Jamie Hince and Alison Mosshart have stayed truer to their roots (and stayed in their duo, though Mosshart’s worked with White in The Dead Weather – QRO album review). The visceral set saw Mosshart jerk and whip her bleach blonde hair (with dark roots), though her sleeves managed to stay rolled up this time. Of special note were the foursome of drummers on floor toms behind the band (in addition to the ‘regular’ drum kit), who would each put their sticks up in an ‘X’ any moment not drumming – it’s a particularly interesting move live, because one focuses on Hince & Mosshart, so only gradually notices the background sight.
Sunday skewed younger, at least in the acts on the main stage, as the band in the slot there before the headliner was Foster the People, who’ve apparently made it as far as Phoenix or The Strokes based on just two albums (and some hit singles). Still, it was a large, engaged crowd, and the band’s good songs sounded great, even if the other songs sounded a little filler-y.
The best in indie-rock at Governors was reserved for the Big Apple Stage on the other side of the festival, which closed out ’14 with New York’s Interpol. Maybe they’ve never quite matched breakthrough Turn On the Bright Lights, but when has anyone ever matched their breakthrough? They did start with old songs, thank you, but also had some new ones from their upcoming fall release, and they sounded vital – indeed, the whole set did. Interpol have been accused of resting on their too-cool-for-school laurels, but now very post-Carlos D. (their former bassist, who at times seemed too cool for anything…), they’re embracing action – guitarist Daniel Alexander Kessler seemed active and even enjoying himself on stage.
The first band to return to the four-year-old Governors Ball, Empire of the Sun of course brought their spectacle again (QRO photos at Governors Ball ’11), even under the Gotham Tent, with costumes & dancers & everything.
Ending Governors Ball ’14 was Vampire Weekend, and ooh, everyone was excited. The Ivy-pop band might not be Jack White or OutKast, but Sunday had been for newer acts (and calling White & ‘Kast ‘old’ is a highly relative statement). And they were certainly fun for their many, many fans – and cousins.
“Only the weather can stop us now.” That statement from an over-confident commander in A Bridge Too Far summed up his lack of knowledge of everything that could go wrong in war, but actually did sum up Governors Ball last year – but oh how wrong it went. Governors Ball has grown from one day to three, from one genre to many, and, most importantly, it didn’t rain in 2014.
Instead, we had sunny, sunny skies, 25 oz. of Oz in Foster’s (but did anyone buy a $38.00 bottle of wine?), and, oh yeah, the music.
-words: Ted Chase
-photos: Gloria Lee & Ted Chase