The annual christening of Governors Ball with scattered light showers (a deceptive foreshadowing of the weekend’s coming torrential rains) began early Friday morning as fans shuffled across the Robert F. Kennedy bridge towards the center of Randall’s Island. Quick security checks, free protein bars, and the cool drizzle had fans in high spirits as they made their way through the festival gates.
Riotous bluesy-rockers from Austin, Texas, by way of Toronto, Canada, the duo that is Black Pistol Fire started the party early with an ear-shattering, heel-stomping set over at the tented Bacardi House. Kevin McKeown (finger-bleeding guitarist) and Eric Owen (head-rushing drummer) doused the crowd in their high-octane conflagrations of murderous riffs and dizzying percussiveness. For two men playing their hearts out onstage, the duo, sonically at least, outperformed pretty much everyone on day one. McKeown, the picturesque rugged rocker, tore through the band’s blues-classic rock infused discography like he was playing a greatest hits show of his own material, but as nubile as Black Pistol Fire might be, they are anything but bashful onstage. Like two overheating engines, McKeown and Owen fed off each other’s sizzling energies, from the heady delirium of “Suffocation Blues,” to the hammer-on insanity of “Hipster Shakes,” the two wild boys had their modest crowd shivering in the aggressive-soulfulness of their explosive hooks. Forever the studious showman (or perhaps just possessed by the ardent craziness of his craft) McKeown ended their set in the only way he knows how: after destroying probably every guitar string he had, the crazy-eyed guitarist smashed up his guitar and sent it flying into the crowd. Everywhere they perform, Black Pistol Fire has a knack for giving their fans a crash-course in the fiery intensity of their purely rock-’n’-roll sound and antics, and it isn’t uncommon for them to leave fans wide-eyed and exhausted with their abrasiveness–the early comers at Governors Ball were no different. Shaked and shivering, fans shuffled out of the Bacardi Tent stirred up–and McKeown and Owen were all I heard people talking about for the rest of the weekend.
Over at the GovBallNYC stage America’s anti-sweetheart Elle King touched down with her country-bluegrass anthems. Very much apart of the new-wave revival of country as an indie surrogate, King might’ve made a name with the catchy pop-hooks of “Ex’s and Oh’s,” but the young singer-songwriter has managed to stay relevant with the release of her debut Love Stuff–her transitions from the studio to her live shows lose no ounce of thoughtfulness or sultry confidence. Onstage King is complete control, leading her expansive collective of bassists, strings, and even the occasional trombone, she resembles less a country-pop wannabe and more the female, alternate-universe version of The Black Keys. Hitting every delicious riff and crestfallen hook into the hearts of every person in the massive crowd that had gathered to see her play, it was impossible to not find yourself swooning to King’s velvety croons and howls.
Iceland’s second greatest gift to the world (the first of course being Björk), indie-rock’s second generation of heroes Of Monsters and Men stepped out onto the GovBallNYC stage with the full weight of their experience as festival headliners hanging behind them. Over the years, the group has done little in altering their live shows, but there is an ethereal, almost holy grace with which Nanna Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson lead their carnival of musicians. Between the duo’s heart-melting, call-answer harmonies and their heavy reliance on deep percussion booms and layered swells of ricketing guitars and strings (not to mention Ragnhildur Gunnarsdóttir and Sigrún Jónsdóttir exceptional brass playing), OMAM has the perception and drive to transform even their most little know ditty’s into crowd-swallowing anthems. From the lilting strums and galloping bass of “King and Lionheart,” to the blackened depths of Nanna’s woeful ballad “I of the Storm,” fans disappeared into the foggy, Iceland-inspired fantasies. Consistently one of the best treats of seeing Nanna herself onstage is when she’s pounding on her own personal drum. But at the end of their set, as their wild crescendos on “Six Weeks” crashed atop one another in a glorious cascade of blissful riffs and hurricaning percussion, Nanna went from singing the song’s chorus and tearing it up on her guitar, to turning in one quick fluid motion as Ragnhildur tossed her a drum-stick from across the stage, and the two began pounding out the song’s percussion-driven, Himalayan climb to its climax.
Father John Misty, the enigma, the perverse-poet and bundle of contradictions himself, took to the Big Apple Stage painting the languishing and sad tales of his romances for all his fans to feast on–and the bearded, former Fleet Foxes member did not disappoint. Opening with the moody exasperation of “Hollywood Forever Cemetery,” Misty spent much of his set consumed by the sensual spirit of his music, consumed by the tense alterations of his alter-ego’s religious obsession with desire and lust. Dropping to his knees to belt out his fervent confessions and imagist tales, the spectacle became less about the soul-soothing fusions of folk and country, and instead Misty ended up stealing the show from himself.
His anthemic fable “I Love You, Honeybear” was the inevitable highlight of the night, as Misty brought to life the song’s infectious tragedies (Unless we’re naked getting high on the mattress/While the global market crashes/As death fills the streets we’re garden variety oblivious). Strangely spiritual, with every drop of it a drug-less trip through Misty’s psychedelic (if only for its unconventionality) view of the world around him, his portraits of beautiful, cosmically larger-than-life, but entirely fractured women, that dutifully reflect his own emotional condition, the entirety of his set was an artful lesson on the use of alter-egos in music. WIth a Daniel Day Lewis conviction, Tillman became Misty to the point that it was hard to tell which was the ego, but as we sang along with the choir-led howls of “Funtimes in Babylon,” it didn’t really matter anymore.
One of the few true performers to step on stage Friday, Beck has reached atmospheric, dreamy levels of legendary that at this point he needs no introduction. Drawing a massive crowd that couldn’t sleep on the promise of seeing the eclectic singer-songwriter and The Strokes all in the matter of hours, the still-sharp, genre-bending wizard took a little over an hour of time to offer up his quirky nature and groovy rock hits to the whole of Governors Ball. Hit after hit, from the brash rock burnings of “Devils Haircut, to the jittery spit-fire of “Loser,” and all the way to Morning Phase’s folk tinges, it’s impossible not to find something in Beck’s discography that you love.
Live, the veteran performer is open with his awkward but smooth dance numbers, but what’s always been wonderful about Beck is that it’s not just a one-man show, his bandmates add another layer of character to his sets that many band’s never find. But the highlight of the evening came with a cover of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” something Beck has done often but has taken on new meaning with the late singer’s passing. Having his guitarist sing the opening lines (in an almost identical mimic of Prince’s tenor), the quintet entered into a finale of tribute to the Purple One’s glory, oozing all the love, soul and joy they could muster up and leave fans with.
Making their long awaited homecoming, The Strokes, led by Mr. I-wear-my-sunglasses-at-night himself Julian Casablancas took the stage after a nearly thirty minute delay–spoiler: it was more than worth it. As one of the first champions of the indie-rock revolution that began well over a decade ago (in New York to boot), The Strokes have made a career out of crafting nostalgia-ridden inflections that combined everything from garage to pop. Lit by an insane array of bright white lights, so that all you could see was their larger-than-life silhouettes, Casablancas and company entered into a non-stop outpouring of hits, cutting through the jumpy rock trills of “Someday,” harmonizing the heart-wrenching chorus of “Under Cover of Darkness” with the hundreds of fans gathered around them, while the glitzy electronica of “Machu Picchu” sent shudders into the crowd with its energized electric guitar rips.
Undoubtedly, The Strokes stuck to their guns and played on the wistfulness of their return, and while they might’ve played it safe during their set, the entirety of their show was a testament to their enduring cohesion as a band. Casablancas hit every note like he was still touring for Is This It, fighting for the crowd’s approval with every hoarse cry into the night–and they were empty of the any knowing, pretentious air that they were (and still are) one of the biggest rock bands in the world.
Maybe it was the feeling of being back home or an innate humble affinity to their position even now, a decade later, The Strokes gave fans exactly what they wanted–and they wanted to feel like they were there, or for some, back there, in a time when The Strokes was just breaking through the ice.
As the buoyant riffs of “Last Night” began their rolicking ride through Casablanca’s timeless narrative of one unforgettable night, it was hard to sing along to its harrowing, but failed attempts at putting into words such an emotive moment–and the same could be said for that moment in which we found ourselves echoing those unspoken emotions, yelling into the night about how people just won’t understand, years from now, when we tell them about it. But we will, and perhaps that’s really all that matters.
Words: Steven Ward
Photography courtesy of Governors Ball unless otherwise note