Category: Festivals

This article first appeared at No Ripcord on June 9, 2017.


Now six years into its tenure, Governors Ball is a well-oiled machine and is one of the top fests in the country. For New Yorkers, it’s a must-attend event. But it still takes risks and offers surprises that few other showcases pull off. Giving Chance the Rapper a headlining shot? Sure. Having Tool close out three days focused more on pop, indie rock and rap? Why not? But getting to see acts like Lorde, Childish Gambino, Wu-Tang Clan and Air all within 72 hours? That’s an experience that no other festival offered this year.

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This article was written with Dana Grossman. It first appeared at Consequence of Sound on June 20th, 2011.

The inaugural year of a music festival is really a roll of the dice. You never know what you’re going to end up with. It can turn into a stunning success or an incredible disaster. Thankfully, Governor’s Ball Music Festival in New York City was definitely a success in terms of the music, though the logistics could use some tweaking.

Located on Governor’s Island south of Manhattan, the festival got a pretty good haul in terms of the artists chosen. It felt like each act built up the energy a little more, leading up to an explosive performance by headliner Girl Talk. The variety was decent, mixing up rap, dance, and rock between the two stages. There were plenty of other activities to keep the crowd occupied during sets they didn’t enjoy. Basketball, volleyball, and ping-pong were all popular, though the beer-pong table seemed far ahead of the rest.

On the other hand, there were a couple delays and problems that should be worked out for future iterations. First off, the gates opened a half hour later than originally specified on the website. Rather than getting in at 11:30 a.m., festivalgoers stood out on the pavement until a little after noon, baking in the sun without cover. As a result of this delay, both Outasight and Reptar played at the same time, creating a conflict in a festival that was advertised to have no overlapping sets. Despite the delays, all was forgiven as the day went on and everyone danced into the night.

Reptar – Big Apple Stage – 12:50 p.m.

With a shout of “Hey everyone, we’re called Reptar, come see us play,” the Athens, GA-based group got things started on the right note. A psychedelic, tribal note at that. Underneath the summer sun, the band grooved its way through a sublime mess of bloopy synths and tribal beats. Singer/guitarist Graham Ulicny was energetic enough for the entire band, stomping through songs like “Stuck in My Id” and “Blast Off”. His vocals sounded like a mix between Talking Heads-era David Byrne and Sting in the early Police days. It wasn’t all fun in the sun, though. The yelps during “Sebastian” were pretty grating, even if the anecdote about how Ulicny recorded the birds at the beginning while naked in his bedroom was pretty hilarious.

Passion Pit (DJ Set) – Gotham Stage – 1:30 p.m.

Passion Pit had probably the most traditional DJ set of the entire festival. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Far from wrong, in fact. With a mix that incorporated everything from “I Want You Back” to “Where’s Your Head At?”, the duo of Ian Hultquist and Ayad Al Adhamy really got the dance party started for the day. It took a little time for the crowd to get into it, but familiar tunes like the aforementioned were enough to get a few hands waving and feet jumping. The rest of the audience was content to just sit back and nod their heads along to the rhythm.

Das Racist – Big Apple Stage – 2:20 p.m.

For those unfamiliar with Das Racist’s style, they are pretty much the Frank Zappa of rap. Performing experimental hip-hop, the trio ridiculed the imagery and negative aspects of the genre while celebrating the actual music underneath the hype. Underneath visuals of clips from The X-Files and X-Men: The Animated Series, they ripped through numbers like “”Who’s that? Brooown!” with loud vocals and abrasive bass beats.

Everything about their stage presence was a mockery. Heems’ shout-outs to the crowd included lines like “Here’s another stupid song” and “It’s great to be in Tokyo!” Kool A.D. took off his hat, looked at the symbol on it, and dismissively threw it over his shoulder. Deconstructing the rap genre while kicking ass with the music at the same time? Works for us!

Mac Miller – Gotham Stage – 3:10 p.m.

First off, it doesn’t matter if the act you’re seeing is good or bad if the audio levels are loud enough to physically hurt your ears. That was the first of many problems with Mac Miller’s appearance. The second issue was the rapper’s lateness. When you only have a 45-minute set, every minute counts. While the DJ insisted to the crowd that Miller would be there any second, he didn’t hit the stage until 10 minutes after he was due to start. Once he arrived, the crowd was pumped up by his high-energy performance and good flow. But the loud volume muddled the music, making every song sound far too similar. The audience lost interest by the end as seen by a call-and-response attempt by the Pittsburgh rapper that fell flat.

Miami Horror – Big Apple Stage – 4:00 p.m.

Every festival has at least one surprise. It’s an artist that you weren’t expecting to hear and didn’t know anything about, but the set turned into a highlight of the whole show. For Governor’s Ball, Miami Horror was that standout act. The Australian-based band is a New Wave throwback with sharp, sexy guitar riffs, and flashy synths.

Singer/guitarist Josh Moriarty’s stage presence is what Matt Bellamy would be like if he joined Duran Duran in the 80s. He spun, twirled, and danced with his guitar, taking Prince’s best moves and adding his own lively touches to them. He was pretty damn charming when talking to the audience as well. “I want to take you all to meet my mom. Let’s get married, but first show me what you’ve got.” The crowd did, jumping around happily, so Moriarty replied by putting down his guitar and climbing the scaffolding of the stage, singing the whole way. Coolest moment of the weekend? Yeah.

People Under the Stairs – Gotham Stage – 4:55 p.m.

By the time everyone headed back over to Gotham Stage, the sound engineer had thankfully reduced the audio levels to a bearable volume. It was just in time for People Under the Stairs, who arrived to the stage with “Trippin’ at the Disco”. The ’70s-influnced soul beats were a jazzy touch that displayed the duo’s gift for sampling. Commercial jingles that introduced other tracks drove this point home even more. As sick as the beats were, all the attention remained on the two MCs. Focusing on bouncing lyrics and rhymes off each other rather than jumping around, Thes One and Double K had an incredibly tight performance that made a good lead-in for Big Boi.

Neon Indian – Big Apple Stage – 5:55 p.m.

By the time Neon Indian started their performance, fans had already started camping out for Empire of the Sun and Pretty Lights. As a result, Neon Indian’s set felt wasted. The bumping bass, echoing vocals, and space keyboards from 2009’s Psychic Chasms all sounded great. But not even Alan Palomo’s jittery, kinetic energy onstage could save them from a strong case of songs sounding far too similar. The swirling synths also occasionally fell into sharp feedback, further detracting from their show. However, despite these obstacles, a good portion of the audience still had fun. Not a terrible set, but not memorable either.

Big BoiGotham Stage – 6:55 p.m.

There was a definite shift in the atmosphere once Big Boi’s set got underway. The evening had arrived, the temperature was dropping to a more comfortable zone, and the first really big act of the night was about to begin. The audience was singing along, loud and often, as the rapper moved through verse after verse with his well-known lightning flow. The addition of a live drummer next to the DJ threw in an additional bounce to the beat-heavy set, but it always supported the melodies without overwhelming them. Big Boi shifted between solo cuts like “Shutterbug” and Outkast favorites like “So Fresh, So Clean” and “Ghetto Musick”. Of course, everyone went nuts for “Ms. Jackson”, singing Andre 3000’s part at the top of their lungs. With such a varied set, no fans walked away disappointed. They got to hear at least part of every era that Sir Lucious L. Leftfoot has to offer.

Empire of the Sun – Big Apple Stage – 8:00 p.m.

If you’ve never seen Empire of the Sun before, you should go the next time they’re in the area. The first reason is the one everyone talks about: the beyond-crazy visual show. Guitarist and singer Luke Steele commands all the attention at first, dressed up in a metallic headpiece and neon blue jacket with white paint across his eyes. After that, the focus shifts to the mind-bending footage on screen, featuring everything from a pre-industrial ship sailing into a space-time vortex to what looks like a solar eclipse if the sun was a strobe light. Then there are the dancers, arriving in a number of outfits that go between strange and surreal.

Once your brain can register what you’re seeing, you’ll realize that the music is pretty damn good as well. The opener, “Standing on the Shore”, is full of ghostly atmospherics that engulf the simple, sweet melody that Steele plays out on guitar. On Saturday, the set continued through most of the songs from the band’s debut, Walking on a Dream, but it was the title track that truly set the audience on fire. People sang along, crowd-surfed, danced alone or in groups, and generally left with a smile on their faces. Behind all the visuals, that’s the best reason to see them.

Girl Talk – Gotham Stage – 9:05 p.m.

Although many artists at Governors Ball were excellent and got an outpouring of support from those around them, it felt like many were saving up their energy for this one spectacle in particular. Girl Talk’s sets are so legendary by now, they almost don’t need to be described. If you haven’t seen him yet, then download his albums. You’ll quickly come upon a whole bunch of really great mash up moments over the course of the record. The best bits you hear are the ones that he builds his shows around, expanding them and throwing in some new pieces he’s come up with, too. He kicked the whole thing off by screaming at the crowd to get ready before launching into “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath, which was soon joined by “Move” from Ludacris. It didn’t get any less familiar from there. Rye Rye featuring M.I.A.’s “Bang” smashed into Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name”. A “Bad Romance” sample burst into the horns and chorus of “Thriller”. Nirvana’s “Lithium” was followed by Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough”. Now, imagine these awesome moments following each other for an hour and a half. Needless to say, the audience exploded into raves and wild dancing the whole time.

The mash up artist doesn’t just give the crowd dancing music, though. He threw as much stuff as possible out into the crowd. Toilet paper guns were used. Beach balls filled with confetti and glow sticks bounced over everyone’s heads. A bag full of balloons was ripped open, letting them loose to float into the sky. Far too soon, it was time to call it a night. Girl Talk stopped the show to tell us we only had a couple minutes left and to make them count. He sure as hell did. Mixes with “Karma Police”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Shout!”, and “Imagine” to close the show? It doesn’t get better than that.

Pretty Lights – Big Apple Stage – 10:30 p.m.

If Girl Talk is the veteran remixer with an explosive mix of live tracks, then Pretty Lights is the younger prizefighter who offers a fresh alternative to the mashup formula. Not everything he does is a remix or mashup. Instead, the DJ played a collection of work that combined original beats with popular songs he’s reworked. He opened gloriously with “I Know the Truth”. LED towers slowly lit up, like the buildings of New York City lighting up as the day turns to night. From there, he threw in mashes like the recently released combo of Radiohead, Nirvana, and Nine Inch Nails, as well as a remix of “Empire State of Mind”. The segment was a gentle downshift after the hyperactive, exhausting Girl Talk set. It was a wonderful way to end the night, with the afterglow of the light show in our eyes and the bumping bass pulse in our ears.

Photography by Dana Grossman

This article was written with Dana Grossman. It first appeared at Consequence of Sound on October 20th, 2010.

It’s that time of year again. CMJ Music Marathon is back, filling New York City venues with a bevy of talent from this year’s indie scene. But before the festival officially got started, we decided a pre-CMJ party was in order. That’s really the best way to describe the Conflict of Interest Party that took place on October 18th at Rebel NYC. It was a party that covered all three floors of the venue, offering a multitude of drink specials, karaoke, and free swag. However, the real reason 1,500 fans piled into the club was for the eclectic selection of musical and comedy acts. While the sounds and styles were all vastly different, it proved to be the perfect way to start a week of music in New York.

The first to take the stage was the Californian band Kitten. While the electronic rock itself had potential, their name says it all: they have a lot of growing to do. Their sound was unpolished and not in that kind of indie, avant-garde way. Teenage singer Chloe Chaidez showed a plethora of energy, but sadly, there is such a thing as too much. Rolling and jumping around onstage can only be entertaining for so long. Her vocals need some work in a live setting as well.

If Kitten was a disappointing mess of electronic noise, then Oh Land was the polar opposite. With a gorgeous voice and an infectious groove, the Copenhagen singer had large sections of the crowd dancing along from the first song. Along with some assistance from her drummer, the set was made up of minimalist bleeps and bloops that expanded into vibrant electronica. Highlights included the jittering “Sun of a Gun” and an ode to New York called “Helicopter”. They’re playing the Big Apple five more times during CMJ, so if you missed them this first time, make sure to check them out at a later show.

Despite the party being sponsored by Comedy Central, you might think it a little odd for a comedian to come in between all these musical sets. However, Bo Burnham fit right in with his musical-styled comedy. Whether it was jamming to recordings he’d made beforehand or playing live on the piano while he sang along, Burnham captivated the audience and had them cracking up at every joke, no matter how innocent or offensive. Immediately winning everyone over with his first song, which included pretending to be about to do a card trick but proceeding to chuck the cards at the audience with the simple comment of “magic isn’t real,” Burnham’s performance consistently kept the crowd in stitches. Fans should look forward to his latest release, Words Words Words, due out this week.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. was up next and what an odd group they are. While they dress like NASCAR drivers and seem gimmicky, their music is anything but that. Instead, their set was full of soulful folk that washed over the crowd. The floor was absolutely packed for the first time that evening, and nearly everyone there stopped by to hear their short set. Most of the songs played were from their Horse Power EP, but the band had enough time to throw in covers of Gil Scott Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit” and The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”.  The latter was a particular highlight, stripping the song down to hit the band’s mold.

After Jr. Jr. came the second comedy act of the night, Reggie Watts. There’s only one word that can really describe Watts’ brand of humor: insane. From the moment he arrived (which took forever due to a lengthy sound check) to the moment he left, the audience experienced a full-on blast of intense improvisation and stream-of-consciousness rapping. In between songs that mocked the “gangsta” style of rap, Watts put on different accents and presented himself as a variety of performers. One of these was a southern bandleader who won an award over Radiohead and followed this up by making fun of Thom Yorke’s vocal stylings on Kid A. These weren’t sketches or skits that had been planned out. Instead, Watts just took whatever was on his mind and threw it out to the crowd, winning over the entire audience and leaving everyone with a good feeling for Nada Surf.

While many of the acts made for a really fun night, most of the crowd was there for Nada Surf. Playing their last scheduled show, it’s unknown when the New York alt-rockers will be back. As CMJ staples – they’re playing Friday at the Mercury Lounge, as well – it was no surprise that both the band and audience enjoyed every minute of the set. Taking the stage just after midnight, the group opened with “Hi-Speed Soul”, creating an energetic euphoria throughout parts of the crowd. It was a sort of homecoming for Nada Surf, according to singer Matthew Caws. It turns out that he and bassist Daniel Lorca held their first practice ever in the upstairs rehearsal space of Rebel NYC. Joined by Guided By Voices guitarist Doug Gillard, the band ripped through a 90-minute set that spanned their career. It was a wonderfully rocking way to the end the show and start CMJ.

The showcase ultimately combined music and comedy into a smooth, eclectic mix that kept the audience’s attention despite delays and lengthy sound checks. It was a more than suitable way to set the stage for CMJ and whet our appetites for what’s to come.