The inaugural Panorama Festival opened its gates last Friday, inviting ticket holders into a big, shiny, technology-savvy paradise that carried a fair amount of promise for future installments but little respite from the New York City heat. The event certainly bore resemblance to Randall’s Island’s other big music festival event, the annual Governors Ball, held just the month prior. The interactive touches — held in spaces with names like The Lab — set it apart both in terms of aesthetics and what the festival intends on encompassing.
Despite the promise of shade, cotton candy theremins and effects-triggering cocoon chairs offered by the technology hubs, the festival boasted enough prestige acts to earn its “Coachella of the East” nickname, given to Panorama due to it sharing promoters with that west coast festival phenomenon. Although I arrived late on Friday, I managed to catch two strong performances that set a precedent for the weekend ahead.
FKA twigs graced the Pavilion stage — which had the fortune of being shaded by a tent — early Friday evening and delivered a set unlike any I would see over the next few days. The performance she presented was entitled “Radiant Me²” and it brought with it a conceptualization not normally seen in big festival sets. The stage set up was sparse, with a few backing banners and three musicians situated in a back corner with synth and drum pads. Twigs entered with the air of a deity, powerful to behold yet carrying a twinge of distance and disconnect from the audience. The set unfolded in a regal and captivating manner, presenting a narrative involving twigs, her four backup dancers and a crystal. The brain frying heat made the story — which, to generalize to the extreme, seemed to be about a struggle for power — somewhat tricky to follow, but the spectacle, paired with songs from twigs’ breakthrough LP1 and 2015’s M3LL115X, was utterly seductive. Hit songs such as “Two Weeks” and “Video Girl” managed to rise above and set the crowd alight in other ways. Twigs and her dancers were note perfect, their movements somewhat mystical in nature.
For all the enchantment her dancers offered, twigs always came out on top, embodying strength and sexuality in a way that anybody in attendance would have difficulty forgetting as the festival wore on and more crowd pleasing sets floated past our eyes. Based on the clutch of as yet unreleased songs that were performed, as well as a rumored collaboration with Oneohtrix Point Never and a forthcoming film premiere, FKA twigs continues to show herself as one of the most promising up and coming artists working today.
Arcade Fire served as Friday’s headliners and customarily pulled out all the stops for their two hour set on the festival’s main stage. Opening with “Ready to Start” meant the audience was instantly in for the ride. The band wisely followed this mammoth opening with “The Suburbs” and “The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, the latter featuring some spirited dancing from Regine Chassagne. The set soon settled into select cuts from 2014’s Reflektor, arguably the band’s weakest release. “Reflektor” stood as the highlight of this portion, in part due to a brief slideshow tribute to David Bowie, who sang on the recorded track. This would not be the only Bowie tribute in Arcade Fire’s set.
“Keep the Car Running” and an appearance of a hurdy-gurdy picked up the paces, a powerful version of “My Body Is a Cage” further built on the drama, and a run of songs from debut Funeral provided a powerful climax. In a move that has already become legendary, the set concluded with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — who had played earlier in the day — joining Arcade Fire on stage for a rendition of “Wake Up”, followed by a second line tribute to David Bowie which ended with the band performing “Heroes” far afield.
The feeling of pure joy that Arcade Fire evoke in their performances has often been noted, but that happiness they inspire bears further emphasis. It’s remarkable that a band that has been going for 15 years and has played countless shows in both intimate spaces and huge alienating super stadiums can still present their songs with as much passion and goodwill as Arcade Fire consistently do, even when Win Butler is condemning a certain Republican presidential nominee in between. But even such reminders of the sorry world outside seemingly evaporated whenever the band kicked into an almighty song like “Rebellion (Lies)”. In terms of showmanship, it’s tempting to debate the MVP of the band — passionate Win Butler, his flamboyant brother Will, Regine and her unbeatable smile — but in the end it takes the twelve-piece working together to create such a satisfying whole.
I boarded the festival shuttle back to Brooklyn with high hopes for Panorama Day Two.