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.)