Kanye West, Grimes, Chance The Rapper, & More Made The Meadows The Best NYC Festival Of 2016

There were controversy and bumps in the road throughout the lead up to the inaugural installment of the Meadows, the new Queens festival brought to us by the same people behind Governors Ball. Ever since Goldenvoice announced plans for Panorama — their NYC-spinoff of Coachella, taking place on the same grounds as GovBall not even two months later — and GovBall’s Founders Entertainment linked up with Live Nation, these festivals have been surrounded by a particular narrative. The two monolithic concert promoters, duking it out for dominance in NYC, to be the one that has the New York festival. Within all of that, the announcement of the Meadows came across like Founders’ attempt at shoring up their territory, of expanding their reach in New York and solidifying their place in what’s becoming an over-saturated market. As you walked across the bridge into Panorama each day, there were people outside with flyers and signs for the Meadows, reminding you on that dangerously hot July weekend that, hey, wait until October, and those other guys will have a nice festival for you in a parking lot and Kanye will be headlining.

Then we got closer, and things got messy. In addition to Kanye, the big-name draw at the Meadows was the Weeknd. Then he cancelled and was replaced by J. Cole, then he was back on the lineup and there was chatter about scheduling conflicts with SNL, then he didn’t play after all. Meadows had a bit of an also-ran thing hanging over it: like this was Kanye’s makeup show at the tinier festival, after his headlining set at GovBall got cancelled due to thunderstorms. Then his set wound up getting cut short for a family emergency; we soon found out that his wife Kim Kardashian had been robbed at gunpoint in Paris. Things didn’t go to plan, exactly.

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But all that being said: the Meadows was pretty great. It has the potential to be better than GovBall, for sure. At least speaking as someone who lives in north Brooklyn, Citi Field is a lot less of a headache to get to/from than Randall’s Island, where the narrow bridges and bigger crowds yield these awful zombie-apocalypse trudges home as people try to funnel from the sprawling main field into increasingly narrow passages back onto the RFK Bridge. It’s miserable, and can take 90 minutes just to exit. Some balked at the idea of the Meadows being in Citi Field’s parking lot, but I’d argue that was a better setting all around, beyond the question of accessibility. (Had it rained as much as initially predicted this weekend, it definitely would’ve been preferable to be on asphalt instead of the notoriously muddy Randall’s Island.) The Meadows’ four stages all faced outwards to avoid sound bleed between sets, and the fest was structured in a sorta-circle around them. Maybe it’d be worse if it was sold out, but altogether it was an easier festival to move around and enjoy, aided by crisp autumnal NYC days vs. the occasionally hellish summer ones over on Randall’s Island.

Lineup-wise, the Meadows also has an advantage in that it’s a new, big-ish festival that actually does have a different ethos than its predecessors. Panorama felt like what it was — Goldenvoice’s Coachella-fied version of GovBall. So you had your requisite big indie headliner (Arcade Fire), a LCD Soundsystem reunion set, Kendrick Lamar. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine GovBall with the exact same three acts at the top of the bill. But the Meadows reminds me more of my experience at Philly’s Made In America: a space that at least feels smaller and easier to navigate, a few stages, and a lineup dominated by pop and rap with only a smattering of rock/indie stuff.

In that lineup, you had a few of the people who have been playing festivals constantly through the year, guys like Kamasi Washington (who is always an overwhelmingly joyful experience live, so it’s never disappointing when he shows up on a lineup again) and Frightened Rabbit. You had groups like Chromeo and Metric, who are at every festival all the time so it doesn’t really count. Out of the daytime sets, Sylvan Esso was one of the biggest revelations. I wasn’t that into their record but have been hearing how the live set is a conversion experience, and people aren’t wrong. The Meadows worked best when loud beats were reverberating across the parking lot, and Sylvan Esso’s set was one of the most infectious of the weekend, as strange as so many of their melodies are.

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Though the lineup wasn’t stacked with big names throughout, it did boast sets from some of our most ascendant stars of recent times. It’s still somewhat shocking to see Grimes playing a main set stage and drawing a legit headliner crowd, but it’s also totally welcome. Hearing a packed crowd sing along to “REALiTi” and “Go” and “Oblivion” feels gigantic, elevating her songs to an epic scale that, one would’ve figured, the inherent insularity of her work would’ve prevented. Chance The Rapper’s set might’ve been the peak of the entire weekend. It was, basically, mind-blowing. I saw this guy play a tent at GovBall two years ago, and it was way too crowded, people spilling out into the field and trying to push up to even catch a glimpse of him. You could already tell he’d need a bigger stage, and soon. But still. Seeing him with the big main-stage show, and the big main-stage presence… it’s one of those times you get to see an artist rise and continue to somehow wildly exceed even the highest expectations. It’s thrilling to watch that kind of thing in real time, and it’s thrilling to watch Chance do his thing now. Sunday had a handful of excellent rap options — Pusha T delivered a great set earlier in the afternoon — but Chance’s set immediately preceding Kanye’s felt momentous: the young star before his idol, delivering his verse from “Ultralight Beam” with a runaway intensity.

I guess that, if he’d played, the Weeknd would’ve fit into this category of young breakout artists, too. But instead there was J. Cole. Which, say what you will about him, but the crowd at the Meadows seemed more than OK with seeing J. Cole instead of the Weeknd, and he does have an ability to headline a main stage. Though he did also say that it would be his last show “for a very long time.”

If you didn’t camp out at the mainstage between Chance and Kanye, you had the choice of the 1975 or Twin Shadow performing Purple Rain. When the latter was first announced it, uh, certainly stood out. You could call it a little presumptuous: Twin Shadow playing Purple Rain. But it was actually pretty good! They did some songs straight — “Let’s Go Crazy,” “I Would Die 4 U,” the stuff you shouldn’t really mess with. Then there were little clever surprises, like the inspired mash-up of NIN’s “Closer” with “Darling Nikki.” And, to be honest, hearing “Purple Rain” in a large crowd of people at any point this year is a surefire way to have some kind of emotional reaction. It was kind of an odd stunt, an artist performing a festival and delivering a set that is all a tribute to a lost icon. But I walked away thinking it’d be cool if more artists did random stuff like this instead of the predictable greatest-hits fest set.

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As it happens any time Kanye plays a festival, it felt as if a majority of the festivalgoers this weekend were there for him, and him alone. The line for Kanye merch was already cartoonishly gargantuan by, like, 2:15 in the afternoon. Everywhere you looked, people were wearing that merch — the Saint Pablo tour hoodies and T-shirts, Kanye quotes in bright gothic letters everywhere you turned. And every time he does finally perform, you realize why he attracts this kind of fervor at a festival. He’s one of those performers who has a presence that feels beyond human, larger-than-life. And the sets he plays now are, quite frankly, ridiculous in their scope and magnitude. Even with the truncated set meaning that Kanye didn’t make it to the victory lap full of hits, and even with the fact that he came on 30 minutes late (but had fireworks at the beginning!), this was a set that didn’t slow down to let you breathe. I mean, he started the whole thing with “Father Stretch My Hands” parts one and two, into “Famous,” so people were losing their shit from the get go. “All Day” bled directly into “Black Skinhead” directly into “Niggas In Paris.” People sang along to new stuff like “Highlights” and “Facts” as loud as they did to older classics like “Power” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” It’s a thing to witness, an artist with this kind of impact on people. Even a Kanye set cut off prematurely leaves more of a mark than almost anyone else playing these kinds of events today.

It’s tempting to imagine Meadows growing to three days, with a slightly bigger lineup, and being not the miniature tagalong to Gov Ball, but a legitimate companion experience that, I’d argue, could easily wind up surpassing the experience of the fest it was spun off from. Even with the hiccups along the way, the Meadows was one of the better-run festivals I’ve witnessed this year. Whatever happens with the NYC festivals and Goldenvoice and Founders and all that, I hope this is the one that sticks around.