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).
-words: Ted Chase
-photos: Gloria Lee and Ted Chase