Over 40,000 music lovers from all over the country converged on Randall’s Island in NYC on each of the three days of Governors Ball over June 6-8. A perfect weekend of sun and clear skies catered to 68 bands across four stages of non-stop music running from shortly after noon until 11pm . This year marked the fourth for Governors Ball but only the second year as a three day festival and the first as a three day rain-free festival following last year’s washout.
The midday kickoff on Friday saw a slow arrival of festival goers at first but many seemed to have convinced their bosses at work to let them out early as the crowd picked up toward the middle of the afternoon. Excitement pulsed through the flow of people making the twenty minute parade from the 4/5/6 subway station with the sight of the main stage peeking up through the trees adjacent to Icahn Stadium. The mood of the weekend had been set.
Just about everything at the festival was about New York City. An impressive display of artwork by NY artists or with NYC themes was on hand throughout the grounds giving many photo ops (and yes, #govballnyc was a trending topic on Twitter and Instagram throughout the weekend with all of those photos). Foodies had a real treat with numerous local food and beverage vendors on hand showing off their grub. For the most part it was pretty easy to find a short food line at the right time, but a few popular joints maintained lines stretching across the lawn.
A rather noticeable facet about the weekend was the staff – festival attendants, security, medical and everyone else involved in making Governors Ball run smoothly. The staff were knowledgeable and beyond friendly. Security and attendants got into the fun of things giving out random high-fives as people came and went and guards sometimes got into the mood of the music by encouraging fans to clap along with whatever act was on the stage behind them (not to mention a great job done of keeping everyone safe).
Now the critical element – the music. As we just mentioned Governors Ball was all about NYC. This carried on often in the weekend’s lineup with a number of bands based out of the five boroughs ranging from just recently signed bands like Drowners and SKATERS to the well established headliners like Interpol and Vampire Weekend, just to name a few on each end of the spectrum. Of note for the festival was the variety, with something for almost everyone. While there were no heavy metal or jam band acts there was an array of rock, indie pop, punk, EDM and hip hop. An excellent and unique opportunity was created by Governors Ball for people to tune their ears to something new or something they may have assumed they would dislike until seeing live. Metalheads were able to wet their whistle briefly with a lot of Metallica and hair metal played over the PA during set changes at the Gotham Tent.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the musical highlights for each day as seen by :
Friday – Day 1
The festival kicked off with some hometown acts: Brooklyn-based Haerts opening the main stage followed by NYC natives Drowners taking to the Big Apple Stage on the opposite end of the grounds. Drowners drew a younger crowd (granted, it was only 1 p.m. while many festival goers may have been leaving work). Frontman Matt Hitt resonated vibes of a 60’s pop performance in a 21st century light, creating along with the band an indie pop sound that was done just right. Jason Isbell (Drive-By Truckers alumnus) gave the first country sounds of the weekend on the main stage in a singer-songwriter fashion backed by a full band. Lo-fi indie rocker Kurt Vile of Kurt Vile and the Violators could be seen often hunched over his guitar attentively focused on the notes as he played to an intently listening crowd at the Big Apple Stage.
The standout act of Friday afternoon was Janelle Monáe, and perhaps a standout for the whole weekend. Her band was clad all in white playing against a black and white candy swirl backdrop and the waves of energy bouncing between the stage and crowd was almost instant with people grooving along with the very animated and enthusiastic Monáe. Aesthetically a retro throwback and musically a rebirth of new wave soul and R&B (along the lines of Prince), her songs seemed to connect to all ages within earshot of the main stage. Be sure to check out Janelle’s footwork on stage next time you see her perform.
A surprise performance by the High and Mighty Brass Band from NOLA/NYC caught the attention of people making their way to the main stage for Phoenix. With Nadav Nirenberg on trombone (also of Streetlight Manifesto) they turned the main food vendor area into a Bourbon Street festival on Randall’s for fifteen minutes or so. Other notable acts on the first day included Julian Casablancas+The Voids (who are releasing a debut album this year), Neko Case, and from across the pond Bastille and Phoenix. Phoenix, by the way, is no stranger to big festivals and they proved that to Governors Ball. Playing to one of the largest crowds of the day so far, the band looked thrilled and even ecstatic to be on stage and off, when singer Thomas Mars got close and personal to the audience, crowd surfing with mic in hand near the end of the set.
Closing out the first day was a highly anticipated set by Outkast, who are storming the festival circuit with their first shows in 10 years. Their set brought a majority of the crowd over to the main stage as they played a perfect set mixing hits and deep cuts that had the crowd eating out of their hands the whole time. Opposite them was Damon Albarn, who played songs from his new solo album, Gorillaz, Blur, and The Good, The Bad, & The Queen. Although the crowd in front of his stage may have been much smaller, Damon played as if he were on the main stage, giving every moment of his set all the energy he could and added extra flavor to the set bringing on guest backing performers.
Saturday – Day 2
The first act of Saturday that caught a lot of attention was Diarrhea Planet. Based on their name alone you may not want to take them seriously but you surely would after seeing their set. Every person walked away from their set with a smile and grin on their face. Delivering a sometimes heavier punk sound somewhat akin to The Gaslight Anthem, there was no shortage of energy from the crowd surfing to the circle pits to the guitar players climbing the stage scaffolding and even one of them crowd surfing himself with guitar in hand. Not to mention that they teased the crowd with a reprise of Outkast’s “Hey Ya!” to close out their set. Immediately following those guys at the opposite Honda Stage was RJD2. Those seeing his DJ set for the first time noticed right away that he made his live mixes using real vinyl records, a real attention grabber for first-timers. Brooklyn’s own Lucius supported their 2013 debut album Wildewoman with a charming indie pop performance on the main stage at the peak of the afternoon followed by Broken Bells who were also supporting their 2013 release After the Disco.
Despite the blazing sun, Los Angeles neo-soul/funk band Fitz and the Tantrums put on a very energetic set to an almost main stage sized gathering, establishing themselves as one of the afternoon anchors of the festival. The audience interaction, their cover of The Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams,” and James King’s bari sax licks (with a tease of Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty” on “Moneygrabber”) ripping through the air like laser beams were just a few of the things setting this act apart from the others. Some other strong performances before the headliners came from The Naked and Famous, The Glitch Mob, Spoon (who debuted some new songs including “Rainy Taxi”) and Brooklyn-based Sleigh Bells, who rocked the Gotham Tent with a loud noise rock set. Julian Casablancas returned for a second night in a row, this time joining his main band and NYC natives The Strokes playing to an eager crowd chanting “we want The Strokes!” before the set kicked off a few minutes on the late side. Fans really got into their set, even lifting a few crowdsurfers into the air. Closing out the Honda Stage opposite Jack White was a set by Skrillex, supporting his recent March 2014 release of Recess.
Finally, there was Jack White. There is a lot to be said about his set which happened to be three days before his second solo album Lazaretto was released. White, a connoisseur for guitar riffs and refined attention to the smaller details of his performance, commanded and conquered the main stage to take as his own territory. Set to the backdrop of a red waxing Gibbous moon, White’s set included a range of material from his time with The White Stripes and as a solo act. While we didn’t see any surprise appearances on stage, White did perform “The Rose with the Broken Neck,” a track written in collaboration with Danger Mouse (bassist of Broken Bells who did a set earlier in the day). Though billed as Jack White, each band member was just about as prominent in the performance as White himself. Chanting the riff of “Seven Nation Army” during the encore break, the crowd got what they asked for. White’s performance on “Seven Nation Army” was nothing short of spectacular. It seemed as though fans didn’t get enough of it when “Seven Nation Army” turned into the chant of choice as the queue of people leaving the grounds over the RFK Bridge was building up after the festival closed.
Sunday – Day 3
Not quite ready for the sunburn rehab clinic, people made a point to catch as much of the final day as possible, arriving in numbers shortly after the gates opened. The Gotham Tent was pleasantly warmed up with a short set by southern roots rock singer/songwriter Ben Cameron, originally from Connecticut but bringing his songs from his current musical home of Nashville. Another reward of arriving early was a set from Cayucas immediately following Ben Cameron with their indie surf rock themes from California. Early afternoon sets from two NYC bands BLEACHERS and SKATERS coincided, leading to a fairly even distribution of people between each set. SKATERS brought back the sounds of post punk and old school garage rock, even paying tribute to one of their influences by covering the Ramones later in their set. Those at BLEACHERS’ set were treated to a cover of Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”
When it came time to relax in the afternoon heat, Chicago-based Wild Belle dished out some slower rock grooves with pleasant reggae beats easy to either dance along to or enjoy sitting on the lawn. On the hip hop/EDM side of the record both rapper Tyler, the Creator and English duo AlunaGeorge packed their respective stages with dance heavy crowds. Tyler, the Creator filled his set with silly rapping received by a rather raucous audience.
Prior to the headliners, the dinner hour was entertained by The Head and the Heart and British rockers The Kills. The Head and the Heart are familiar with festivals, remarking “It’s nice to be at a festival on the east coast for once,” and thanked the audience for their attendance at a music festival for music lovers. While something can be said about the chemistry on stage for most of the performers at Governors Ball, there was no short display of it by The Head and the Heart. Another festival master, Foster the People played to a growing audience, perhaps getting themselves in place for Vampire Weekend. There wasn’t too much in the way of special live elements to the show, such as an EDM interlude in “Pumped Up Kicks” but they did add a few extended intros/outros and brought a friend, Spencer Ludwig from Capital Cities, to play trumpet on two songs including “Houdini.” Frontman Mark Foster played to the NY crowd with anecdotes about the naming of nearby Icahn Stadium in the downtime banter between songs.
By now you have probably noticed the focus on NYC based acts, and this was topped off with a weekend headlining set by Columbia University bred Vampire Weekend. With anticipation building for VW’s set, fans were craning their necks to scope out the baroque style setting of the stage and once the set began attempted to push themselves a little closer to the stage. Their upbeat, fast paced singles “Cousins” and “Holiday,” among others, were met with raised arms jumping around throughout the crowd. Their set was closed with an old favorite, “Walcott,” performed a little faster than the studio version. Vampire Weekend was confident and energetic on stage, though they seemed just as comfortable at Governors Ball as at a smaller NYC venue like Terminal 5. Either way, they were a perfect choice to headline and close the festival main stage. On the way out from Vampire Weekend’s set, people caught the sounds of the final few minutes of Swedish EDM duo Axwell Λ Ingrosso’s set, complete with fireworks.
With four stages and 68 bands, it would be very difficult to see every act long enough to appreciate their sets. However, here is our pick of ten of the best performances from Governors Ball 2014, in no particular order:
- Jack White
- Daman Albarn
- Janelle Monáe
- Vampire Weekend
- Diarrhea Planet
- Fitz and the Tantrums
- The Strokes
Governors Ball did a decent job of planning the stages such that there wouldn’t be much coin tossing on who to see. For example, there were some clear favorites like Outkast over Daman Albarn on the first night. However, more even splits in attendance between the stages could be seen at times, most likely due to tough decisions. Jack White and Skrillex played sets at the same and debates could be heard between friends on which set to attend.
Governors Ball has evolved into a powerhouse amongst the big festivals, spotlighting both major and up-and-coming local NYC talent mixed with acts from around the country. The biggest take away from this year’s Governors Ball is that it was truly designed as a festival experience for the music lovers and connoisseurs. It’s not all about going for the sake of the scene; it’s about experiencing the music. Governors Ball, you’ve shown us how it’s done.
Catch ’s backstage interviews with Drowners, Ben Cameron, and SKATERS coming soon to .com.