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.
FRIDAY, JUNE 7TH
There was a slight but definite rain at the start of Governors Ball 2013, with wet and muddy grounds – which would only get worse.
Yet despite the weather, the day started decidedly electro with acts like Pacific Air, Bear Mountain, Solid Gold, St. Lucia, Poliça, and The Knocks. They all tried their best, but as the weather worsened it was harder for these early acts to stand out – Solid Gold, the first act at the (now felt ironically named) ‘You’re Doing Great Stage’ did well, but the next act on that stage, Poliça, struggled to stand out against the rain.
The electro shifted to the classic when Holy Ghost! went up against Dinosaur Jr. – an easy choice (at least for anyone who can remember the early nineties). They nicely played great songs from their first career and from their great post-reunion records, Beyond (QRO review), Farm (QRO review), and I Bet On Sky (QRO review) – even if you didn’t recognize the song that bassist Lou Barlow sang. Singer/guitarist J Mascis was zipped up in his parka, so you didn’t get to see his long, grey, Gandolf-like locks flow in the wind – but there were lots of replacement locks in the crowd, as before the set ‘J wigs’ were handed out to the crowd.
Who also had unexpected hair? The drummer, who decidedly was not the bald Murph…
It wasn’t exactly the right weather for the sunny sounds of Best Coast, but they made the best of it. Bethany Cosentino’s sound is decidedly simple and struggled against the weather, but she did making a convincing case for living in L.A. with strong single “The Only Place” from otherwise weak album of the same name (QRO review).
But as the bigger acts clambered onto their stages and the rain showed no sign of letting it up, it became harder and harder to slog once again from one stage to another for anyone. Basically, you had to be a big fan of the act – or had just arrived and were yet to get soaked through to the bone. However, Icelandic alt-folk collective Of Monsters and Men do have a surprisingly large fan base (as witnessed the weekend before last at Boston Calling – QRO recap), as does Canada’s electro-dance riot act Crystal Castles (who once again prevented any photographers from entering the pit, with absolutely no warning to anyone…). Yet perhaps superior was America’s own Local Natives, whose mix of natural country-folk and more impatient indie-rock fit the mood of the stormy day.
The many loyalists of the many great acts still to come were still out, despite the weather worsening as the skies darkened further – and all the fans were set for disappointment, as set after set was cut short due to not just rain but threat of thunder. Beach House started late and were basically invisible (not that you can seem them much at their regular shows – QRO photos), while Leslie Feist sweetly said she had to stop or she’d be electrocuted, the young Young the Giant rebelled futilely against being told to stop, and Erykah Badu gave the weather the middle finger.
There were still many umbrellas in the air in front of the main stage, waiting for Kings of Leon, only for them to turn when it was announced that they whole thing had been suspended for the night. Later, at their very late after-party at Irving Plaza (QRO venue review), Barlow of Dinosaur Jr. joked, “We are Kings of Leon, and this is ‘Sex On Fire’…”
SATURDAY, JUNE 8TH
Day Two of Governors Ball started with some serious good news: Kings of Leon, whose headlining set on Day One had been cancelled due to the storm, managed to get rescheduled for Day Two. This of course moved lots of other artists around (down to Day Two opener Moon Hooch, who’d previously graduated from busking at the ferry dock to go to Governors Ball the last two years), but hard to complain with your own schedule of ‘who to see’ getting rearranged.
Besides, your schedule was thrown out of the window entirely once you got to Governors Ball, and saw & experienced what everyone was unfortunately mostly talking about: the mud. This wasn’t ‘a little wet dirt at the bottom of your shoes,’ no, this was the kind of mud where you could lose a shoe, or even a boot (god help you if you were wearing flip-flops…). And it went on forever. In expanding from two to four stages, Governors Ball doubled the physical size of the festival grounds, and nearly all of it was on what had once been grass but was now deep, thick mud. There was none of it until you got into the festival and left the initial paved entrance – at first it was a funny planning exercise in trying to get from one spot of hard (or, at least, not as soft) ground to another, but then it just went on and on. And this was just from the entrance to any one stage – you had to go through it again to go to any other stage (double if you were going from one of the two newer stages to one of the two from last year), and repeat each time you changed stages. And don’t forget that you’d be standing in mud when you were watching any stage (though there were a few precious paved areas, like in front of the main stage), or going to any stall for food or drink or anything else. And then there were the port-a-potties…
Okay, enough bitching – on to the music…
Like on Day One, the environment (this time the ground, not the sky), limited the appeal of the first acts of the day – it was a little hard to dance to Robert DeLong or relax to Wild Nothing after the shock of the grounds. But then came two clear standouts of the festival: Icona Pop and especially Japandroids. The Swedish girl duo Icona Pop belted out their hit electro single “I Love It” with particular abandon – chorus of “I don’t care!” worked well for those who’d given up trying to stay even somewhat dry & clean and just took their shoes off and accepted the mud. Meanwhile, the Canadian guy duo Japandroids equally belted out their uplifting punk rock from last year’s amazing Celebration Rock (QRO review) – not to mention jokingly introducing themselves as Guns n’ Roses (see below) and saying how happy they were to be opening for Japandroids (then later dedicating a song to current GnR bassist Tommy Stinson – QRO solo album review – because he’d been in a great band in the eighties & nineties – QRO re-releases review, in case you didn’t know…).
In general on Day Two, there were the bands that naturally worked with the mud, and those that naturally didn’t. Dirty Projectors were too pretty and intricate to be experienced in deep, dank dirt, but Fucked Up were almost too appropriate, with singer Damian Abraham of course going into the photo pit and crowd with his shirt off and belly out (though when even he thinks something is too disgusting, that’s saying something…). Overnight U.K. hit alt-J were too chill (generally speaking, hipster favorites faired less well than those with wild young fans), but Cut Copy had the benefit of pavement at the main stage and a longer danceography.
Along with Japandroids & Fucked Up, a band perfectly suited for the mud on Day Two was Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. Yes, singer/frontman Alex Ebert went into the photo pit multiple times (like he always does, even early on, even at festivals – QRO photos), but there was more. He asked for requests from a super-excited crowd who had no problem with the Woodstock-like mud for this ‘modern hippie’ band. And during the conversational portion of single “Home”, where he and Jade Castrinos usually tell a story, he asked fans for a story by passing the mike to some girls up front. Of course, all the girls could do was say how much they loved the band (the relative best comment was wishing someone a happy birthday), so Ebert eventually had to take the mike back, but there was still a sing-along for this band with ultra audience engagement (and love).
While Azealia Banks and then Kendrick Lamar came out in full force (especially the former, for whom this was a hometown show – including doing the ‘Harlem Shake’), Kings of Leon had their make-up performance on the main stage. After many fans had waited so long in the hard rain the night before, for a band that’d been on hiatus for a few years now, it would have been awful if Kings couldn’t have performed at all. And credit the band for putting their egos in check and taking the not-headlining slot (admittedly the main stage slot before the headlining slot, and no one was gonna move Axl…). The group debuted the new (appropriate for the prior day) song “Supersoaker” from their long-awaited next record, but of course it was old singles that were the fan favorites – lots of girls in Indian headdresses (and not a whole lot more, under the hot sun) dancing to “Sex On Fire”…
The experimental-tropical Animal Collective didn’t sound like what you thought Animal Collective sounded like at first, with some harder sounds (or maybe it was just the sound system), but did eventually get tropical, then tropical-experimental. They’re a few years removed by now from their big hit, 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion (QRO review), and while they retreaded a bit with last year’s follow-up Centipede Hz (QRO review), they have been working to improve their live show (which always had a reputation for being less impressive than their recorded output). That’s been especially important at festivals like Governors Ball, as the band doesn’t have their indoor light shows (QRO photos indoors with their light show) outdoors in the sun (QRO photos outdoors in the sun), but at least the sun was setting as they played.
Axl Rose has gotten a lot of flack for even calling his band ‘Guns n’ Roses’, considering that it has no members of the original iconic outfit besides him (no Slash – QRO live review – no Duff McKagan – QRO photos at a festival – not even Celebrity Rehab mainstay Steven Adler…). It’s been almost as much flack as he got for taking fifteen years & fourteen million dollars to make Chinese Democracy – and does anyone remember anything about that 2008 album other than how long it took & how much it cost (like, any of the songs?…)? But Axl & co. (and every band is better with Tommy Stinson…) combated the naysayers at Governors Ball. First off, the band actually started early – only a handful of minutes early, true, but from a band/artist notorious for late starts, that was a very good sign to start. And the group played GnR’s many, many hits – including, yes, “November Rain” (if a day late/five months early…). If you were there for Guns n’ Roses, if you endured the mud & the day, you could not say the artist/band didn’t deliver.
SUNDAY, JUNE 8TH
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”.
Numerous New York bands like Yeasayer and Grizzly Bear mentioned during their sets how happy they were to be playing a festival in their hometown – “I’m gonna drive home and to go bed,” Yeasayer’s Chris Keating remarked. That might not sound very rock ‘n’ roll, but there is much virtue in Governors Ball being essentially an indie-rock great outdoors fest, transplanted to just a short shuttle bus ride or walk from the 6 train. For New York bands, it means not having to schlep to god-knows-where with all their gear, and sleep in some strange place. For New York fans, it means not having to even drive at all, and sleep at home – not in a campground.
However, being a fest in the city did only highlight the poor weather conditions. It’s one thing if you plan to camp, drive an RV, or rent a hotel room for a festival away from home, and the weather turns bad – it’s not like you’ve got anywhere else to go, you’ve prepared for travel challenges, and you’re not sleeping in the finest accommodations anyway. But at Governors Ball, you’ve got a whole Big Apple of things you can do, you almost instinctively think you’ll be on pavement, and the contrast with home only makes the festival look even less comfortable. It’s really something to go from riding the subway line that serves the Upper East Side to seeing your shoes disappear in mud…
The Northeast has seriously lacked music festivals anywhere easy accessible (sorry Upstate New York, you don’t count…), but has been doing better in recent years, from the start of Governors Ball back in 2011 (QRO recap) to the new Boston Calling (QRO recap) only two weeks prior. And with this year’s edition of Governors Ball, it took a serious step forward, becoming a top-tier festival that isn’t located in a southern Californian desert (or even worse, Chicago…). Yes, the weather majorly foiled Day One, and the post-weather Randall’s Island majorly crimped Day Two & Day Three (hopefully Governors will help the city’s Parks Department with what has to be a major repair job). But here’s to the Northeast, to New York, coming to rule the festival circuit like it rules so much else.