As far as destination music festivals go, Governors Ball is an odd duck. Where Coachella and Bonnaroo have become behemoths of camping and partying all night, Gov Ball feels smaller in scope — in part, because music ends promptly at 11 p.m. and everyone leaves for the night; and in part because the layout make everything feel a little less sprawling. Don’t get me wrong, that frequent hike to and from the Honda or the Big Apple stages to the main GovBallNYC Stage will wear you out, especially when navigating through obstacles (maybe with, for instance, a bunch of camera gear). But it’s manageable.
On the other hand, Governors Ball may be at a popularity tipping point: During the weekend’s biggest, and therefore most-crowded sets (Drake, Lana Del Rey, Tame Impala, The Black Keys, among them) that same relatively compact confines creates bottlenecks that made it incredibly difficult to navigate through the dense hordes of concert-goers, or just people standing around day-drinking, standing in long lines, or just chilling (passed out?) in the grass. Every festival has this, of course, but footpath flow could be rethought. Similarly, there was the inevitable sound bleed from stage-to-stage — something Ryan Adams (half-jokingly?) addressed during his Saturday night set, which was scheduled opposite the thundering bass and beats of Deadmau5.
Governors Ball is clearly getting bigger every year, but it may need to find a better sweet spot to accommodate its fans.
All that said, Governors Ball provided more than enough of top music highlights to overcome logistics. Besides Drake’s star-power on Friday night, Florence And The Machine and St. Vincent were the true favorites, each demonstrating exceptional nuance and grace amid their powerful songs — especially as Annie Clark matched her gnarled, noisy melodies with subtle robotic choreography.
And My Morning Jacket, after a long hiatus, returned with a set that mixed newer songs and nostalgic classics — including the soaring “Wordless Chorus” from 2005’s Z.
Saturday seemed low key in comparison: While the early morning rain created a slurry of mud in the grassy fields, it thankfully never descended into full-Woodstock ’94 madness. The day brought loud rock from White Lung and J. Roddy Walton & The Business, and also calmer moments from Sharon Van Etten, Conor Oberst, and even Bjork — who brought out a brand new ornate costume and entire chamber orchestra to deliver live arrangements of her otherworldly hits and melancholy songs from Vulnicura, all synced to inventive animations, music videos and even fireworks. While a giant festival may not be the most ideal place to hear music that delicate and open-hearted and quiet, it was stunning to see so many turn out at the big stage to catch a glimpse of an icon — even if from afar.
Then, the party really got going, with EDM from SBTRKT, hip-hop from Flume and Atmosphere, and Future Islands doing its synth pop thing to a tent full of aspiring magnificently awkward dancers. And then, if you weren’t into the grinding wub-wubs and deep drops of Deadmau5, Ryan Adams rolled through a career-spanning set — from the alt-country rockers of Heartbreaker and last year’s self-titled record to Cold Roses‘ winding Grateful Dead jams — on a stage adorned with vintage arcade game consoles and an old Dr. Pepper vending machine.
Sunday picked up again, with Sturgill Simpson crooning country songs, Flying Lotus melting your mind with dark and jazz-inflected electronic tapestries, and Hot Chip getting the crowd moving with buoyant electronic pop jams. The other clear favorites were The War On Drugs’ guitar anthems, and Tame Impala’ tripped-out riffs for maybe its largest crowd yet.
Another big highlight was the venerable comedy legend “Weird Al” Yankovic, who delivered a phenomenal and smile-inducing performance of his parody songs — both from last year’s Billboard No. 1 album, Mandatory Fun, and jam-packed medleys of older hits like “White & Nerdy” and “Fat,” for which he gamely adorned that hefty suit and makeup from his old video. Needless to say, me at ages 8, 13, 20, and, now 30-something me were kinda geeking out simultaneously.
And to close things out was The Black Keys, doing what The Black Keys do best; simply put: rock.
While there were a few decent surprises and discoveries along the way, Governors Ball is made for these sort of big tentpole moments. And for that, it completely succeeded. Festivals can be a pain at times, sure, but Governors Ball, like many other big fests, exudes this odd summer camp feeling: When it’s over, you’re totally ready to go home, but still a little bummed to return to reality. I guess there’s always next year.
Here’s a gallery of my favorite photos from day one of Governors Ball, on Friday, June 5, 2015.
(Note: This was originally published over at WNYC’s Soundcheck.)
Since his 2007 breakthrough album, Spiderman Of The Rings, Dan Deacon has assumed numerous roles. He’s a staple of Baltimore’s Wham City art collective — and a classically-trained composer and film scorer. On stage, he’s a mad scientist tinkering with colorful electronics — and a ringleader encouraging his wild fans in absurdist dance-offs. Likewise, his music delivers both exquisite bliss and full-on beat-heavy cacophony. But no matter the setting, Deacon’s unfettered sense of humor and his masterful ear for sonic textures unify his various music sides in endlessly exciting ways.
Now, after several records written for larger ensembles, Deacon has gone solo once again with his latest, Gliss Riffer. In some ways, it’s a return to what he’s best known for: exuberant and densely-stuffed electronic dance music. And while singing has always played some part Deacon’s songs, Gliss Riffer showcases his voice more fully. You can hear that immediately in the lead single, “Feel The Lightning,” and in “Learning To Relax” — where Deacon changes the pitch or timbre of his voice to sometimes sound female — like a duet with himself. It’s a big pop-infused sound that easily got fans flailing with awkward abandon on the dance floor at Rough Trade in Williamsburg.
The Philly-based power punk band Swearin’ is one of the groups that was born after the break-up of P.S. Eliot, a much-loved indie rock band from twin sisters Katie and Allison Crutchfield. While the Crutchfields have gone their separate ways — Katie with her solo project Waxahatchee, and Alison with the noisier Swearin’ — both share an honest lyrical sentiment with songs that reflect on restlessness and crumbling relationships.
Swearin’ plays rebelliously fast and fuzzy songs meant to be cranked up loud, but with smart lyrics about youthful detachment and personal troubles that should be heard. But where, the four-piece’s first self-titled record felt shifted towards Crutchfield’s point of view — especially on songs like “Kenosha” or “Just” — the songs on the its just-released followup, Surfing Strange, redistribute the voices more evenly between Crutchfield and Kyle Gilbride — and even bassist Keith Spencer on “Melonoma.”
In songs like the opening basher “Dust In The Gold Sack,” Crutchfield takes lead with a softer, impossibly melodic tone above the squalling feedback. Yet the very next song, “Watered Down,” it’s Gilbride’s shout front and center. Ultimately, Surfing Strange is another fine collection of honest and cathartic songs that shows Swearin’ musical and lyrical progress.
Sure, it can be easy (if wrongheaded) to dismiss bands with absurd, punny names. But Joanna Gruesome (a sly nod to Joanna Newsom) is the real deal. However, unlike Newsom’s ornate, melodic harp music, the Welsh band’s debut Weird Sister is crammed full of noisy and punk-infused grunge. I caught Joanna Gruesome twice last year at CMJ and each time was a blast to the senses. Almost a year later, at Shea Stadium, the band not only proved that last fall’s hype was for good reason, but also showed how much better its live show has gotten in that time. These songs are meant to be heard live, and loud.
With “Sugarcrush” or “Anti Parent Cowboy Killers,” Joanna Gruesome can be an urgent and exuberant blast of frenzied attitude. Yet with “Wussy Void,” Alanna McArdle’s breathy vocal melodies add a trace of pop buried just under surface of those searing guitars. For me, that mix between melody and dissonance is a perfect combination.
Back in early March, Baltimore synth pop band Future Islands played its new single, “Seasons (Waiting On You)” on the Late Show with David Letterman. For most bands, a Letterman spot is a routine part of the promotion cycle. But thanks to the charismatic singing and facial expressions, and jaw-droppingly great, GIF-ready dance moves of Future Islands’ kinetic frontman Samuel T. Herring, everyone — including Letterman — was blown away.
The next day, the clip went completely viral.
Living in D.C. from 2005-2012, I got a chance to see Future Islands several times as they were coming up — including a Tiny Desk Concert performance I shot for NPR Music, still one of the biggest bass amps I’ve seen crammed into that cramped office space. So for fans like me — Future Islands’ not-so-sudden “overnight success” felt, instead, like a well-deserved triumph for a hard-working band finally getting noticed in a big way.
It also felt like a resurgent moment of edge and relevance for Letterman and his show, especially in this overstuffed and highly competitive environment where most (younger) eyes are trained elsewhere on the dial (er, Hulu). And while Future Islands is just the most recent act to ricochet to a new level after playing the talk-show circuit, let’s be honest: this joyfully meme-able video is the most I had heard anyone in my circles drop reference to Letterman in some time. And now that Letterman has announced he’s stepping down and retiring in 2015 — to be replaced by Stephen Colbert — that performance will stand out as one of the show’s all-time great music acts.
All of this was on my mind when I stepped into a crowded but giant warehouse space near the waterfront in Greenpoint to see Future Islands. I had not seen the band since I moved to New York, let alone since they kinda blew up. The show was some weird free sponsored event put on by Vans — at their so-called House Of Vans, a sort of event space-meets-skate park-meets-actual warehouse, filled out with free cheap booze and food trucks outside. It was an odd shaped room — many people were standing awkwardly and painfully on the skate ramps — and even odder scene-y vibe, to be honest.
Yet as Future Islands ran through songs from its fantastic 2014 album, Singles, as well as some older favorites from On The Water, you could feel the room connect and come together. There’s something so unifying and unpretentious in the way Herring sings — and windmills and gyrates and slinks and fist pumps and grooves — on stage. It’s super melodramatic, sure, but also, impossibly earnest, heartfelt and real.
The big moment for most, of course, was the single that made them TV stars, and that absolutely was a joy to hear live, with a crowd. But the real moment for me was “A Song For Our Grandfathers” — a ruminative and deeply personal song I keep returning to after that show. As those dreamy synths filled the air, as Herring croons the line “I feel safe,” I felt something akin to pride.
Future Islands is loosely something of a local band for people in D.C. and Baltimore, and while I’ve sorta known about and liked for many years, it was stunning to see them in that moment — playing to more people than I’ve ever seen them play to before combined. It was clear to me finally that Future Islands had arrived in a way that you didn’t worry about what would come next or begrudge the way they got there. In fact, I’ve never been more excited to see what’s next.
Channeling a happier Beach House, or perhaps an even-sadder Best Coast, the music of Alvvays presents a familiar juxtaposition: The Toronto band’s songs marry upbeat, lovely, occasionally messy surf-pop melodies with bittersweet words. Throughout Alvvays’ superb self-titled debut, Molly Rankin unfurls line after emotionally open line, painting a portrait of romantic discontent in the matters of love and relationships. In “Adult Diversion” and “Archie, Marry Me,” Rankin perfectly encapsulates the conflict between youthful restlessness and a desire to settle down.
Then, in “Party Police,” she articulates the confusion that comes with trying to decode the thoughts of someone you love: “Walking through the trees, I never really know what’s on your mind / Is it ever me, or just someone you’ve left behind?” In those moments, Alvvays reveals something more resigned and heartsick than those crisp guitars and singable choruses would have you believe.