Governors Ball usually has a solid and reliable lineup. Another way to say that is that it sometimes leans predictable, booking lineups that are built on a lot of the names you’ll see populating other American festivals in the same summer. There will always be a moderate amount of genre diversity, but it definitely skews toward mainstream indie, rap, and electronic, rather than angling for a specific ethos in the way that say, Bonnaroo or Levitation do. In that sense, it’s one of the prototypical American fests going right now. Even so, this year was a little bit of a weird one, with most of the notable names still touring behind beloved albums from 2015 (Father John Misty, CHRVCHES, Jamie xx, and many more), or others promising new music that isn’t here quite yet (Beck, HAIM, the Strokes?), which means Gov Ball’s early June placement made it feel somewhat transitional between last year’s news and what’s to come.
That’s not intended as disparaging: There were a lot of great performers to see at Gov Ball this year. And Kanye was going to headline. The opportunity to see Kanye headline a festival is the kind of thing that can elevate any lineup to something more essential. It was a major reason I wanted to go again this year. Unfortunately, things didn’t play out that way. After forecasts of thunderstorms promising the risk of lightning strikes, Gov Ball had to cancel its third and final day. That meant no Bat For Lashes, CHVRCHES, Courtney Barnett, Death Cab For Cutie, Eagles Of Death Metal, Vince Staples, Prophets Of Rage (who had been a surprise addition this weekend), and most crushingly, it meant no Kanye.
It sucks when festivals have to do this, even if it’s the right call, and even if it’s the right call as a precaution and then the storm doesn’t go as planned. It did indeed rain hard on Sunday, but the downpour was much briefer than expected. Instead of lightning, we got an epic sunset and some very vivid rainbows. Several artists scrambled to reschedule at indoor venues while they were in town. Barnett and Prophets Of Rage both took to north Brooklyn, playing Rough Trade and Warsaw, respectively. Vic Mensa played Manhattan’s Webster Hall. And then there was the epic fiasco of Kanye last night, a saga that I’m going to guess was better witnessed via social media than being there in person. He and the G.O.O.D. Music crew did a not-so-surprise surprise set at Hot 97’s Summer Jam instead of Gov Ball, which was quickly accompanied by news that there would be a show at 2AM in Manhattan. Eventually, a video of 2 Chainz saying they’d be at Webster Hall was posted, which quickly led to an insane crowd collecting outside the venue and clogging the street. The situation escalated so quickly that Webster Hall wound up calling off the show. Then there was Kanye being driven by the venue in a car and subsequently followed by a swarm of people running up Third Avenue, rumors of and supposed attempts at pop-up shows elsewhere, and, ultimately, no Kanye performance. So, anyway, not quite the ending to Governors Ball that we’d all hoped for or expected! Thankfully, there was still a lot of good music before all that went down. Here’s our recap of some of the best sets from Friday and Saturday.
Father John Misty
Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear was one of the best albums of last year, but it is not music that’s necessarily built for festivals. There are a lot of meditative and/or slow-burning tracks there, and even the stuff that’s loaded with infectious melodies, or that moves a little more, is fairly mellow compared to a lot of the other options you could find at Gov Ball, or any other festival this year. On one hand, maybe that makes it ideal music for Friday evening, the beginning of things. On the other, it doesn’t even matter: Josh Tillman has developed such a magnetic presence that it is worth seeing him do anything, anytime, anywhere. We’re approaching the year-and-a-half mark since I Love You, Honeybear came out, but Tillman still pours everything into these songs onstage, bleeding all over love songs that haven’t lost any of their narrative bite or their too-beautiful arrangements. He thrashes, and roars, and does that rockstar thing where he falls to his knees and bends all the way over backwards howling into the sky and rocking as if he’s performing some ritual. It’s still a little bit shocking to see the “guy who was once Fleet Foxes’ drummer” turn out to be this kind of frontman, but it’s mesmerizing. Only gripe: kinda wish he’d played his cover of “Closer.”
Despite his last album being another moody, acoustic-driven affair in the lineage of Sea Change, lately you’ve been able to find Beck playing the second or third to last set of the night at a festival, and bringing a performance that’s a giddy run-through of all his most fun material from the last 20 years and change. He kicked off the Gov Ball set with “Devil’s Haircut” into “Black Tambourine” into “Think I’m In Love,” and after that it was pretty much a breakneck marathon of groovier material well-suited for the setting. There was one breather in the middle, for the Sea Change/Morning Phase triptych of “Paper Tiger,” “Lost Cause,” and “Blue Moon.” Otherwise, it was a nonstop indie-weirdo party of the sort Beck’s remarkably skilled at, including “Loser,” of course, and a cover of “Raspberry Beret.” (He also talked about giving Prince a hug when the Purple One presented him with his Grammy for Album Of The Year, and how he’d felt like that was a corny move until he saw a photo of the moment where Prince had a big smile.) It all culminated with the excellent closing one-two of “E-Pro” and “Where It’s At,” where he paid tribute to Prince once more with a tag of “1999,” after sneaking in a snippet of Bowie’s “China Girl” as well.
Jamie xx is another of Gov Ball’s performers this year who’s still touring and doing festival sets on the strength of one of last year’s standout releases, his first solo LP, In Colour. The weird thing about that album is that it’s a brand of alternate-reality club music that wouldn’t entirely make sense in a DJ set. He mutates it live so that it’s as immersive as the LP, just in a different context. In particular, he’ll tease out “Loud Places” by sliding the sample in here and there, leading toward the cathartic moment where it finally appears in full force. Also, he played “Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League, which yielded some huge sing-alongs. You can’t argue with that.
I have some conflicted feelings on the Strokes these days. When I saw that they were headlining Gov Ball again, two years after their last stint, I figured: This is going to be the exact same thing, and it’s going to be disappointing and/or halfway-irritating. Well, I was happily proven wrong. The Strokes that took the stage Friday night were a reinvigorated version compared to the last two times I’d seen them, offering a take-no-prisoners performance bathed in smoke and neon, eliciting fervent reactions from the crowd even as they diverged from a greatest hits setlist in favor of detours like “Ask Me Anything,” “Electricityscape,” and “Red Light.” (All, notably, deep cuts from the divisive First Impressions Of Earth.) Of course, a furious Strokes performance means that when they do get to the big guns, it’s some of the best stuff you could ask for in a festival setting: hearing who-knows-how-many people scream along to “What Ever Happened?,” “Reptilia,” and “You Only Live Once” is the kind of experience these events exist for. A little bit of my faith was restored. Let’s see what happens next.
Albert Hammond, Jr.
These days, it isn’t uncommon to be find Albert Hammond, Jr. doing a solo set at the same festival where he’s also headlining with his main gig. The day after the Strokes’ triumphant Friday night set, Hammond played an ebullient mid-afternoon set that served as a good kickoff for Gov Ball’s second day. There are some very good songs on his album from last year, Momentary Masters, and live it makes you think (A) what he could bring to the table if the Strokes do get around to making another album, and (B) how much he’s grown as a solo performer since his older albums way-back-when. Also, an Albert Hammond, Jr. set is going to do a lot less damage to your perception of the Strokes than seeing Julian play with the Voidz.
In recent years, Thundercat has grown from being known as an associate and frequent collaborator for artists like Flying Lotus, and into an adored solo artist in his own right. Which is a strange turn of events, because like Kamasi Washington — who garnered indie fame himself, bolstered by his own connections to FlyLo and Kendrick — it’s very hard to locate where Thundercat’s music lives in the general landscape of things, or how he’s become as popular as he has. There’s R&B in the mix, but his live sets are driven by liquified jazz-fusion that often spools out into long jams. It’s not something that slots in logically alongside a lot of Gov Ball’s other acts, but he drew a huge crowd spilling out of the festival’s one tent stage. It’s hard to imagine Thundercat ever going in the kind of direction where he’ll be uniting a field full of people in some anthemic chorus, but there’s a comfort in being able to stumble across a mid-afternoon set of his and get lost in all the spacey technical wizardry for a while.
De La Soul
Here was another strange one, in terms of figuring out where people settle in the music world these days. De La Soul are legends. It’s odd to find them playing a small stage in an early evening slot. They performed as if they were young kids having to prove themselves still, a fiery and hard-hitting set that was helpful in shaking off the humid torpor of Saturday afternoon. They did acknowledge the passage of time, glancingly, telling stories about practicing in the mirror as kids and wanting to be MCs. With Sunday cancelled, there wasn’t a whole lot of great rap to be seen at Gov Ball this year. Thankfully we had De La, which was good enough to make up for some of that.
I’ve often found HAIM overrated — they’re good, but are they really that good? We’ll see what their forthcoming, highly anticipated second album brings, but one thing is for sure: HAIM carry themselves and play like they were born to be stars. You can tell the three sisters have show business in their blood. They know how to work a crowd, how to quickly get everyone in the palm of their hands and keep them there. Like Beck provided the warm-up party for the Strokes on Friday, HAIM did a great job in the same capacity for the Killers on Saturday night. The difference is that HAIM left you wondering: How long is it going to be before they eclipse all these other names?
The Killers always seem to be headliners when a festival needs a big draw but can’t find anyone else. The Killers haven’t released a new album in four years and didn’t play a single new song at Gov Ball. (On the contrary, they covered an Interpol song from 2002.) They knew what they were here for. They were here to play a headlining set that brought all the hits, that guaranteed one endorphin rush after another. And the thing about the Killers — or, particularly, about the perpetually-grinning Brandon Flowers — is that they’re happy to do it. These guys are showmen. They reminded us that they are “brought to you by Fabulous Las Vegas” right in the beginning of the set. And, damn, they sort of blew my mind. I didn’t know that hearing all those Hot Fuss singles or “Spaceman” and “This Is Your Life,” or “When You Were Young” could have this kind of effect in 2016 — that everyone would be just so insanely happy, and singing along, transported and forgetting how miserable it’d been to be outside in multiple downpours all day. They closed the main set with “All These Things That I’ve Done” (their best song, if you ask me), adding an extra-epic reprise of the inane-but-genius “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier” refrain at the end. Somehow, it felt like even more of a universal triumph than anything from our hometown heroes in the Strokes had in their set the preceding night. It was the best moment of the entire festival. Sure, it was a bummer that we didn’t get Kanye. In lieu of that, though, this was a perfect way to close out Gov Ball 2016.