Roundup | The 2013 Governors Ball: Revenge of the Mud People

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Roundup | The 2013 Governors Ball: Revenge of the Mud People

A variety of elements make up the festival experience, and in a new approach, we’re going to divide them up to better organize our review of the overall experience at this year’s Governors Ball Music Festival.

 

Weather
Lest we forget, Mother Nature likes to remind us that our best intentions and plans are subject to her whimsy. And on the weekend of June 7th, she did her part to alter the experience of the tens of thousands attending the Governors Ball Music Festival on Randall’s Island in New York City. This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course, and can be traced back to the original Woodstock. More recently, lightning and rain have forced temporary closure of the 2012 edition of Lollapalooza in Chicago, and an epic sandstorm created a wild and bizarre environment during the first weekend of this year’s Coachella. Long story short: the best laid plans can be foiled by nature’s assertion of its ongoing superiority in the ages-old battle of Nature vs. Man. Luckily, it did not seem to contribute to any serious injuries and only a couple of performances were canceled…probably less were canceled than reasonable, actually.

The person(s) who decided to re-sod a good portion of the grounds just before the festival will have a fun time explaining that expenditure; it is safe to say that the overwhelming majority – if not all – of the festival site will require significant restoration work. Insurance premiums will definitely be higher for next year’s festival. Friday’s torrential rains turned the site into a lake of mud slurry, at points reaching six inches deep. Saturday was perhaps worse, as the slurry thickened and shoes became unwitting victims to suction power that would make the people at Dyson jealous. By Sunday, those lost shoes and various types of detritus were half-buried in a way that was unfortunately reminiscent of the images seen when mass graves are unearthed. Seriously gross, and the smell of slowly-drying dead organisms isn’t for the faint of heart. Long story short: no description of this year’s festival can exist without first referencing the weather’s significant impact.

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Transportation / Logistics
Governors Ball has perhaps the easiest access of any major American music festival, with Lollapalooza close behind. Being in New York City doesn’t hurt, but organizers clearly worked with all appropriate entities to ensure that there were proper amounts of public AND private transportation available to drop festival attendees off steps from the entry gates. This might involve taking a cab, it could involve an express bus from the 125th Street subways station, it could involve driving, and it could involve taking a ferry (equipped with a bar!). Either way, it was as facile as any festival. Ok, maybe this year’s Sasquatch! isn’t a fair comparison, as our RV was (probably illegally) parked about 100 yards from the festival entrance, but even then you first had to drive hours from the nearest city. The subway/express bus option seemed best to me from expedience and economics standpoints, but others liked the views afforded by the ferry.

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Food and Beverage
The wide variety of food offered at Governors Ball is probably second only to Lollapalooza, and like Chicago’s mid-summer fest, it relies upon local expertise. Whereas Lollapalooza has celeb chef Graham Elliot curate local restaurants for the festival (Lou Malnati’s!!!), and organizes them like (a less ridiculously crowded version of) Taste of Chicago, Governors Ball relies upon the expertise found in a diverse array of New York’s fantastic food trucks.

Some of the food isn’t necessarily ground breaking: a lot of festivals have pizza, for example. But this one offers you two different options, one of which is the incredible Pizza Moto. Since I first had their iron dome pizza in 2011 at All Tomorrow’s PartiesI’ll Be Your Mirror Festival in Asbury Park, NJ, it’s been my contention that this just may be the best pizza in America. A variety of other options ranged from comfort food (grilled cheese) to high-end (BLT Burgers / Luke’s Lobster’s $16 lobster roll) to dessert (CoolHaus gourmet ice cream sandwiches), but with each one what may have been normal festival fare had a unique twist that made it interesting and almost always, tasty. All in all, no one can reasonably complain about the food options at Governors Ball. And, at $5, I’ll take an invariably delicious slice from Pizza Moto over the uneven $7 slices at Coachella any day of the week.

Lines were reasonable, particularly for beverages. The beverage selection wasn’t the greatest, particularly in comparison to the plethora of food options, but they also didn’t reach beyond stadium prices, making it more reasonable than one might expect in New York.

GovBall-greenandbrownOne last world: I don’t drink coffee, but even I know that it’s pretty impressive when a festival features the beans of Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Stumptown’s hometown festival — Sasquatch! — didn’t seem to offer a similarly high-end cup of joe in what is probably our country’s most coffee-obsessed region. That level of details seems to sum up a lot about the food and beverage options.

 

Facilities/Operations/Management
The setup seemed a bit confusing at first, but after about thirty minutes I had it figured out. I felt bad for some of the food vendors, who clearly had inferior spots that were not going to be as lucrative as others. The basic footprint has four stages, two of which are relatively close to each other in terms of sound bleed, and festival organizers were smart to keep those stages silent when the others were in use. (THANK YOU!). This is generally one of my biggest complaints about festivals, and thankfully Governors Ball gets it right. It is way more preferable to offer less stages and fewer artists than trying to show off with more, because that extravagance is invariably accompanied by greater sound bleed and additional scheduling conflicts.

Speaking of scheduling conflicts, there was really only one I can point to as being offensive, that being The xx on one stage and Bloc Party on another at identical times. There’s just no excuse for having two of the more prominent bands, two with audiences that overlap significantly, pitted against each other. The fact that there was only one REALLY offensive conflict is a plus, actually, as festivals with more stages encounter this with much greater frequency. This isn’t to say there weren’t others, but this was the only one significant enough to ensure its long-term memorability.

The greatest gripe: bathrooms. The weather clearly played a role in this, but the condition of the portable bathrooms was absolutely horrible. Truly, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen worse bathrooms at a festival, let alone how horrific it was to try to get into them through mud that remained treacherous as it was disgusting for the entire festival, as the bathroom areas remained shaded and the sun didn’t help dry out the mess. Once in the bathroom, it was pretty much impossible not to further soil your clothing with the mud/poop (who could tell?) covering everything. Not to mention the serious hazard caused by the instability of footing and foundational support for the portable bathrooms themselves. By far, this was the biggest failure of the festival.

Well, that and not having ANY paper schedules for attendees and a mobile app that refused to properly load 90% of the time due to clogged wireless networks. The app is useless if not configured to keep the needed schedule data on the hard drive, rather than needing to load online each time anyone looks at their phone. And, in New York City, there’s no excuse for such lackluster cell service. One of the more annoying things that occurs frequently is to have an ostensibly full signal taunt you as text don’t go through for random lengths of time – up to an hour – making coordination with friends interested in different acts nearly impossible. This was the biggest problem on Saturday, clearly the best-attended of the three days.

All things considered, though, there were minimal issues related to management. Lines were relatively short, food seemed plentiful, and drinks weren’t overly expensive. (OK, the press tent was pretty sparse, not even having WiFi the first day and being pretty poorly located as well. Festivals would do well to have wifi access for press near every major stage, and might even want to consider getting themselves one of those Google balloons to serve the festivals themselves….I’m just saying).

 

The Music
After all, this is why we’re really here, right? At least most of us…clearly some come for the scene and some for the distraction from their daily lives. One of the positive by-products of Friday’s weather was that it kept some of the jackasses away and seemed to concentrate the crowd amongst hard-core music lovers.

 

After all, this is why we’re really here, right? At least most of us…clearly some come for the scene and some for the distraction from their daily lives. One of the positive by-products of Friday’s weather was that it kept some of the jackasses away and seemed to concentrate the crowd amongst hard-core music lovers.

 

Friday

I arrived relatively early to see Poliça, a band I’d been meaning to check out but one which had eluded me a few times due to scheduling issues. I actually got there earlier and saw St. Lucia, but they didn’t do much for me. While my experience was limited and influenced by the lack of a crowd vibe, they seemed to be yet another Brooklyn-based band infatuated with 80s new wave (and perhaps a bit by the dance beats of 90s Brit electronica groups like Underworld). They’re young and have a lot of potential, but are not yet performing them on the level of, say, Cut Copy. I enjoy a number of their songs, but my sense from their performance is that their songs are templates for remixes, rather than finished products themselves. On the other hand, at this point of their career they just might not be well-prepared to play a big festival stage (in front of a club-sized crowd): it isn’t an easy gig.

Poliça, on the other hand, makes you stand up and take notice of what they’re doing on stage. This is where charisma becomes a factor, and frontwoman Channy Leaneagh has it in spades. Her pungency isn’t quite as intense as, say, Karen O’s, but it’s more than sufficient to stand out within the pack. And this is an interesting study in contrast, because while I prefer St. Lucia’s songs, particularly given my aversion to autotuned vocals, the live performance is what makes Poliça so notable. The bass lines take on a poignancy that makes each moment feel important, setting the structure for the band’s trippy, jazzy instrumentation and sweeping the listener forward through the set as Leaneagh captivates with her own personal mystique.

Holy Ghost! is an electronic dance act from New York City, one perhaps as well known for being on James Murphy’s DFA Records as they are for a catchy 2011 track, “Wait & See.” They’ve returned with a 2013 release and a tour supporting New Wave legends, New Order, and definitely kept the assembled crowd in a dance mode. Their stage presence translates better indoors than out, but they still entertained a crowd that swelled as the set continued, despite the impending weather doom.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen Dinosaur, Jr., but I’d venture around ten. It’s fair to say that Sebadoh was more aligned with my personal preferences back in their earlier days, mostly because reports about J. Macis’ ego tended to turn me off. Somewhere along the line, that concern evaporated and I’ve since been treated to a number of shows where the rock leaps from their Marshall stack with alacrity. Lou Barlow’s Rickenbacker bass just gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling and perfectly complements Mascis’ phenomenal guitar work. Or maybe it was the grilled cheese with tomato and bacon that gave me that feeling. Probably both. It was quite a scene as the rain picked up, less slam dancing than in the band’s infancy but clearly many moved by the music, if not by the aggression-relieving tactics of their fellow concert-goers.

Why is it that it that Best Coast always seems to take a festival stage in the midst of horrific weather conditions? Their 2011 Lollapalooza set was beset by torrential downpours of Biblical proportion, and their 2013 Governors Ball set was also plagued by decidedly non-Californian conditions. This, of course, spurred lead singer Bethany Cosentino to remark that she wished the entire audience was having this experience in her home state, rather than on the East Coast. The irony of warm, sunny, upbeat music set against ominous clouds and punishing rain was strong, and it was a credit to the band that they were able to overcome externalities and string together one of the most enjoyable sets of the festival. As it turned out, the conditions weren’t nearly as bad as those that followed, so maybe that skews memory a tad.

By the end of their set, the most popular part of the festival was probably the Skyy tent, which featured no bands or music but did have a more complete array of bar options than most of the alcohol stations. The rain poured down and steadily created more bizarre conditions, but festival organizers decided that the show must go on.

By the time Crystal Castles took the stage, (in a tent ill-equipped to stem the epic flow of water that had turned the festival grounds into a lake), the number of people in attendance had dropped significantly, even as more arrived to brave the elements. The Montreal-based electronic act is itself a thunderstorm of activity on stage, a pleasant addition to a largely electronically created and modulated set that differentiates them from most EDM acts, (even those with live vocals). This makes them a perfect festival act, a group with which many arrive unfamiliar and many depart knowing they will see them again. They were the highlight of the day, furiously throwing down their set as New Yorkers were New Yorkers, adapting to the elements and showing nary a sign of discontent or even inconvenience. It was a remarkable scene, as people sloshed about during the appropriately-timed “Baptism” with smiles on their faces, embracing the cacophony as only New Yorkers can.

These hardy souls were better than I, who had finally endured about as much as I could handle after 7+ hours of the cold, the rain, and the slurry of mud. I was disappointed to miss Beach House, who are always fantastic live, but I didn’t miss Pretty Lights because common sense prevailed at some point and organizers (or their lawyers) decided that conditions had become too dangerous to soldier on.

 

Saturday
Let’s stipulate: If you wear a Jozy Altidore jersey to a gathering like this, and do so the day after the aforementioned scored a goal propelling the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team towards the World Cup, expect to have random conversations with a lot of dudes. Lots, and lots, and lots of soccer loving dudes who form a sort of fraternal organization based upon the knowledge that soccer loving dudes are a bit of a different breed. Do not, however, expect to have a single conversation with a woman related to this attire.

As the flooding receded, Friday’s mud slurry had turned to Saturday’s muck. The festival grounds were now a powerful, suction-laden force impeding progress and pilfering footwear with impressive frequency. Moving about was slow and required constant attention, both to retain footing as well as to retain possession of one’s footwear. Boots abounded, but some folks arrived thinking their flip flops were going to cut it — they were quickly disabused of that notion.

The day started with the pleasant 80s new wave synth sounds of Wild Nothing, a project begun in Blacksburg, Virginia by Jack Tatum. On stage they appeared to be a five-piece, and they are clearly influenced by bands like The Cure.

Icona Pop is fun, calorie-laden pop with zero nutritional value.

Japandroids are just a lot of fun, and always fun no matter the setting. We’ve covered their two-person attack multiple times before, given their regular appearances on the festival circuit, and this one could largely be described in the same terms. Of note, though, is that they had some fun with their set, thanking people for coming to see Guns N’ Roses and urging them to return to the main stage later in the day to see the headliner…Japandroids. I’m not sure what it is about Canadian bands, but so many inflect humor into their sets that it might be deemed culturally inherent. After all, this is the country that gave us Dan Akroyd, Mike Meyers, and tons of other funny men. I’m also not sure what exactly went down with Guns N’ Roses that prompted this interjection, but along with later commentary from Divine Fits, it seems that there may have been some difficulty with regards to the organizers reconfiguration of the schedule to slot Kings of Leon in after their Friday set had been canceled by the tsunami.

Divine Fits is perfectly enjoyable rock, and one of those bands that grows on me each time I see them. Again, they’re another regular on the festival circuit, and while this set did have greater resonance than their Sasquatch! performance, it wasn’t particularly different.

I’ve been alternately enamored and disgusted by Alt-J, yet another band making the rounds at festivals. And again, there isn’t much to say about them that differs from my previous viewings, with one exception: when compared to their sets at Coachella and Sasquatch!, this one didn’t seem as herky jerky. Maybe it’s just that their cut up rhythms seem less disjointed the more I see them, but it did appear to me that they made better transitions within songs that were less jarring than the earlier performances I’ve witnessed.

Perhaps my greatest disappointment of the festival was not getting all the way across the festival grounds to see Cut Copy – one of my favorite live bands – but the ability to do so and still see other shows was eliminated by the extreme conditions and the resulting length of time it would have taken to get from A to Z and back. They’re a fantastic live band, and I’m sure that this performance was no different.

Kendrick Lamar could not get off the stage quickly enough for my taste. I don’t care how much hype he’s gotten; he’s a misogynist of middling talent with horrible lyrics and lackluster rhymes. His only redeeming qualities are found in the beats, but even then, he’s the most overhyped hip hop artist I’ve ever seen. Granted: it’s fair to say that I have a problem with the double standard relating to words that are ok for some to use, but not others, and also with lyrics that are so clearly derogatory towards women. I’m not 100% consistent in this vein —  I’d be the first to acknowledge that personal hypocrisy — but Lamar doesn’t make it easy to ignore his failings: his average abilities cannot cloak his troglodytic tendencies.

Thievery Corporation was as phenomenally unforgettable as Kendrick Lamar was horribly unforgettable. This was one of my favorite sets of the festival, as the D.C.-based collective ripped through a scintillating set punctuated by incredible variety and kinetic delivery. I’ve never fully understood how the band officially only includes Eric Hilton and Rob Garza, given that all the other musicians on stage have remained the same over the years, but that’s for them to worry about. And worry is not something on anyone’s mind when observing Thievery’s unique mélange of electronica and international rhythms and instrumentation, all of which create just about the best lounge music one could imagine. They have songs with ethereal feminine vocals that create the vibe of a Moroccan harem (not that I’ve ever been in…Morocco), chill songs that soothe but don’t bore, songs that use reggae and hip hop flavors to get the crowd moving, and those where a sitar takes people to the beaches of the Indian Ocean. Yes, they do a lot of things, and they do them very well. They drew an enthusiastic audience, one that moved non-stop and cheered enthusiastically, unusually staying behind after the lengthy set ended while a buzz remained over the area.

 

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Behrnsie has a love for music that dare not speak its name. He attends many shows and can often be found counting out the beats for no discernible reason. He played alto saxophone in his middle school jazz band, where he was best known for infuriating his instructor when it was revealed that he played everything by ear, and could not in fact read music. He takes great pride that this is the same talent/affliction that got Tori Amos kicked out of the Peabody Academy. He does not live in his parents’ basement….except during the holidays.