The 10 Best Sets At Governors Ball 2014
I recognize this is an issue of taste, but Governors Ball 2014 was a little bit of a mixed bag for me. There were two headliners I loved, and they conflicted, and I had no interest in the subsequent four on Saturday and Sunday. After being impressed and surprised repeatedly on Friday, I had a range of experiences on Saturday with bands I’ve loved for a long time, some living up to the memory and some not, and then some not but still kind of actually doing so. And then by Sunday, I don’t think I really had any experiences at all — after having way too much to see on Friday, I found myself wandering a bit on Sunday, vaguely uninterested in most of the sets I stopped by. There’s also something inherently more exhausting about a festival in New York — there’s no quick escape to your car and a hotel, but rather the slow trudge of zombie-death back across the RFK Bridge, over-crowded subways, etc., etc.
But, hey, all that being said, those obscene crowds seemed to really love Governors Ball. I really loved a good portion of it, too, from the Jumbotron running quotes like John Updike saying “The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding,” to some really great tacos, to this $4 glass of lemonade I kept getting that seemed equal parts illegal in its addictive qualities and medicinal under the unforgiving sun of Saturday and Sunday afternoons. And, oh yeah, amongst the annoying conflicts and some ambivalence on my part regarding some of the artists playing, I saw some performances that blew my mind, or sparked a love for some new music, or preyed on ten or fifteen years of fandom to calibrate some real knock-me-to-my-knees moments. Out of those, these were my ten favorites.
[Photos by Luis Ruiz.]
I realize the Kills are probably pretty passe, but there's no getting around that they were a last minute breath of fresh air on a sluggish Sunday populated primarily by a lineup that was far less enticing than the preceding two days. Alison Mosshart has an awesomely swaggering stage presence, and -- performing in front of a giant jaguar print banner draped at the back of the stage -- emitted a much more natural aura of cool than, say, Julian Casablancas looking totally lost with his solo backing band the Voidz on Friday. She and Jamie Hince were flanked by four drummers pounding away on low toms in careful patterns. Combined with Hince's reliable slabs of distorted guitar, the interlocking drum patterns gave the whole set -- if I'm going to keep comparing them to other sets I disliked -- a more believably primal quality than, say, Jack White's histrionic blues caterwauling the night before. I was starting to feel pretty checked out by Sunday evening, and the Kills were a much needed jolt to the system, and one of the sets at which I had the most fun. This is a prime example of a band I probably wouldn't sit around listening to, but loved seeing live, which strikes me as a mark of an excellent festival set.
Chance The Rapper
One of the recurring themes of my weekend was consistently underestimating the popularity of artists playing the Gotham Tent. Perhaps the most shocking of these was Chance the Rapper. Even with Acid Rap being one of the more beloved rap releases of 2013, I wasn't expecting the kind of fervor that greeted Chance basically as soon as he walked onstage, appropriately wearing a blue Superman T-shirt. Backed by a live band that wasn't afraid of pausing for a quick horn break or guitar solo, Chance ran all around, jumped over and over, and generally succeeded in eliciting increasingly uproarious responses from the crowd when you'd expect they had nothing left to give. This was a set that kicked off with the majority of the crowd rapping and/or singing along to every single word, but still didn't peak till he dropped "Juice." (That one's one word chorus is pretty easy to rap along to, so maybe it got the stragglers speaking up.) Chance just seemed incredibly psyched to be there, and it wasn't really possible to avoid getting swept up in his enthusiasm.
Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels was the first act I saw at Governors Ball, and they walked out to "We Are The Champions." Coming off the low-key, no-nonsense triumph of their collaborative debut last year, it's hard to fault Killer Mike and El-P for that, especially when their set so effortlessly switched between the occasional smirking self-deprecation, earnest gratitude to their fans, and the much more vicious tone of their verses. The songs were as ferocious and raw as expected, but they also didn't mind stopping to joke around with each other or the audience. They mostly stuck to material from their debut, though El-P dropped a promise that its sequel was coming "very fucking soon." Eventually, they wound their way up to closer "A Christmas Fucking Miracle," which El-P explained was in tribute to a friend of his who died six years ago as of the other day. The following performance was amongst the most intense moments of the weekend. Run the Jewels set a high standard, maybe too high for a lot of the other artists to live up to during the festival, but I couldn't have asked for a better way to kick off Governors Ball.
As soon as I saw the incredibly '80s cover for La Roux's forthcoming Trouble In Paradise, I thought "Well, yeah, this is probably something I'll love." I'm sort of a sucker for whenever someone veers competently in any '80s synthpop direction, so it's great when someone like La Roux comes along and does it so well. Crammed underneath the Gotham Tent (a stage perpetually too small for the artists it housed, so attendees always bled out of its confines into a disorganized mess), people understandably went nuts for the old stuff like "In For The Kill" and "Bulletproof," but the slinky disco of "Uptight Downtown" was pretty great, too. For that matter, all the new stuff was collectively the highlight of the set, hinting that La Roux has a hell of a sophomore album on the way. Each infectious beat or synth line was the exact kind of stuff that's the most fun to lose yourself in at a festival. After seeing this stuff live, I'm looking forward to a summer soundtracked by Trouble In Paradise.
There's so much that bothers me about the Strokes these days. That whole Lower East Side apathetic cool was always something of a put-on, but it worked so brilliantly in the band's early days; now, when it's easy to suspect they're doing this for a paycheck, it comes off as more of a lack of charisma, or a fundamental disengagement from what they're doing. Maybe I had a bad taste in my mouth from Julian Casablancas' solo set the day before, or maybe I was just worn out of the feeling that the Strokes' set at Governors Ball was so thoroughly populated by bros who had somewhere along the line chosen this as their "cool kids" band to like and were now dancing like complete fools to "Someday," but I did a lot of complaining about the Strokes on Saturday.
Where I'm going with all of this is: it comes from a place of love. The Strokes were a formative band for me, and those frustrations are that I keep seeing glimpses of greatness in their newer work where others don't, and I just wish they'd push a little closer. All that being said: these guys are true rockstars, maybe the last in the classic sense of the notion. And they know how to please a very large New York crowd that still screams wildly for them. That means it's a hits set, a whole lot of material from the first two albums that they've been playing consistently ever since they became active again before Angles. That's pretty much fine: those are the barn-burners and the classics, and even if I'd be up for a handful more from Angles or Comedown Machine thrown into the mix, I can't deny the emotional payoff of seeing the old songs live all these years after the Strokes defined my high school experience. For every faux-aloof thing Julian did that kinda bugged me, there'd be some insane musical peak, like the roar at the end of "Take It Or Leave It," or finally getting to hear "12:51" live, or the entirety of "Reptilia." Those are the rare sorts of moments that are actually better at a festival than a band's own show, and the Strokes still know how to pull it off.
For a while there, I was really tempted to go with TV on the Radio over Grimes, one of the worst conflicts on Friday, and one that was particularly exacerbated by the fact that there was pretty much nothing I wanted to see on Sunday. Anyway, I caught one song of theirs -- opener "Young Liars," the exact thing I was hoping to hear, which as always was a gorgeous behemoth of a thing live -- before heading over to the Gotham Tent to see Grimes and, well, that was a really good decision. She totally floored me. It's just Claire Boucher performing, sometimes hanging back and cuing synths, sometimes able to wander out in the front, but she's incredibly captivating. There were some aids to it -- liberal lights, smoke, and seemingly a wind machine on her hair, to the point that she had this etheral wraith thing going on when she was flailing around in all the pink haze gathered at the back of the stage. (She also periodically brought mimes and dancers onstage, so there was that.) As she had promised, Grimes played several new songs during the set, and all of them have a much more deliberately mainstream bent than what we've heard from her before, incorporating hip hop beats and more straight-up dance-pop; she played the song she'd written for Rihanna, and it has full-on EDM drops. Given, this is still Grimes, so even though it's poppier, it's a strange, ghostly kind of poppier. It didn't even matter that Grimes dropped theoretical showstopper "Oblivion" three songs into the set -- the new songs got some of the most enthusiastic responses of the weekend, and left the impression that bigger things are in store for Grimes in the near future.
Janelle Monae is the reason that so many sets fell flat for me during Governors Ball. She was early in the proceedings, with a mid-afternoon Friday set on the mainstage. And, quite simply, she was the big "holy shit" moment of the weekend for me, in terms of seeing an artist live for the first time and being so overwhelmingly impressed. I've liked Monae for a while, though Electric Lady was unfortunately one of those albums that slipped through the cracks for me last year, as it happens sometimes. I'm intending to rectify that after Friday's set. For whatever reason, I didn't expect Monae to have quite so much of a production going on. There were synchronized dance moves, a band all wearing mostly white with the occasional black accent, two backup singers/dancers wearing identical clothes and with identical haircuts, and roadies dressed as psych ward doctors, who proceeded to run out onstage for a pseudo-skit at one point that ended with Monae mock shooting them with a baton (again, that was black and white). But -- crucially for me, since I don't necessarily go in for that type of thing usually -- she has the music and the performance to back all of that aesthetic stuff up. Monae's frantic vocals at the end of "Q.U.E.E.N." were one of those other most intense moments of the weekend. In what was a crime of festival scheduling, Monae had a shorter set time than many artists she's on the same level of, if not beyond. She played for forty-five minutes, every one of them meaningful, and I wanted twice as much of it.
I don't think I'll ever get tired of seeing Spoon live. (Or Britt Daniel in general, I suppose, because he always brings it with Divine Fits as well.) Maybe it's one of the benefits of having so many compact, spiky songs, but I can't really remember ever leaving a Spoon show thinking "Oh, I really they'd played this one song..." There's always something incredibly satisfying about seeing them live, and their crazily consistent level of excellent songwriting means that their setlists wind up feeling like giant, unbeatable greatest hits compilations. There was some new stuff in the mix this time around, too, and -- no surprise here, really -- it sounded very good. I didn't see many sets on the Big Apple Stage, but each one I did witness suffered from fairly crippling sound issues; everything was just totally flattened. That was the main hindrance for Spoon, unfortunately. They specialize in an approximation of sweaty rock 'n' roll for the gawky, brainy, but still sorta cool kid set. This time around, their energy was there as always, just somewhat dulled by the technical shortcomings surrounding them. Were it not for that, they're probably rank even higher. (Photo via Getty Images)
Damon Albarn's Aftershow @ Irving Plaza
One more frustrating bit of Governors Ball scheduling, but the evil of all evils: Damon Albarn and Outkast, the only headliners I had interest in, conflicting with each other on Friday night. Thankfully, on Sunday I was able to bail out of the festival grounds a little early and head downtown to Irving Plaza, where I saw Damon Albarn play a Governors Ball aftershow. In the three months since I saw Albarn at SXSW, a lot has changed. He's settled on a setlist that perfectly balances the different eras of his career (though of course we'll all always wish for more Blur; as cool as "All Your Life" is, it seems semi-withholding to have one of your two or three Blur songs be a b-side most people probably don't know). (Also, he played "Slow Country" from the first Gorillaz album, which has always been a personal favorite.) His backing band has learned to play off of, not just with, each other, and the material from Everyday Robots has taken on new life in a concert setting. Songs were outfitted with epic new outros, and while the greyscale of their studio counterparts is fitting for the album, it's nice to hear some more dynamics introduced into it all when the band plays it now. The new stuff now exists alongside all the older stuff very naturally -- "Photographs," for example, has a dramatic new ending that bled directly into the overdriven but still instantly recognizable guitar strums that open the Good, the Bad, & the Queen's "Kingdom Of Doom."
Everyday Robots didn't totally make sense to me until I took a walk through Manhattan at about 7AM on a cold day in April after having only slept about two hours. That's the kind of space where the album lives -- in small, quiet, bleary-eyed moments. Albarn knows this. During last night's show, he remarked about the "low key" nature of the record, and how that makes it terrifying to play on festival stages. Last night, with a host of diehards crammed into Irving Plaza, was the right setting -- more so than at SXSW, and I'm sure more so than the other night at Governors Ball. Accordingly, Albarn was visibly overflowing with excitement the whole night. When the show's last song, "Heavy Seas Of Love," did finally arrive, he had his backup singers repeat the refrain over and over, for full minutes beyond the studio version's length. He didn't want it to end, he didn't want to leave. The feeling was mutual. (Photo via Getty)
For a second there, I considered not seeing OutKast. I saw them last week in California, and there was that issue of them conflicting with Damon Albarn, who's one of my favorite musicians ever. This, even given those facts, was crazy talk. If you are in a position to see OutKast in 2014, you should do so. The set was identical to my experience last week at BottleRock, but I was still engrossed in just about every second of it. The bonus of having seen them last week was, where everything was surprising and new then, I knew what structure Friday night would take. I got to be excited for the ebb and flow, to know when favorites were creeping up. And, like last week, they delivered over and over -- Andre and Big Boi are master showmen and artists, and as it turns out master festival headliners. Honestly, I don't have much of anything new to say than what I said last week during my BottleRock recaps. Just a reiteration: seeing OutKast headline a festival this year is something you should do. It's the uncommon thing that's actually better when experienced in a massive crowd, to witness the sheer sway these guys have over the audience, and to witness the sheer power of a very large number of people dancing, and singing, and rapping along to "B.O.B" or "Ms. Jackson," or "Roses." To put it simply: This is life-affirming stuff.