Governor’s Ball 2016 kicks off. Doors at 11:45 am; music starts on two of the four stages at 12:15 pm and then the stages alternate all day with a wide variety of quality acts til the closing bands shut the festival down about 11 pm. While the larger acts get the two bigger stages, there is no relegation of the electronica to a dance tent or segregation of singer-songwriters to a smaller space. It’s kinda like AM radio back in the day; you can hear it all in just one place. And while there were lots of nods to the past, and covers of bands gone long before the audience was born, the Gov Ball lineup is current and relevant and tasty and most bands have recent or upcoming releases.
The London Souls kicked off the festival on the main GovBallNYC stage. A duo –guitar and drums – they kick out a lot of retro rock sound for just two instruments and voices. Black Pistol Fire, an Austin-based duo of guitar and drums, filled the Bacardi House tent and delivered a crazy set of heavy bluesy rock and stage antics. Lead singer Kevin McKeown made it clear he was using the whole stage allotted them – and then some – as he jumped onto and strutted along the line of amps in front of the stage on their very first song, climbed the drum kit later while rifting into Led Zeppelin’s The Lemon Song and late in the set threw himself into the crowd. Later, he heaved his guitar back from the crowd to the stage, snapping it in two. Back on stage he flung first the neck and then the guitar body back into the crowd. (What those fans did all day with this swag, I wonder.) Although the shirtless drummer Eric Owen was constrained behind his drum kit he managed to take as much stage and attention as he could too, drumming in a frenzy and frequently bashing his kit while standing. While peppered with many covers including Fleetwood Mac, Son House and George Thorogood, the set included songs from their four albums as well as a new single Bad Blood. I will not miss this band next time we’re in the same city, and these albums are now part of my collection.
I had to take a quick spin by neo soul singer Meg Mac at the Honda Stage, she had sounded so good during sound check earlier in the day. Her clear voice was a delight; her new EP will also be a new purchase. Wished I could have stayed, but wanted to see sassy Elle King again who now sells out her NYC shows. She didn’t disappoint, owning the stage, sporting crazy red pants and bedazzled makeup, on guitar or banjo and singing her songs on relationships, men and “chain-smoking, hard-drinking” women. Closing with her version of Khia’s My Neck, My Back, she had the crowd belting out the bawdy lyrics along with her. Bully, a grunge-feeling indie rock quartet fronted by guitarist-singer-songwriter-producer Alicia Bognanno, with driving guitars and lots of hair flipping, was definitely worth a few songs. But I was so glad that I got to Bob Moses on time because I got to hear the entire set. Ultra cool guitarist-lead singer Tom Howie was mesmerizing as he slinked around the stage in his skinny suit, snaking the mic cord around him. Keyboardist Jimmy Vallance tried to pump out the crowd who seemed subdued but perhaps were just as enthralled as I was. I stayed up front as long as long as I could but ultimately the bass was racking my chest and I stepped out of the tent, took out the earplugs and found it just as hypnotic from afar. Not my usual flavor of music but Bob Moses will be the soundtrack of my next party. Definitely check out their new album, Days Gone By. So three new discoveries and the day had barely begun.
The GovBall schedule creates a battle of the bands, two bands play each time slot, starting and ending within minutes of each other. You can see if all if you want (to give up eating, drinking, peeing and all the other fun festival activities). And you can’t help but hear it all as you wander between stages, food and happenings at this compact festival but luckily they somehow manage to prevent stage sound bleed. But ultimately, as the crowds build, and it becomes harder to move through the crowd and get close to the front of the stage, you end up having to choose. So I ended the day just choosing to commit to Father John Misty, Beck, Bloc Party and The Strokes. All fine choices.
Father John Misty, his tall thin body all in black, offered a great set of lush songs as he sashayed around the stage, collapsed to his knees, climbed the stage scaffolding, swung his microphone, crawled out into the crowd, threw around his mic stand, and preached his music, appearing as an evangelical minister except for the f-bombs. The ex-Fleet Foxes drummer opened with Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings and had the crowd singing along with a lot of the set. There was a brief lull as he slowed it down when most of the band left the stage for a few songs, but the high energy returned when the band did and he closed with I Love You Honey Bear and The Ideal Husband.
Beck played a solid set, seemingly enjoying playing and chatting up the crowd and his stage mates. He covered his many hits – opening with Devils Haircut and getting to Hell Yes, Loser, Where’s It At and Dreams. And making time to tell a story of how he stole a hug from Prince at the Grammy’s and then covering Raspberry Beret and honoring David Bowie by closing out using the intro from China Girl. I am always reminded when I see an established musical artist and marvel at how good they are — they’re professionals, there’s a reason they got big.
As night fell, Bloc Party made the most of the stage lights and the mist machine that seemed to be a part of virtually every act. The Strokes, the closer on the GovBallNYC stage, were clearly a draw as evidenced by the number of vintage Strokes t-shirts spotted on Friday and it was the first time the sold out festival felt crowded. While starting over 20 minutes late, they crushed an excellent hour and 15 minute set of driving rock, a mix of old and new, hits and deep cuts and a sweet cover of The Clash’s Clampdown. As they ended their set, they did the unusual (for The Strokes) – an encore. “YOLO” quipped lead singer Julian Casablancas and they launched into You Only Live Once.
The vibe at GovBall is surprisingly relaxed for NYC. Despite being sold out, you don’t feel the New York crush. Until the headliners, you can work your way to the spot you want for your bands. Most of the crowd seems to be groups of twenty-somethings and a heavy dose of college and high school kids. There’s a mix of music fans there for all the music they can get, some who come to see one or two of the acts, and those who just want the festival scene. Some commit only to setting out a blanket within ear shot of the music. Others work their way to the front, singing along with their band. And a few seem content to find the quiet tree-covered corners of GovBall to play lawn games and chill with friends. All seem pleased with the free Vitamin Water and Kettle Chips. Sneakers seem the de rigor footwear though a few braved heels. Skimpy clothing reflected the start of summer in the city, the impending rain, and youth, although a few festers committed to costume. And kudos to the organizers of the VIP area – it works for everyone. Instead of giving VIP ticketholders the 30 feet in front of the stage, pushing everyone else away from the band, VIP is located to one side, where they still have some up front access, but it’s less crowded and there’s special food and drinks, seating, and dedicated bathrooms, without detracting from the rest of the festers.
So much of Gov Ball reflects the spirit of New York City. The FAQs aren’t complete without the sarcastic (but funny) comments interspersed throughout; case in point – What to Bring: at least 2 good dad jokes; and a good, no great, attitude. Festival-goers have to commit to walking or public transportation to get to the venue – Randall’s Island, no cars, it’s either walk over the massive Triborough Bridge or take a ferry or shuttle it from Brooklyn. There are random NYC facts and quotes on the stage backdrops between sets. The food is great, courtesy of the first-rate NYC restaurant and food truck scene. And while a stellar and musically diverse line up, many of the bands have NYC connections.
Saturday was a day for musical grazing. Other than the headliner The Killers, I was content to just wander from stage to stage, lasting as long as the music compelled me to. Singer songwriter Holly Miranda had a clear voice augmented by a full band including a three-piece all-female horn section. The energy of Philadelphia hard rocking Nothing was fun while Louis the Child made me realize I had limits to my musical tastes but they packed the Bacardi House Tent. Luckily the next set brought fabulous singer-sonwriter Torres with deep plaintive songs and an electronic pop group Marian Hill, with vocalist Samantha Gongol strutting around the main stage. MisterWives put on a delightful set, with the guitarist wearing the inflatable donut pool float that had been bouncing throughout the crowd (along with a pepperoni pizza slice inflatable). They brought up members of the LaGuardia High School choir, NYC’s performing arts high school, for a few songs. Sticking with Jon Bellion (and food), I missed The Knocks with guests Carly Rae Jepsen and Wyclef Jean. Lord Huron lulled me to relax with their full harmonic sound so unfortunately missed Mac Miller leading his F*@k Donald Trump chant. Political became personal as Against Me! punk outfit fronted by transitioning frontwoman Laura Jane Grace brought their shouting energy to the dancing crowd.
The weather was supposed to be a non-issue for Saturday, but rain started again just after Haim hit the stage with If I Could Change Your Mind and their poppy harmonies. It eventually developed into a long torrential downpour leaving a lot festers fighting for tent space or jammed into other covered attractions. Haim was delightful and appreciative of the crowd sticking through the rain and offered up Prince’s I Would Die for U. As it teemed, the grounds puddled and got soupy and gave pause to more than a few fans who decided not to stick around. But if you did, you caught great sets by Miguel and Miike Snow before the skies cleared for the last bands of the night. Fighting the instinct to just leave, I caught a fantastic set by The Killers. As one of the few bands without new material to promote, they were free to lead the crowd through a sing-along of their hits and a few choice covers (Elvis Presley, Interpol). Opening with Mr. Brightside, Brandon Flowers pranced all over the stage, making use of the stage props and lights and excellent backdrop visuals. If you made it this far, you were staying, the night was beautiful and the music great whether you stayed with The Killers or hit M83 at the Honda Stage.
Finally, home after a long day on my feet, I lay in bed flipping through the Gov Ball app, preparing for the next day’s music. Again, you have to applaud the organizers and their humor. The artist bios were band- submitted and range from Father John Misty’s 3600-word homily to Thomas Jack’s simple statement “Thomas Jack is a pineapple from the sea.” I went to sleep noting that I must see this pineapple tomorrow.
Sunday – The News No Festival Goer Wants To Hear
Posted – Sunday 12:30 am – Hint of possible delay or cancellation
Posted – Sunday 8:50 am – Doors Delayed
Posted – Sunday 12:15 pm – Sunday Governor’s Ball cancelled due to severe weather and threat of lightning.
In light of the lightning disaster at Germany’s Rock im Ring festival leaving over 75 fans injured the day before, either a prudent choice or an insurance decision or both.
Alas, what’s a fan to do? Regret all the things you saved for Sunday – pictures of the David Bowie mural, mini-golf, playing brick-sized Jenga, checking out the extra sets at the Bacardi Cocktail Lounge you just heard about, giving your number to that cute bartender. Lament that you’ll not get to see Kanye West, Death Cab for Cutie, Chvrches, Vic Mensa or Eagles of Death Metal.
No regrets. All you can do is grab tickets for Death Cab for Cutie’s summer tour, hope that Kanye West announces some dates soon, put your feet up (because yes, you are tired even after 2 days) and for god sake’s, you’re in NYC, pick a band to see on Sunday night in a club. At least four cancelled GovBall bands found a Sunday night gig – Courtney Barnett at Rough Trade, Vic Mensa at Webster Hall, Prophets of Rage at Warsaw and Two Door Cinema Club at Music Hall of Williamsburg.
Just 363 days til GovBall 2017.