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Panorama 2017 Festival Review: Top 10 Sets

NYC's second major festival avoids sophomore slump with Frank Ocean, Solange, and more

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    Photos by Killian Young

    Regardless of how big Goldenvoice gets, its sophomore Panorama Music Festival still books with the personality of a smaller event. That’s not to say that it didn’t reach for the top, but what other major festival bills Belle & Sebastian in its second line? Or even Tame Impala as a headliner? While certainly one of indie rock’s biggest acts, with decent crossover appeal, too, thanks to Rihanna, the band still remains largely absent from most other festivals’ top spots. Panorama isn’t trying to be its island-mate, Governors Ball, and that’s musically to its benefit. By booking acts less obvious, less likely to be a major household name, Panorama presents itself as New York City’s alternative festival.

    So why didn’t Panorama sell out? Because it didn’t book Lorde. Because it booked Nicolas Jaar over Flume. Because Randall’s Island is annoying to get to, and without the aforementioned artists, you don’t get the eager high-school crowds. They came out on Friday for Frank Ocean, but Saturday and Sunday were noticeably leaner. Panorama’s decision to fill a musical niche is both a blessing (for attendees) and a curse (potentially, for its sustainability). No music festival in New York City has managed to become a cultural institution quite like Coachella or Lollapalooza. And because of that, the fight for Randall’s Island continues. Panorama, after two years now of stellar booking, is working to maximize its appeal without sacrificing its musical credibility.

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    This year’s headliners seemed to reflect New York’s collective mood over the last few months. Fed up with Trump and feverish from the heat, Panorama cherry-picked from the city’s well of emotions. Tame Impala and Nine Inch Nails, both musicians who rely heavily on their own insecurities and self-doubt to make art, were booked over acts more in line with the tired quest for “summer vibes.”

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    One half of Panorama’s headliners were some of music’s most conscious artists: Solange, Frank Ocean, and A Tribe Called Quest, all remarkable for the way they represent society through song. Their sets were exhilarating, but to call them fun would be to trivialize their impact. Seeing Calvin Harris is fun, but it’s wholly uninspired. Panorama’s collection of artists asked you to challenge the notion of how a music festival is supposed to make you feel.

    The weekend wasn’t just top heavy, though, booking solidly throughout. Rising stars like Mitski and Angel Olsen shared the bill with more established groups like MGMT and Spoon. What Panorama might have needed was one more tent – something for the smaller acts like Pinegrove, who aren’t yet able to fill the main stage. And potentially, the festival also could have used another installation. HP’s The Lab was interesting, but its payoff wasn’t worth the long lines. By and large, though, Panorama’s infrastructure was adequate (save for the floor caving in during Isaiah Rashad’s set). Stages were spaced out far enough so there was no bleeding of sound, and ample-size screens were present so that you could always see the artist. Food and drink were plenty, except for the inconvenience of hard alcohol being limited to only one fenced-in area. Parental chaperones did not seem amused.

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    So does Panorama Music Festival have a future on Randall’s Island? Well, it might if Goldenvoice continues to take risks in booking. To call headlining acts like Tame Impala or Nine Inch Nails a risk feels ridiculous. But eventually leaf subsides to leaf, and even a titan like Bonnaroo finally succumbed to booking youth-drawing acts. What Panorama has that Bonnaroo doesn’t is convenience. Arguably, it’s even more convenient than Coachella. People will come to Randall’s Island for music because it’s just off the 4/5/6 train. With a baked-in audience, all Panorama has to do is continue to differentiate itself.
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    10. Jamila Woods

    jamila woods photo by panorama nyc 2 Panorama 2017 Festival Review: Top 10 Sets

    Photo courtesy of Panorama

    Jamila Woods was one of Panorama 2017’s opening acts, a tough slot given the slim Friday workday crowd. After her performance, though, no one should be surprised to watch her rise in festival stature over the next several summers. As a relatively new artist, Woods’ performance wasn’t always perfect. But there’s something endearing about watching an artist grow before your eyes, gaining confidence with each successive song. By the time Woods got to 2017’s “Holy”, she was effortlessly delivering one of Panorama’s most underappreciated performances.


    09. Pinegrove

    Pinegrove highlights the absolute best of what emo can be. More Saddle Creek and less Fueled by Ramen, the group represents a time when the genre more or less meant what “indie” does today. Pinegrove sounds like your parents’ suburban basement, and their onstage aesthetic matches all the emotions that come with it. They’re surprisingly youthful for their sound, breaking character occasionally with a smile that showed an appreciation for where they were. These were clearly best friends who grew up listening to The Get Up Kids and begged their parents to drive them across the tri-state area for Jimmy Eat World concerts. What defined the set was how tight each song sounded live. Tracks from Cardinal felt fresh — like maybe whatever caused them to write “Old Friends” was going to be okay so long as they were all in it together.
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    08. Mitski

    The Pinegrove-to-Mitski transition had no chill. But both are such relentless talents that if you could emotionally handle them back to back, the result was worth it. Another artist in the early stages of her career, Mitski presented herself on stage with the reserved coolness of a PJ Harvey or a Björk. Her sound was forceful, with Mitski backed only by a guitarist and a drummer. It wasn’t until several songs in when she finally introduced herself, reminding the crowd that she was from New York City, before searing through Best American Girl. Mitski was alarmingly confident, songs like “Happy” and “I Don’t Smoke” sounding more powerful than they ever could through headphones.


    07. Nick Murphy a.k.a Chet Faker

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    Photo courtesy of Panorama

    You have to believe someone in the booking department threw a fit when Chet Faker announced he’d now be going by his little-known birthname, Nick Murphy. The negotiation that followed likely resulted in his former moniker’s parenthetical inclusion on most Panorama marketing materials. It mattered little to me since I’d never listened to either Chet Faker or Nick Murphy before. Quickly on Saturday, I learned that this had been a mistake.

    Murphy’s set could be best described as ambient hard rock, a perfect transition into what would shortly become Tame Impala’s headlining set. Though sparsely attended due to the cross-billing of Alt-J, Murphy spared nothing when it came to visuals and sound. What we heard was deep and resounding, a statement performance to make a new (albeit his actual) name for himself. That such music typically delegated to DJs could be made by a live band was remarkable. And what a welcome sight it was at the end to watch him trash his instruments, something a now cost-conscious music industry seems to have forgotten. Murphy thrashed with an intensity matched only by his music, throwing mic stands and kicking over amps. The perfect bookend to his thrilling performance.
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    06. Cloud Nothings

    That Cloud Nothings were booked towards the top of Sunday evening is a testament to the excellent punk rock they’ve put out over the last several years. This isn’t new to them, but that didn’t stop the Cleveland foursome from putting on the relentless kind of performance they’re known for. Dylan Baldi’s voice can be messy, a scream that doesn’t always hit the spots it’s trying to reach. But Cloud Nothings powered through, delivering hits like “Now Here In” and “Psychic Trauma”. The band’s concise songwriting was made for the stage; it’s easy to dance to and inviting for light-contact mosh pits. In an attempt to further separate itself from Governors Ball, Panorama should consider booking more punk acts. Given the reception Cloud Nothings received, it would likely be a worthwhile investment.


    05. Noname

    A small but passionate crowd waited for rising star Noname, erupting when the rapper finally appeared on stage. And in her mild Chicago manner, Noname eased festival-goers into Panorama’s second day. The performance drew mostly from last year’s remarkable Telefone, making excellent use of a band to give each song a rich and textured sound. What differentiated the set, though, was Noname re-inventing familiar tracks like “Diddy Bop” and “Reality Check” for the live show. Rather than rely exclusively on what was familiar, the young MC instead decided to challenge both herself and her audience with something new.

    The best part of Noname’s set came when she thought she’d heard that there were only two minutes left. Asking for one last moment with crowd, everyone sang the outro to “Yesterday” together. It was a tender scene, made even more special when she realized that the stage manager had actually said 20. Her child-like giddiness on stage poured out into the crowd, erupting with cheers as we all realized that the set wasn’t over. Noname made the rest of the performance that much more invigorating, playing on borrowed time and determined to make the most of it.
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    04. Belle and Sebastian

    Stuart Murdoch’s soothing Glasgow vocals were a welcome mid-afternoon change in attitude. Belle and Sebastian drew a smaller crowd than one would have expected given their billing. But those who did show made up for the size with sheer fandom. As Murdoch said, it had been a while since he’d seen New York.

    Belle and Sebastian were the second oldest act at Panorama, and it showed only in their cohesiveness as a unit. Murdoch was more charismatic than anyone who’d only ever listened to their records would have expected. In between sets, he sauntered around the stage and made observations about the city. He asked if we were close to Shea Stadium, borrowed someone’s Mets hat, and talked about a swanky meal he had the other night. Then, he pulled a whole bunch of people on stage and demanded a dance party be started.

    Their music matched his charisma. Belle and Sebastian were lively, full of both brass and string instruments to deepen their sound. They promised to “play something old,” digging through the crates to pull out dance-friendly classics like “Dylan in the Movies” or “I’m a Cuckoo”. Noticeably absent was anything from Tigermilk, though it’s possible that songs like “Expectations” and “The State I’m In” didn’t fit the group’s chipper mood. It all culminated in what could only be described as an ironically positive and upbeat rendition of If You’re Feeling Sinister’s “Get Me Away I’m Dying”.


    03. Solange

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    Only a Knowles could command the sky to turn the same color as her stage. Draped in red, encouraged by the sunset, Solange was everything an artist is supposed to be: complex, risk-welcoming, uncompromising. So self-assured of what she’s doing that it makes you wonder why you ever half-assed anything.

    Solange treated Panorama to most of last year’s A Seat at the Table, sprinkling in select tracks too from the albums that came before it (and one nostalgic rendition of the Proud Family theme song). “Rise/Weary” was a magnificent opener, enhanced by Solange and her band’s synchronous dancing. While this was undoubtedly Solange’s show, she still paid significant respect to the people on stage with her. They helped turn the set into a more sensory-stimulating experience than HP could have ever produced, no matter what kind of sponsorship budget they were given. They also helped turn it into Panorama’s biggest dance party. The weight and importance of her music never stopped Solange from having a good time, taking full advantage of main stage and of the space it affords. Solange’s stage presence was enormous, and her ability to captivate a crowd was natural. It must have been something in the lemonade Tina served…
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    02. Tyler, the Creator

    Tyler, the Creator seemed uncomfortable on stage. His throat must have been sore; it can’t be easy to rap like that for 50 minutes. But if you know anything about Tyler, it’s that in this discomfort is where The Creator thrives. Whether he’s hanging himself in a music video, eating a roach (in that same video), or commanding a crowd, shock value rules. But where for most artists this has limited them to a gimmick, for Tyler, it has turned him into a superstar.

    His set wasn’t just energetic; it was livid. It was mad and it was writhing. But what made it fun was that behind the facade, Tyler is just so lovable. He’s like the weird neighborhood kid you can’t quite figure out why you like. Tracks off Flower Boy were solid, the crowd feeling receptive to several live debuts, (“Where This Flower Blooms”, “Boredom”, “November”) but were clearly not yet road-tested. That will come. Tyler is a professional; don’t let any of his off-stage antics fool you. But the biggest applause on Friday came for his first single, “Yonkers”. The track took on new life as he played it probably the closest to the New York City suburb he’ll ever be.


    01. Frank Ocean

    If Solange’s set was an exhale, Frank Ocean’s was an inhale. And with that breath came every emotion, both pleasant and raw, exposed amidst the backdrop of a genius alone with his music. Frank’s set was hard to understand – but then again, so is most brilliance when you’re presented with it for the first time. What we experienced was a minimalist attack on the standard notion of how a headlining set was supposed to sound. Rather than satiate our desire for the hits as we knew them, Frank delivered “Thinking About You” quietly over a classic Dilla beat and stopped and restarted haunting versions of both “Ivy” and “Nikes”.

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    Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that just because Frank Ocean turned his back to the crowd that he didn’t want to be there. From the empty stage setup, to the grainy home video-style footage on screen (provided by Spike Jonze), to the skeletal renditions of most tracks from Blond, Frank Ocean was purposefully withholding. It forced the audience to project their own emotions onto his art, forming a tense bond between the artist and his crowd. Through Frank we all channeled our own breakups, our own fears, and our own anxieties, but only because his minimalism gave us the space to do so.

    Frank on stage lingered like a patient fever, building but offering little in terms of the musical payoffs we’ve been conditioned to expect. Respite came suddenly and once during the middle of “Biking” when, for a moment, Frank seemed to drop his guard. Doubled over, he seized the mic while the monitors shuddered with color, only to snap back into the set’s challenging sense of calm moments later.

    The crowd was noticeably quiet leaving Randall’s Island shortly after the conclusion of Ocean’s set. Many people commented on how they’d never seen a festival’s worth of people somber like this before. But as usual with Frank Ocean’s music, it takes a while to digest. The best art always does.

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    Click ahead for an exclusive gallery from Panorama 2017.
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    Photographer: Killian Young

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