In 1994, when there were no Vines or Instagrams or Twitter feeds or blog updates to at least slightly numb one’s FOMO, I watched MTV’s coverage of the Woodstock re-up as a means to dull my anger about being born in the ’80s. I was too young to go, and the dry, dirt-and-mud-free confines of my parents’ basement were where I sat and watched it. It was aspirational. The mud didn’t seem necessarily like fun, but with so many bands playing so close together, I could imagine braving the elements. Of course, at the time, I had no idea that a big glob of people who go to these things are essentially paying money to get fucked up with extra-special background noise and, more or less, are shilling out money to see a bunch of bands play one song. I think there’s a line you draw between mud people and music fans. Mud people don’t care about the mess of the festival because it’s part of their experience; music fans are hindered by extreme inclement weather because they paid money to spend the day seeing as many bands as possible — not to be an extra ingredient in dirt porridge.
New York City has no shortage of live music, especially during the summer, but our festivals are relegated to one-day events (Hot 97’s legendary hip-hop Super Bowl Summer Jam, the Village Voice’s now-defunct Siren Fest and its replacement 4Knots) or smaller niche gatherings (Afro-Punk Festival). Governors Ball is in its third year, its second on the Rikers Island-adjacent Randall’s Island, and is the largest, most marquee collection of artists to play a concentrated space over the span of three days in the region. Not that NYC needs it, but it’s certainly a boon for the city, and the lineup this year supported the fact that the little league festival was pulling a new weight this year. A bit of disorganization would have been a mild, albeit ultimately forgettable, annoyance of this year’s event, but, unfortunately, it was the weather, harkening to my memories of seeing Woodstock ’94 on television, that made the terrain of Gov Ball sort of unpleasant.
Friday was truly gnarly. It was a maelstrom. It was slimy. It was god’s way of telling me that from the first time I heard “On & On” until the day I die, something will get in the way of me seeing Erykah Badu perform live. I am not built for having mud flung at me by doped-up sorority girls in headdresses, and I played it safe inside. Early in the day, the brooding Poliça, a well-jacketed J. Mascis and Dinosaur Jr., and fan-favorites Local Natives performed under an irritating amount of rain, but only a few hours into Day 1 it became an absolute nightmare. Here’s where Gov Ball won that day: Most festivals strip people of their umbrellas — and in most circumstances, they should — but they changed the rules and did their best to try and keep people’s bones from getting wet. Salute.
Day 2 saw clear skies, but not enough to turn the mud into anything more than brownie batter. Kings of Leon were squeezed into the main stage schedule before Guns N’ Roses after having to suspend their performance on day 1 due to weather. And while there was a mud circus throughout, there were no deterrents to the day’s performers, like Icona Pop, ALT-J, Dirty Projectors, and Animal Collective. Posting up at the main stage (i.e., the only spot on Randall’s Island where there is concrete) was ideal, but it is especially so when the performers are Divine Fits and Cut Copy. As I learned at Coachella, Divine Fits are one of the most perfect hazy-afternoon festival bands. They hold down a stage, rock super hard, and always seem extremely happy to be doing what they do. At one point in the set, Dan Boeckner monologued about the resiliency of the Gov Ball staff and its attendees and covered Frank Ocean’s “Lost.” Cut Copy brought a vibrancy that matched the increasingly-present sun. Elsewhere, Azealia Banks proved she is a beastly force on stage who disrupts hip-hop norms with ferociously vouging back-up dancers. Kendrick Lamar delivered his pointed mouthfuls with aplomb, but did not provide a spectacle or any wowing guest appearances, as a NYC-based festival might beg for. Instead, he rapped his ass off on an enormous stage to a mud-encrusted audience and I think that’s all we ever need him to do.
Haim and Freddie Gibbs kicked things off on Sunday, while festival circuit-mainstays like Yeasayer, Gary Clark Jr., and the xx played throughout the rest of the afternoon. Grizzly Bear, who are also of this ilk, were an excellent pre-Kanye presence on the main stage. The sun set behind them, as if all their vocal harmonies will lulling it down from the sky. Later, on a smaller stage, Bloc Party almost resurrected the mid-2000s. They’re the kind of band that demands attention and had a crowd that seeped out of the small tent they were performing in throughout the muddy trenches of the field and played Silent Alarm hits, material from their last album Four, and a cover of Rihanna’s “We Found Love” as if the somber xx weren’t just a slingshot away and they were the only band left to see that night. But while this year’s Gov Ball was heavy with many beloved bands old and new and came with an unexpected narrative via Tropical Storm Andrea, the most-anticipated story of the weekend was Kanye West’s performance.
Having Kanye as your festival’s headliner in January means something completely different than it does in the aftermath of “New Slaves.” You don’t really know what he is going to bring to the table when he has a massive style-upheaving record coming out in weeks and a sense of frustration that’s been brewing for months. What we call “Kanye Rants” were the bubbling of ideas on how to approach making music, his life, and how he processes his own day-to-day existence. One could only hope that Kanye’s Gov Ball-closing set would be a rally. There were hints of it, here and there, but it was mostly the status quo — a run-through of hits, a bit of on-stage banter about rebuking the radio and just wanting to make an album that people will like, and extended emotional renditions of songs like “All Of The Lights” and “Runaway.” (Watch the new songs he debuted here.) There were a few moments when soul samples, in his early signature style, would blare from the soundsystem until they dissolved, as if he was shedding his old skin. Were these segues actually supposed to be representative of change or just him adding edge to his old ways? “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” sound better with each new performance, but I don’t see that for “On Site,” which, despite its off-kilter, noise-gleaned arrangement, still has the sonic makeup of something Orgy decided to leave off of Candyass — which is to say, he’s being influenced by industrial but he’s not allowing himself to fully pull the trigger and just go out there. There still needs to be a pop sheen attached to what he does. He’s still the guy who put a new coat of paint on top of Young Chop’s visceral production for “I Don’t Like.” “I Am A God,” which he either brilliantly or gauchely followed up with “Jesus Walks,” demands massages and croissants in the hooks, and the dichotomy with what he’s projecting (no pun) with “New Slaves” begs for the project to be consumed in full. It would have pissed a lot of people off, but it would have been amazing if Kanye came out, Manson’d the hell out of the stage, and showed us who he wants us to see now. There are whispers that SALEM and Evian Christ are also collaborators on the album and the more I hear “Black Skinhead,” the more it feels gleaned from Danish anarcho-punk legends the Ex (and Ye’s SNL stage presence feels more like mimesis of their former lead singer G.W. Sok) than “The Beautiful People,” although both influences would be on the nose. This will be an interesting journey. It’s possible that the emperor will have no clothes, but if nothing else, it will be bringing something extremely challenging to traditional rap fans and to casual Kanye pop-consumers alike.
[Photos: Robert Altman]