For nine years, Governors Ball has been a main New York music event for the ages, for all ages, offering expensive headliners and increasingly up-and-coming acts of many genres poised to please Gen Z, their parents, and everyone in between. To the credit of Founders Entertainment, the independent production company started by childhood friends who met at boarding school when they were 15-years-old, the inaugural festival was only one day, held at Governors Island (hence the name), and featured Pretty Lights, Big Boi, and the late Mac Miller.
Today, the affair is one of the most competitive, recognizable brands in summer music events. Three days of music, art installations, activities (corn hole, guided yoga, body painting, and glitter-hair braiding, anyone?), and photo ops are a few of the reasons why, but this year’s act that had everyone talking—long after the last set—was uninvited, yet expected.
So how did #GOVBALLNYC 2019 shake out?
Pretty great, and far from basic.
The first slot of the whole festival, Asbury Park-based Deal Casino drew a small but energetic crowd at the main stage for their premiere Governors Ball set, described by the band during a quick in-person catch-up as a stage “way bigger than what [they] were used to.”
The alt-rock quartet, who started out as a “metalcore band with samples and stuff” in Sparta, N.J., had been touring aggressively since December and cited their performance of “French Blonde,” one of their favorite songs to play in general, as a high moment.
Walking, I caught a bit of South Carolina rockers Hundredth, who started out brooding and smolderingly cool before covering “How Soon Is Now?” by The Smiths. This was at the Bacardi Stage, which would end up being one of my favorites of the weekend for its central location, visual accessibility, and expansive, solid stretch of lawn unmarred by the buckets of rain that’d come down for two straight days prior.
Oakland, California’s Still Woozy (the artist moniker for Sven Gamsky) had young people running up to join the crowd at the American Eagle Stage, just coming off a set at Bowery Ballroom the night before. “This one is kind of punk; I need your help with this one,” as everyone started skanking the same way we would a long time ago. He kept on asking the audience for help, which they gladly offered.
The American Eagle Stage was the only one enclosed by a tent-like structure. This I found interesting, as these types of tented stages tend to prove conducive to intimacy, improved sound, and protection from the weather, such as sun, or intense rain (this, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call foreshadowing).
It was around this time that I started running around looking for a place to charge my phone as the island and its goers sucked it dry. From the media tent, behind the Honda Stage, I caught most of Injury Reserve, the Arizona hip-hop trio that had me bopping enough to stay put.
Australian brand Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever (apparently also sometimes known as Rolling Blackouts C.F.) brought their brand of sunny indie rock to that sweet 3:00 p.m. spot where people were still arriving, vibes changing over. Their increasingly audible single “Talking Straight,” popping up on Spotify Discovery and Sirius XM more and more often, seemed to hit at just the right time.
Then there was Mitski, the artist Iggy Pop once referred to as “probably the most advanced American songwriter,” pulling the tightest crowd of the day so far. Everyone wanted to get closer to her. Pointedly breaking the fourth wall only to say “Hi,” the petite Japanese-born singer was formidable in biker-length shorts, a white tee, and knee pads and actual jazz sneakers, dancing on and with a table and chair with athletic steadiness, as if with a partner and a hand-held mic.
“This is the best set of the day,” I overheard someone say. “Everything else just looks and sounds the same, nothing special. She’s unique.” I must say that Mitski’s artistry did not disappoint, highly captivating with physical theatre and studio-quality vocals.
It was hard to pull away as “Townie” got rumbling, but there’s a reason electronic funk collective The Internet was on the central GOVBALLNYC Stage. Front person Syd was a huge presence, her distinct voice clear as she sang and asked the audience what songs they wanted to hear. The LA-based outfit (also consisting of keyboardist Matt Martians, bassist Patrick Paige II, drummer Christopher Smith, and guitarist Steve Lacy) brought funky vibes as the weather started to cool.
Back at Bacardi, the dreamy and very English Blood Orange (aka Devonté Hynes, credited with several Grammy Award-winning productions, the phenomenal but short-lived trash rock band Test Icicles (R.I.P), and the score for the Gia Coppola-directed Palo Alto) shredded a guitar alongside an ensemble including longtime collaborator Jason Arce on bass clarinet, saxophone, and flute (not all at once), and a sublime vocalist who may or may not have been the original feature on one of the first songs of his I ever heard, “You’re Not Good Enough.”
During the set, we (the masses and I) languidly sat on the grass under cover of spare trees on grass that was as solid as most of the grass got that weekend. This was alongside the iridescent prism installations teenagers were taking pictures in and around all weekend before they’d knock them down in panic and rebellion in the rain. Yes—more foreshadowing.
All day, almost every stranger I asked who they we’re most looking forward to seeing mentioned Brockhampton, who took the main stage in shiny silver jumpsuits that reminded me of the sardonic red flight suits Jon “The Barber” Gutwillig (The Disco Biscuits) has donned. The crowd was rowdy at this time, doing what might have been called “moshing” in some circles.
At the intimate AE Stage, The Voidz (not to be confused with the more than two decades-old punk band of the same name) were a welcome first act under cover of some darkness. For a crowd happy to finally get a little weird, the neon-hatched setup looked at once sparse and lush, maybe a bit like something Animal Collective would do in 2009, in a good way. Loopy sounds and talkative, at times charmingly auto-tuned vocals lent by Julian Casablancas of The Strokes fame quenched an audience that seemed to have not drunk from the well in ages.
Lil’ Wanye (aka Weezy F Baby, etcetera) was an absolute delight, bringing serious family vibes with a full band and a palpable connection to the crowd, playing faves with the perfume of flowers growing stronger on the air. “Number one is: We all ain’t shit without the Lord. Number Two is: I ain’t shit without you… And number three is very important: If you’ve never seen me live, or you don’t remember shit about tonight, remember this: I ain’t shit without you.” I got something in my eye, then.
During and around the set, Gesaffelstein would be referenced by name as variations of “Gesaffe–something, something, or whatever,” because Americans don’t know how to pronounce things, let alone try to. But in any event, his Gov Ball set will be one remembered for its spectacular fashion. The French producer, decked out in head-to-toe silver chrome, was the surprise of the night, bringing some dark, Daft Punk-esque dance music in a mask formed to fit is own face. The crowd gleefully raged into the abyss of the unknown; if they at least remember the time slot or stage, Gesaffelstein will have hundreds of new fans from that performance.
In front of the main stage for the last act of the day, people were starting to cross their legs and sit right down on the concrete where they had stood, waiting. I’ll note this was the only stage with a good stretch of concrete in front of it, which is possible why it was selected to be the main venue.
The highly anticipated Tyler the Creator came out in front of a cerulean blue curtain that photographed pretty well from where I stood quite far away behind bodies of very dedicated fans who probably camped out a good 45 minutes before his set, wearing a full neon green suit and a Sia-esque short blonde wig. Art already.
His new LP, IGOR, had debuted atop the Billboard 200 albums chart just a few days prior, his first #1. To us, he said, “We got the biggest album in the world right now… I want you all to trust your ideas.” I now realize the tall, blonde, suited statute near the “Best Kept Secret” 21-and-up spot many youths were taking pictures with is also named “IGOR” and has since popped up in NYC around Union Square.
People were singing back to him all the words. Even the words to the new ones off IGOR, which had only been out a couple weeks. “IGOR’S THEME.” “NEW MAGIC WAND.” Dance moves. Wondering if he was hot in that suit. Him talking to us, making jokes. Him talking about being lonely, happy. Being a bit star-struck and not fully understanding why. Struggling to leave and letting him sing to me as I took the earlier free bus out to Harlem.
Another day of clear, sunny weather. A little less hot today, with threat of rain in the evening. Watching the forecast. Walked in and said “Hi!” to Mac Miller as patrons took photos in front of his portrait. Nodded to Lady Liberty, figured we’d get a picture later.
That Saturday kicked off Pride Month, the most wonderful time of the year. The L Train Brass Band, one of four traveling pop-up performers peppering their paths with music throughout the weekend, came through with a mini-parade of rainbow flair and drag queens. Larger parades were scheduled throughout the day for all to join.
The Bud Light Dive Bar, a cool little setup, donated $1 to GLAAD for every rainbow beer sold up to $150,000 and hosted an all LGBTQ+ lineup for the day, where I had the opportunity to catch pop artist VINCINT, who came to more mainstream fame becoming a finalist on FOX’s singing competition The Four: Battle For Stardom. His voice was pretty sultry, as were the dancers.
New York trio Dreamers kicked off the day’s lineup programming on the main stage; “Die Happy” was a highlight track as their pastel, “pale blog” Tumblr music video overlapped in my head as I walked.
For her first festival appearance, 21-year-old producer Suzi Wu served raw vocals and trippy pop-hop in front of glitchy, AIM-esque visuals back at the Bacardi Stage. With the new EP ERROR 404, it was very much a vibe aptly supported by her incredibly talented band: Jerome Johnson on electric percussion and Otto Hashmi on keys, guitar, and backing vocals. If there was a new music discovery to take away from the weekend, this was it.
One must feed the dancing, sweating, and Snapchatting that occurs over three days, and one of the most highly anticipated offerings of the weekend was the food and drink lineup, grown annually to include local and national brands both mouth-watering and Instagram-able with plenty of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options.
This year, the grub roster featured a series of mashups (“BFF (best-food-friend) combos,” such as Rise Brewing x Davey’s Ice Cream, and a fried cheese and pickle partnership), and a Gov Ball Bodega complete with bodega cat plush toys. Another highlight was the 12-3pm brunch program for early-arrivers; King David Tacos from Austin, Texas offered a heavenly breakfast taco, and I might have visited King of Pops’ literal popsicle stand of clean, icy confections, conceived in Atlanta, at least four times.
Sunflower Bean was a Saturday favorite and very different live band than its studio rotations. Lead singer and bassist Julia Cumming, a shock of white-blonde hair, physically climbed over the front amps, did that rock star, rolling-on-the-floor-with-a-guitar thing, and connected with the crowd while guitarist Nick Kivlen shredded and sang into a red telephone of a mic stand and Jacob Faber drove the beat on drums.
Aesthetically and musically, the trio evoked retro rock ‘n’ roll with touches of metal, psych, and garage, lifting up lyrics contending with modern anxieties, concepts the young audience connected with instantly. The trio was joined by keyboardist Danny Ayala of The Lemon Twigs, who picked up his whole kit, played it like a string thing, and damn near stole the whole show.
Head-banging and hours spent running around the island from stage to stage takes some servicing. Festival partner CORE Hydration was not only the event’s exclusive bottled water sponsor (free water stations were available, but the lines got pretty long), but also the “experience vendor,” offering guided yoga sessions at its #perfectlybalanced Lounge and Playground where one could don headphones for instruction and music. A sort of “silent disco,” but for Vinyasa.
Back at the main stage, Kasey Musgraves was larger than life. Truly captivating an all-age crowd with “Slow Burn” (a track birthed of an LSD trip), the single “Wonder Woman,” and the ode to love and dysfunction, “Family Is Family,” her band, whom she lovingly introduced one by one, commanded the space like they’d be playing in it every day of their tour. Psychedelic kaleidoscope imagery on the screen as balloons printed like globes released into the masses, the sunset held the spotlight on the luminous songwriter, reminding everyone why she is one of the most interesting musicians in popular music right now.
We caught King Princess, the 20-year-old from Brooklyn singing huskily about women with dreamy singularity on tracks like “Cheap Queen,” “Talia,” “Make My Bed,” and “1950,” which rose to prominence when Harry Styles tweeted the lyric “I hate it when dudes try to chase me, but I love it when you try to save me.” Far back on the lawns in front of the stage, eating cheese fries, that moment felt like why we go to music festivals: to discover, but also sit with our oneness, our otherness, with people looking for connection over the same things.
The 1975 had long been one of those bands that made me wonder why everyone liked them so much before I became more familiar with their catalog of youthful, at times dark and haunting, alt-rock. All over Tumblr and terrestrial radio, they seemed too popular to be special, a thought left over from the poser culture of my youth and proven incorrect once and for all when I saw them live for the first time at Governors Ball.
The musicianship offered during their set was real and affecting, the foursome joined by touring members on a lush lineup of keys, brass, synth, and additional guitars. Lead singer Matthew “Matty” Healy drank and smoked during the entire set, never missing a beat and delivering crisp vocals throughout the high-powered slot. I don’t think I can imagine an American artist doing the same, and thought about their mystique being due in great part to their being British.
On a bathroom break, we ran into an older dude on his way to the next set, wearing a jacket, a t-shirt, and one of those drawstring backpacks, all branded for Lord Huron, about to go on the American Eagle Stage. This guy seemed to know how to have a good time, so without having heard of them before, we headed over. A surprise treat of the weekend, indie-folk outfit Lord Huron put on an intimate, rich show, evoking the voice of My Morning Jacket and turning people on with Americana and forest imagery.
We were starting to get updates for the approaching rain as one piece of our group went to take in Major Lazer as I made my way to Florence + the Machine. According to a source, the former crowd ended up being too thick to get into, and later accounts report the set wasn’t as tight as one would expect a Diplo production to be. A fan of the electronic dance project myself, I found this disappointing, but was not all that surprised.
Words cannot capture how magical Florence + the Machine was, but I’ll start with a memory: At a Lana Del Rey concert at the Hollywood Bowl in L.A., a solo concert goer imparted how if we ever had a chance to catch them, Florence + the Machine is the live act of a lifetime. I thought of this as I took in, hockey-puck eyed, one of the most beautiful sets I’ll ever see.
The hype is real. We got the classics like “Dog Days” and “You Got the Love,” brought to life. Florence Welch, fire-haired and a formidable Galadriel personified, is a performer. In all the years of their making music, it seems that their live show remains their claim, the front woman stirring up emotions, talking to us, telling us to put our phones away and tell the “wankers” next to us to do the same because we were “trying to have a collective experience.”
Serenaded and wholly satisfied, we peeled away a bit early to once again catch the bus off the island, relieved to find the weather holding up.
The rain we didn’t get the previous night was now threatening thunderstorms, and the Gov Ball app told us to sit tight and not make moves until 11:30 am, when they would announce next steps for the day.
Flashback to Panorama Festival last year, where we’d stepped foot onto Randall’s Island, the same venue as Gov Ball but by a different production company, to find that the concert had been evacuated. I figured they were being preemptively cautious, also considering the fact that getting off the island in even perfect weather is a challenge.
The verdict was to delay gates until 6:30pm, which disappointingly dropped many smaller indie acts like the Bandcamp-bred Nashville artist Soccer Mommy, Parcels from Berlin, and MKULTRA, the recent Berklee College of Music student set to kick-off the last day of the festival with his brand of experimental hip-hop as part of the school’s Summer Festival Spotlight program.
In a quick phone interview that morning, MKULTRA (sharing a moniker with the codename for the CIA’s mind control experiences) detailed to me from the Gov Ball grounds, where he had already arrived, prepared to perform, what his set was designed to entail: choreographed dance with people wearing boxing gloves, masks of his own face, and gun-like things shooting dollar bills with his face on it.
He described his interest in non-sequiturs, absurdism, and dadaism as philosophical drivers to affect change through music, the kind of change that can show young people that what exists goes beyond what is observed. “If you say you don’t know something, there’s room for growth…. People say they listen to a little bit of everything, and that’s usually not true. Do you listen to Japanese noise rock or industrial? If you keep yourself open to music, then there’s much more out there.”
As I plotted where I’d observe the few main stage acts remaining, the gates opened at 6:30 to a thinned out crowd seeing things through to the end. I was able to get into the VIP cabanas via the wristband I got at the Pixel Pass Lounge and Night Sight Experience the day before, thanks to my having both a Pixel 2 and T-Mobile. Admittedly, the vantage point was clutch, which brought to mind the economics behind music festivals and improved experiences. Anyway….
Queen Lilly Allen did all of her greatest hits, which felt like sunshine under an already setting sun, it being so late in the day. We got “Smile,” “The Fear,” “LDN,” and “Fuck You,” and I was 18 all over again, reveling in her presence and voice, as strong as it was on the MP3 tracks I first heard her on. The crowd was dizzy with happiness as Allen took off her jacket and 6-inch heels to really get it going, and also probably simply for being there after a whole day of waiting.
Save grabbing a burger for my beer, I stayed where I was and found myself a sweet swaying spot for Nas, one of my must-sees for the weekend. The crowd at that point had tripled in size, extending as far back as to spill into another area entirely, arms in the air moving in waves of unity.
Nas wore a short-sleeved floral print shirt and shorts. Comfortable, no artifice. He is Nas, after all. Illmatic came out in 1994 and is considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. This set transported everyone to an age when they might’ve needed that album the most.
And then, the storied climax of this story, in which the screens up on the GOVBALLNYC Stage flashed in plain black and white a message that I honestly initially thought was part of the set, the PA comically recording onto my phone as I was messaging a friend using “Voice-to-Text”: “Attention, attention. Ladies and gentlemen. Attention, Governors Ball. Please pay close attention to the following safety message due to the approach of severe weather…”
No Strokes, no SZA. What happened next was a bit of a blur, but in hindsight, the organizers did the best they could. To their great credit, this announcement occurred right before the sky opened up, so as people hemmed and hawed as they reluctantly made their way to the exits, they had an itty-bitty head start before the chaos.
I tried my best to navigate towards the buses, where I’d made my way towards a good 20-30 minutes before call of show the two days prior. It got pretty crowded, so I made some friends in the process, and by accident, knocked over a barricade trying to make our way before we found the RFK Bridge and walked in mini-steps off the island in the rain.
Our experience was tame compared to what some saw. Social media documented whole fences twice as tall as some destroyed, those iridescent prisms knocked into and over, angry, panicked young people chanting “We want Strokes!” and “refund, refund”—which every ticket-holder for Day Three got in full.
And there you have it. All in all, a solid three days of music. The production was beautiful, with beautiful things to look at, which attracted beautiful people gathering around music. The Lord of the Flies comparisons notwithstanding, young people—full of rage as ever but also steeped in an ever-changing brand of capitalism poking at them from both sides—look for an outlet in music festivals. With special guest Mother Nature, they got it.
Governors Ball did a nice job keeping its patrons safe and also satisfied by not canceling Sunday outright, though in a perfect world they would have pushed up the schedule for a full day that started on-time and ended earlier, though I imagine pushing up headliners in this way is damn near impossible.
To Governors Ball, Founders Entertainment, the artists, and all the front and back of house vendors making the dream work, I say: You’re Doing Great.