For the past several years, Governors Ball has been New York’s sole big mainstream music festival. That changed earlier this year, with the announcement of Panorama — the Eastern outpost of Coachella, essentially. The news was met with some resistance, controversy, and interpretation, with some people (i.e., those behind Gov Ball) trying to position the narrative as one between a David (the self-identified “homegrown” festival of Gov Ball) and a Goliath (the encroacher Panorama, set up by the monolith concert production company AEG Live). This year, its first under Live Nation ownership, Gov Ball continued being an establishment fest, bringing a solid and consistent lineup that didn’t pack a whole lot of surprises; Panorama’s lineup is smaller, a bit more uneven, but anchored with more exciting headliners overall. The question is how the showdown between the two — barely over a month apart, and held on the grounds on Randall’s Island — will play out. Whether Gov Ball’s roots can ward off a challenger, whether AEG’s power will gradually squeeze out Gov Ball, or whether the two can actually co-exist.
With Gov Ball’s Kanye-headlined Sunday having been cancelled this year, they had a weaker 2016 run than they would’ve liked, one has to imagine. Yet so far Panorama seems like mostly a moderate challenger: its scope and size make the Randall’s grounds feel smaller and more manageable. There are also way less people. There’s a goddamn heat dome over the States right now, and it’s nearly a hundred degrees and very humid in NYC. That’s fairly miserable weather to be outside in, let alone be outside in all day long, standing, in direct sunlight, etc. But Panorama’s size (and air-conditioned spaces) have made it work in spite of all that — it’s easy to see everything you want to, without too many conflicts, without too many sweaty walks, without too overwhelming a crowd. Here were five of the best things from the inaugural Panorama’s first day.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band
Because of some confusion regarding where my tickets were to be picked up, I wound up having a very epic, sunburnt walk around Randall’s Island to Panorama’s East entrance, and didn’t actually get to see Preservation Hall Jazz Band. That being said, I could at least hear most of their set, which confirmed what I’d already assumed: if I had arrived earlier it would’ve been one of my favorites of the day. I’m not sure how Pres Hall has become a part of the indie world as they have, but they are always a welcome addition on a festival bill — their performances are joyous and invigorating, just the right shot of energy to help kick off a fest. And it’s kind of a scene, seeing 21st century festivalgoers dance along to such old-America music. Later in the day they’d join Arcade Fire on some Bowie covers.
Broken Social Scene
Even if it isn’t like, a major overwhelming headline, one of the mildly exciting benefits of this summer’s festival season is the return of Toronto’s Broken Social Scene, who have been mostly on hiatus for years now. The amorphous collective wasn’t to be outdone by its countrymen in the infamously sprawling outfit Arcade Fire, and at some points had as many as twelve people onstage — including a seemingly ageless, increasingly Paul Rudd-esque Kevin Drew at the helm as always. Stars’ Amy Millan joined them, taking the spotlight for beloved tracks like “Anthems For A Seventeen Year-Old Girl” and “7/4 (Shoreline),” impressively belting out her parts in the latter considering she was performing onstage while very pregnant in temperatures lingering in the mid-90s. The whole set was a jubilant return, with the band doing what would sorta qualify as a greatest hits set for them — “Fire Eye’d Boy,” “KC Accidental,” and “Cause=Time” were all present, too, leading up to a volcanic performance of “Ibi Dreams Of Pavement” to close. It was a reminder that this group had a certain reliability to them — hooks, big indie anthems, all that. It’s good to have them back.
FKA Twigs is not of this world. She moves like something else, she sounds like something else, she looks like something else. Though her presence is overwhelming, and surreal, I did hear someone sum it up a bit more succinctly and jocularly: “Her brand is ‘hot alien.'” (It wasn’t meant dismissively.) The whole set is strange and sultry and wholly idiosyncratic: Twigs staring out into spaces beyond whatever we’re looking at, singing off-kilter and seductively lurching songs, sometimes flanked by sweat-drenched backup dancers, sometimes backed up solely by a few musicians hitting synth pads in the shadows at the back of the stage. If you haven’t seen her live and have the opportunity, you should. It’s an engrossing performance of a different sort than your average festival set, or your average pop concert in general. It’s part dance, part performance art, part unclassifiable future-R&B. The new songs she played were amazing, too, by the way.
One strength Panorama has over Gov Ball this year, especially after Gov Ball lost its Sunday, is that there are three powerful rap acts towards the top of the bill — Schoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar, and Run The Jewels. Schoolboy conflicted with Alabama Shakes over at the main stage, and it seemed they drew a significant crowd. But the South Central MC threw a party in a tent stage that served as the immediate predecessor for Arcade Fire’s headlining set, offering the opening shot on behalf of TDE before Kendrick’s headlining set tonight. Despite performing in front of a black-and-red Blank Face banner, Schoolboy’s set leaned more old-school, cycling through the hits and fan-favorites from his excellent 2014 LP Oxymoron. “Collard Greens” came early, but the end of the set was plenty climactic, stacking “THat Part,” “Break The Bank,” “Man Of The Year,” and “Hell Of A Night” one after the other. Also, he did the whole set while wearing a white fedora that few others could pull off, and you have to respect that.
After touring and drawing out the Reflektor era seemingly forever, things have been a little quieter on the Arcade Fire front recently as they work on new music. While they’re indie establishment, this was one thing that made Panorama’s lineup exciting, the chance to see a band like Arcade Fire in a year when otherwise you wouldn’t have a chance. And any chance to see Arcade Fire play to thousands of people is something worth taking. They are one of the few indie bands who have ascended to this level who actually have a universal sweep to them, whose music is often perfectly calibrated for gigantic sing-alongs. They structured the set in a weird way, almost exclusively playing songs in groupings by album — kicking off with several tracks from The Suburbs (including “Sprawl II” much earlier in the set than usual), then Reflektor, then Neon Bible, before leading up to a finale that was mostly Funeral heavy-hitters all in a row. There isn’t much else going in contemporary rock music these days that compares to a crowd, even at an undersold festival, screaming along to “Rebellion (Lies)” and “Wake Up.”
During the set, there were a few nods to David Bowie, one of the group’s primary influences and heroes. Win Butler talked about how New York belonged to Bowie, and how he misses him every day. Then they played “Wake Up” assisted by members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. That seemed to be where the show ended, but then they jumped into the crowd with the Pres Hall guys and held a parade cutting through what remained of the festivalgoers, playing “Rebel Rebel,” “Suffragette City,” and “Heroes.” I’ve never seen anyone try to pull a stunt like that after closing a night of a festival, and in a more crowded or shambolic fest, it probably would’ve been a complete mess. But for the first day of Panorama, it was a small tribute after a massive set, fitting for a smaller festival happening with Manhattan off to the side.