Music festivals are pretty much all the same these days. Sure, there’s boutique endeavors like the Pitchfork Music Festival and Eaux Claires or outings that thrive by focusing on one genre, like Riot Fest. But from the big dogs like Coachella and Lollapalooza to the regional clones that have sprung up all over the country, the curatorial approach has ossified into: Book all the hip-hop and pop stuff that’s streaming well, maybe throw in a few well-reviewed indie acts so the festival doesn’t seem too basic, add some over-priced craft beers, and then all you have to do is give it a silly name and you’re good to go.
There’s been talk for years about when the festival bubble will finally burst, but people still go to these things. Coachella often sells out before the line-up is even announced. I suspect festivals will stick around until the next massive economic downturn, but more and more they’re becoming analogous to network television shows. They get the numbers, so clearly someone enjoys them, and there’s a few bright spots, but ultimately, who really cares?
To the credit of the lovely people at Founders Entertainment, Governors Ball has always strived to have a bit more of a personality than most high-profile festivals, adding in touches you just wouldn’t get anywhere else: Last year featured a headlining spot by Tool as well as rare performances from Air and the Avalanches. This year had a distinctly jean jacket and PBR-scented bent to the rock bands that were booked: beloved anthem-belters Japandroids as well as whoa-heavy punks the Menzingers and emo staples Manchester Orchestra, all of whom played to small but dedicated crowds while most people bopped along to 2 Chainz. (Who was pretty great, at least from the part of his set that I caught.)
But based on the relatively minuscule crowd that showed up to last night’s side-stage headlining set by the Gaslight Anthem, I have to wonder if Governors Ball should even bother trying to stray from whatever’s popping on Spotify’s most popular playlists. Look, I appreciate that they make the effort, but by and large Governors Ball is now attended by teenagers who just want to rage out to whatever’s on the radio. Last night’s headlining set by Travis Scott filled out most of the gigantic festival field while Gaslight Anthem’s concurrent set drew in maybe a medium-sized club’s worth of people. I’m not being a cranky old man about this. People can like whatever they like and I hope these kids wore sunscreen, had a nice time and let their parents know when they were heading home. I just have to wonder if booking for anyone but these attendees is going to be worth it for large festivals anymore, or if next year’s line-up will see Post Malone and the Chainsmokers double-headlining while over on the side-stage I stay home and queue up Netflix.
The thing is, if rock radio was still a thing, and if they hadn’t whiffed it on their last album, 2014’s Get Hurt (which even songwriter-frontman Brian Fallon admits was undercooked), there’s a realistic scenario in which the Gaslight Anthem could have gotten big enough to nab the headliner spot Jack White filled in on Friday. The New Jersey band had dedicated fans (most of whom probably saw their Bowery Ballroom show a few days before this or are waiting patiently for a New Jersey date), arena-sized choruses, and a Green Day and Pearl Jam meets Springsteen hybrid sound that hit a variety of rock music dopamine centers at once. They’ve largely been inactive since the release of Get Hurt while Fallon has focused on his solo career, but recently they’ve been touring behind the 10 year anniversary of their reputation-making second album The ’59 Sound.
They played that album in full last night for the diehards who showed up last night. And if the band was deflated by the crowd size, they’re professional enough not to let it show, delivering a solid set that hit the marks but never quite rose to the level of “triumphant comeback.” Fallon made a joke about how he should have brought cake to celebrate the anniversary “but didn’t have enough for everyone.” This was only their four show on this anniversary tour, and while they sounded assured and locked-in, they clearly weren’t able to feed off the energy of the small crowd.
The set kicked off with the Get Hurt track “Stay Vicious,” which sounds better stripped of some of the production goop, then into the title track of Handwritten. By the time they launched into The ’59 Sound in full, the die-hards began perking up, yelling along to Jersey-centric lyrics about “the quiet Edison sky” in “We Came To Dance” and screaming the “everybody leaves/ why wouldn’t you” parts of “Great Expectations” back at Fallon. Dark clouds had been rolling in for most of the evening, and when it finally began to rain during “The Patient Ferris Wheel,” which features the chorus “standin’ in the pounding rain,” it was, like much of this band’s work, totally on the nose yet perfect, and watching Fallon smile his way through it was a highlight of the evening.
After running through the album they capped the set off with a few more fan favorites, ending with “Blue Jeans & White T-Shirts” and a huge sounding “American Slang.” They may have lost their way a bit on their last album, but this set was a reminder why these guys are still so beloved, and why their generous, empathic anthems still resonate. Fallon has said the band doesn’t have any future plans, but I hope they keep going. Good bands make bad albums and then come back better all the time, and I bet these guys still have some more good songs in them, and hopefully a few more packed club tours as well.