Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Strokes and Phoenix stand out at the fourth annual Governors Ball in NYC

The early summer fest is making itself known as a dominant force the Northeast.

Posted By on Wed, Jun 11, 2014 at 2:31 AM

click to enlarge Friday's line-up at the Governors Ball in NYC.
  • Friday's line-up at the Governors Ball in NYC.
After missing out on attending Coachella for the first time since George W. Bush was still in the White House, I was determined to find some other out-of-town festival this summer that could bring maximum musical pleasure without breaking my oh-so-fragile checking account.

And that's why I was in New York City last weekend β€” to attend the fourth annual Governors Ball, a three-day festival that took place on Randall's Island, accessible only by ferry or by walking across the R.F.K. Bridge - the same route that takes you to and from LaGuardia Airport.  

The Friday experience began with Jason Isbell, performing at 1: 30 p.m. on the big Governors Ball stage, for the second time this year. The former Drive By Trucker performed a set of songs that brought the only country flavor to the festival until Neko Case played later in the day, and he was joined by his wife Amanda Shires on the fiddle. Isbell opened up with the very catchy "Super 8 Motel" ("I don't want to die in a Super 8 motel"). Some Tampa locals might have seen him perform on the second-day at the Gasparilla Music Festival earlier this year, in a more introspective set. Here, he was ready with more rock-friendly material for the masses, many of whom only caught pieces of his act, since the day was still young.
click to enlarge Kurt Vile and the Violators - LORI KARPAY
  • Lori Karpay
  • Kurt Vile and the Violators

Kurt Vile
 took the stage with his group clad in a white T-shirt that read "What's Up Kooks?" along with sunglasses and just a pretty stoned mien altogether. The band began their 45-minute set with "Wakin on a Pretty Day," the languid, 10-minute wah-wah guitar-infused tune that opens up Wakin on a Pretty Daze, his very successful 2013 release. As I noted last year while seeing him at Coachella, some of Vile's stuff sounds straight out of Neil Young's mid-'70s electric period ("On the Beach" and "Zuma" in particular). He rounded out his performance with a couple of punkier numbers.

I only caught a few minutes of The 1975, but they were an intense few minutes, just enough time to absorb the energy expended by their extremely charismatic lead singer, Matt Healy.  

One of the biggest, if not the biggest thrills for me was seeing Washed Out play for nearly an hour in the Gotham Tent. Washed Out has always been the province of Ernest Greene and his synthesizers, but he's rounded out his band in recent years, and is able to produce a bigger, fuller sound of the dreamy pop that has been so successful on Paracosm and Within and Without live in concert. And Washed Out are playing most of your big festivals this year.  

click to enlarge Washed Out - LORI KARPAY
  • Lori Karpay
  • Washed Out

"Feel it All Around" (best known to some of you as the theme to Portlandia) was among the material his band performed at a slower, dreamier pace. After the first few songs a fan in the back of me kept yelling, "Sexier!" The last I heard was his voice cheering loudly, "That's sexy!"

After that cathartic experience, it was time to venture over to the Governors Ball stage to check out Julian Casablancas + the Voidz, which was not a very good experience. His second song, "Instant Crush," his contribution to the huge Grammy-award winning Daft Punk album from last summer, was definitely a cool moment. But his solo material overall can't stand up at all to his work with the Strokes (who, of course, played on Saturday night).  And I guess he was going for irony with the NASCAR T-shirt? I lasted about four songs before pulling out.

Then it was time to get a little mellower, where over at the Honda stage all the ladies were out for Jenny Lewis, who mixed in some Rilo Kiley numbers with tracks from her new album solo album, β€œThe Voyager, due out next month. 

Next up was Neko Case, who came off a bit awkward, because she kept talking about the sun blasting away at her eyes. I found it surprisingly easy to get up close to check out her performance shortly before 6 p.m. but I only stuck around to listen to for a few songs β€” as anyone who attends such festivals can attest, you can't sit and watch every performance in full if you want to get a decent spot for certain other bands. In this case, I was making an exit and heading toward Phoenix - a good call.

click to enlarge Neko Case - LORI KARPAY
  • Lori Karpay
  • Neko Case

The Paris-based pop band is making the festival circuit for the second consecutive summer following their 2013 release 
Bankrupt!, an album destined to disappoint coming four years after their their career-changing Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. The reviews weren't kind to Bankrupt!, and quite frankly, I sort of loathed it upon initial listens. 

A year ago, they headlined Saturday night at Coachella - now they're a little lower on lower tier, coming on shortly before 7 p.m. on Friday night. But let me tell you something - the band has never been better. Hearing Bankrupt!'s songs live was a revelation (they opened with "Entertainment"), and their whole performance can be categorized as a 65-minute electronic alt-pop  sing-along, as they captivated the thousands. Singer Thomas Mars came off as a bit insane, doing his ultimate rock star bit a la Bono or Eddie Vedder, surfing far into the thick of the crowd. Awesome stuff.

But there was more. TV on the Radio's set was already underway, and they rocked. Then it was time to camp out in front of the Honda Stage to see Damon Albarn. But about 20 minutes before the show, there wasn't anybody getting situated in front of the stage. Perhaps he was playing under the Gotham Tent? Nope, everyone was poised for Outkast, headlining yet another major festival this summer.

That was fine with me. With the closest sight-line of the weekend, Albarn was totally on in his new role as a solo artist, though there several Blur and Gorillaz tunes to delight the masses (no "Song 2," however, a request yelled out as he sat poised at the piano). His new accompanying band is first-rate, and for this show he had string quartet performing on selected songs as well.

And that was it for Friday night. The ferry ride home with a slight breeze was sublime.

Originally that was going to be the entirety of my Governors Ball experience, but I couldn't resist making it back out to Randall's Island on the following hot Saturday afternoon. Not having procured a ferry pass in time, my colleague and I took the subway to 125th Avenue in Harlem and then walked a good mile and a half onto the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, along with hundreds of other fans. We got there in time just to be able to see and hear the end of Broken Bells set, which sounded so good I was sad I hadn't made it in sooner to catch the entire thing.

Like I mentioned earlier, there are just some artists at these festivals that you really want to get as close up as possible to see. The downside is you'll likely miss some great music at another stage, but hey, you can't have it all, right? 

click to enlarge The Strokes - LORI KARPAY
  • Lori Karpay
  • The Strokes

There was no single show that had the New York City fans more enthused and in an anticipatory mode than The Strokes, the quintessential Lower East Side band whose sensational debut in 2001 was well, over a dozen years ago. Jack White was the main headliner on Saturday, but the buzz wasn't about him - it was about the Strokes (the buzz on Friday was all about Outkast).

We waited nearly an hour in the intense sunshine (accompanied by a few pops of the red wine that sold for $10 in a plastic cup) before Julian Casablancas and friends hit the stage around 7 p.m. It was a sensation set, and the crowd was seriously into it. They opened with "Barely Legal, " and followed with "Razordblade." "Last Nite" and "New York City Cops" were also played to enthusiastic response. 

Then it got even more exciting to see and hear Sleigh Bells, another NYC original at the Gotham Tent. I'd heard mixed things about their live presentation, but for the 20 minutes or so that I caught of their set, they had the audience totally captivated, as couples were dancing way back at the end of the tent. Yes, "Comeback Kid," was wonderful, but also "Crown On the Ground" and "Infinity Guitars" rocked hard.

Spoon was next, and delivered a very enjoyable set, though they mostly played tracks I wasn't familiar with. 

The concert then closed out with Jack White playing the big stage and Skrillrex at the Honda stage. I watched both performances from afar, not having the energy at this point to get anywhere into the mix of the crowd.

I was surprised to read that for all the music Jack White has made post-White Stripes, his new album Lazaretto is only his second solo work. In that same article I found I couldn't agree with him more about why he's not so keen on touring these days - because "People can't clap anymore because they've got a texting thing in one hand." No kidding. 

Both sets were great. And then it was time to wander back across the RFK into Manhattan. 

I didn't make it to Day 3 on Sunday, missing out on one of my former favorites, Interpol. But I strongly recommend the festival next year for Floridians who want to do one of these things. The food was better than in most festivals I've attended, and the weather (this year) was perfect. And with just four stages, there were less chances that you'd miss out on an artist you really wanted to see.

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