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The Governors Ball NYC Music Festival: We Probably Should’ve Just Gone to Ladyfest

June 10, 2014
Photo by Shannon Gormley

Photo by Shannon Gormley

“Dance so it won’t be awkward.” If only the crowd attending The Governors Ball would’ve taken witty Odd Future word-bender Earl Sweatshirt’s advice. There was a notable lack of dancing at the three day festival that took place on Randall’s Island, New York and a noticeable surplus of talking. Attendees just stood around and blathered aimlessly in little groups for the majority of the fest’s sets, only halting their conversations when they heard songs they already knew.

For most of the weekend, Governors Ball felt more like a whole bunch of cliques in a lame club than a crowd at a festival with one of the most diverse and talent-saturated lineups of the year. There always seemed to be a stream of people exiting any given set. I understand that in New York, people always have somewhere else to be, it’s tough to enjoy a show when you’re constantly moving out of the way for long lines of people who clearly don’t care about the music.

I put in a lot of effort and spent a shit ton of money to get to the festival, so I felt a little cheated. Considering that Baltimore’s Ladyfest (check out City Paper‘s Ladyfest galleries, part one and part two), a non-profit festival highlighting predominately local female bands was this weekend, I had to wonder why I even decided to go through such an odyssey to hear good music when I could’ve just stayed in my own city. Ladyfest, whose lineup included the likes of Big Mouth and War on Women,and would’ve been much cheaper than my $230 Governor’s Ball ticket also would’ve allowed me to sleep in my own bed each night. If the reason I skipped Ladyfest was for the high energy of a large communal music festival, Governors Ball was not cutting it.

But there were some awesome displays of lady power at Governors Ball. On the first day, Washed Out was the band I overheard as the most anticipated, but by the end of the day, it was former Rilo Kiley member Jenny Lewis that I heard mentioned most frequently as a favorite. Wielding her guitar while wearing a rainbow-jacketed pantsuit and cat eye sunglasses, Lewis was going to play an awesome set even if the crowd didn’t approve, but it’s nice to know they did. Grimes’ bubble-gum electro pop attracted a giant crowd and she debuted three new songs, including the previously tweeted about “Go,” a song she originally wrote for Rihanna, but was rejected by the R&B pop superstar. Grimes ended her set with a quick “goodbye” and walked off the stage, and then promptly returned, apologizing for not playing one of her most popular songs, “Oblivion,” teasing the crowd, “I can play it if you want.” The crowd responded by screaming and rushing back to the stage.

Competing with La Roux’s sub-par set, Neko Case ended up with probably the smallest crowd of the weekend. She didn’t seem to care, though, and the small crowd was focused on Case, singing in to the golden hour sunlight; it was an intimate moment at a fest that needed more intimate moments. This was more than could be said for OutKast, whose between-song banter was mainly restricted to asking “Are you still with us?” Festival attendees were clearly not impressed by the performance from the legendary southern rap group, as the audience only seemed to find tracks like “Roses” and “Hey Ya” more interesting than their own conversations.

Saturday was able to stir the stoic New York crowd, if only a little. Deafheaven’s uplifting brand of black metal mustered a mosh pit and even inspired one or two meek attempts at crowd surfing. As soon as Deafhaven hit their first chord, vocalist George Clarke went into a routine of spitting, screaming, and hair flipping. Every time Clarke was behind the microphone clearly ready to pounce, the crowd screamed. Right after Deafheaven, female duo Lucius was on the main stage singing girl group-style harmonies and wearing matching blond bobs, giant sunglasses, and sequined tops and skirts. Like Janelle Monáe on Friday, Lucius backed spectacle with raw power: Jesse Wolfe and Holly Laessig had to lose their sunglasses a couple of songs in so they could maximize their drum-whacking and head-banging.

British electronic duo Disclosure had been one of the most talked about acts of the day among the crowd, but usually in the context of “everyone will be there because of that one Sam Smith song and nothing else.” Clearly, this was the case. The duo walked off stage before playing “Latch,” but unlike the intermission before Grimes played “Oblivion,” the audience just stood in front of the stage until the pair came back out to play their best known song.

Hopes that the crowd would continue their upswing in energy didn’t last long into Sunday. Nostalgia-invoking reggae pop wannabes Wild Belle are not a very interactive live band, so there wasn’t really any hope of their set rousing the masses. But Earl Sweatshirt was clearly frustrated and called out the crowd for their unresponsiveness. Even other members of the crowd were voicing their grievances with the excessive talking. AlunaGeorge was at least able to pick things up when she played “White Noise,” which she already performed the day before with Disclosure. AlunaGeorge’s set in the Gotham Tent was followed by Italian house duo The Bloody Beetroots. Governors Ball attendees seemed to be really into the Beetroots, but I’m pretty sure any EDM producer would have gotten the same response. It just so happened that these guys also wore ski-masks and jumped around with guitars, which seemed to work as spectacle, but just looked ridiculous.

All those Bloody Beetroots bass drops must have numbed the Governors Ball crowd to more subtle displays of tension and release, because they were completely indifferent to electronic looping mastermind James Blake, who took to the stage right after the Beetroots. As Blake was stacking vocal loops that were about to plunge into a beat, I heard an incredibly disheartening conversation behind me: “Oh, so this is what you meant when you said he does ‘weird’ things. Does he have any popular songs? Let me know when he plays those.” I found myself wishing he’d just hurry up and play “Retrograde” just so I wouldn’t be the only one enjoying the set.

I was beginning to worry that even Vampire Weekend’s Sunday headlining spot wouldn’t be enough to pep up the crowd. But not only was everybody moving their feet, I saw lips moving too, singing along even to newer, non-single tracks (there was a particularly epic sing along to the first song of the encore “Hannah Hunt”). A couple girls had to be ushered off stage during the band’s ceremonial closer “Walcott,” and I was even bonked in the head a couple times by crowd surfers. But having been disrupted all weekend by pushy crowd members leaving the show and garrulous yapping, crowd surfers were a welcome disturbance, because at least it meant people were getting into the show. All of my frustration with earlier sets was completely forgotten; it all seemed suddenly worth it. Governors Ball and I had finally found something we could agree on.

  • singlecarrot

    We’ve moved the reading inside, it’ll be by candlelight in our space at 120 W. North ave. We’ll still be providing hot beverages though, so do join us!

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  • observeandreport

    no way this writer is a hipster…