Last year, New York’s young Governor’s Ball made a big splash. The simple, 2-stage festival drew a concise list of indie heavy hitters including Beck, Modest Mouse, and Fiona Apple. Now, with the public’s eye on the little fest, Gov Ball decided to up the ante this year, doubling its size. Taking over twice as much land on Randall’s Island and adding two stages, the festival has grown to full size. And with that larger scale comes a need to sell more tickets. That became immediately evident with the line-up this year, tapping bands like Guns N’ Roses and The Lumineers to expand the audience from Brooklyn hipsters to Manhattan bros. At the last minute, I decided to grab a Sunday ticket and get a piece of the action this year. And I’m happy to say that despite the larger size, Governor’s Ball still mostly retains the same charm that made its smaller incarnation so fun.
12:00 – 2:15: A Whole Lot of Mediocrity
While Sunday’s top billed line-up was impressive, Governor’s Ball had a problem finding great small bands to fill in the early hours. Taking the start of the day easy, I sat off to the side and casually listened to a few of the acts. Nothing stood out, as all of the bands felt like ‘lite’ versions of their genre. The Revivalists played an admittedly spirited set that felt too clichéd to be impressive—safe bait to draw in the DMB crowd. Things weren’t much better on the indie side with the long-haired men of Roadkill Ghost Choir playing a sleepy set of bland rock songs. The only minor highlight of the early hours came from Haim, a California quartet consisting of three badass frontwomen (3 of the 4 women I saw on stage over the course of the entire day). Their sound wasn’t anything special, as they dipped into relatively standard rock and roll fare, but they kicked things into gear effectively pumping the crowd up for the long day ahead.
2:15: Freddie Gibbs
I head over to the Skyy Vodka tent around 2 to catch the only real diverse act of the day, Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs. Regardless of how vastly different the set was in genre, the crowd was still predominately white. It’s probably a good time to note that Governor’s Ball may just be the whitest festival on the planet, despite taking place in the Mecca of diversity. Regardless, Gibbs takes the stage with a commanding presence. He steps out leading the crowd in multiple “Fuck Po-lice!” chants, and taunting the audience to put their money where their mouths are by lighting up some weed in defiance (What he doesn’t realize is that most of the crowd has been smoking the entire set). His flow is flawless. He bounces between songs and freestyles effortlessly to the point where you can’t tell when he’s just kicking rhymes off the top of his head. At one point, his DJ drops the beat so Gibbs can truly show off his freestyling abilities. What follows is Sunday’s biggest display of raw talent, as Gibbs drops a truly astonishing rap for minutes on end. The crowd goes crazies as each minute passes. The DJ tries to bring the beat back in and start the next proper song, but Gibbs waves him off and keeps flowing. It’s a moment of raw skill that solidifies Gibbs as one of the best rappers currently out.
3:00: Portugal. The Man
Portugal. The Man end up on the absurdly massive main stage, leaving them with the task of entertaining a very large crowd. Of course, they don’t have much of a problem with this. Not only is half of the audience already drunk and/or high at this point, but the Portland rockers play pretty fun music. They play through a competent set of danceable pop jams, including highlights from their latest record, Evil Friends. The band does have some trouble, however, filling the stage. They seem noticeably stiff, not knowing what to do with the space. Their sound isn’t quite big enough to reach the arena-sized anthems that a stage like this calls for. As a result, they come off just a little flat, rarely reaching greats heights. Portugal are the type of band you want to see in a sweaty, mid-sized club. The songs and sweat are there, but the energy is a mismatch.
Bradford Cox may just be the whitest person at Governor’s Ball. The Deerhunter frontman walks out on stage dressed like he’s on his way to audition for a Gilligan’s Island remake. On paper, Deerhunter doesn’t sound like a great festival fit. Their noisey, often washed out songs seem like they’re better fitted for a more ambient setting. In practice, however, the band ends up pulling off the finest rock set of the show. Mostly performing songs from their garage-rockier new album, Monomania, Cox and company tear through a tremendous set of songs. From the epic opening chords of Agorophobia to the blistering jam of Monomania’s title track, the band commanded the crowd’s attention just by sheer force of sound. One woman near me covered her ears in pain most of the set, even during the silence between songs. “This is some great American music!” shouted Cox after a particularly noisey jam. I couldn’t agree more.
Throughout the day, you could hear the name “Foals” on the breath of most passerbys. Seemingly everyone spent the day recommending the band to everyone around them (myself included). Their set had a massive amount of hype going in, and the crowd to match it. The English group are an arena rock band in training, busting out a set of massive anthems that got people clapping along at all the right moments. Audience freak-outs to jams like My Number and Inhaler ensued as expected. What I didn’t predict, however, was how moody the band comes off as live. Most of their set actually consisted of more slow-burn ballads. They retained that same anthemic bigness, but something about their set felt just a little too gloomy. Whether or not they lived up to the hype didn’t seem to matter, as the audience used the slower moments as a chance to pour beer over everyone around them and take obligatory selfies. In that regard, Foals were a perfect midday intermission for festival goers ready to take a break from intently listening to bands and just do whatever the hell they wanted while music played in the background.
I arrived to the other side of Randall’s Island just in time to catch Beirut. I’d seen the band once before, and their set was nothing short of astounding. Their sound is incredibly full with an onslaught of brass taking each song to soaring heights. But you wouldn’t have been able to tell that from Sunday’s set. Due to technical problems, the sound was off leaving the band lost in empty space. That, combined with a surprisingly large crowd for a band that hit its popularity peak 5 years ago, made for the first sacrifice of the day. While watching bands all day is great, certain human needs take precedence. So instead of strain to hear, I grabbed my second bacon-wrapped Crif Dog of the day and listened to a few Yeasayer tunes from afar (which were perfectly audible from across the field, by contrast). [NOTE: apparently Beirut’s sound was fixed about 4 songs in, just in time for Elephant Gun, so I’m sure they were just as big and brassy as usual].
6:45: Grizzly Bear
Grizzly Bear rounded out a line-up consisting of 2009’s most exciting indie bands. I’ve seen the group twice before, both in incorrect settings. The first time was opening for a Radiohead before Veckatimest came out. They sounded tiny on a massive arena stage, with their airy harmonies sounding floating around with nowhere to go. Two records later, Grizzly Bear have become an incredibly competent rock outfit. Shields cuts like Yet Again and Sleeping Ute sounded massive with pounding drums and stunning harmonies. Many of those just there waiting patiently for Kanye were none too thrilled, though. Once the band went into an admittedly slower mid-set, they turned to their phones to pass the time. It was their loss, as they missed a rock-solid, satisfying set. But can you blame them for getting restless? I mean, it’s Kanye West.
9:30: Kanye West
Saturday was Kanye West’s 36th birthday, and he Yeezy couldn’t give a fuck. Opening his set with “Black Skinhead,” the intense new song from his new album Yeezus that took Saturday night Live by storm last month, Kanye launched into an incredibly dark, powerhouse set filled with some of his most sinister songs. Of course, I have to take a moment to discuss the new songs. The Yeezus cuts sound like the kind of music you’d imagine a mad scientist would produce. They’re laced with the dirtiest synths you’ve ever heard and primal screaming. This isn’t radio-friendly single Kanye. “Honestly, when I listen to radio, that ain’t where I wanna be no more,” West confessed during a minor rant at the end of “Clique.” It quickly became clear that Kanye wasn’t there to get press. The rapper banished press photographers and strategically placed lights in front of Governor’s Ball’s cameras to block his face. Instead, he spent most of his set out in the middle of the audience on a platform, perfectly positioned ten feet from my awe-struck face. You can call him a douchebag or an asshole (in fact, he agrees), but you can’t deny that he’s an astounding performer. West tore through a greatest hits set that drove the crowd into a frenzy from start to finish. Spectacle isn’t a big enough word to describe a Kanye show. It’s a genuinely larger than life experience that you can’t take your eyes off of. I spent my entire, long commute back home with my jaw welded open processing what I just saw.
I wasn’t the only one. And in the end, Kanye’s set made me realize something fundamental and obvious about music festivals that I hadn’t fully considered before. These aren’t really about the music. Think about it. Why would you want to spend an absurd amount of money to trek through mud and stench only to barely see a bunch of bands from afar while your legs break under you? Doesn’t that sound terrible? But people are what make it worth it all. I spent Kanye’s set surrounded by the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered at a show. We chatted, looked at each other with ‘HOLY SHIT’ glee, and shared a moment we’ll never forget together. During the ever-so-glorious “Runaway,” Kanye told the audience to hold on to their loved ones. A guy behind me (who kept trying to offer me a hit of his weed before the set) threw his arm around me and another fan to my right. We all swayed together and sang together in utter glee. For now, it appears that Governor’s Ball is here to stay, and I couldn’t be happier about it. I’ll be telling the tale of Kanye at Gov Ball 2013 to my disinterested grandkids for decades to come.