There’s a war raging in New York City as we speak; more specifically, an arms race, where the stockpiles are sonic and the weapon is celebratory. I’m referring, of course, to the ongoing battle between festival organizers to give America’s most populous city a festival worthy of its alpha status — the East Coast’s very own Coachella. Governors Ball, a weekender held each year on Randall’s Island in Manhattan since 2011, was early to the battle. Six years later, its organizers face more competition than ever, specifically next month’s Panorama. Though this year’s Governors Ball fell short of a successful bid for the throne, the ambition’s never been clearer and the crowds never larger.
That festival organizers all over the globe tightened security measures significantly in the wake of last month’s Manchester Arena bombing had a negligible effect on the weekend’s atmosphere as a whole. Most of the fuzz – and perhaps a little more baffling, the parents – stuck to the perimeter, leaving the kids to enjoy their dirty dancing and fried mac-and-cheese balls in peace. With the mercury holding fast to the ‘70s and the inclement weather of Governors Balls past mercifully absent (except for some scattered showers Sunday afternoon), spirits remained high, buoyed further by the happy-go-lucky signs scattered across Randall’s Island, closer to towering cheerleaders than concert decorations. One of ’em simply read: “You’re doing great!”
Modern festival lineups are basically hopscotch grids: stylistic and experiential spectrums colliding and diverging by a bacchanalian clockwork that, all too often, dissolves into an amorphous din. Fortunately, Governors Ball’s top-notch sound system and staggered schedule kept audio bleed to a minimum, upholding the integrity of the weekend’s more involved, texturally rich palettes: from Beach House’s wispy shoegaze jams to The Avalanches’ lush plunderphonics to Tool’s labyrinthine prog-metal, presented in sinister high definition with a foreboding light show to boot.
Aside from lending frisson to the music itself, Governors Ball’s stellar production compensated for the marquee’s orthodox roster, a perfunctory assemblage of affable indie bands (Phoenix, Local Natives), millennial whooping crews (Cage the Elephant, The Strumbellas), viral rappers (Logic, Danny Brown), artful R&B vocalists (Tove Lo, Kehlani), dance groups (Phantogram, Flume), and most importantly, any ‘90s legacy acts that happened to be functional and unjaded enough to grace the main stage (Tool, Air). Just like tomatoes on a summer vine, touring festival acts are best enjoyed at the beginning of the season, before the days get miserably hot and the road fatigue creeps in; Governors Ball’s early June timing hermetically sealed that early summer giddiness, offsetting the déja vu.
That’s not to say there weren’t some unique moments, primarily of the collaborative variety. Lorde’s stunning main stage performance featured an ebullient cover of Robyn’s “Hang with Me” with Jack Antonoff, whose indie pop band, Bleachers, took the stage earlier in the evening; bubblegum impresario Charli XCX brought out eccentric rap darling Cupcakke while Marshmello’s surprise guest list included fellow EDM artist Slushii and a toddler known as “Mini Mello,” who hyped up the crowd dressed as – you guessed it – the helmeted DJ himself.
While we’re on the topic of youngsters, teens absolutely dominated the crowd at Governors Ball 2017 – expected consequences for a star-studded festival taking place at the end of the school year. Lorde may have been their patron saint; they erupted into cheers during her wistful introduction to “Ribs” (“This next song I wrote when I 16”), galvanized by the knowledge that their idol was one of them not too long ago (and very well may still be). Phoenix’s headlining set Saturday night was modest by contrast, particularly after “Lisztomania”, when they staged a spontaneous exodus to Childish Gambino’s free-wheeling funk party; those who stuck around for the French band were rewarded with a tight greatest-hits run, as well as a taste of their anticipated new album, Ti Amo.
By Sunday night, the generation gap had widened into a chasm. The Tool acolytes fanned out in front of the main stage, passing around joints over heated setlist speculation; most fans aged 21 and under opted for Wiz Khalifa’s smokeathon across the field, undoubtedly a tad freaked out by the surly weirdos who’d suddenly descended upon the grounds to rant and rave about Maynard James Keenan. “I can’t find any Tool songs on Apple Music,” muttered one girl to her friend, bewildered. “Who are they?”
Everyone over by the main stage certainly knew who Tool was. After all, Sunday’s festival-closing set (which was devoid of new music, instead drawing heavily from Ænima and Lateralus) marked the prog-metal legends’ first area appearance in over a decade. The band didn’t disappoint, storming from one polyrhythmic mind-melter to another as Keenan glowered in the shadows from the back of the stage. He didn’t speak much, except to encourage political unity in his usual, cynical way. Shortly before “Opiate”, he rattled off a list of politicians and news outlets – Trump, Fox, Huffington Post, Breitbart – before proclaiming: “None of these things are your enemy. Your enemy is ignorance. That’s the fight.” Have at it, progressive Twitter.
10. Mondo Cozmo
Los Angeles’ Mondo Cozmo should be on everyone’s radar, if only because of his presence on nearly every festival bill you’ll see this summer. He’s down there in the small fonts, likely holding down an early set. The modern troubadour’s show is definitely worth getting on site early for, though, as his easy, pleasing rock was a great way to kick off the final day of a long fest.
Josh Ostrander spent years cutting his teeth in Eastern Conference Champions, so it’s not too surprising that so “new” an act has such confidence on stage. Even so, he’s clearly enjoying this Mondo persona, his sturdy voice and stage-devouring energy filled with pride in his show. It’s evident how much he’s learned from the Bruce Springsteens of the world, like on “Plastic Soul”, a slow burner that started with him at the mic before he slung on a guitar for the blazing outro. (There’s also that line, “Tramps like us, baby we were born to die” from “Future Bends”.) His cover of “Bittersweet Symphony” also made perfect sense, but he wasn’t just harping on other people’s tricks. Songs like “Higher” and “Automatic” easily drew in the crowd, and just wait until he gets bigger as the summer progresses — that closer of “Shine” is just gonna sound better and better the more people in the crowd are belting along. –Ben Kaye
09. The Head and the Heart
The Head and the Heart gently floated throughout most of their afternoon set, bobbing through their anthemic folk anthems like “Lost in My Mind” and “Let’s Be Still”. The Seattle outfit picked up in the latter half of their performance, getting the audience moving with Let’s Be Still cut “Shake”. However, the crowd’s biggest responses came during the final songs from their debut self-titled, as the band emphatically closed with “Sounds Like Hallelujah”, “Down in the Valley”, and “Rivers and Roads”.
The latter turned into quite the surprise, as the the band welcomed singer Josiah Johnson onstage to help out with the poignant track. (Johnson had taken an extended hiatus from the band starting last year because he was “battling addiction and focusing on his recovery.”) The group felt truly whole again, as Johnson, Jonathan Russell, and Charity Rose Thielen beautifully harmonized together. And the heartrending lyrics took on even more meaning than ever in light of Johnson’s appearance with the band after working through his struggles: “Nothing is as it has been/ And I miss your face like hell.” –Killian Young
08. Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires
Charles Bradley’s shows have always been something of a revelation, but considering the man only recently beat cancer and returned to the stage, there was a palpable air of blessing to his Friday afternoon set. It’s true he’s not quite back to the sweating, dancing frontman he was just a few months ago; he’s thinner now and perhaps not as capable of the same energy. But if even at half-capacity he’s still able to belt out those howling notes like he did during “How Long” and “You Think I Don’t Know (But I Know)”, dropping to his knees to carry the weight of his mic stand like a bag of life’s worries, it stands as a testament to how incredible the Screaming Eagle of Soul truly is as a showman.
Besides, regardless of how virile the 68-year-old is at this point, he’s still got a killer backing band in His Extraordinaires. As people sought shelter from the brief downpour that passed over Randall’s Island, they were able to jam out to the powerful grooves of the six-piece while Bradley changed outfits backstage. Yes, he’s still doing costume changes, still preaching love and change through music, and still tossing that mic stand. Most importantly of all, he still loves you. As the crowd made abundantly clear with their constant cheers, they obviously still love him, too. Soar on, you crazy eagle. –Ben Kaye
07. Wu-Tang Clan
Like The Strokes last year, Wu-Tang Clan represented another iconic homegrown NYC act at the city’s flagship festival. As RZA ran down the accolades of each individual member and the collective, he gave a huge shout-out to the Big Apple. “We took the energy of New York City,” he shouted. “And we spread it across the world!”
It’s been nearly 25 years since Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), but the MCs still seem to be having a ton of fun onstage together. Whether it was opening with a bang on “Bring Da Ruckus” or hyping each other up for “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin’ Ta F’ Wit”, the legendary hip-hop group’s collective energy was infectious. The bouncing crowd threw up their Ws throughout. With a set that also included “C.R.E.A.M.”, “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”, and even a funky sample of The Beatles’ “Come Together”, Wu-Tang showcased a raw, unfiltered classic hip-hop set with most of their biggest hits. –Killian Young
Why people don’t talk about Warpaint as a “band’s band” more often is beyond me. In fact, it’s a wonder more four-pieces don’t try to imitate their stage setup. Spread out across the stage, each individual was highlighted, yet they felt more together as a unit than most rock acts can even begin to claim. Sure, the wonky sound mix led to doubled-down distortion stage right, but each musician’s talent came through far clearer than the sun did on the rainy Sunday afternoon.
In particular, Stella Mozgawa’s drumming was crisply layered, which is a blessing because those rhythms were particularly entrancing. From the stiff beat of “Undertow” to the R&B/hip-hop drum pad kicks of “Dre”, her sick sticks banged out sharp from her corner of the stage. At the same time, the dual frontwomen, Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman, were electric, with the latter’s lead on “Bees” a particular standout. Jenny Lee Lindberg adding to the two- and three-part harmonies gave the set a nice shine on a dreary day, bolstering songs like “Whiteout” and “So Good”. Watching all of them switch roles and instruments nearly every song (save for Mozgawa) was just one more bit of evidence to support my theory that more bands should be studying Warpaint. –Ben Kaye
As the eager crowd awaited the arrival of Tool, a chant of “This is necessary!” rippled throughout the audience. A fan held a sign near the front row reading, “CAME FROM BRAZIL ONLY 2 SEE TOOL!” The enigmatic rockers unleashed a set that closely followed what they had performed at Boston Calling and other recent arena shows. But whether or not fans had traveled all the way from South America to watch the hard rock titans, who hadn’t played a proper NYC show in over a decade, seeing Maynard James Keenan and co. was understandably a can’t-miss event, even if that meant hearing the old standards.
Keenan emerged in his signature riot gear, emphatically posing in the shadows of the stage on crushing opener “The Grudge”. Guitarist Adam Jones and bassist Justin Chancellor, both featured more prominently onstage, more than held their own. On “Schism”, Chancellor goaded the audience to get louder as he careened through the track’s speedy opening riff. Keenan mostly kept his personal dialog to a minimum, but near the start he thematically set the table. “I’ve got some good news, and I’ve got some bad news,” he teased. “Fox News, Huffington Post, The Left, The Right, Trump, Breitbart, Facebook – none of these things are your enemy. Your enemy is ignorance.” The idea of having a critical view toward the world continued, with the band launching into “Opiate”. And as the pummeling, sneering takedown of religion continued, Keenan chimed in again. “Here’s the other part, the good news and the bad,” he said. “It’s all gonna work out. Or not. Good luck!”
Later in the set, the band substituted the original Bill Hicks opener to “Third Eye” with a bit from Timothy Leary urging the audience to “think for yourself, question authority.” The raucous track proved to be one of the highlights, with the audience pumping their fists in unison to the visceral roar of Keenan screaming, “Prying open my third eye!” Afterwards, the band members ceded the stage as buzzing synths hummed over the speakers. Danny Carey unleashed a furious drum solo, bringing the crowd to a hushed sense of awe over the accelerating wallop of the kick drum. The band closed with “Stinkfist”, capping their technically proficient and fierce performance. With such a heavy and abrasive sound, this wasn’t a set designed to draw in the casual festival-goer; it was the kind of full-force Tool show a fan could expect at one of their standalone gigs. –Killian Young
04. The Avalanches
Since its inception in 2011, Governors Ball has always been a place for the kids to come out and party. With solid sets from the likes of Flume and Zane Lowe, this year had plenty of opportunities to get sweaty. But in terms of pure, good-times carousing, there was no better show than The Avalanches. Clearly over the technical glitches and delays that marred their US debut at Coachella a few months ago, their Sunday evening set brought an old-school house party to Randall’s Island.
Calling the reunited Aussie outfit a duo does a disservice to their live show, as drummer Paris Jeffree, MC Spank Rock, and singer Eliza Wolfgramm take the band to 11. Tony Di Blasi is a pleasure with his electronics (shout-out to the theremin!), and Robbie Chater’s talent and energy on guitar and synths is clear, and it’s great to see an “electronic” act be a band like the good ol’ days. Still, it’s hard to beat Wolfgramm swinging a bat around like a joyful demon during “The Guns of Brixton”. While she brought all kinds of spunk to “Subway” and “Because I’m Me”, Rock killed his own “Bump”. The two together on “Frankie Sinatra” was next level, with the pair grooving together and sharing a kiss on the forehead. Each individual up on stage was just so obviously having a good time, Wolfgramm bounding about to dance with everyone — and by extension, the crowd. Avalanches brought the most hyped energy of any act all weekend, and it was impossible to avoid the infection. –Ben Kaye
Photo by Killian Young
The good: Phoenix showcased one of the best uses of lighting and color over the weekend. The bad: Phoenix had the misfortune of sharing a set time with Childish Gambino, creating one of biggest conflicts of the weekend. The French rockers kicked things off with recent single “Ti Amo”, and “J-Boy” also followed soon thereafter. (Somewhat surprisingly, brand-new single “Goodbye Soleil” wasn’t debuted.) These two previews of their highly anticipated new album, Ti Amo, aimed to capture “summer and Italian discos.” And Phoenix succeeded in this regard through their stunning stage setup and laser rigs, a colorful display ideal for summer festival season.
The visuals were actually projected from the floor the band performed atop, and the imagery could be seen in a reflection through a massive mirror that tilted at a 45-degree angle behind the band. During the spacey jam of “Sunskrupt!”, lead singer Thomas Mars reclined on the floor, slowly enveloped by smoke on the floor screen before rising to the pulsing beat, matched by frantic changes of color. And throughout, Mars made for an engaging frontman, spinning throughout the stage. The crowd bounced along to the group’s biggest hits, from “Lisztomania” to closer “1901”, but it’s easy to imagine how much of a bigger, locked-in crowd Phoenix could’ve drawn with a standalone headlining spot like Chance the Rapper had on Friday. –Killian Young