Day 1 of the 4th annual Governors Ball festival was a furiously paced, conflict-laden, but undoubtedly rewarding engagement. Surrounded by the New York’s urban sprawl and comforted by the gentle caress of a cool breeze, the sold-out crowd was treated to a loaded day of diverse sights and sounds, including brilliant sets by OutKast, Damon Albarn, Phoenix, Janelle Monae and Run The Jewels. This is our account of the moments that grabbed us. Settle in.
No stage can contain: Run The Jewels
El-P and Killer Mike took the stage and dove head first into their set with a bumpin’ take on the track “Run The Jewels”, both rappers spitting lyrics with purpose as a surprisingly large early day crowd approved. These two guys love performing. They meandered about on stage, trading spots and trading the spotlight as they burned through “DDFH”, both chanting “let me hear ya say” with the audience replying “do dope, fuck hope”. Killer Mike was as spastic as his body would allow, as he did a big-guy jitterbug and his partner took to the edge of the stage, beguiling an early festival crowd just looking for an excuse to go wild. Their DJ, Trackstar, scribbled methodically during “Get It” as they rap duo wrapped it up.
Debbie Downer: Kurt Vile and The Violators
Perhaps the mellow sounds that Kurt Vile and his Violators omit are incompatible with a festival environment. Perhaps throwing him on after a hype set like Run The Jewels was destined to be anticlimactic. Or perhaps he just wasn’t feeling it. Either way, Kurt appeared disinterested as he led the group through the spacy slow-jam “Wakin On A Pretty Day” under the mid-day sun, complaining occasionally about the monitor mix and later driving the point home by stating, “we’ve been on tour for two weeks, but it feels like it’s been two years. I came here to have fun man.
Channeling James Brown: Janelle Monae
Janelle Monae is a bastion of funk energy. A hybrid of what must be near perfect pitch, unrelenting energy and a penchant for entertaining are what Ms. Monae brings to every show. Of course, this was no exception. Backed by a 9-piece band she ran and moonwalked and spun and spasmed, each move a photogenic pose and all the while maintaining piercing vocal perfection. The Electric Lady is the hardest working woman in show business (has anybody checked her lineage?), at one time dancing so hard she dropped her mic. Her new tracks were well received but the swelling main stage crowd really responded to earlier hits like “Tightrope” and “Cold War”, a song which she vaguely dedicated to “all the fighters”.
Bloated and needless: Julian Casablancas and The Voidz
To call this set an utter trainwreck would be unfair. In fact Julian’s other band seems to have improved substantially since Coachella and SXSW earlier this year. With that said, this really shouldn’t be a thing. The discordant garage cacophony that they brought forth was at best comparable to a Strokes b-sides show and at worst a screeching, deafening redundancy. Casablancas looked overjoyed to be bestowing this mess on this hometown crowd, which responded with fervor to even the most offputting instances. There were redeemable moments though. Surprisingly, when Casablancas picked up that second mic and began reaching for the falsetto robot vocals of Daft Punk’s “Instant Crush” (a song he did guest vocals on for last year’s Random Access Memories), the result was actually kind of endearing. As was one other bass heavy track from his forthcoming solo release. But the rest of the set teetered on irrelevance. His vocals were either indecipherable or out-of-key. It seemed like they were using loud to mask the bad. Perhaps having hipster Weird Al on guitar wasn’t the best fit either. I really hope The Stokes can top this tomorrow.
The popular kids: Phoenix
People really like Phoenix. A massive crowd coalesced at the GovBallNYC Stage as the frenchies took to the stage, choosing to commence with “Entertainment”. The calm swell over the audience quickly became a turbulent sea of waving arms and piggybacking bikini girls. This band has a way about them. It’s as if they are always holding back, always with a reserved demeanor. Yet still, they elicit elation every time. At least one girl in the front row seemed to be undergoing a moment of Phoenix-induced existential hysteria, while those around mouthed every word to “Funky Squaredance”. Frontman Thomas Mars, laid on stage while his band smashed through the cathartic slow-building “Love Like A Sunset Part 1”, complete with a funkier twist towards the end before Mars chimed in for part two. And then it was “1901”. A mass dance party ensued, before Mars began swimming across the audience microphone in hand to close out the set.
And they goin’ Gorillaz: Damon Albarn
It was a curious choice pitting Damon Albarn against OutKast at Governor’s Ball’s smallest stage. Perhaps he wanted it that way. Albarn took his stage to a small group of devoted onlookers and serenaded them with “Lonely Press Play” and “Everyday Robots” from his latest solo effort. But of course, the audience sprung to life when he began to dip into his back catalogue. He busted out the melodica for the early Gorillaz jam “Tomorrow Comes Today”. This being only his third show States-side touring on Everyday Robots meant his setlist remained a mystery. After a sing along to Gorillaz’ “Kids With Guns”, Albarn invited some familiar friends on stage. An emphatic and sinister laugh preceded the entrance of Long Island’s De La Soul as they threw down “Feel Good Inc.”. I suppose that shouldn’t have been a surprise. The audience, which had grown substantially since the beginning of the set, was alive and loving it. Albarn then settled down on his piano bench and let us in, notifying us that he “went out last night” and that he was “only sort of returning now”, before teasing a piano rendering of Blur’s “Song 2”, but instead opting out of it. He invited Chicago rapper Vic Mensa out and once again picked up that melodica. It was time for “Clint Eastwood” and all was well. Mensa improvised in place of Del tha Funky Homosapien and the audience was an explosion of joy.
Now I get it: OutKast
Having circumnavigated the festival grounds after Albarn, I found myself right in thick of a jubilant OutKast crowd. Andre 3000 was vibrant in his white wig and jumpsuit as they did “Roses”. Looking around, it was hard not to feel it. You would turn your head and catch eye contact with someone else singing along to every hastened lyric and some sort of embrace would inevitably follow. This was one of those “we’re in it together” moments. When the backlights illuminated the audience it looked like a giant amorphous organism bumping every which way. OutKast have really improved since Coachella. Their set is refined and organized. The reunion jitters are gone. “So Fresh, So Clean” was all business. The day started and concluded with the same man. Killer Mike took the stage beside Big Boi as they ripped into “The Whole World” and Andre began doing push-ups on stage in front of the giant cube.
Crave’s coverage of Governor’s Ball 2014 continues this weekend with Jack White, The Strokes, Broken Bells, Spoon and more. Stay tuned…