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Governors Ball 2014: Top 10 Sets + Photos

on June 09, 2014, 9:15pm
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I used to see all those “I [heart] NY” mugs and T-shirts and think, Those are fucking hokey. Only naïve, cliché-prone tourists sport that shit. But that was before I ever went to New York. That was before this year’s Governors Ball Music Festival, which marked my first ever trip to the Big Apple and sparked a metropolitan love affair that I wish could go on forever.

Yes, I’m aware that Randall’s Island doesn’t really represent the city as a whole. But the fact that the Triborough Bridge is the only thing separating one of the world’s most populous and expansive urban centers from a locale that can feel as wonderfully remote as Bonnaroo despite being nestled between countless skyscapers … that’s magical.

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Photo by David Hall

That vibe might be in part due to some of the same organizers’ involvement – these people know how to draw a crowd that genuinely cares about live music, not just the lookie-loo celeb/VIP groups that flock to most major fests. Still, this year’s stellar lineup had as much to do with the abundance of finer feelings. Some of our favorite acts – OutKast, Jack White, Damon Albarn, the Kills, Julian Casablancas + the Voidz, Grimes – have already or will play many of the top multi-day music events. Others – Spoon, TV on the Radio, Interpol, and most notably, the Strokes – made triumphant returns after years away.

Beyond those highlights, priceless moments were made by Phoenix, Disclosure, Janelle Monáe, La Roux, Lucius, and many more. After tirelessly chasing so much talent for three days virtually non-stop, exhaustion is setting in and involuntary sleep is imminent. But first, I’m gonna go buy one of those stupid T-shirts.

–David Hall
Contributing Writer

Most Like a Real Band

TV on the Radio

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Photo by David Hall

Friday, Big Apple Stage, 8:00 p.m.

This was the first time I’d seen TVOTR since I think Bonnaroo 2009, and in the time between they’ve gotten much looser — in a good way. Their sound is still tight as all hell, no question, but their delivery is freer than I’ve ever seen them. Right from the get-go with “Young Liars”, I heard someone turn and say, “I think this is the first real band I’ve heard all day.” I don’t know what else that guy saw that day, but he was right in saying TVOTR is a “real band”: a group of players working together and creating a distinct sound and energy. Newer material like “Mercy” and “Million Miles” may have a different flow, but it fits nicely in the setlist along with bangers like “Golden Age” and “Dancing Choose”. Sometimes it seemed like they couldn’t hit the notes (“Halfway Home”), but they covered well by slightly altering the vocal arrangements, a testament to their veteran standing. I’m bummed I had to miss the debut of their currently unreleased stuff and fan favorites like “Wolf Like Me” and “Staring at the Sun”, but what I caught was definitely a highlight of day one. –Ben Kaye

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Photo by David Hall

David’s Quick Take: Despite sounding slightly rusty in spots, I contend that TVOTR is one of the most original-sounding rock bands in the game right now. It’s not as if frontman Tunde Adebimpe has remained idle; just a month ago, he played a spellbinding set at Austin Psych Fest with experimental side project Higgins Waterproof Black Magic Band, so maybe he’s still in rehearsal mode for his main act. That said, the new songs resounded with fresh, powerhouse force, each one recognizably marked by the arena-worthy ambiance of producer/guitarist David Sitek. I once saw them kill with that sonic onslaught at a packed Hollywood Bowl. My bet’s on them easily rising back to main stage status in a matter of months.

Most Clearly a Warm-Up

Julian Casablancas + the Voidz

Julian Casablancas Performs at Governors Ball Music fest

Photo by Robert Altman

Friday, GovBallNYC Stage, 4:45 p.m.

For superfans of the Strokes in attendance, the prospect of getting a double-dose of the band’s frontman was surely a dream come true.

Or not. It was difficult to gauge how the audience felt during Julian Casablancas’ Friday afternoon set alongside his new band, the Voidz. While the group powered through seven new, predominantly punk/noise rock songs from the group’s upcoming debut album, onlookers appeared either completely deadpan or unjustifiably optimistic. The latter group was clearly holding out for a Strokes song or two, which was never going to happen with that band’s comeback after almost three years away slated for the following day. Casablancas quashed those dreams himself during his band intro: “These guys … are the Voidz – just in case you came to see some other band and were like, ‘What the hell.’”

Most of these tunes – among them “2 Chords”, “Biz Dog”, “M.A.D.”, and “Where No Eagles Fly (Acula)” – saw the singer favoring distorted, hunched-over screaming in place of his signature croon, which could be a bit grating. The only real variance came early with the oh-so-catchy cover of Daft Punk’s “Instant Crush”. Back at SXSW, I blamed a shitty venue for the Voidz’ muddled sound; this show seemed to solidify the project as a cacophonous rock mess that Casablancas is (hopefully) just getting out of his system. At the very least, it gave the Strokes leader the emotional boost he needed before the band’s impending hits parade. –David Hall

Julian Casablancas Performs at Governors Ball Music fest

Photo by Robert Altman

Ben’s Quick Take: Scuzzed-out rock that doesn’t do a lot for me. The set felt like a video game at times, with the crunchy sounds over images of tractors eating leaves with backhoes, and cartoons of melting bear creatures. The guitarist who looked like an ’80s caricature with his big hair, crooked nose, and neon NASCAR shirt, didn’t dispel the notion.

Most Welcome Return

Spoon

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Photo by David Hall

Saturday, Big Apple Stage, 8:15 p.m.

After two years with Divine Fits, Britt Daniel seems genuinely happy to be back with Spoon and excited for their new material. That might explain why the band opened with “Knock Knock Knock”, a track from their forthcoming They Want My Soul. With its violent, electronic distortion, it’s certainly a step in a new direction for Spoon, but paired with the other new track they displayed, “Rainy Taxi”, the different style may be just the thing for those underwhelmed by 2010’s Transference. Of course, the band tore through their older material as well, with Fits transfer Alex Fischel putting on a show of his own, ferociously ripping into his guitar and at one point wearing his tambourine like a crown.

Though I found the crowd mildly subdued for how close I was (about eight deep), there were certainly pockets of energy, with Daniel directing his performance towards those who gave the most back. Still, maybe it was just heat exhaustion, because when the sun went down and the lights went up, the crowd really got into it. “We’re the last band on this stage, right?” Daniel asked between “Got Nuffin” and “I Summon You”. He signaled to the loudest contingent of fans near the front of the stage. “That means all these guys right here are here to see us. That really means something.” Those pockets of energy I mentioned erupted at that point, and something tells me those same fans are equally excited for the new LP.  –Ben Kaye

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Photo by David Hall

David’s Quick Take: I’d like to fill out that quote from Daniel, because the first part makes it slightly more meaningful. First, he said, “We’ve been playing all these fests in Europe, but this is different … I think I know what the deal is.” Enter the line about being the last band onstage. Gave the lyrics in the following song – “I summon you here, my love” – that much more meaning. Because, after all, what better place than New York?

Most Satisfying Weeping Due to Nostalgia

The Strokes

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Photo by David Hall

Saturday, GovBallNYC Stage, 6:45 p.m.

Let me be clear: I didn’t cry, but I witnessed at least a dozen young ladies ranging from 16-25 bawling their eyes out as The Strokes launched into “Barely Legal” to kick off their first gig in almost three years. (Not counting last weekend’s practice run in Port Chester, NY.) And when I say bawling, I mean BAWLING; these gals were wiping away rivers of tears between singing the lyrics full volume and desperately reaching toward and hollering at their favorite band members.

It was like fucking Beatlemania out there, which, despite the prospect of a hometown comeback show, I didn’t necessarily expect given the relative weakness of the band’s last two albums. But even during tracks from those discs, like the somewhat kitschy “Welcome to Japan”, the jump-dub of “Machu Pichu”, and the falsetto-fied “One Way Trigger”, the reaction was enormous. Admittedly, those are some of the best among the fresher bunches and feature some of Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr.’s most tack-sharp solos, but deeper cuts like “Razorblade” (mind the pun), “Heart in a Cage”, “The End Has No End”, and “You Only Live Once” (did anyone else realize The Strokes might’ve first popularized #YOLO?) sent palpable waves of nostalgic elation through the multi-generational crowd. Occasionally making eye contact with one shit-eating-grinning fan after another, I could sense flashbacks to first dates, awkward teenage make outs, shy hand holding, and total consummation.

Yet, while the Strokes are undoubtedly for lovers, they’re also for rockers at heart; it took all my restraint not to toss my camera gear aside and charge into one of the many mosh pits that erupted during the show-closing adrenaline shot of “Last Nite” and the walloping one-punch encore “New York City Cops”. What a splendid homage to this city by one of its most stellar contemporary acts. –David Hall

The Strokes Perform at Gov Ball NYC

Photo by Robert Altman

Ben’s Quick Take: Yeah, for some reason I wasn’t expecting the crowd reaction either, though that probably stems from my not being a mega-fan in the first place. But the show warranted the response, even if they took the stage later than any act that weekend. At the same time, there were more people taking advantage of the festival exception to the “No T-Shirts of the Band You’re Seeing Rule” than I’ve ever seen — fans were going to eat this up one way or another.

Most Reliable Headliner

Jack White

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Photo by David Hall

Saturday, GovBallNYC Stage, 9:30 p.m.

Frankly, I don’t know how much is left to say about this man. He’s a master of craft and performance like few others, especially in the modern age. Onstage, he and his band explode rockers like “High Ball Stepper” and country fare like “Hotel Yorba” alike. We all know that the setlist is largely delivered on the fly (though it seems more and more like he has a Top 25 list that just gets shuffled around), but more impressive is that the arrangements seem to be equally spontaneous. It’s as if he’s got some general outline of how a song should play, but then just trusts his band to follow him wherever he takes it. Whether that’s crafted stage-play or true improvisation, it pays off in spades.

Even though it wasn’t as big as the OutKast crowd and began thinning after only a few numbers, the audience that remained was one of the best I’d seen at a Jack White show. They returned massive cheers when he asked, “Are you alive, New York?!” and sang along to every Stripes, Raconteurs, and solo number he played. (Interesting that no Dead Weather song made the list with Alison Mosshart’s other band, The Kills, playing the next day). Only “High Ball”, “Just One Drink”, and the title track made appearances from Lazaretto, and though I’m not sure how the album stands next to Blunderbuss yet, I’d still love to see more new tracks get their chance live. Perhaps he’ll save them for more intimate venue crowds, or when the record has more time to gestate with listeners (my copy of the ultra LP arrived literally as I was leaving for the festival) and as Michael Madden said in his review, when the music truly becomes ours. –Ben Kaye

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Photo by David Hall

David’s Quick Take: I, too, wished he played a Dead Weather song or three, and with Mosshart it would’ve slayed. That said, a resuscitation of their epic, sonically destructive duet on “Will There Be Enough Water” might’ve stolen the show, and it’s all about Lazaretto – a friggin’ masterpiece, if you ask me – right now. Side notes: it was ridiculously charming how White described his arrival at the festival – “sun setting … smoke hanging over the crowd,” saying he could hear the kick drum of the Strokes. At multiple junctures, he thanked that reunited NYC band and Broken Bells (naturally featuring his former cohort, Danger Mouse) for playing, adding slyly, “Julian told me to wear this shirt, so I did.” That explains the Hawaiian floral pattern.

Best Fan-to-Band Synergy

The Kills

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Photo by David Hall

Sunday, Big Apple Stage, 5:45 p.m.

Though they’ve been teasing new tune “Hum for Your Buzz” at most shows over the past week or so, The Kills neglected to play it during their Sunday night set. With some of Alison Mosshart’s most soaring vocals and a satisfyingly gritty, classic rock riff from Jamie Hince, it would’ve been a nice add-on, but it certainly wasn’t needed. The duo, backed by the steady thunder of four uniform tom- and snare-beating percussionists, commanded this early evening crowd by sticking to its most memorable material, the bulk of it pulled from 2011’s Blood Pressures. Though I contend this album best combines Mosshart’s animalist yelps and sultry croons with Hince’s swaggering groove, I wouldn’t have referred to “Future Starts Slow”, “Satellite”, and “DNA” as “hits”, but apparently three years of these catchy cuts marinating in fans’ heads was enough to make it so; the sing-alongs, hearty handclaps, and general audience enthusiasm was telling enough.

That said, I could just as easily chalk it up to the band feeling right at home: “Thank yooou! My favorite place in the wooorld!” exclaimed Hince after the grungy release of “Tape Song”. Though when it comes down to it, this was just an example of pure fan-to-band synergy manifesting as one of the weekend’s most fulfilling and rockin’ sets. Mosshart and Hince’s matching devil-may-care presentations already mesh well enough. But I mean, hell, you know magic’s in the air when the photo pit security guards start standing on the barrier to lead fist-pumps on “Pots and Pans”. Yeah, that happened. –David Hall

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Photo by David Hall

Ben’s Quick Take: For such an intense act, it was strange that mother nature finally decided to provide some cloud coverage and a cool breeze. Mosshart is a goddess as a frontwoman, and Hince’s energy and joy were palpable. At first they annoyed me, but those drummers/set pieces were simple and fun and go well with the duo’s carefree-yet-rock star vibe.

Best Way to Avoid Schedule Conflicts

Damon Albarn’s Aftershow

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Photo by David Hall

Sunday, Irving Plaza, 10:30 p.m.

If there’s one way that a day-fest like Governors Ball has the leg up on a camping festival like Bonnaroo, it’s the aftershows. The biggest conflict of the weekend had to be OutKast v. Damon Albarn as Friday headliners, a pain which was alleviated thanks to Albarn’s gig Sunday night at Irving Plaza. It’s actually completely strange spending all day at festival stages and then coming inside to a smallish venue, but the setting warranted a slightly longer setlist and a way more intimate feeling, and the energy was incontestable. Pointing out that Everyday Robots is “quite a low-key affair,” Albarn, with a cocked grin, said that this “makes it terrifying to play at festivals. But it’s a lot nicer in a place like this.” His point was proven as he went into the soft breeze of Everyday Robot’s “Hostiles” and later with the piano ballad “Photographs (You Are Taking Now)”.

Still, “Photographs” opens up to a hell of a jam at the end, and that’s thanks to Albarn’s backing band, The Heavy Seas. Their drummer spent more time standing and smashing symbols than sitting, and Albarn’s rapport with the keyboardist brought a lot of joy to the show. The band added their own spaced-out R&B flair to popular Gorillaz jams “Tomorrow Comes Today” and “Kids with Guns”, but they weren’t the only ones bringing a unique sound to Albarn’s hits. Surprise guest Vic Mensa showed up to take Del the Funkee Homosapien’s spot during “Clint Eastwood”, but put his own spin on the lyrics, sandwiching a freestyle between the original’s opening and closing lines. Sure, the festival crowd got De La Soul, but we got Mensa, Rocket Juice & the Moon’s “Poison”, and “Last Living Souls”. I’ll take it. –Ben Kaye

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Photo by David Hall

David’s Quick Take: Fun fact that made this 22-song set that much more special? The last time Albarn played Irving Plaza was 20 years ago with Blur. He brought it up as soon as he walked onstage: “I’ve played here before, back in… 1994?” he said with a toothy grin, loaded with childlike revelry. “I think I climbed up that scaffolding.” A dip back into ‘94’s Parklife would’ve been appropriate, but this night’s choice Blur selections, “Out of Time” and “All Your Life”, made up splendidly for that slight oversight.

Most Successful (and Happiest) Reunion

Interpol

Interpol Perform at Gov Ball NYC

Photo by Robert Altman

Sunday, Big Apple Stage, 8:00 p.m.

Sure, The Strokes hosted one of the most astoundingly emotional festival reunions I’ve ever witnessed and took care to play some special tunes, but without any featured new material, they still left me wondering how long this stint will last or if it will lead to anything fresh. Interpol, on the other hand – another NYC act that’s spent an almost identical amount of time out of the limelight – didn’t squander any aspect of its first hometown show in nearly three years.

Frontman Paul Banks and guitarist Daniel Kessler couldn’t wipe the candid childlike smiles off their faces throughout opening song “Say Hello to the Angels”, which – with its infectiously bubbly gait – set the tone for an uplifting set. The setlist paid tribute to the band’s most faithful with more than half the tracks coming off debut album Turn on the Bright Lights while simultaneously pointing to a fruitful future with three new songs off their just announced fifth album, El Pintor.

Those included the heavy, shoegaze-y “My Desire”, the optimistic rock anthem “Anywhere”, and “All the Rage Back Home”, the first track in about three albums worth of Interpol material to adopt a confidently peppy pace driven by rollicking bass, crunchy riffs and driving keyboards. Still, the defining moment came on the main set-closing “Slow Hands”. Here was a crowd about a quarter the size of The Strokes’, and the volume of the chorus accompanying the song’s all-out dance blowout came extremely close to surpassing anything during those other locals’ performance. “Wow,” said Banks, chuckling giddily. “You guys rocked that one – that was awesome.” And when the crowd chanted for “one more song,” Interpol came back and gave ‘em three, including two revered first-album tracks, “Stella Was a Driver and She Was Always Down” and “Obstacle 1”, to wrap up. That’s how you play a fucking hometown reunion. –David Hall

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Photo by David Hall

Ben’s Quick Take: I’ve never been a huge Interpol fan, taking Banks’ voice as an intriguing entity but somewhat too idiosyncratic. Live, however, I found it downright intoxicating, almost breathtaking. Sidenote: You really got a feel for what a modern festival audience is when walking from the thinning Interpol crowd to the wild, glowing, teenage Empire of the Sun, um, let’s call it a horde. A sweaty, half-dazed, half-clueless horde.

Best Response to a Rejection

Grimes

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Photo by David Hall

Friday, Gotham Tent, 8:15 p.m.

I was over at TVOTR for most of Grimes’ set, but I stopped by to catch the end because I knew she’d be dropping that Rihanna song. I’d never seen Grimes live before, and my first impression was of this little pixie queen casting a spell up there behind her synths while streamer dancers and rejects from a mime gang in a ’90s Batman flick moved about the stage. She danced harder than any of them, and I was completely endeared. Musically, I caught two new songs; “Sleepwalking” was the first and crashed a mite heavier than the hazy pop masterpieces that have given her a name. The track pulsed with a purer dance hall quality matching the reworking she’d given “Genesis”. As for that never-was-Rihanna song, I think it’s best it remained with Grimes. Riri would’ve turned it into a completely different beast because, quite frankly, it’s too complex a beat for her. The “dubstep” breakdown on “Jump” is incredibly basic. Meanwhile, the hook on “Go” is deathly catchy, but surprises with various background beats and unexpected drops. Grimes’ vocal cadences also float too theatrically for a Rihanna track, and I can’t imagine how warped the final product would’ve become if the label had pushed this through. It’s a fine cut, just not for Rihanna. –Ben Kaye

Grimes at the Gov Ball Music Fest NYC

Photo by Robert Altman

David’s Quick Take: I’m gonna call it now, folks. Though she’s floated primarily around eclectic fests and mainly piqued generally indie interest, her new material – with its more proper, songwriting-based beat builds – will appeal to audiences. Expect her to open arenas for some major pop acts in the near future.

Most Consistently Sizzling

OutKast

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Photo by David Hall

Friday, GovBallNYC Stage, 9:15 p.m.

During OutKast’s initial return at Coachella – the first time Andre 3000 joined Big Boi onstage in more than four years – there were several moments that made it feel like an ill-fated reunion. The duo spent over half the set inside a giant visual projection cube, and when they did come out, they quickly split up and performed solo sets that took entirely too long. More time was wasted letting mediocre rapper Future take the helm for a couple tracks, which ultimately led to them axing six songs, including finale cut “The Whole World”.

By comparison, the desert’s second weekend was brilliant – they were at the front of the stage from the get-go, had seemingly cut the fat according to criticisms, and arguably set off one of the best parties that fest has ever seen. Six major fests later at Friday’s closing performance, they were still as hot and sharp as two fire irons left overnight in a raging blaze. It was essentially identical banter and set list they’ve been using since Coachella II: “B.O.B.” and “Gasoline Dreams” to start plus “Rosa Parks” and “Ms. Jackson” early on, then two solo sections, and ending with a massive dance party on Andre’s “Hey Ya!” (which featured guest dancer Janelle Monáe).

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Photo by David Hall

Though I’d seen the set twice before, it was no less affecting. It’s nearly impossible not to get caught up in the duo’s double energy, both of them ever the exuberant dancers throughout, and sing and clap along wholeheartedly. Then, of course, came a few hardcore fan numbers like “Crumblin’ Herb”, “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik”, and “Player’s Ball” before the obligatory yet still excellent run of “Roses”, “So Fresh So Clean”, and “The Whole World”.

The biggest difference this night was the group’s shout-outs to influences before covering UGK’s “Int’l Player’s Anthem”. They showed love for those Houston titans, but also appealed to the old-school NYC crowd with nods to A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and even KMD. That last one impressed me and likewise appeared to invigorate the already-voracious crowd for one of the most massive fest sing-alongs of all time on that final Killer Mike-featured track. Imagine how preposterously fantastic they’ll be when they hit the road next time with new material in tow, because we all agree that needs to happen, right? Right. –David Hall

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Photo by David Hall

Ben’s Quick Take: This is the only time I’ve seen the duo (ever!), but it seems to me they’ve hit a stride with this reunion. The set moved smoothly, the energy was at 11, and the crowd loved it. Read into André’s attire choices all you want, but he seemed to be loving it, running his throat ragged from “having too much fun” and apologizing to fans for making them wait so long for OutKast’s return. Wait’s over, folks. They’re back.

Gallery

Photographer(s): David Hall, Robert Altman

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