For so long, New York City had not had a top-flight regular music festival. Sure, there’s industry fests like CMJ (QRO recap) or EDM raves like Electric Daisy (QRO photos), but where was the Big Apple’s answer to Los Angeles’ Coachella (QRO photos) or Chicago’s Lollapalooza (QRO recap)?
When Governors Ball debuted in 2011 (QRO recap) on Governors Island, it was a one-day limited electronica event. The move to Randall’s Island the following year (QRO recap) allowed it to expand to two stage & two days, one indie, one electronica, but it still wasn’t in the big leagues. That came in 2013 (QRO recap) with four stages & three full days stretching across genres – only for torrential rains to make the whole thing a giant, muddy mess.
But last year, Governors Ball delivered on the sunny promise that New York deserved (QRO recap), putting it up there will any other festival on the continent. And it returned, Friday-to-Sunday, June 5th to 7th:
It was raining lightly but steadily at the start of Governors Ball, immediately bringing back memories of the rain that ruined Day One/all of Governors Ball ’13. However, it ended by 3:00 PM, and the sun came out.
Before that, Priory opened the festival at the GovBallNYC Stage, and then Black Pistol Fire delivered some seventies guitar-rock to the Big Apple Stage, which lit up despite the grey skies. That rock included guitar solos at the front of the stage – at one point guitarist Kevin McKeown slipped on the wet stage and accidentally kicked QRO’s photographer in the face! Conversely to that energy, the fuzzy, airy indie-rock of DIIV next at the Honda Stage was underwhelming. Meanwhile at GovBallNYC Stage, Slim Jimmy of Rae Sremmurd tried to jump on a spotlight that wasn’t meant to hold his weight, injuring himself so seriously that festival medics had to take him to the hospital (where they had to put his leg in a cast, but he’s thankfully otherwise okay).
The skies weren’t clear for Gorgon City doing a live set of their electronics in the Gotham Tent, but then the sun came out just as Charli XCX appeared on the Honda Stage. She got middle fingers in the air for opener “Sucker”, and then played a giant inflatable guitar for “Breaking Up”. And then she performed the hit that she co-wrote with Governors ‘13 Icona Pop (QRO spotlight on), “I Love It”. A total glam-dance star, she could have probably played later on the day, but was very needed to light up the event, a tasked that continued right afterward with Rudimental on the Big Apple Stage.
Another artist who could have played later, but was well put earlier on the schedule to get the crowd going was Chromeo-o-o. A healthy audience was there for the disco-dance party at the main GovBallNYC Stage, as the group nicely drew a wide fan base and didn’t have to compete with the headliners. Ezra Koenig of Governors ’14 headliners Vampire Weekend (QRO photos) came on as a special guest to show Dave 1 how to play VW’s “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”, which led into Chromeo classic “Bonafide Lovin’”.
One of the few changes to the festival set-up from last year was that the Big Apple Stage was pushed farther back, to give more room for the crowd – but most of that new room was taken up by an extended VIP section there, while the area for the hoi polloi was disfigured. Not taking that to heart was Death From Above 1979, who of course were shredding from the get-go, both old songs and new ones from their self-titled reunion record (QRO review). Dressed in black vs. white, Sebastien Grainger actually could pull off wearing white overalls with no shirt. He also mentioned it was his wife’s birthday on Saturday, but she wasn’t hobnobbing backstage, but rather “out there with the people.”
Also out there among the people near the Big Apple Stage was a booth giving away free Kettle Chips (“The perfect side dish for revenge” – Sideshow Bob) all festival long. And near to that were guys busted for peeing in the bushes, despite the ample amount of port-a-potties at the festival.
On the Honda Stage, Colin Meloy of The Decemberists joked about how they had always wanted to play next to a New York City tollbooth (the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge was elevated just to the side of the stage). The uplifting indie-folk collective was just so Portland…
Originally The Decemberists would nearly directly compete with Florence & The Machine on the GovBallNYC Stage, but a last-minute change had a DJ set by Pat Mahoney of LCD Soundsystem (and Death From Above Records – who forced DFA1979 to add their birth year to their name), pushing Florence Welch & co. back. A huge, cluster-fuck of a crowd were there for the group to play a set similar to their one a few days earlier at a smaller, but still cluster-fuck, crowd at iHeartRadio Theater (QRO live review), drawing from their first two records as well as the just-out How Big How Blue How Beautiful. The audience sang along to the new songs as well as the old – as well as their version of Calvin Harris’ “Sweet Nothing” (which did feature Welch on vocals on record). Welch still couldn’t dance after breaking her foot on stage at Coachella (dancing to their breakthrough “Dog Days Are Over”), but that didn’t stop the crowd.
The time shifting of Florence & The Machine unfortunately meant that now Welch overlapped with another excellent indie-songstress, Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent. While her show has admittedly been similar since the release of last year’s St. Vincent (QRO review), it’s a great show with great songs – and this time Clark & band weren’t the only ones busting choreographed moves, as behind them at the Big Apple Stage were two silver chrome jumpsuit clad dancers.
After Clark & the beats of Ratatat, headlining Friday at Governors Ball were megastar Drake, who made up for lackluster work at Coachella (not to mention the free concert-that-never-was at South Street Seaport in 2010 – QRO photos), and My Morning Jacket, alt-country hits touring off of their new The Waterfall.
It rained again late Friday night/early Saturday morning, but after the near-death experience of 2013, Governors Ball was well equipped to deal with what the water gave us, laying down more covering & hay on the ground.
That last-minute work did mean that the festival’s gates were still kept closed when the day’s openers Kate Tempest and Charlotte OC were supposed to go on, though no one told Charlotte, who came onto the Honda Stage and played to literally three photographers – and no one else. After three songs she stopped, either because someone told her the crowd hadn’t been let in yet, or she just couldn’t take playing to nobody…
The early dance of ASTR could have been too early, but the duo thankfully played in the Gotham Tent, where the shade from the sunny skies cooled people off a bit – and made one able to see their logo on the big screen. Some additional big dance beats came from U.K.’s Clean Bandit on the GovBallNYC Stage (described by an indie fan as a “guilty pleasure”), which included saxophone and violin. Rustie kept the electro-dance going at the Gotham Tent, while J. Roddy Walston & The Business played a finer brand of seventies party-rock over at the Big Apple Stage – but they also encouraged dancing.
There were frontwomen a-plenty in the middle of Saturday at Governors Ball. Marina & The Diamonds took the main GovBallNYC Stage to a large crowd; a grand songstress, but also dance elements, she kind of mixed Friday’s Florence Welch and Charli XCX. While Kiesza packed the Gotham Tent for her electro-dance aerobics, indie ‘it girl’ Sharon Van Etten had a smoother, cooler sound than one might have expected from the alt-country artist, perhaps leaning that way in the outdoor festival setting, she gave nice music to relax to under the sun at the Big Apple Stage.
Oh, and back on the main GovBallNYC Stage, Sweden’s Little Dragon likewise adjusted for playing under the summer sun, their sounds less chilly, more dance-y, but what do you expect when you go from Gothenburg to summer in the Big Apple? Afterwards there was more indie-dance from closer to home in Future Islands in the Gotham Tent, with energetic frontman Samuel T. Herring doing his best to represent the dance energy of the XY chromosome.
Yet the true leading lady of Saturday at Governors Ball was the one-and-only Björk. The most famous native of Iceland since Eric the Red, the experimental auteur seemed a bit of an odd fit for Governors Ball, but when has anything Björk not been odd? Clad in a facemask from James Merry and butterfly wing dress from Nikoline Liv Anderson, with an orchestra in all white on the GovBallNYC Stage, for anyone else that would have been huge, but for Björk it seemed a little relatively tame.
Note: Björk didn’t let any press photographers shoot her performance, even threatening to keep people from shooting in the crowd. These photos are from official photographer Santiago Felipe.
Competing with Björk on the Honda Stage was Conor Oberst, touring behind last year’s Upside Down Mountain (QRO review). However, it’s been five or ten years since he was an indie heartthrob, with girls mentioning how they “used to be into” Oberst – back when he was Bright Eyes and The O.C. was on television (QRO Music of The O.C.).
Flume and SBTRKT dueled electronica at 8:00 PM on the Big Apple Stage & Gotham Tent (respectively), before the biggest DJ of the festival at the GovBallNYC Stage, one of the biggest DJs in the world, deadmau5. Clad in his trademark neo-Mouseketeer headware, deadmau5 played from inside a light-up Thunderdome-like structure. There were moments where his music stopped, either teasing the crowd or having technical difficulties – it turned out to be the latter, a problem that also plagued fellow headliner (and reportedly a bit of a prickly pear) Ryan Adams at the Honda Stage.
There was more sun on Sunday, but also more wind, and more people not realizing until they were about to get on the shuttle to Randall’s Island that they couldn’t use their unlimited Metrocard for it, holding up the line for everybody else.
The final day of Governors Ball began with Streets of Laredo at the GovBallNYC Stage, then Bishop Nehru in the Gotham Tent. Echosmith, fresh off appearing on the season finale of what turned out to be the penultimate season of American Idol, brought their energy to the GovBallNYC main stage, while Chronixx & The Zincfence Redemption brought their beats to the Big Apple Stage.
While Logic performed on the Honda Stage, Sturgill Simpson brought some country to an otherwise urban festival. Everything unplugged during one of his songs on the GovBallNYC Stage, but he & his band played through it and the power & sound came back on – that’s something country musicians do much better than today’s electronica stars…
The Big Apple Stage once again played host to some gritty seventies rock when guitar-and-drums duo Royal Blood proceeded to shred. Drawing from another side of the me decade were Tame Impala on the GovBallNYC Stage, appropriately psyching out the crowd.
But perhaps the whole of Governors Ball was just a presage before an artist who began in the eighties and has never stopped (though has had numerous comebacks) – Weird Al Yankovic at the Gotham Tent. Yes, the king of musical parody came to Randall’s Island, vying with Björk as the biggest outlier of the festival (in two very different, very weird ways). “New York, you ready to polka?” And with that question, the highlight of the festival began.
There was a polka medley of pop covers like Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” and Gotye’s “Somebody I Used To Know” (something he’s literally done since the eighties – gotta use that accordion!). There was a song about “Aluminum Foil” (including conspiracy theories), and there was “Fat”, Yankovic’s timeless parody of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” – and this performance included Yankovic in an eighties fat suit (and punching out Santa). Yankovic made many costume changes, both between songs (facilitated in timing by hilarious video interstitials that included him interviewing both Michael Stipe and Marshall Mathers) and even during, as he and his band (who kept up excellently) had a medley of Weird Al parodies that delivered the comedic choruses you were looking for – maybe most memorable of these was “Canadian Idiot”, Yankovic taking on Green Day’s “American Idiot”, replete with maple leaf jacket and red & white streamers.
Admittedly, it was a bit hard to make out his finely crafted lyrics on such songs as “Word Crimes” (a parody of “Blurred Lines”), but all hands were in the air (and beards on the faces) for “Amish Paradise”. Yankovic closed that song by telling the crowd he had to leave (including a James Brown-style cape brought out by his hard-working costume/stage coordinator), but returned for an encore of “Yoda”. It was all completely scripted for time (including the encore), but impressively so – no one can say Weird Al doesn’t work hard. And no one can say that they didn’t have a great time at his performance.
After the least serious man in music came one of the most serious (at least at times), Noel Gallagher and his High-Flying Birds. The crowd at the main GovBallNYC Stage for the once-and-always Oasis guitarist & songwriter wasn’t as large as one might have expected, but expectations should have been adjusted, coming out of Weird Al. And yes, he played Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova”, as well as “Don’t Look Back In Anger” to close.
Hot Chip played off of their new album, Why Make Sense?, to close the Big Apple Stage, and the founding indie-dance act have improved their live outdoors game. And to close the whole festival at the GovBallNYC Stage were The Black Keys. The Akron neo-blues rockers were suitably rocking, singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney playing at the front of the stage (perhaps that’s why security was so pushy with the photographers in the pit for this set). By now they have a large well of songs to draw from – but have they ever gotten better than breakthrough “Your Touch”? Well, they did play “Lonely Boy” just after…
Three full days on Randall’s Island had everything from free Kettle Chips (including more given out at the end as people were leaving, from beat-up giant cardboard boxes) to Stack Wine (wine sold in four small containers, stacked on top of each other) to the more humdrum concession food and 24 oz. Miller Lite. Slightly more importantly, Governors Ball 2015 had three full days of a wide variety of music, from troubadours to DJs, auteurs to mock-auteurs, all within incredibly easy reach of the greatest city in the world.
-words: Ted Chase
-photos: Ken Grand-Pierre and Ted Chase