Some came by land, pouring onto Randall’s Island by way of the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, while others came by sea, brought ashore every 15-minutes by the Manhattan Ferry. If everything was to go as planned, Sunday evening’s headliner Kanye West may have even entered the Governors Ball Music Festival by air, landing via hovercraft or descending in a galactic vessel. The masses converged — at the middle of it all was the sixth installment of Governors Ball.
First to be seen was the collaboration between a Southern hip-hop icon and a New York electro-pop duo. Big Grams has OutKast’s Big Boi joining forces with Phantogram and their surprising union is smooth considering the unconventional pairing. While a DJ/hype man stood off to the corner behind two turntables and a microphone, it was the presence of Phantogram’s Josh Carter that provided a novel edge to Big Grams. Standing middle stage at a podium topped with electronic consoles, Carter tapped out beats and mixes in real time giving the sometimes-stale energy of a hip-hop performance a much-needed burst of creativity.
As heard during her day job with Phantogram, Sarah Barthel’s angelic and airy vocals reached lofty heights and projected a warm vapor of melody over Big Boi’s breakneck rhymes and Carter’s even bigger beats. Barthel and Big Boi shared the front person duties and fed off each other by passing back dance moves (Big Boi can summon a convincing robot) and mimicking phallic gestures with the microphone. Big Grams’ set reached its peak with a Venn Diagram of their past: morphing OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson” with Phantogram’s “Mouthful of Diamonds” to create a unique mash-up of both act’s signature hits.
Directly following Big Grams was Father John Misty who has solidified himself as today’s premier songwriter of sardonic wit. Embodying everything despised about the Hollywood Millennial as a way to disrupt from the inside, Father John Misty and his band took the stage donned completely in black as the speakers played the opening track to Jeff Bridges’ serenely odd album Sleep Tapes. He opened with the rocker “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” from his debut LP but the majority of his set was supported by last year’s magnificent I Love You, Honeybear. Cuts such as “Bored in the USA” and “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” inspired the crowd to sing along but most stood stunned by the hilarious antics performed by Father John Misty throughout his set.
For almost two years Father John Misty has been performing these songs and he’s cleverly mastered how to present them. He knows when to endearingly bat his eyes during certain lyrics of “Only Son of the Ladiesman” and was well trained in the art of balancing self-mockery and entertaining braggadocio. During “Holy Shit”, before the final verse, the music takes a turn for the havoc with screeching feedback and bashing percussion that leads to a cathartic release and at the eye of this storm was Father John, orchestrating the chaos with a symphonic conductor’s prose. His music is so enriched with humor it comes with no surprise Father John Misty has a tight grasp on timing and could lead his band through a set that inevitably proved to be a weekend highlight.
Across the festival grounds at the main stage was Beck who provided Govenors Ball with the weekend’s best cover of a Prince classic. He and his band approached “Raspberry Beret” with precision and respect, giving the Eighties tune more of a rock oomph. Before launching into the cover, Beck told the audience of the one time he met the Purple One during the Grammys and how he couldn’t resist giving Prince a hug. Beck said he latter came upon a photo of their moment and could see that Prince was smiling as they were embracing, prompting the thousands that heard the anecdote to let out a warm sigh of sympathy.
One of the more surprising moments from Beck’s hit-laced set was when he dusted off his calling card classic “Loser”. Governors Ball appears to attract a noticeable number of younger music fans (many of whom were born well after the song’s MTV reign) but generational lines need not apply when a song is this good.
Towards the end of his performance, Beck said he was taking things down a bit and into the past as he traded his electric for an acoustic guitar. What followed were soaring renditions of “Lost Cause” and “Blue Moon”, which must have echoed across the grounds due to their heavy reverb arrangements.
At the top of Friday’s bill were the Strokes who returned to Governors Ball after headlining in 2014. Fabrizio Moretti’s kick drum read: “This machine also kills fascists” honoring the words once written by Woody Guthrie, but not a lick of protest nor civil disrupt was present during the Stroke’s spectacular finish to Day One.
Opening with “Modern Age”, the Strokes’ set relied heavily on the past and their initial three albums. Although few would argue that the music they’ve recorded since coming back in 2010 was worthy of the big stage – that being said, latter-day highlight “Under Cover of Darkness” off 2011’s Angles did make an appearance. This performance was the same day the Strokes released their EP Future Present Past and all three songs were filtered into the set with “Threat of Joy” sounding the boldest and best.
Midway through, the Strokes stopped the show to honor their late art director Brett Kilroe with a visual homage to all the iconic album covers he’s made for the band and for other acts (such as Old Dirty Bastard and Kings of Leon). In his honor, they pulled out the deep cut “Electricityscape” and soon followed with an astute cover of The Clash’s “Clampdown”. The Strokes played loud but clear and sounded like they deserved the top billing. After returning to the stage following an encore plead, singer Julian Casablancas introduced the last song as “YOLO” and then launched into an inspired and epic rendition of the fan-favorite “You Only Live Once”.
The most intriguing moment of the evening came during the organ-only ballad “Ask Me Anything” from 2006’s First Impressions of Earth. Casablancas looked out to the masses and sang the deadpan lyrics: “We could drag it out but that’s for other bands to do,” but then he abruptly and inaudibly uttered something after the line’s delivery — as though he was hinting at yet another break for the New York titans. But he didn’t repeat and continued singing the chorus of: “I’ve got nothing to say.”
FATHER JOHN MISTY