Stunners, Disappointments, And Other Lessons We Learned at Governors Ball

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It felt like the 2014 iteration of Governors Ball was a high point that the festival would be hard-pressed to ever reach again. Coming off three years of building hype, last year’s version managed to survive a disastrous, rain-marred 2013 edition to put together an absolute stunner of a lineup no matter where your tastes lie. I mean, when acts like TV on the Radio, Chance the Rapper, Empire of the Sun, and Janelle Monae can only crack the middle of your poster, you’re doing something right.

And while the quality of a given lineup is obviously highly subjective, it seemed coming in like the 2015 edition’s slate was lesser almost entirely across the board. Going from Outkast in 2014 to Drake in 2015 was a jump commercially, but hip-hop, in general, was mostly ignored this year after an incredible offering last year. The only genre that could possibly boast improvement was EDM, which makes sense; it’s the world’s most powerful musical movement right now. So true enough, this year’s Governors Ball seemed in many ways a comedown from last year, but there was still plenty to enjoy. Below are some thoughts from three days on Randall’s Island.

Governors Ball is at a bit of a crossroads. Namely, it has to figure out exactly what kind of festival it wants to be. While exact attendance numbers are tough to pin down, the festival’s founders said this year would set a high mark, with a reported 150,000 attendees over the three days. And quite frankly, at this point the festival is beginning to outgrow its space on Randall’s Island. This year felt much more congested at points than in years past, and the infrastructure showed signs of cracking — an already difficult entry and exit process worsened with the bigger crowd; the field was a muddy, manure-stenched mess despite just a little rain (again, made worse by the masses); concessions were constantly overwhelmed; and some of the acts were far too outsized for the smaller stages they were playing for (more on this below). The festival comes from independent roots that it wants to maintain, and I admire that; some of the charm comes from being able to get from one end of the festival to the other in less than five minutes, with a predictability to how everything is laid out. But it’s also expanding its footprint while shooting for stars like Drake and Deadmau5, and that creates a dissonance. At some point, the festival might have to move again (it already moved once, from Governors Island to Randall’s Island in 2012), or go the Coachella route and spread out over two weekends, something the founders have said they’re not interested in doing right now.

I agonized over this scheduling conflict for weeks, and in the end I was right, kind of. I was going to see Drake even though I knew My Morning Jacket would be the much better Friday headliner for two reasons: 1. I’d already seen My Morning Jacket five times at that point, and had never seen Drake; 2. I thought Drake would be eager to erase his lackluster Coachella performances with something special. My plan was to catch the first 15 minutes of MMJ before Drake’s set started, then migrate over for that. But the Kentucky rockers came out so hot, leading with “Believe (Nobody Knows)” off new album The Waterfall, followed by It Still Moves‘ “Mahgeetah,” that my journey to Drake was delayed a bit.

By the time I made it over, I stayed for four unimpressive songs before giving up and heading back for My Morning Jacket. From the looks of things, I wasn’t alone; Drake seemed to be bleeding people all throughout his set. It’s hard to hold a festival’s attention when you’re just one man up on a stage, no matter how many hits you have, and his set just sounded small compared to MMJ’s grandeur. I imagine Drake is better on his arena tours, where there’s more opportunity to put together a customized show, and to be fair I did only catch four songs; others who saw the full set had more positive reviews. But I wanted to stay for the whole set. I was looking for a reason — any reason — to stay, and I didn’t get one that satisfied me personally. My Morning Jacket, on the other hand? Simply excellent. Seeing them truncate their often unwieldy live sets into under two hours was odd, but they still proved why they might be the world’s best festival band at the moment. They certainly were my favorite performance of the weekend.

Friends don’t let friends wear unnecessarily bulky backpacks to shows. And if they do, they certainly don’t let friends squeeze into the middle of a tight crowd and dance around in a manner that swings said bulky backpack into everyone around.

Same with a bulky arrangement of balloons. Why was this necessary? Practicality > quirkiness, people.

My favorite chunk of the weekend was a two-hour Sunday block that saw Tame Impala immediately followed by The War on Drugs on separate stages. Tame Impala had the best non-MMJ set of the weekend in my opinion (scribbled in my notebook: “OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD” and “sleeper album of the year coming?”), and The War on Drugs were fantastic too, with singer Adam Granduciel really upping the Dylan-esque mannerisms of his delivery. It took a little bit for The War on Drugs to find their footing, but once they hit “An Ocean Between The Waves” as their third track, they were all hazy anthems and guitar riffery. Tame Impala were on from the start, mixing what we’ve heard from their upcoming album Currents with their past catalogue. The crowd loved “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” and “Elephant” most, but the highlight to me was new track “Eventually.” It didn’t hurt that the best weather of the weekend — a breezy, sunny, 80-degree heaven — coincided with those two hours.

My biggest disappointment? Sadly, Flying Lotus. He was one of the acts I was looking forward to most, but the first 45 minutes of his set lacked urgency, especially compared to the other producer/DJs of the weekend (Flume, in particular, put on a brilliant set that had even me dancing). At one point, Flying Lotus tentatively asked the crowd “What do you want to hear next?” and it didn’t seem like simple audience pandering as much as it did a guy who genuinely didn’t really know where to go. Maybe it was nerves? The man known as Steve Ellison, hiding behind a screen playing mind-altering visuals, paused at one point to admit “This sh*t is nerve-wrecking, man. I’m just a dude up here.” After 45 minutes, he eventually hit his stride, emerging from behind that screen to spit some of his Captain Murphy material, and the crowd’s almost deafening reaction seemed to be one of a collective “Finally!” exaltation. But at that point, most of his set was already done, and most people had already departed to catch what was left of Hot Chip. A Gotham Tent that was 125 percent full for the beginning of FlyLo’s set ended up only being about 75 percent full by the time all was said and done.

Speaking of that Gotham Tent, Gov Ball needs to do a better job of picking which acts go there. For the second year in a row, the acts in the tent drew crowds that were so big that watchers spilled outside its confines. Last year it was Chance the Rapper and Empire of the Sun; this year it was Future Islands, Flying Lotus, ODESZA, and SBTRKT. It’s no coincidence that the Gotham Tent is where a lot of the electronic/dance groups are placed, and that’s the crowd that has seemingly dominated Gov Ball the last two years. Aware as I am of EDM’s global dominance, even I found myself somewhat shocked at times by the droves of #millenials, rallied in their finest neons.

The right way to get to the front of the stage through a packed crowd? Tap someone on the shoulder and kindly say, “Excuse me.” The right way to be a selfish assh*le? Just shove right through.

Despite a supposed ban on selfie sticks, I saw more than enough of these monstrosities to reinforce my cynicism about the future of the human race.

Sharon Van Etten played a surprisingly powerful set, given that her sad-sack stylings don’t typically mesh with the sunny festival atmosphere, but my favorite part of her set was her stage background. Some — Flume, St. Vincent — opted for grand stage setups. Others — Flying Lotus, Tame Impala — chose trippy visuals behind them. Still more — The Decemberists, Connor Oberst — played in front of nothing. Sharon? She played in front of a background that simply said, in the most basic of Arial fonts, “SHARON VAN ETTEN.”

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After seeing Future Islands live, I get why the people that love them, do. It’s still not for me, though. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Death From Above 1979 are capable of making me run through a pane of glass, on the other hand.

In the war of Jack White vs. the Black Keys, I side emphatically with the guac master, even if I can respect what the Keys do. Their festival-closing set Sunday was solid if unremarkable. I’m not entirely sure they didn’t just play the same song 25 times in a row, but they played that song well. And I was encouraged that, for all the talk about mainstream guitar rock being dead, their crowd was big, and loud, and surprisingly young. I was expecting all the cool kids to be at Lana Del Rey, leaving dads and the rest of us uncool folk to watch the Black Keys, but there they were, a bunch of high-school and college kids going nuts to “Lonely Boy” and the like. The Black Keys may not be the innovative, legendary force that previous generations have had in their biggest rock acts, but it’s still good to see people not turn their backs on something as simple as a guitarist and drummer giving it their all.

Acts I didn’t know much about whose sets were so good I’m reconsidering things: Rae Sremmurd (those boys are so insane they made a definitive fan out of me), White Lung, MØ, Benjamin Booker, Royal Blood.

And, finally, my 10 favorite sets of the weekend:

10. Florence + the Machine

9. Connor Oberst


7. St. Vincent

6. Rae Sremmurd

5. Death From Above 1979

4. The War on Drugs

3. Flume

2. Tame Impala

1. My Morning Jacket