10 Best Sets at Governors Ball 2014
Photos by Oliver Correa
New York City -- When the Governors Ball Music Festival released its lineup back in January, it had the residents of New York buzzing. It meant the Outkast reunion tour was stopping close to home, Jack White was probably working on some new material, and we'd catch a set from The Strokes who had entered the on-again/off-again period of the band's life. While those guys certainly delivered, I found the most impressive sets of the festival on side stages from smaller acts. After three sunny days (thank god!) and more awesome music than our brains could easily digest, here are some of the best sets at Gov Ball 2014.
Between her exuberant dance moves, virtuosic backing band, and general vocal prowess, Janelle Monáe by far topped the Friday sets at Gov Ball. After being carted out in a straightjacket to the orchestral opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Monáe launched into her Prince collaboration from last year, "Givin Em What They Love." She delivered all the hits from there, making seamless transitions between "Q.U.E.E.N." and "Electric Lady," dedicating an emotional performance of "PrimeTime" to the "lovers in the house," and giving a pro-gay rights speech before nearly exploding on "Cold War." She and her eight-piece band brought the funk, the drama, and had the crowd dancin' apocalyptic and tiptoeing the tight rope. If there will ever be a successor to the almighty Prince, I think we've found her.
Jenny Lewis was the most pleasant surprise of the festival. Her set managed to highlight all of the high points of her career from Rilo Kiley hits and a track from her collaboration with Jonanthan Rice to a string of songs from 2008's Acid Tongue plus a few from her upcoming album The Voyager. Lewis managed to inject some electric juice and blues-rock bravado into what would generally be low-key folk songs by channelling a Fleetwood Mac vibe in her newer tracks and by engaging the crowd in full-on frontwoman mode. Towards the end of the hour-long set, her band dropped their instruments and gathered around one microphone as Lewis broke out her "magical guitar" and went into the blissful four-part harmonies of "Acid Tongue." I'll surely be looking out for Miss Lewis at upcoming festivals.
Showstopper: "Next Messiah"
"One... Two... One, two, three, YEAH!"
Outkast made a definitive statement with their Governors Ball performance: forget the underwhelming Coachella performances, the ATLiens are back. Their hour-and-a-half set celebrated their entire 20-year discography from the first line and drop of "B.O.B." to the closing moments of "The Whole World." They played three songs that I was certain would never garner a live performance and delivered a Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik medley while balancing in the bigger hits from Stankonia and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below like "So Fresh, So Clean," "Ms. Jackson," "Roses," and "The Way You Move." It didn't hurt that Janelle Monáe took the stage to shake it like a polaroid picture with backup dancers picked from the crowd during "Hey Ya!" The only real problem with the set was crowd-related. It seemed as though every time they played a deeper cut, fifty people would push towards the back in single file. If you want the best Outkast experience this summer, push your way to the barricade.
Showstopper: "Hey Ya!" (DUH)
Saturday started off with a roar as Deafheaven took the stage at the Gotham Tent and delivered their post-rock infused version of death metal. When they hit the first chord, most of the crowd compacted into the ten feet in front of the stage, forcing the one security guard in the photo pit to run off and bring back five huge men for support. Crowdsurfers were thrown into photographers as Deafheaven rumbled through the first three tracks off the remarkable 2013 release Sunbather. I'm aware people have overused the word 'thunderous' to describe drumming ever since man first strapped animal skin across a bucket, but I can't think of a more appropriate classification for Daniel Tracy's incessant pounding on the heads. During a quiet portion of Sunbather's closing track "The Pecan Tree," lead singer George Clarke jumped down towards the crowd and touched the hands of audience-members like a messiah blessing his disciples. Just before he delivered the line, "I am my father's son, I am no one," he made a dive into the pit to crowdsurf for the remainder of the song. This guy has a god-complex that I'm totally alright with.
Chance The Rapper
Chance The Rapper delivered the best set I saw at Governors Ball. He managed to achieve a sense of crowd unity that was unparalleled by any other performer of the weekend. The setlist mainly revolved around 2013's Acid Rap mixtape, arguably the best rap album of last year, and he commanded the stage like a seasoned MC although he's only twenty-one years old. Chance also managed to appear sincerely humble about his success, saying, "I still can't believe all of y'all are standing here right now." The backing band – called The Social Experiment and comprised of a drummer, keyboardist, guitarist, and trumpeter – was flawless as Chance reprised his cover of the Arthur theme song, demanding crowd participation before going into "Interlude (That's Love)" and singling out people in the audience to tell them that he loved them individually. The show hit a somber-yet-poignant moment when the band went into the secret Acid Rap track "Paranoia" that deals with the crippling murder rate in Chicago. He said afterwards, "Thank you for giving me the time to do that one. I'm gonna play that song at every show until I die." By the end of the set, it became clear why Chance wore a Superman t-shirt at the beginning of the show: he views himself as a superhero and thinks he can save the world with his music. He just needs to convince everyone that, "Everyday it could be wonderful," and then maybe it will come true. Chance closed the show with a new song, the chorus of which went "I believe that if I fly, I'll end up somewhere in paradise." By the end of this set, it felt like we all would.
Showstopper: "Chain Smoker"
Over the course of the weekend, it seemed like the majority of festivalgoers were looking forward to The Strokes - I saw their black t-shirt with the blue logo a hundred different times on Saturday. The band showed up fashionably late to their set, and Julian Casablancas was visibly (and appropriately) tipsy. "'Stay cool out there,' he says as he trips," was one of the first things he mumbled awkwardly into the microphone before advising drummer Fabrizio Moretti to "Just fuckin' ignore me man. Start the song!" The crowd was especially energized as they rolled through hits from the first three albums. "Reptilia" seemed to be the moment when the set got intense, and the band kept the electricity up through jams like "Take It or Leave It," "12:51," and "Someday." It was wonderful to see thousands of people all simultaneously screaming, "I ain't wastin' no more ti-i-i-ime." I could have done without the tracks from 2013's Comedown Machine, but my slight disappointment was alleviated when they closed with "New York City Cops."
Showstopper: "Last Nite"
Since Jack White has gone solo, he has made a point to put on sets that highlight various points of his career, but from his Gov Ball set Saturday, it looks like he's retired the guy-band/girl-band setup of his last tour, now playing with a male-dominated band plus a female violinist. Although there are visibly less ladies on stage, he seemed more connected with his violinist than any other band-member as they playfully interacted and sometimes simultaneously sang into the same microphone. He blazed through "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" to start the show and moved through most of 2012's Blunderbuss as well as a few White Stripes songs and two Raconteurs tracks ("Top Yourself" and "Steady as She Goes"). I was surprised only three songs from his new album Lazaretto made it into the set, but nothing shocked me more than the inclusion of "Cannon" - a track from the now fifteen-year-old White Stripes debut. The Stripes songs were especially transformed into fleshier pieces leading me to crave a more low-key moment toward the end of the set. Even something as quiet and sweet as "We're Going to Be Friends" was turned into an upbeat country two-step. White hit the gas pedal for the encore, starting with "The Hardest Button to Button" and roaring through "Freedom at 21." The show ended with a super-sludgy version of "Seven Nation Army" that left the crowd satisfied. I can think of few acts that rock harder than Jack White.
Showstopper: "Freedom at 21"
When Jillian Banks, known simply as Banks, spoke into the microphone in between songs at her early set on Sunday, it was generally about how nervous she was - surprising considering the big risks taken during her show. Whereas Jack White would make his quiet songs louder and more upbeat for the live setting, Banks took some of her tracks and compressed the volume to produce a more intimate experience. Instead of playing "Fall Over" in its original club-banger form, she showed the audience the origins of the track in a simpler vocals and piano rendition before going into a mellow version of "Warm Water." However, she still delivered the heavy executions of the trippy bass droppers "Before I Ever Met You" and "Waiting Game" as well as the other hits off her London EP like "Change" and "This Is What It Feels Like." Banks, as well as her band members, not only delivered on musicianship and energetic showmanship, but also brought some much needed emotion and vulnerability that seemed to be lacking from other sets at the festival.
To put it simply, James Blake's set was beautiful. He appeared on the Honda stage just as the sun was setting, and brought his subdued version of electronica to a somewhat tired crowd (An unfortunate camera shot put a sleeping girl at the barrier on the jumbotron). Even still, the music was breathtaking. He opened with "I Never Learnt to Share" displaying his vocal looping skills and the 2013 hit "Life Round Here" (sadly sans Chance The Rapper) before going into the more clubby classics from early in his career, "Air and Lack Thereof" and "CMYK." The most emotionally affecting songs of the set for me were "Retrograde" and "The Wilhelm Scream," both of which seemed to build a wave of sound that washed over the crowd. He took a big risk with the unreleased song that closed the set, as the band members left the stage and he took to building a four-part vocal loop that made the hairs on the back of my neck rise. Once he finished, Blake simply stood up and bowed before exiting the stage and letting the loop continue on, which is a helluva way to end a show.
Showstopper: "The Wilhelm Scream"
Vampire Weekend delivered their quirky, cookie-cutter rock in style. Their stage was set up with pillars and an enormous mirror reminiscent of the video for set opener "Diane Young." The Connecticut natives balanced their set by pairing hits from their first two albums with several songs from the 2013 release Modern Vampires of the City. I love a good build, so I was thrilled when they opened the encore with "Hannah Hunt" before closing out the set with crowd-favorite "Walcott." It was a solid ending to an already epic weekend.
In short, I doubt I could have had a better time at Gov Ball. The lineup had big and small acts crossing several genres and gave us all more than we could have asked for in the short three days it comprised. Knowing what awaited me on the other side, I couldn't wait to take the long walk across the bridge to Randall's Island every day over the weekend, and the walk back Sunday night was one of the more bittersweet moments I've experienced. So thanks again, Governors Ball, I can't wait to see you in 2015.
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