Early in the afternoon on Sunday, an unexpected guest strolled onto the main stage of Governors Ball, a three-day music festival held on Randall’s Island in New York City from June 6-8. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) took the mic and explained that even though New York is already the capital of many world industries, together, we could make NYC the center of the world for contemporary music. The brief speech eloquently summed up the purpose of the festival.
Since its inception in 2011, Gov Ball has grown in size, scope and popularity. As always, this year’s festival featured hordes of music-loving New Yorkers, a view of the iconic NYC skyline and delicious, albeit highly overpriced, food from some of the city’s best food trucks and vendors. But this year, the festival stepped it up in more ways than one.
The lineup consisted of 68 acts, the most in the festival’s short history, as well as artists spanning genres from acoustic folk to dubstep and everything in between. A killer set of diverse headliners, including OutKast, Jack White, Skrillex and Vampire Weekend, also distinguished this year’s lineup.
Gov Ball’s intentions are not to be like other music festivals such as Bonnaroo and Coachella. Instead, the festival takes a more modest approach, bringing out the essence and flavors of New York City through music and environment. Urban art on display from local artists, playful dÃ©cor mimicking some of the city’s landmarks and a youthful, chic vibe helps Gov Ball brand itself as a definite New York music festival above all else.
Something New for Everyone
The 2014 lineup was stacked with talented newcomers and lesser-known artists. The amount of new music available was at times overwhelming. Head towards the smoke-filled Gotham Tent, and you might have found the smooth R&B sounds and ultra-cool style of The Internet. Follow the unique folk/punk sounds to the main stage to find Frank Turner pouring his heart into every song. Show up on time one day, and you might hear the soothing voice of Wild Belle or the infectious indie feel of BLEACHERS.
Throughout the festival, I made sure to challenge my existing music taste and venture outside my comfort zone. Diarrhea Planet, despite the group’s repulsive name, offered one of the most explosive performances of the weekend, as band members dove into the crowd, climbed trusses and even tore through OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” in celebration of their reunion.
In addition to brand new acts, the lineup had a healthy dose of artists who have already proven themselves with multiple critically acclaimed albums and impressive live shows. Phoenix, Fitz and the Tantrums and Foster the People gave the alternative scene just what they wanted, bringing energy, musicianship and a whole lot of hits to each of their performances. Chance The Rapper, Earl Sweatshirt, Childish Gambino and Tyler, The Creator represented the new age of rap and hip-hop music well with youth and dynamism, although some lacked memorability. Acts like The Head and the Heart and James Blake deserved more attention for their ability to translate their sophisticated studio sounds into powerful, chilling live shows.
The Headliners (and The Strokes)
After a decade-long hiatus, OutKast’s Andre 3000 and Big Boi finally reunited onstage at Coachella in April. On the whole, the performance underwhelmed fans, was blasted by critics such as Rebecca Nicholas as a “crushing disappointment” and left everyone uncertain about the success of their many tour dates this summer (almost exclusively at festivals). But when the duo took the stage Friday night, their confidence, energy and playful interaction won the crowd over instantly. Track after track, OutKast delivered with nostalgia-inducing fun and ATL swagger.
The duo’s soulful backing band and clear articulation allowed for tracks like opener “B.O.B.” and crowd favorite “Roses” to soar into the ears of thousands of fans. OutKast was sure to include the classics, such as “ATLiens,” “Skew it on the Bar-B” and “Hootie Hoo.” They even slowed it down for a bit and forced a rowdy crowd to chill and groove to “Aquemini” and “SpottieOttieDopaliscious.” Before blasting into “Hey Ya!” Andre thanked the crowd for putting up with them for 20 years and then teased, “only if y’all promise to lose your shit when this drops right now.” The crowd definitely kept that promise. I left Friday night confident that OutKast was back on track for one of the greatest comebacks of our generation.
As I walked onto the festival grounds for Day 2, Gov Ball volunteers greeted fans saying, “Welcome to Strokes Day!” The Strokes had not played NYC in over three years, and although it wasn’t quite as drastic as OutKast’s disappearance, fans couldn’t wait to see Julian Casablancas back where he belongs as the front man of one of the most transcendent rock bands of our time, arguably.
The Strokes hit the ground running, performing hit after hit from the group’s five LPs with the same sonically tight effect as the studio records but with a raw energy that can really only be attained live. From their grittiest classics like “Last Nite” to more electronic-tinged, blissful tracks like “Machu Picchu,” the Strokes were nothing short of brilliant. True fans were in heaven, and new listeners were made into believers. The Strokes played their cards right and were the best performance of the weekend.
On Saturday night, Gov Ball fans had a tough decision to make. On one end of Randall’s Island, guitar icon and trend-setting blues rocker Jack White readied his axe and bizarre antics for the NYC crowd. On the opposing side, a hardcore rocker turned international DJ superstar who helped bring dubstep to the masses prepared his spaceship (literally, the stage was a spaceship) for earth-shattering bass drops and EDM fantasia.
Ultimately, I chose White over Skrillex because of White’s past record of unpredictable live performance, and because I’ll always be drawn to live musicians over electronic, computer-generated sounds – even if the guy behind the computer does happen to be one of the most influential DJ of our generation of music.
Jack White’s set took fans on a ride through his impressive career as a part of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs and most recently, as a solo artist. From recent Blunderbuss hits like “Love Interruption” and White Stripes crowd favorites like “Hotel Yorba,” White confidently led his all-star band as fans gleefully sang along and admired his incredible guitar chops. “Sixteen Saltines” never sounded so big as White raucously twisted across the stage and his infamous lyrics soared out over the crowd.
Lillie Mae, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, was a standout in White’s band, skillfully taking on harmonies and violin solos with power and grace. On “We’re Going to Be Friends,” together with White, Mae helped to establish the only tender moment in White’s set with soft, elegant vocals and a stellar blend. White finished the night off with “Seven Nation Army” and I could hear the famous chant-inducing bass line echo out at the stars as I exited the venue to avoid the stampeding crowd.
Of the three headliners I chose to see, Vampire Weekend (VW) was the most predictable. I had just seen them at the Fox Theatre last month, and the set list has been more or less set in stone throughout the group’s tour. As I expected, similar to their performance at the Fox Theatre, VW brought summery fun and preppy style to their set packed with hits old and new, such as “A-Punk” and “Diane Young.” The festival atmosphere worked brilliantly for them, as it only added to the flowery, mood-boosting aura they bring to every performance. Although their lack of virtuosity still disappointed me, VW put on a great show and left fans feeling joyful and relaxed as they left the festival gates for the final time this year.
Meanwhile, two-thirds of Swedish House Mafia (Axwell^Ingrosso) set off fireworks, flame-throwers and water blasters to give Gov Ball 2014 a proper end. Most agree that they could not possibly live up to Skrillex, who performed on the same stage the night before, but for fans still eager for one last party (one with less flowers and more fire), it worked well.
Overall, this year’s Gov Ball was undoubtedly a success. The music showcased at the festival provided fans with a taste of some of the best up-and-coming artists in the world, as well as some already established acts a chance to shine once again. If the festival continues to adapt to the times, growing and changing as we do, it is sure to stay among the most popular and to become even more influential. As Schumer said, this festival can help to make New York the center of contemporary music. Those are large aspirations but I do love the enthusiasm.
– By Jason Charles