It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Governors Ball 2013 had constructed a killer line-up, expanding to a third day and two more stages on Randall’s Island (after a two-day, two-stage 2012, and one-day, one-stage event on Governors Island in 2011). Name another festival that had Kanye West and Guns n’ Roses – not to mention the return from lengthy hiatus of Kings of Leon?!? Oh, and it’s located within New York City, just a short shuttle bus away from the 4, 5, and 6 subway lines? It seemed like an embarrassment of riches.
And then God intervened, with rain on the first day that turned into a storm, cutting the evening short. And that rain water turned the ground into mud for days two and three, ruining the festival grounds. Adjustments were made – Kings of Leon moved their Day One headlining set into Day Two, hay was put on the mud to solidify the ground somewhat for Day Three.
A decidedly up-and-down affair, Governors Ball 2013 was still something to behold and experience – ‘I was there when,’ Friday to Sunday, June 7th to 9th.
The weather on Sunday was the best of the three days of Governors Ball 2013 – but that’s the faintest of praise. The sun was shining – and beating down upon the mud of Day Two, which had now baked and caked into something relatively more walkable, with a lot of hay thrown down there. Unfortunately, hay + mud = sense memory of smell of horse shit…
The (relatively) better conditions, plus people being more prepared this day (there were a lot of brand new Hunter rain boots out there) gave the early acts a chance to actually be appreciated. The Vaccines once again proved that they’re a better band live than on their somewhat simple records, but the winner for early standout had to be HAIM. The three-sister (plus a drummer) group don’t even have a full-length out yet, but are already turning heads – including David Letterman’s the following day (QRO Indie on Late Night TV), when they appeared on The Late Show and flirted with the gap-toothed talk show host, who asked why they weren’t living in New York & remarked that their (male) drummer had a “Good gig…”
Reggae legends Steel Pulse sounded exactly like you expected a group named ‘Steel Pulse’ to sound like. Just as one can’t have a music festival without a jam band, one can’t have a music festival without a reggae band, though a city fest like Governors Ball thankfully limited these festival regular types. There was a funny moment when the singer of Steel Pulse tried to get the horn player to wrap up his solo, as the band was pressed for time, only for the horn player to block the singer from taking his mike. So the singer came out with his own horn – only for the saxophone player to grab it and play it himself…
While Cold War Kids may have a few years on Portugal. The Man (or just seem that way) the two acts – who played opposite each other on the final day of Governors Ball – are similar in that they both have killer singles, from albums where the rest is just filler. And their competing sets played out that same way – great for songs like Portugal’s “So American” or Cold War’s “Hang Me Out To Dry” (particularly appropriate), but filler in-between.
Sunday of Governors Ball seemed to be especially stacked with times where two acts with similar critical stories played against each other – another case was hipster favorites Twin Shadow versus Deerhunter. In this case, Deerhunter’s recent shift to the lo-fi garage on their recent Monomania (QRO review) worked out for them (“grunge tuning,” as singer/guitarist Bradford Cox said), as it was a lot more appropriate to the daytime festival setting in general. Cox (QRO solo live review) was chatty if rambling, opening the set by telling the crowd the “fact” that oil, which “powers everything” (apparently he’s never heard of America’s natural gas fracking boom), comes from dead dinosaurs – “So everything here is being powered by our descendants…” (Cox seems to believe that we’re descended from dinosaurs?…)
Foals vs. Gary Clark Jr. would seem to be two dissimilar artists, indie-rock vs. blues, but there was a streak of being generic that ran through both acts. Clark quite literally sounds just like every other modern blues musician these days that are ‘bringing blues back’ – as if the sound isn’t über-popular these days (see: White, Jack). And Foals struggled to stand out if you hadn’t heard them before (though were not as generic as Clark…).
Not generic was the next, and best, competition: Yeasayer vs. Beirut. Both acts actually traffic in interesting, near-gypsy sounds, but in very different ways: Yeasayer goes into tomorrow with electro and tropicalia, while Beirut sticks to the traditional melting pot (and Yeasayer is, ironically, more Middle Eastern…). They’re both great if you’re into that, but perhaps could get a little tiresome if not – but Beirut more so, as Yeasayer feels like a, perhaps the, sound of the near future, while you’ve heard Beirut before, if under very different circumstances.
A very nice transition was Yeasayer into Grizzly Bear – both are New York-based acts that work in complicated-but-accessible sounds, which make them hipster favorites with mainstream appeal. However, while Yeasayer has energy live, Grizzly Bear just goes more for beauty. Competing with the Bear was The Lumineers, one of many new backwoods country bands who have found a wider fan base – appropriate to the muddy festival, but if you’re not into country, there wasn’t a whole lot of crossover appeal (covering Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and bringing out a children’s choir didn’t change things).
Virtually the entire schedule at Governors Ball was plotted so that two acts would be starting at the same time, but the schedule-makers did leave twenty minutes between the start of Bloc Party and that of The xx – but by this point word was that The xx’s start had been bumped forward to match Bloc Party’s (separate start times seemed too good to be true…). So once again one had to choose – even though The xx ended up actually going on at their original, later, start time. However, the two acts are more a study in contrasts: Bloc Party has been delivering diminishing returns on records in the many years since they broke out, but The xx are still riding high in critical acclaim; meanwhile, Bloc Party had tons of energy live (including fans waving flags), while The xx are more chill and effective (with the mud messing with this fashionable band).
But there wasn’t two more contrasting acts on at the same time at Governors Ball than the final two: The Avett Brothers vs. Kanye West. If you’re gonna have a band go up against the force of force that is Mr. West, The Avett Brothers were a good choice, as their country-rock is miles away from him, and they’ve got their own set of fans to fill their crowd.
As for Kanye (who of course came out late – certainly out prima donna-ing Axl Rose – see Day Two), whatever you think of him as a person, he certainly does not skimp on the show. Indeed, it can be hard to actually see the singer amidst all of his stage lights and pyrotechnics, but for the size of crowds that he pulls, it’d be hard to see him anyway. Also, there are other musicians who are just as full of themselves and get way less flack than West does – think of Jay-Z (his collaborator on the too-big-too-fail Watch the Throne – QRO review), who seems to think he can be a mogul in just any high-profile field (musician, producer, spokesman, venue builder, sports agent…).
West thankfully didn’t go on any epic rants (not even later on his MacBook Air…), though did have a mini-one, in the usual spot in “Clique”, about not caring if he sells records, that it’s ‘just about the music.’ Isn’t that what literally every successful (even once-successful) artist says – up to & including Justin Bieber?… West performed five new songs from his upcoming Yeezus, which looks to be a more experimental record than previous ones, including “Black Skinhead” and the so-begging-to-be-called-egotistical-it-has-to-be-ironic “I Am a God”. And while there was no appearance by Daft Punk (QRO album review), as rumors had been flying about (Daft Punk appearance rumors are like Radiohead appearance rumors – never true, but a good sign that what you’re at is high-profile), West did cover Skrillex’s “Harder Better Faster Stronger”.