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.)
After the incredible success of tUnE-yArDs’ 2011 masterpiece, w h o k i l l — a critical darling that earned the No. 1 spot on the Village Voice’s annual Pazz and Jop poll — it was hard to imagine where Merril Garbus would go next. Turns out, Garbus, the powerful voice and mastermind of the one-woman-band-turned actual band, wasn’t sure, either. For a musician and producer as inventive with sound and wordplay as she is, Garbus says she’s always had at least some music she was workshopping or planning to record. But after some time off, there was little left on the shelf, and in order to restock, she realized she had to challenge herself.
To watch Garbus play on stage — as she constructed each drum hit into a danceable polyrhythmic groove and each vocal line into textured harmony with the help of live looping pedals — was to catch a glimpse of what it’s probably like when she writes new material. But this time, she wanted to stretch beyond that by going into the studio five days a week and trying to craft two demos a day.
“I also had rules,” she explained, “This week I’m only going to write using drum machines’; ‘This week I’m going to write using vocal melodies first, and build something around that.’ At the end of that, I had about 30 demos.”
Those demos eventually became the backbone of tUnE-yArDs’ superb third album, Nikki Nack — which features work from producers John Hill (Rihanna, M.I.A.) and Malay (Frank Ocean, Alicia Keys, Big Boi).
At the center of the record is “Water Fountain,” another trademark no-holds-barred song propelled by a rubbery bass groove from Nate Brenner, Garbus’ clacking, room-shaking polyrhythms and infectious chorus of singers. The dense yet playful song is emblematic of Garbus’ new sonic direction found all throughout Nikki Nack— check out those bit-crunched digital artifacts and incredible percussives skittering around the headphones. tUnE-yArDs’ music is undeniably fun, buoyant, and even more explosive in concert.
Where Garbus’ w h o k i l l band was comprised of herself, Brenner and two saxophonists doubling as percussionists, this new iteration triple downs on the rhythm and the voices: There’s another female percussionist and singer who bangs away at an impressive battery of drums and electronic pads, and two additional female singers, who also dance with moves equally choreographed and improvised, tribal and modern. That layered chorus of voices added so much complexity and inventiveness to these songs — it was gorgeous and soulful to hear, and joyful to watch them flail and glide around the stage.
And that visual component is also a large part of the the experience: Across the stage, there’s little Pee-Wee-inspired monster creatures from the “Water Fountain” video affixed to the instrument stands — and cartoony eyeballs as part of a flowy backdrop. And of course, everyone in the band wore brightly colored fluorescent clothing and wild tribal face paint that illuminated with a DayGlo sheen under the bright lights and black lights. To watch tUnE-yArDs perform is like being transported into a Saturday morning cartoon funhouse (er, Playhouse?) full of fun danceable grooves and killer melodies you want to shake and sing along to.
But obviously, there’s more depth to this music than meets the eye: Merrill Garbus is one of the most inspiring figures in music right now — with an uncanny ability to craft songs equally full of joy and anger. And as she sings about global inequality, gender politics, and economic and cultural struggles in her distinctively unrestrained voice, her songs carry extra power. As always, Garbus is an adventurous musician, a playful front-woman and a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her force of nature. This music feels completely of this moment and beyond. Not only is Nikki Nack is among the year’s best records, but tUnE-yArDs’ put on one of the best live shows of the year so far.
The best collaborations bring a push and pull that forces each member out of their comfort zones, and charts new territory they may not have ventured by themselves. Case in point: Sylvan Esso, the new project from singer Amelia Meath, of the mostly a cappella Vermont folk trio Mountain Man, and Nick Sanborn, of the North Carolina rock band Megafaun. Unlike those more guitar-based, acoustic-leaning groups, Sylvan Esso takes a stylistic leap, veering a hard left toward minimal electronic music and taut synth pop. And with their superb self-titled record, Meath and Sanborn perfectly encapsulate that creative spirit of collaboration, equally showcasing their individual talents, and creating a synthesis of their group’s respective sounds in a new way.
With tracks like “Uncanta,” and the album’s best single, “Coffee,” Sylvan Esso best demonstrates its alluring and spare sound: Meath singing amid Sanborn’s woozy hooks, chiming synth sequences and laptop beats. Elsewhere, in “Hey Mami” or “Come Down,” Meath begins with her seductive, unadorned voice, before unfurling layers harmonies as stirring and shimmering noises begin to percolate around the periphery. And in “Wolf” and “Play It Right” (a song Mountain Man has performed a capella), the throbbing synths and clattering percussion gets heavier, darker and dancier.
With a practically fully-formed sound out of the box, Sylvan Esso has made one of the year’s best pop debuts so far. But it also captures an exciting and fruitful pairing still discovering what it wants to become — and with endless potential to grow.
As Taylor Swift leaps full on into pop, there’s been something of a sea change burbling in country music’s undercard in 2014, with many artists shifting outside the polished commercial country machine and creating their best music yet. Take Jessica Lea Mayfield, who tosses out her wistful alt-country for smoldering, grunge bangers on Make My Head Sing… Or Hurray For The Riff Raff, which on “The Body Electric” reinvents the classic murder ballad with a clever feminist critique. Or, Sturgill Simpson, whose remarkable Metamodern Sounds In Country Music blends a traditional twangy croon with existential cosmic ruminations and mind-altering drugs.
Similarly, Lydia Loveless brings a punky edge and an emotionally charged candor to country music with her fantastic album, Somewhere Else. Within her rowdy, countrified rockers, the young Columbus, Ohio singer-guitarist writes about many of her self-destructive tendencies — from drunkenly calling up an ex to break up his marriage (“Really Wanna See You”), to bleary-eyed late night stewing over past lovers (“Head” ), to referencing and relating to doomed 19th-century French poets (“Verlaine Shot Rimbaud”). As romantically stormy and sexually frank as Loveless can be, her lyrics never feel overly sensationalistic. Instead, Somewhere Else presents a bold songwriter willing to scratch at her flaws and regrets, and allow herself to look bad. It’s all the more relatable and potent for it.
Try all you like, but it’s practically impossible to resist pumping your fists in the air or pounding on the steering wheel to “I’m Not Part Of Me.” While buried as the closer on Cloud Nothings’ new album, Here And Nowhere Else, this is the kind of explosive, hair-raising song that you’ll hit repeat as soon as it ends, just so you can shout along to the line “I’m not telling you all I’m going through” with satisfying defiance. And then there’s that chorus — “But I’m not, I’m not you / You’re a part of me, you’re a part of me” — which is so emblematic of what makes Dylan Baldi, the Cleveland, Ohio band’s primary force, such a potent frontman: He’s exceptional at piling three song’s worth of melodic pop hooks into one raucous punk banger.
Like so many songwriters, Baldi turned to music as a way of expressing his boredom, isolation and bottled-up anger. Soon his basement project grew into a full band, turning those melodic, hissy songs into throttling two-and-a-half minute bursts of youthful angst. With, Attack On Memory, its breakthrough second full-length album from 2012, the band turned to Steve Albini to help steer the ship away from jangling power pop and unleash a newfound pummeling noise. Crammed with scorching distortion (“Wasted Days”) and vocal cord-shattering, yet singable choruses (“Stay Useless”), those pop punk songs were loud and fun, but with a sneering, pissed-off tone that felt especially cathartic.
With Here And Nowhere Else, the band maintains, even hones that gloriously abrasive fury. But it’s gotta be exhausting carrying around that weight just so you can turn that pain into lyrics to be howled out on stage. Here, Baldi shows considerable growth in his song craft as he reflects on his life and relationships with a sense of nostalgia — seemingly self-aware that without choices he’s made, he wouldn’t be where he is now. “I’m moving forward while I keep the past around me,” he sings on “Pattern Walks,” one of several songs in this new batch that come off as, if not fully upbeat, then positive. “I was feeling pretty good about everything so I just made stuff that made me happy,” he explains.
A taut eight songs, (adding a ninth track would simply be repeating themselves, Baldi has said) this album exudes a sense of urgency. No doubt, it’s the result writing in fits and starts while on the road for the last 18 months; not to mention Baldi playing these songs for his bandmates — bassist TJ Duke and drummer Jayson Gerycz — mere days before heading into the studio.
This time, the band called upon producer extraordinaire John Congleton, to record over a long week at Water Music in Hoboken, N.J. — and later mix at his Dallas, Texas studio. Compared to his contributions this year with artists like St. Vincent and Angel Olsen, Congleton wields a far lighter stylistic touch with Cloud Nothing. Functioning more as an engineer and documentarian, Congleton captured the trio playing as a live band, yet brought out subtle sounds that unfurl upon each listen. For a guitar-based, punk-infused rock record, this one’s surprisingly a “grower” — something Baldi admits he’s always wanted to create.
Not that you have to wait that long to grab you: Right away, in the poppy opener song, “Now Here In,” the guitar distortion hits you like a scatter-shot blast of rock salt in the chest as Baldi howls “I feel there’s nothing left to say / Assume that life can be so strange.” Elsewhere, Cloud Nothings gets heavier than ever with Gerycz’s machine gun drum rolls on the not-quite-hardcore screamer “Just See Fear,” and with the squelching feedback on “Pattern Walks” — which gets a lengthy jam midway through. And on the melodic “Psychic Trauma,” Baldi returns to common themes of painful memories and the passing of time. With Here And Nowhere Else, Cloud Nothings has crafted a thoughtful, blistering set of songs that will linger well after the mosh pit fizzles out.
It’s always illuminating to discover the music of a longtime sideman when left to their own devices. At best, it’s an opportunity to hear what songwriting choices they make, what style and voice they inhabit, and hear a musician often relegated to an accompaniment role come into their own.
Such is the case with Douglas Keith, an accomplished New York-based songwriter and solo artist in his own right, but one many people — including myself — first came to know as the guitarist and bassist behind singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten. Keith’s fantastically versatile playing added new textural depth and a more epic scope to her intimate songs in concert; on stage, there’s a true musical kinship.
But with his album, Pony, Douglas Keith not only reintroduces himself as a frontman, but delivers his best work yet.
So it was cool seeing Doug Keith rip through a diverse set of new songs at the Bowery Ballroom — along with Megafaun’s Brad and Phil Cook, and fellow SVE bandmate Zeke Hutchins (all of whom play on Pony). Keith ably tackled “Pure Gold In The ’70s” — a brooding synth-driven song that builds to a scorching guitar solo courtesy of one J. Mascis on the album — with some glorious solos and noise of his own. And elsewhere, showed off his songcraft and his dusky voice with rustic folk-rockers full of pastoral country trappings — the crisp acoustic guitar arpeggios, the steady pulse of bass, and swirling organ. The show felt like a celebratory moment in the spotlight, and a snapshot of friends playing music together.
Ty Segall is practically impossible to keep up with. At only 26, the endlessly prolific garage rocker has been one of the most productive artists around, putting out more than 12 albums — and even more if you count other bands he’s affiliated with: Sic Alps, White Fence, and his new band Fuzz, to name a few.
Last year alone, he released three records — all of them excellent if you like your music loud, and filled with scuzzy riffs, catchy refrains, and bursts of noise. For most musicians, you might expect a break to refuel. But not Segall, who’s back now with yet another new album under his own name, Sleeper.
Unlike last year’s albums, Sleeper presents a new side of the Ty Segall we all know and love: The Bay Area-now-Los Angeles-based songwriter has dialed down the amps and the scorching guitar distortion for a surprisingly restrained, and mostly-acoustic collection of songs. Inspired and influenced by recent tragedies in his life — his father’s death and the subsequent falling out with his mother — songs like “She Don’t Care,” “Crazy,” and the title track are far darker and emotional than anything he’s done thus far.