If you take a look at the lineup poster for Governors Ball 2019, you’ll notice there aren’t a lot of big rock names in the mix. Aside from hometown legends the Strokes, you won’t find many guitar-oriented acts towards the top of the bill, the biggest names being the likes of Mitski hanging out in the middle of the pack. This isn’t all that uncommon, for Gov Ball to be dominated by rap and pop. But the shape of Gov Ball 2019 makes it so that when there’s a standout rock set, it really stands out.
That was the case for the Australian group Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever on the opening afternoon of this year’s iteration of the festival. Occupying a somewhat unenviable slot of mid-afternoon on the Friday — when many attendees have yet to arrive — at a field pockmarked by marshy puddles from a week of constant rain, the band still managed to gather a fervent crowd and deliver a set that emphasized they’re one of the most consistent young guitar bands to emerge in the last couple years.
They also had a late-night Gov Ball aftershow at the Greenpoint club Warsaw, which one would imagine is the more appropriate venue in which to see this band — deep into the night rather than under a blinding afternoon sun, that three guitar mechanism reverberating within the confines of a sweaty room. But what was exhilarating about seeing them holding down a festival stage was the slight modulations and mutations you could hear in RBCF’s music within that different context.
As far back as their EPs, but especially on their debut Hope Downs, RBCF have been making their name on relentlessly efficient hooks and craftsmanship. Despite the theoretical excess of a lineup featuring three guitars, their songs are carefully layered and structured, every element sitting exactly where it needs to be. This is a band that has an innate understanding of what they are good at and how to communicate it. That understanding extends to their live show, too.
Given RBCF still don’t have a ton of music out, a 45 minute festival set still has plenty of room for some older EP songs, some of which are crucial to the arc of the set. But they also lean into the exact right choices from Hope Downs, with a set that doesn’t waste time — heavy-hitters like “The Hammer,” “Talking Straight,” and “An Air Conditioned Man” all hit at the exact right moments in the set. New songs “Read My Mind” and “In The Capital” already felt as lived-in as the favorites fans might’ve known a bit longer from the debut.
Throughout, it was clear just how much this band operates as a unit. Three guitars are always moving, doing their own thing but collecting into this propulsive whole. Those same three players — Fran Keaney, Tom Russo, and Joe White — are also all vocalists. Their voices can sometimes be hard to tell apart on their songs; though different, those, too, weave together, further underlined live when you watch different singers trade off over the course of a single song.
It wasn’t all just a faithful reproduction of the tightness of Rolling Blackouts on record, though. There was room to spread out, expand. RBCF is one of those funny bands that seems simpler upon first listen than later ones — between their overall aesthetic and their Melbourne origins, it’s easy to line them up with a lineage of ’80s jangle-pop from that part of the world. But different people hear pretty different things in their songs, and live that goes further. Guitar lines unspool in the heat, like the War On Drugs on this same stage several years ago, at a much earlier point in their own ascension. Sitting at a crucial spot penultimately in the set, the earlier track “Fountain Of Good Fortune” featured a guitar passage that almost recalled Pearl Jam in their mid-’90s Crazy Horse phase.
For the rest of the day, it was more common to hear beats blasting out across the Gov Ball grounds. And a lot of those sets were incredible. But as one of the main ambassadors for guitar-based music at Gov Ball 2019, Rolling Blackouts helped kick off the weekend as well. Having been on the road incessantly in support of Hope Downs, RBCF is clearly already a very well-oiled machine. And as good as they were at Gov Ball this time around, it’s easy to imagine how much better they’ll be another album in, the next time they pass through town.