Reviews

Governors Ball 2013: Mud, Music and Finding Yeezus (Photos)

Kanye West.
Photo credits: Sachyn Mital

Torrential rains on the first day caused Friday to end early and left the Governors Ball grounds very very muddy. But throughout the weekend, music from Kanye, Cut Copy and several other bands made trudging through the sloppy field worthwhile.

Governors Ball 2013

City: New York
Venue: Randall's Island

New York City's own festival, Governors Ball has grown significantly through its three incarnations. In its first year, it was held on Governors Island, but by its second year it outgrew that space and moved to Randall's Island. Then this year, its third year, Governors Ball added a third day to its schedule fitting a massive amount of music into one long weekend. The festival organizers had arranged to have significantly more space available for their event than Electric Zoo Festival does (the only other festival I've been to on the island). From the Honda Stage to the Governors Ball (Main) Stage was quite a trek, made ever more difficult because of one natural phenomenon. Rain.

Friday June 7th (Day 1): Photos.

Of Monsters and Men

Going into Governors Ball Friday, I knew it was gonna rain. But I could not have predicted how much mud there was gonna be. Acres and acres of lawn turned into a sludgy mess that was difficult to traverse. I arrived in time to catch Of Monsters and Men, one of my favorite acts from 2012, on the main stage. Ragnar Þórhallsson mocked the photographers from his dry perch above the crowd before their set began. Just like the previous time I saw them, I found the band incredibly enjoyable. Their songs were spirited and engaging as always, and "Mountain Sound", "King & Lionheart" and "Little Talks" all were bright life preservers in the darkening deluge.

Feist before she was rained off the stage

Feist was scheduled next on the main stage though I did trek the entire space to catch Local Natives, the first time I had seen the band. Their set included a new single "Breakers" and the crowd favorite, and unironic, "Sun Hands" which unfortunately couldn't change the climate. When Feist finally did take the stage, the rain had worsened. She waved her hands perhaps to placate the gods and she blew on a conch to possibly to communicate with Poseidon and let him know he shouldn't join the island with the river. But barely one song in, the rain overcame any protective measures and short circuited the keyboards. Feist was safe from harm but the damage to her gear made it so we wouldn't see her perform after all.

Erykah Badu

With Feist over and my camera suffering more than it should have, I headed into the swelling Skyy tent, perhaps the only escape from the precipitation, to check out Erykah Badu and the Cannibanoids. While in the photo "pit", I found myself in a fast moving river of water, but I had already accepted the fact that nothing would remain clean or dry this day. Badu was having more fun than anyone in the audience, not because she was staying dry but because she was able to indulge in a hip-hop heavy set including, "On & On", "I Want You" and "Drama".

But sometime after her set, I left, not wanting to deal with further chaos for the headliners, or the inevitable crush of people leaving the island. As it turned out, my timing was good. I got an email saying the headliners had been canceled due to the storm. So here are a couple of random Friday thoughts:

* Before Erykah Badu's set, I saw a girl wearing green crying and searching for something ankle-deep in an area of the mud at least 20 square feet wide. When people looked to help her, it seemed like she was looking for some jewelry. I don't think you could have found it in that swamp, but hopefully whatever it was turns up.

* To those people just arriving at Randall's Island and trying to find the entrance to the festival when I was leaving at before 9.00, I hope you didn't get too muddy before they cancelled it.

Saturday June 8th (Day 2): Photos

Sludge Field

Fortunately for those ticket holders that had turned up for Friday and got shut out or didn't want to turn up at all, festival organizers allowed them to attend on Saturday as was announced mid-day. The organizers were even able to massage the schedule and fit in a performance from Kings of Leon, though Pretty Lights, Friday's other headliner, and their fans weren't so lucky. Turning up Saturday afternoon, the mud hadn't been magically swept away. There was little that could be done to restore the grounds, though hay was placed here and there to absorb some of the water. Boots were essentially required the rest of the weekend because of the tropical storm Friday.

Robert DeLong

The Skyy tent was getting busy with a saxophone-centric band called Moon Hooch when I arrived ahead of Robert DeLong's one man electronic set. I recently got turned onto his music when I heard the song "Global Concepts" (that is available as a free download at Amazon). The man has one album and basically went through it all, demonstrably answering the question in the chorus of that anthem, "Did I make you fucking dance?" Caught up in the music, I was even more excited to see DeLong work a joystick (the video game kind) and then later on wave a Wii-mote around as part of the performance.

Icona Pop

Icona Pop, one the biggest buzz bands of the year, followed in the tent continuing the dance theme I had apparently worked out. The two ladies, Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo, were excited to perform their catchy new single, "Girlfriend", from their forthcoming album as well as their biggest song, "I Love It", while waving their arms and dancing around the stage. The crowd had only grown as the day progressed and was already spilling out beyond the cover of the canopy as they took in the party anthems. The band is just that in demand.

Cut Copy

Cut Copy had to be my favorite act of the weekend, and that is likely something that a great percentage of other people would agree with. The band's uptempo dance energy earned them a spot on the main stage, and also some brief bursts of actual sunlight during the primarily overcast day. These Australians hadn't been to New York since 2011 and didn't have a new album out but the audience hadn't forgotten about them or the lyrics to their songs. While the band did share a newer song, "Explorers", there was little to stand in the way of juggernauts like "Lights and Music", "Take Me Over" and "Hearts on Fire". Lead Singer Dan Whitford had a fan blowing on him, probably to stay cool, but with his now longer locks, the additional wind swept his air and enhanced his laid back Aussie presence. The audience had the pleasure of standing on the only cement space on the grounds while they danced the mud off their boots and sang along. Music had pushed the mud out of my mind.

Kings of Leon

So I learned that the Leon in Kings of Leon is not pronounced in a cooler European fashion but strictly as the name would be said here in America (which makes sense since the band was named after the father of three Followill brothers) when the band took the main stage. The band ended up debuting a new song, "Supersoaker" (insert weather joke here) off their forthcoming album Mechanical Bull, but for the most part stuck to the fan favorites. The album title was supposed to have been announced on the Friday night, but with the rescheduled set, things didn't work out as planned and much of the band's gear was already en route to London for an event there. Of course, the band plowed through newer songs like "Sex on Fire" and "Radioactive" but their older material has much more of a wallop, so it was good to hear "Taper Jean Girl" in the mix. Meanwhile, the number of people in the audience with Guns N Roses shirts kept growing...

Animal Collective

...though I found myself ending the day with experimental band Animal Collective so I could gear up for Sunday.

Sunday June 9th (Day 3): Photos

Portugal. The Man

Hot on the heels of their latest Danger Mouse-produced album, Evil Friends, Alaska's Portugal. The Man were a welcome band to witness as I started Sunday at Governors Ball. The grounds were significantly dryer, but gobs of mud and oversized puddles (one in particular drew attention because of some rubber duckies floating inside) were still present. The band's newest single, "Purple Yellow Red and Blue", performed early in their set, was an immediate crowd pleaser. The band continued through songs from their previous album, In the Mountains, In the Cloud. That album had earned them tons of new followers, including myself, so it was thrilling to hear the chilled "So American" and the closer "All Your Lights" for the first time.

The Lumineers

Many people are still only familiar with the two biggest hits from the Lumineers, "Ho Hey" and "Stubborn Love" so it was unfortunate that the band pushed these two to later in their set as the audience numbers depreciated as people wanted to get in place for other acts. But that was an unfortunate decision as they then missed out on the adorable children of Success Academy who joined the band (as they had done in the past) for those numbers.

Kanye West

Sunday's headliner, Kanye West, was the one to watch. He's promoting his new album Yeezus through indirect-promotional efforts, like performing on Saturday Night Live, rather than traditional marketing. The musician's set was an epic, incredible industrial and gothic show that completely caught me off guard. I had no idea how "Black Skinhead" would do in a live setting, but it was gripping (both times he sang it) as was another new song, "New Slaves". The former began with a depiction of the guardian of Hades snarling before Kanye too snarled venomously. The latter will become an anthem that challenges the status quo but Kanye has always been a person unafraid of living on the edge so its clear the lyrics are taken from his personal manifesto. It was only proven later when he stated, "Honestly, when I listen to radio, that ain’t where I wanna be no more. At this point, I could give a fuck about selling a million records as long as I put out an album that y’all can rock to all motherfucking summer. And I don’t give a fuck that the label’s saying I can sell more records."

Heavy synthesizers were incorporated into older songs, like "Diamonds", "Flashing Lights", too giving them more ferocity. "Jesus Walks" was worked in alongside another new song "I Am God". At it turns out, that title may not be such a blasphemous boast -- I couldn't stop thinking about his set the next day. Even if you couldn't see the man, his message and music worked its way into every fiber of your being turning you into a devotee. Soon we will see if there are enough devotees to make the anti-marketing campaign a success and then we'll find out what it does for Kanye's ego.

Thursday June 6th (Skyy & Sea):

James Murphy DJing the Skyy & Sea Gov Ball Opening Night Event

To say that the Skyy & Sea Boat Cruise was the official opening night event is the truth though I did kick off the concert weekend with the National the night before). The boat cruise turned out to be portentous for the wet atmosphere of upcoming Festival weekend. Grey skies and rain encouraged people to remain inside the spacious ship -- but they probably were also inside to enjoy the complimentary vodka refreshments, cocktail snacks and cupcakes. A couple of comedians, Aziz Ansari and David Cross, graced the boat with their presence, though they mainly stuck to themselves. Regular joes could find entertainment in small activities scattered around the boat, including ping pong, chess and a spin the wheel prize game. But the real draw was the dance floor on the bottom deck where LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy would be setting up behind the decks for a DJ set. He didn't spin any LCD Soundsystem songs, but the set was lively the dance floor remained busy, as did Murphy's immediate vicinity where folks fawned over the man.

Additional Photos: (View more photos of Day 1, photos of Day 2, and photos from Day 3 of Governors Ball over at PopMatters' Facebook page).

Local Natives

Divine Fits

Kings of Leon

Kings of Leon

Kings of Leon

Kings of Leon

Animal Collective

Gary Clark Jr.

Beirut

Bloc Party

Kanye West

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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