Review & Photos | Governors Ball | NYC

Words by: Andrew Bruss
Images by: Scott Fleishman

Governors Ball :: 6.6.14 - 6.8.14 :: Randall's Island :: New York, NY

In its fourth year, Governors Ball is finally hitting a stride New York City music festivals were once thought to be jinxed from ever achieving. All Points West had both Radiohead and Jay-Z headlining during its two-year existence and flopped. Catalpa was so unprepared for the event they didn’t have merch to sell and after the epic failure of Field Day ’03, Bonnaroo Northeast pulled the plug early on their event set to take place on the same site.

The list of failed NYC-area festivals goes on, but the focus belongs on this past weekend's Governors Ball, which hosted a sold out crowd of 45,000 per day to a weekend of rock, hip hop, EDM and a hint of soul. More than just being a successful NYC festival, Governors Ball has developed the quirks and personality longstanding successes like Bonnaroo and Coachella have struck gold with. A great combo of big names and up and comers led to the weekend's success, as did picture perfect weather and a festival-going experience that just felt easy.

Most music festivals use big names to sell tickets, but often times the most magical performances are from that smaller act on a side stage nobody expected. There were plenty of great sets on the side stages, in fact, the audiences packed under the Gotham Tent were some of the most animated of the weekend. But at Governors Ball, the events headliners didn’t just sell tickets. They made the weekend.

Watching Jack White perform in 2014 is to literally watch a living legend in his prime. Both his vocals and guitar tone are instantly recognizable within seconds and his showmanship is first class. His performance was brought to us by the color blue. Blue lighting. Blue curtains. A blue telecaster (with a custom added Bigsby vibrato he didn’t once use) and a blue shirt. Even the tubes glowing in his amplifiers radiated blue beams. He performed material from The White Stripes and The Raconteurs as well as tunes off of 2012’s Blunderbuss and the upcoming Lazaretto (released four days after his performance).

Opening with “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” was a good way to hook the audience but White ain’t no jukebox and folks expecting to hear the White Stripes version of the tune were setting themselves up for disappointment. White tours with a bassist, drummer, fiddle player, one rocking keyboardist and a pedal steel guitar player who got his moment in the spotlight during a Theremin solo. The expansive support allows White to stretch his legs on White Stripes material that was originally played by just Jack and Meg White. “Icky Thump” was a song that allowed White to go wild on guitar thanks to his keyboardist playing the synth lines White played with the Stripes. Every musician on stage was better than Meg White, but none of them had the chemistry with Jack she had. Technical prowess doesn’t equate to “better,” but with an oddball virtuoso like White leading the band, having hired guns get his back and giving him the freedom to go nuts is a recipe for success. No other set played all weekend was as worthy of pulling out the earplugs and hearing raw music.

Outkast’s first performance in years took place at Coachella this past spring and the widely streamed and viewed performance felt like it came out of the oven too soon. Big Boi and Andre 3000 lacked chemistry, rapping from opposite ends of the stage, and there was little passion between the two of them. This justified any skepticism Governors Ballers may have had about the set, but they proved to their crowd and their critics that they’ve shaken off the rust and are worthy of the hype behind their reunion.

The ATLiens were in prime form, jumping out of the gate with “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad),” one of the first truly brilliant songs of the new millennium. As the set went on and the hits kept coming, everyone was reminded of how extensive their catalog of chart toppers is. But more than the setlist, the joy in their performance came from the on-stage dynamic. As they spat off rapid-fire rhymes on “B.O.B.” they worked off each other in a way that pertains to both word play and their physical performance.

Both Andre and Big Boi had a mini set of the tunes off their respective halves of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, but the show was more fun with the two of them going at it together. While the lack of new material suggests the reunion is more financially-motivated than creative, it was worth it to see hip-hop royalty doing what they do best. If it takes Andre running out of money from his Gillette ads to make it happen, so be it.

For as many people who went home talking about the headliners, two of the best performances of the weekend took place as the sun set prior to both Outkast and Jack White. Phoenix took the main stage Friday evening to a packed crowd camping out to get a good spot for Outkast. The Parisian alt/synth/pop act is one of the most emotionally powerful groups to champion a sound this accessible in some time. What makes their performances special is their ability to bring that sound into the live setting and the larger the crowd, the more the power of their tunes is amplified. Front man Thomas Mars has a mellow charisma to him that works his audience into a frenzy without looking like he’s trying too hard. It’s doubtful Outkast was watching Phoenix warm their crowd up, but if they were, they would have known to bring their A-game.

The Strokes did just as good of a job bringing the heat during the sundown set Saturday night before Jack White’s headline slot. Front man Julian Casablancas played with his own band the day before on the same stage, highlighted by a performance of “Instant Crush,” a song he recorded with Daft Punk on their Grammy award winning album, Random Access Memories. While Casablancas has been active as a solo artist in recent years, performances by The Strokes have become a once in a blue moon kind of happening. With the exception of a warm-up show they’d played in the ‘burbs a few days prior, The Strokes hadn’t played live in over two years. That said, you wouldn’t be able to tell from their performance. Close your eyes and with the exception of the rabid crowd response, you’d think you were hearing the record. The band seemed awkward and lacking enthusiasm on their 2011 tour but in NYC, they couldn’t have felt more relaxed and in their element in front of a rabid hometown crowd.

Last year's booking feat of landing both Nas and Kanye put Governors Ball on the radar of rap aficionados across the country and this year was no different. Outkast is playing over 40 festivals on this tour so there was nothing unusual about finding them on yet another bill, but Saturday saw both Childish Gambino and Chance The Rapper dish out their respective brands of nerd-rap to huge crowds and on Sunday, both Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt of Odd Future had back-to-back solo sets that worked the crowd up only to be followed by J. Cole. During Sweatshirt’s set, from atop the Honda Stage, Tyler shouted that they’d both be playing on the Big Apple Stage across the field starting in three minutes, and the stampede that ensued makes it easy to understand why he’s been arrested for inciting riots.

Tyler and Earl are the Beavis and Butthead of hip-hop. They’re crude, misogynistic idiots who are entertaining to watch yet don’t deserve to be taken seriously. Tyler’s lyrics don’t cover much ground besides sex and feces and he brought the two together when he told an audience member that her “coochie smells like shit.” He told photographers that their photos sucked, and he even does it in an extra grunty voice that demonstrates he is trying hard to be a troll. Odds are Tyler, the Creator isn’t the most enlightened male on the planet, but the things he says in his B-quality lyrics (being generous) should be taken with a grain of salt. The music lacked substance but Tyler and Earl are true performers and were fun to watch, if not listen to. That said, if a woman in the audience told me the set made her feel uncomfortable, I wouldn’t blame her in the least.

Governors Ball deserves credit for near-flawless logistics with regards to free water stations, ample restrooms, a feet-friendly layout, plenty of tents to hide from the sun and a security team that regularly threw bottles of water to fans camped out in front of the main stage who were at risk of dehydration. However, the sound was inconsistent all weekend. On the main stage, Janelle Monae’s set was bass heavy and the high end was a bit drowned out. The same stage hosted Jack White one evening later along with the best sounding acoustics of the weekend. The Big Apple Stage was crisp and clear all weekend but across the field on the Honda Stage, bad sound was the name of the game all weekend long. The best place to hear bands on the Honda Stage was behind the soundboard, closer to the Big Apple Stage.

The biggest weakness in the festival was the inconsistency in the daily schedules. Friday and Saturday were chocked full of rock stars and Sunday couldn’t have felt more anti-climactic. The three acts that closed out the festival were Foster The People, Interpol, featuring additional keyboard work by Brandon Curtis of The Secret Machines, and a main stage performance by Vampire Weekend. VW’s last release was hailed by many as the best album of 2013 and I’m not looking to argue for or against that but when you compare Vampire Weekend as a headliner to either Outkast or Jack White, underwhelming is being nice. The lack of exciting acts on the bill for Sunday made it easy for folks to leave early or end their weekend on a mellow note and often times that’s just what the doctor ordered. Yet for an event that sold every ticket for all three days, it was clear plenty of people didn’t even show on Sunday and it wasn’t hard to understand why.

If the last day being too easy going was their biggest crime, the folks behind Governors Ball have done pretty well for themselves. The fact that the event made it to its fourth year is validation in and of itself in this over-saturated festival market but this time around, the event raised the high water mark yet again. Governors Ball was better than the 2013 event in regards to headliners, bottom of the bill acts, transportation and weather (it would have been hard to do worse then last years epic mud fest). The only problem with their success this weekend is it will be that much harder to outdo next year, and that’s what Governors Ballers have come to expect.

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[Published on: 6/11/14]

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