Thanks to the COVID pandemic, every festival last year after the start of March was cancelled, and its continuing effects pushed summer fests into the fall this year. New York City’s own Governors Ball was one such, moving from its usual early June to the last weekend in September, 24th-26th, and even from its usual Randall’s Island spot (hasn’t been on named-for Governors Island since the first time, ten years ago – QRO inaugural year recap) to CitiField in Queens (or rather, the parking lot of the Mets’ home – its regular residents were playing away games, but Gary, Keith & Ron were still broadcasting from the Ralph Kiner Broadcast Booth inside CitiField).
But little about 2021 Governors Ball felt slapped together. The 7 train was running on time, and let out right at the festival (if the general public did have to walk a bit around the actual festival to get to/from the entrance). The four stages were two sets of alternating stages, arrayed in a circle, pointing outward, which kept the physical size of the festival relatively tight – no giant walks across vast distances to make it to another stage – but also avoided any serious sonic bleed. There was even a set of stairs over the backstage connection to the outside world, meaning a full circle for the crowds. There was security and staff everywhere (even those stairs), watching over the kids having their day(s) out.
And there were a lot of kids. Governors Ball has evolved/grown into its very mainstream, popular appeal status of today, and while that might upset the Big Apple hipsters (or not, as it gives them something to complain about), it has made it a go-to for teens of the five boroughs and tri-state area, very akin to Chicago’s similar Lollapalooza (QRO 2021 recap) in its ability to both attract those young folks to come and their parents to let them come. Indeed, Governors Ball ’21 skewed even younger, no legacy act in sight, but many lines of girls wearing tube tops and short-shorts snaking their way through the crowd.
Yes, tickets were expensive, and so was food and especially drinks, a 25 oz. Bud Light going for $14 (and same size Bud Light Hard Seltzer a dollar more), but they were sold, from the 50,000 fans a day to those old enough to drink carrying multiple big & big-price drinks into the crowds (and special mention to the free cans of Coke Zero given out at a few places, including the press tent – kept your correspondent from getting drunk, and instead just a caffeine high…). There were lots of sponsors, with GOVBALLNYC Stage presented by Verizon, Bacardí Stage, Honda Stage, GrubHub Stage, and said Bud Light Hard Seltzer Sessions (with the rise of hard seltzer, the usual Bud Light Stages have become Hard Seltzer Stages…), but what do you expect? This ain’t Woodstock, but a professional festival run professionally.
Having a festival in a parking lot never sounds ideal, but brought the serious benefit of a lot less worry about rain. Outdoor events just the night before had been cancelled, and one could have feared the muddy, muddy Randall’s Island grounds of Governors Ball ‘13 (QRO recap). Instead, while there were some puddles on Day One, nothing more. There was even a lot of fake grass laid down – and attendees were apparently allowed to smoke (of course more joints than cigarettes…).
The mainstream nature of Governors Ball could have meant that the headliners and other late-in-the-day acts overshadowed the early artists, acts labeled ‘up-and-coming’ but a bunch of them won’t go anywhere greater, fans not coming for the heat of the day but only for the cooler evening. Yet there were numerous artists that were worth seeing in their own right, such as Bartees Strange on the Honda Stage, stretching genres and even covering The National’s “Lemonworld” (unusual indie covers by more pop artists would be a theme this festival). Meanwhile, Sarah Barrios brought sweet acoustic heartbreak to the small side Bud Light Seltzer Sessions Stage with her bonus set.
This is the twenty-first century and of course hip-hop had strong representation. Rap collective EARTHGANG shouted many times to, “Make some noise!” to go with their rapid-fire rhymes on the Honda Stage, while later Freddie Gibbs got the Bacardí Stage crowd to shout “Fuck the police!” as he played with collaborator The Alchemist off of last year’s team-up Alfredo (he also played his final song with his NYC infant in his arms).
But you could also slow down and appreciate things. Sasha Sloan was sultrier on the Bacardí Stage before Gibbs, namechecking a friend’s parents who encouraged her pursuing music and were there that day. Leon Bridges brought smooth sounds to a big GOVBALLNYC Stage crowd, including a still intimate moment when his band mostly left and it was just him & the audience for favorite “River”.
And there were acts that crossed over in appeal from the indie-sphere to mainstream. Orville Peck has gotten as much attention for his get-up, always wearing a cowboy hat and fringed mask (since before the pandemic), and link to Lady Gaga, but he is something more, though his particular deep-voiced slow country shifted into more upbeat times better suited for the GrubHub Stage (and he still did his cover of Gaga’s “Born This Way”). Meanwhile, Future Islands united Gen Z and the geriatric millennials at the Honda Stage, with both their music and their love of playing music again. Frontman Samuel T. Herring brought his big, enthused electro-pop, chest-rending and all, but also mentioning the band’s early days in small places and how the vast majority of the crowd hadn’t been there for that (to be fair, most were probably too young to get in to the likes of Baby’s All Right then).
Mainstream popular music has been leaning more & more away from the old rock n’ roll, and that was reflected in the Governors Ball ’21 line-up, but there was still space for the likes of the rock stars Portugal. The Man headlining the Bacardí Stage. They started with a direct appeal to the Gen Xers out there, being introduced by none other than Beavis & Butthead! Mike Judge had apparently revived the nineties’ two hard-rocking idiots to watch a Portugal. The Man video, Butthead calling them, “The greatest band in the world. Better than The Beatles. Better than The Rolling Stones. Better than Silverchair. Almost as good as Pantera.” (Beavis just shouted, “Fire!”)
Portugal. The Man paid tribute to rockers past, covering Nirvana’s “In Bloom” in honor of the 30th anniversary of the release of Nevermind, as well as David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” with guest singer Julia Cumming of Sunflower Bean, and even It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s “Day Man”. And yes, they did “that song,” the one that vaulted them to massive popularity from commercials to in-store music, “Feel It Still” (with an excited Cumming joining in again).
Each day of Governors Ball ’21 closed with two acts playing exclusively, first at the Honda Stage, then finally the GOVBALLNYC Stage for the night’s big finish. It was Sydney’s RÜFÜS DU SOL in the penultimate slot, with big lights for the big DJ tropics.
And then came Billie Eilish. Her star has grown & grown & grown into being one of the biggest musicians on the planet right now, headlining a number of festivals before her massive postponed-two-years 2022 tour, off of this year’s Happier Than Ever, her killer follow-up to killer 2019 debut WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?. The crowd stretched far & wide, if not high (your correspondent felt very tall and very male among all the fans, not for the last time at Governors ’21…) – you could see all the camera phones up, not to mention girls on shoulders.
Eilish was super excited to be back on stage, giddy not too-cool-for-school pop star. She & her band, which includes brother/producer Finneas, did old hits (if you consider 2019 breakthrough “Bad Guy” ‘old’), she did new, and even called out for taking care of the planet – and, “If you don’t think global warming is real, then you’re a fucking idiot.”
Governors Ball moved pretty seamlessly into Day Two. It was also the day the politicians came out, because who loves crowds more than a politician? New Queens Borough President Donovan Richards addressed the audience for Bleachers (though Jack Antonoff comes from the other side of Manhattan…), praising the borough’s music, diversity, and vaccination rate. And before headliner A$AP Rocky, it was the very new Governor Kathy Hochul that came out, not a Cuomo in sight.
(you know if it wasn’t for the protracted budget negotiations in Washington, Senator Chuck Schumer would have been there, like he was at Central Park’s The Homecoming – QRO review – and perhaps the boos still-Mayor Bill DeBlasio got at that, an event he set up, kept him from coming to Flushing…)
Early on was Breland at the Bacardí Stage, who might also be from nearby Jersey, but played a style he called “cross-country,” because, “Country music should be for everyone!” Yes, made one think of Lil Nas X, but also of Kid Rock. He was certainly engaging & active this early in the day, including a really catchy yet-to-be-released piece written with Thomas Rhett, “Praise the Lord”, about going to church on Sunday morning after drinking Saturday night. He also “Throw It Back” with whiskey & Elvis, but “Don’t Touch My Truck”.
MUNA brought her big, sultry electro-pop to the Honda Stage, the crowd singing and dancing along to pieces such as “Number One Fan” and new release “Silk Chiffon”, the latter of which had guest appearance by recent tour mate & Governors Ball Saturday mate Phoebe Bridgers. Meanwhile, Charlotte Lawrence was playing for the first time in three years on the GOVBALLNYC Stage, “Pretty nerve-wracking…” Asking to know everyone’s name, she had everyone shout theirs at the same time. Her parents were there, and she played a song that they’d introduced her two – Phoenix’s “Lisztomania”, for the geriatric millennials in the audience (or at least for your correspondent, who knew it way better than the way younger crowd…).
The crowd at the Bacardí Stage grew for A R I Z O N A and their big, shining electro-pop, with pleasers such as “Find Someone” and “Problems”. And over on the GrubHub Stage, the Brothers Macklovitch – a.k.a. Dave-1 of Chromeo & A-Trak – were spinning tunes like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Heads Will Roll”, making it a club banger (not the only time heads rolled Governors Ball ’21).
While Jack Antonoff will probably always be best known for his production work with ladies like Taylor Swift, St. Vincent, and Lorde (he’s getting a lot of the blame from those who don’t like Lorde’s new record Solar Power – QRO review), his Bleachers have become a big act on their own (no one remembers that he was in fun., because no one remembers fun.). He started on piano with the sad “91” at the GOVBALLNYC Stage, but from then went into crowd-pleasers off his new album Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night (QRO review) such as “Let’s Get Married” and “How Dare You Want More”. The Jersey native’s Springsteen-love was in full evidence, with not just two drummers, but also two saxophonists (“The louder you scream, the harder he blow!”). At one point, he implored people to get on each other’s shoulders, because, “This is a fucking festival!” And he put on his glasses, and his bass, for closer “Stop Making This Hurt”.
But the ladies love King Princess, from her pro-pussy cheers to “Best Friend” at the Bacardí Stage. She proclaimed that Governors Ball is her favorite festival to play, because, “I came here every year in high school – blackout drunk…” And she did “Holy” live for the first time ever, remarking she wasn’t sure why she’d never done it before.
It was a Mega Thee crowd for Megan Thee Stallion on the GOVBALLNYC Stage. A running theme of the 2021 festival season has been Megan not being booked as headliner, yet drawing a headliner-size crowd, like a few months ago at Lollapalooza (QRO recap). However, at Governors Ball she was twenty minutes late, which, not being headliner, had knock-on effects. But she did bring her all, “Hands up!”, “Where my hot girls at?!?”, “Where my hot boys at?!?” And, yes, those girls & boys (and even Governors Ball staff) sang along for “WAP”.
That lateness seemingly bumped Phoebe Bridgers’ following Bacardí Stage set twenty minutes late; announced after being ten minutes late, few people left her own massive crowd of very excited girls, who were singing along to every song. Indeed, one needed earplugs not for the amplifiers, but for the girl screaming next to you. It was definitely a big shift from the exuberant Stallion to all of Bridgers’ sad songs, but Governors Ball was there for it, and so was Bridgers. She paused while phones lit up for someone in need of help in the crowd, and introduced her band, including “me 2” lookalike on bass Emily Retsas. Of course, it ended with “I Know The End”, and of course, it was cathartic & excellent.
Columbia’s J Balvin has become the go-to ‘first Latino headliner’ for festivals from Lollapalooza to Coachella, and now Governors Ball at the Honda Stage. The ‘Principe del Reggaetón’ didn’t just wave the Latin flag, but shouted out to other minorities & called for everyone to respect each other. Even if you only knew his Spanish language lyrics from your bodega, it was a big show – fireworks very much included.
The delay that hit Megan Thee Stallion & Phoebe Bridgers continued to A$AP Rocky’s headlining GOVBALLNYC Stage set, disappointing the amassed crowd – who were also hoping to see his girlfriend Rihanna, who apparently was in attendance. Like Balvin, the rapper has crossover appeal, and not just Trump trying to get him out of Swedish prison and Hochul addressing the crowd before him, yet he still brought out his charged material, including wrapping himself in his own American flag.
Governors Ball 2021 eased nicely into its final day, such as with the smooth, relaxed sounds of Amaarae on the Bacardí Stage. On the final day of any festival, you might be a little worn and sun baked, particularly at its hot, sunny start (even near the end of September). Princess Nokia has long done wild shows, and while she did bring her dancers to the GOVBALLNYC Stage, her performance was a little less wild, but a little more polished, than her early days. Yet she still embraced & celebrated Africanism, and killed it with “Tomboy” and her “little titties & fat belly!”
Initially, Caroline Polachek’s solo career kept with the airy waves of her old band Chairlift, but more recently she’s been upping the dance over the atmospherics, like at the GrubHub Stage (but also choked up about returning to play in NYC). Meanwhile, Umi asked the Bacardí Stage crowd, “You wanna mosh? Go ahead & mosh!”
Duck Sauce are another DJ duo, Armand Van Helden and A-Trak, indeed another DJ duo who played The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Heads Will Roll” as a banger, just like Brothers Macklovitch (another DJ duo with A-Trak) the previous day, but at least they also brought their giant inflatable duck to tower over them at the Honda Stage. Thankfully, Governors Ball ’21 reached a lot further at the GOVBALLNYC Stage with Nigeria’s crossover Afro-fusion star Burna Boy, who brought his home’s rhymes & rhythms across the Atlantic.
There are some artists that you want to see, but you don’t want to admit that you want to see, even though should be fine admitting it. Festivals are the best place to see such artists, like Carly Rae Jepsen. Yes, you remember her from “Call Me Maybe” (celebrating its tenth anniversary), but she’s been churning out pop hits since then, no maybe about it. On the Honda Stage, she brought her big pop that everyone was singing along to, and the whole experience was definitely amped up by being around so many happy fans. She was a real presence on stage, with charisma & humor from start to finish. There were hits like “I Really Like You”, “Maybe” mid-set, and “Cut To the Feeling” as close – though no “Higher”, despite still having a few minutes to pull it off.
Perhaps Jepsen ended early to make up for 21 Savage coming on so late on the GOVBALLNYC Stage. First, the schedule changed from his 6:00 PM start to 6:30 PM – and then he didn’t come on until 7:00 PM. You literally could have seen all of Jepsen’s set waiting for this Fred-level Savage. Another doubly-late artist was Young Thug, first bumped from 7:00 PM to 7:15 PM, but finally coming on at 7:40 PM to close out the Bacardí Stage. At such an otherwise well-run festival, it was not hard to notice, but he still had a big crowd (and later joined headliner Post Malone on stage).
Thankfully, Ellie Goulding came on to the close out the Honda Stage only twenty minutes after her original start/five minutes after her rescheduled. She still has her big sound, but perhaps due to the lateness of the set (both vs. schedule, the festival as a whole, and in the day, with the sun finally down), she wasn’t quite as special as she has been before.
If you only know Post Malone from looking at him, and maybe his Bud Light commercial, you might have a bad taste in your mouth, but closing out Governors Ball ’21 on the GOVBALLNYC Stage, he was nothing if not gracious and thankful. He not only repeatedly thanked the crowd for coming, but before his mega-hit “Circles”, admitted to needing auto-tune, and apologized for his voice on it sounding like somebody, “Spilled beer on the computer or something.” He did his big hits such as that, “Better Now”, and “Psycho”, but also a 2016 “deep cut”, “Too Young”. And yes, he brought the pyrotechnics (and just pyro) as well, for “Saint Tropez”.
After everything was canceled last year, everything has been scrambled this year, as we’re all trying to make a new normal. Governors Ball shifted from June to September, from Randall’s Island to CitiField, and pulled it off. Yes, it was a very mainstream popular music festival, with a young and barely-dressed crowd, expensive tickets & drinks, and in a parking lot. But it was very well run, easy access to & within, and all those dollars were reflected in the professionalism & ability of the artists, from just-begun to big-time. So, maybe not the New York City we all have in our imaginations that never really existed (and was not that great to begin with), but what the Big Apple can deliver today.
-photos courtesy of Governors Ball