byADAM OFFTIZER < @aofftizer >
“In a few years, Governors Ball is gonna make Bonnaroo or Coachella look like small potatoes. So you’re at the start of something big.”
These were the triumphant words of Senator Chuck Schumer, who came out to do a little bit of political grandstanding at the Governors Ball on Sunday afternoon with some trademark New York City bravado. The crowd, as expected, went nuts at the West-coast tease, thrilled to finally claim a local festival as their own. But can Governors Ball, in only its fourth year, really claim to be a worthy challenger to the country’s festival heavyweights?
After years of established consistency, it’s safe to say Bonnaroo and Coachella will never look like “small potatoes” compared to anything. But with a remarkably diverse lineup, a smooth weekend and a well-defined identity, Governors Ball proved itself to be a solid East-coast competitor.
This year, the festival made a concerted effort to present New York City as the weekend’s ultimate headliner. Sculptures of the Statue of Liberty and a Big Apple served as ideal meeting points for the festival’s hundreds of thousands of attendees, New York bands (The Strokes, Interpol, Vampire Weekend, TV On The Radio) dominated the lineup, literary quotes from John Steinbeck and others hailing the glory of the city were plastered on the Jumbotrons.
A New York City festival can probably never recreate the magic of an experience like Bonnaroo - camping will always beat out commuting as an ideal option – but they'll certainly keep trying. With memorable balloon chains stretched out across Randall’s Island for the fourth straight year, and a signature slogan (“You’re Doing Great!”), Governors Ball has developed an identity, laying the foundation for (hopefully) a long stretch of successful weekends to come.
Without further ado, let’s talk about the music. It’s time to present Pretty Much Amazing’s Govvy Awards – recognizing the most memorable music, moments and miscellaneous minutia of the weekend.
Best Tag Team
The nominees are…
Chance the Rapper and Childish Gambino
Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt
Two dynamic duos got to dominate two separate days of the weekend. Saturday belonged to Chance and Childish, who commanded massive crowds with relentless energy. Chance The Rapper’s solo set featured some remarkable showmanship, with the smiley Chicago artist paying homage to his city in both fashion style (rocking a White Sox jersey) and dancing style (during a rousing rendition of “Everything’s Good,” Chance busted out some jazz hands and cabaret moves that would have made Catherine Zeta-Jones proud). Gambino was full of the same boundless energy, with a little more intensity – closing his set with a blistering medley of his biggest crowd favorites (“Freaks and Geeks” and “Bonfire”). When Chance popped up in the middle of theperformance, it felt like that rare thing – a “spontaneous” festival moment that really was spontaneous. Gambino had to teach his band how to play “Favorite Song,” which resulted in an inspired, off-the-cuff jam session, and then Chance proved that he actually did write a verse for “The Worst Guys,” rapping it live for the first time ever.
So it seems that Donald Glover has decided to focus on making music over comedy. On Sunday, Tyler the Creator decided to fill the role as class clown. More performance art than performance, Tyler mocked the VIP section (“Your rich parents pay for this shit?”), belittled the festival (“I didn't even know this existed until last week when I found I had to fly to f—-in New York City and perform at it”) and grabbed his crotch a lot. Earl was a fun, likable hype man, but nothing more. Odd Future is a fun novelty act, but their cult following pales in comparison to the mass appeal of Chance and Childish.
Winner: Chance The Rapper and Childish Gambino
Best “Solo” Act
The nominees are…
“Solo” is written in quotes because all three of these artists had wonderful bands performing on stage alongside them. Casablancas gave one of the weekend’s most disappointing performances – his new material with “The Voidz” sounds like a collection of poorly developed, less catchy Strokes songs, and his lackadaisical showmanship certainly hasn’t changed over the years. Janelle Monae, on the other hand, is the consummate performer. With her radiant smile and phenomenal voice, she commanded the main stage on Friday afternoon, playing with the electric energy of a headliner. In the actual headlining slot on Saturday, Jack White did the same, shredding through a selection of his solo work before giving the massive crowd the hits they wanted to hear – “We’re Going To Be Friends,” “Icky Thump,” “Steady as She Goes” and “Seven Nation Army” concluded the night in spectacular fashion. While White’s performance occasionally drifted into long and winding guitar jam sessions, he provided a unique intensity and old-school rock flair. Citing Broken Bells and The Strokes, he praised Governors Ball for its lineup selection. “Usually I don’t like festivals,” he said, “but this one felt really good.”
Winner: Jack White
The nominees are…
The Head And The Heart
The weekend’s beautiful weather provided optimal conditions to listen to some gorgeous, jaw-dropping harmonies. On Saturday, Lucius converted a lawn full of relaxed listeners into fans, with brilliant dual vocals on “Turn It Around” and especially “Go Home,” which gave me the best kind of chills. On Sunday, The Head and the Heart didn’t need to convert anyone into fans – they attracted a big audience of established listeners, and responded by playing most of their stunning debut album rather than their newest one, a wise choice. Lead singer Jonathan Russell took a shot at West coast music festivals for becoming more about “spectacle,” while Governors Ball “feels like it’s about the music for once.” The crowd responded by going absolutely nuts for Charity Rose Thielen’s amazing vocals on “Rivers and Roads,” perhaps the best musical moment of the weekend.
Winner: DRAW. Both amazing.
The nominees are...
Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls
Phoenix hails from Versailles, France, but it’s been five long years since they hit the American pop charts with “1901” and “Lizstomania,” so they don’t feel so foreign anymore. In fact, they felt right at home at Governors Ball, with lead singer Thomas Mars working his trademarkred microphone cord and flexing his surprisingly strong vocals, commanding the pumped-up crowd on Friday evening. Phoenix wasn’t exactly billed as a headliner, but they certainly played like one, and their set relied on material from their masterpiece (2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix) as opposed to their lackluster 2013 album. Hearing the blaring chords of “Love Like A Sunset” just as the sun began to go down over the East River was among the festival’s most picture-perfect moments.
Frank Turner, on the other hand, knows he isn’t a headliner, and instead tried to teach the crowd his songs and make hundreds of new fans. With a rollicking set of aggressive, catchy British bar-rock (Turner comes across the pond from Winchester, England), Turner hollered from the main stage about the power of old-school rock and roll, before delivering just that.
Winner: Phoenix, by an inch of red microphone cord.
Best Song With The Words “Hey” and “Ya” in the Title
In a coincidental full-circle ending to the weekend, Vampire Weekend’s climactic performance of “Ya Hey” on Sunday night provided a clever counterpoint to Outkast’s “Hey Ya” on Friday. “Ya Hey” marks an important moment in the New York band’s live career – their repertoire now includes a triumphant arena rock anthem that feels worthy of a festival-headlining, weekend-closing performance. “Hey Ya” is more of the exclamation point to a victory lap for Outkast, their signature track that reminds the fans why they came. Andre 3000 was a fantastic front-man on Friday, pumping up the crowd with big smiles and electric energy. Along with “International Players Anthem,” “Hey Ya” was the obvious signature moment in Outkast’s phenomenal, career-spanning set. While Vampire Weekend’s career has been much shorter, their performance featured an impressive array of tracks from all three albums, along with a deep cut from their debut EP (the ska-influenced rocker “Ladies of Cambridge”). Both artists provided headline-level production flourishes without veering too much into gimmicks – Outkast with an intricate shadowbox on-stage to jump in and out of, and Vampire Weekend with a magnificent light show during “Giving Up The Gun” and “Cousins.” The crowd seemed thrilled on both nights, as the well-chosen headliners provided perfect conclusions to both the first and last day of the Ball.
Winner: Outkast has the better “Hey Ya” song (duh), but Vampire Weekend had the slightly better set overall.
Best New Band
Two wonderful performances from two up-and-coming bands. Cayucas brought their brand of tropical, California pop-rock to Sunday’s sunny afternoon in the cool shade of the Gotham Tent, perfectly adding extra drums and jam sessions to songs that would otherwise be too chill for a live setting. BLEACHERS, the new band from fun.’s Jack Antonoff (former lead singer of Steel Train), had a distinctive ‘80s vibe, with synthesizers and power-chords that invoked Bruce Springsteen at his most pop-rock levels. They’ve only released two songs so far, but the rest sounded excellent, and Antonoff provided his typical stage presence of frenetic motions and audience interaction.
Winner: BLEACHERS, but check out both bands.
Only one nominee and winner…The Big Apple Stage.
It hurts to end on a negative note, but a critic has to criticize, no? Last year, the festival’s “You’re Doing Great Stage” was plagued with terrible sound for bands like Local Natives and Dirty Projectors, but I gave the benefit of the doubt and chalked it up to the miserable wind and rain from Tropical Storm Andrea. This year, the same stage was renamed the “Big Apple Stage” – but the sound system was apparently not replaced. Spoon, Neko Case, Bastille and others were all affected by a set of speakers that drowned out vocals and faded in and out of clarity, which made their performances feel weaker than they actually were. Let’s hope Governors Ball fixes this issue next year.