New York has always had a problem with music festivals. Where else would rumors of a thunderstorm lead to 4,000 jilted fans flooding the streets until 2 a.m., baying for a makeup Kanye set?
Chalk it up to bad weather, bad luck or the fact that every major act has to play the city at some point so local fans can afford to get picky, but two recent and major NYC festivals—2003’s Field Day and 2008 and 2009’s All Points West—failed to become East Coast institutions. So the fact that the Governors Ball Music festival made it to its fifth year this past weekend was achievement enough. But there was a lot riding on the success of Governors Ball this year: Late July will see the debut of the Panorama Music Festival, the latest attempt by the organizers of Coachella to establish a beachhead in the New York market. Not only will this festival take place in the same city as Gov’s Ball; it will take place in the very same location, Randall’s Island. (Clearly a bit spooked, Founders Entertainment, the organizers behind the Ball, sold themselves to Live Nation shortly after Panorama was confirmed.)
Perhaps realizing there was a lot on the line, this year’s Ball felt a bit safe, with two of the major headliners and one subheadliner (Beck, Kanye West and the Strokes) having headlined before—in the case of the Strokes, just two years ago. But hey, it’s hard to complain about any chance to see Beck or Kanye again, and the rest of the undercard was stacked with some of the best young bands around, including Nothing, Torres and Bully. In addition to Kanye, Sunday was to have a particularly strong selection of rising rap stars, including Vic Mensa, Vince Staples and Joey Bada$$, but that was scuttled when the organizers—or, perhaps more accurately, the New York Parks Department—made the call to cancel Sunday amid forecasts of thunderstorms.
The festival grounds were decorated with murals dedicated to Davie Bowie, Lemmy Kilmister and Prince, and the Purple One was definitely on people’s minds the entire weekend, sometimes for the worse, as rap diehards waiting for De La Soul had to endure Mac Miller warbling over “Purple Rain.” Elsewhere, both Haim and Bloc Party (breaking in an entirely new rhythm section) covered “I Would Die For U.” The biggest Prince tribute, though, came during Beck’s set, where he followed up a sing-along version or “Raspberry Beret” with a touching story about hugging Prince after winning a Grammy. (Beck said he often wondered if it was okay that he went for a hug, but the day Prince died he looked up the photo online and was relieved to see Prince smiling). Beck’s set was filled with party starting hits like “E-Pro” and “Devil’s Haircut” and wisely kept lovely but downer moments to a minimum. It was light on new material, however, so we’ll have to wait until this fall for his new album to check out the high-energy new jams he’s been promising for a while. And to Beck’s credit, he’s never been too cool to give the people what they want and just play “Loser.”
The Killers and the Strokes haven’t had new albums since 2012 and 2013, and neither of those was received particularly warmly, so it was up to both headliners to remind people why they liked them in the first place. Both accomplished their mission, with Brandon Flowers sounding as shameless as ever on “When You Were Young” to a crowd lapping up every drop of his band’s melodrama, while the Strokes played with a hunger they haven’t bothered to show since the Room On Fire days, tearing into songs old and new (including material from the recently released Future Present Past EP) with an ease that indicated that they could have tapped back into their signature lock-step tightness and effortless cool anytime they wanted—they just hadn’t felt like it until now.
The backfield tends to be the place for the more adventurous Governors Ball bookings, though M83 and Robyn are probably both one more hit album from headlining duties. In the counterprogramming roles this weekend, M83 mostly aimed for the stars, with some dismaying forays into sax-laded ‘80s cheese, while Robyn delivered a set of deep remixes that seemed to puzzle as many audience members as it delighted. The two safest bets to one day headline were also the biggest rock stars on the entire bill: Miguel and Father John Misty. Both submitted their resume for bigger bill placements, with Miguel fighting to enliven the crowd during a brutal downpour, at one point crowd surfing shirtless during a remix of “How Many Drinks” to the delight of the diehards, while Father John Misty kept his usual witty banter to a minimum but still wandered around the stage and climbed up the rafters like indie rock’s perpetually bemused drunken best man. (Ironically, given its title, people went the craziest for “Bored In The USA.”)
Coachella always seeks to define the current zeitgeist of left-of-center music. Bonnaroo tries to create a free-flowing community of fans with a distinctly '60s ethos. Governors Ball’s organizers have never had that much ambition. Instead, they’ve always just strived to throw a good party. It’s hard to predict if the festival will survive the blow of losing a day and the competition from Panorama, or if Live Nation’s influence will make the event feel too corporate and bland. But if this turns out to be the end, or at least the beginning of the end, at least they threw another solid party one last time, rain be damned.