Let’s just cut right to the chase: Randall’s Island is a former landfill site, so the reason why the festival’s gelatinous ankle-deep mud smelled vaguely of methane was because by Day 3 of New York City’s biggest music festival, the shit-like guck that sullied you up to your calves was releasing methane.
Mud, moreover, was biggest story of Governors Ball because it was such a consuming aspect of being there. The music was great. Many times, it was utterly fantastic– and the festival staff were as accommodating and obsequious as they could have been under the given circumstances (a monsoon on Friday and coagulating, increasingly-smelly mud for the rest of the weekend). But despite their efforts and an amazing Kanye West finale, the festival element that none of us could control was omnivorously debilitating: from the staff to the security guards to artists, media, and fans, those who braved the rain on Friday went home soggy, filthy, freezing, and demoralized. Even if you managed to catch some good music– like Erykah Badu’s soulful groove session or Crystal Castles’ frenzied rave– you still left the concert feeling like a shower would be the highlight of your evening.
Saturday brought fairer weather, but the weekend sunshine congealed the mud into a smelly viscous muck. Stench unfurled from beneath the gummy surface like garlic breath from a cartoon character’s mouth, and trudging through it was sort of like moving through quicksand: every step required wrenching one appendage from it’s underfoot suction as you squelched forward with the other limb, navigating errant cigarette butts and discarded beer cans that had been carelessly tossed into the gook. Newly exposed sewer caps emerged as the slippery ground shifted underfoot, and many who abandoned their shoes cut their feet.
Despite such inclement conditions– if you can believe it– Governors Ball still came in view of music festival normalcy: there were plenty of people wearing wannabe rave costumes, overly procedural security guards, the ambient sound of port-o-potty doors slamming, poor cellphone reception, paper wristbands, lines, instagram, claustrophobia, heat, bandana headbands, angry sunburns, the desperation that comes with standing for a long time, meditations on the inconvenience of having to pee, and ultimately, some amazing musical performances that made pursuing overlapping sets a worthwhile endeavor.
Erykah Badu’s jazzy cover of Aaliyah’s “Rock The Boat” was a Friday-night highlight. Japandroids’ brought light-hearted cheer on Saturday afternoon when guitarist Brian King said, “Hi, we’re Guns N’ Roses and we’re so happy to be playing at a festival where Japandroids are headlining!”. Dirty Projectors’ vocal oscillations blew me away when the band performed music from Swing Lo Magellan during their Sunday afternoon set. Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros jumped off stage and went into the crowd while I was photographing him, and Azealia Banks wore one of the most passively ridiculous outfits I’ve ever seen.
Nas, Best Coast, Deerhunter, Local Natives, Cold War Kids, Twin Shadow, Icona Pop, The Lumineers, and Kendrick Lamar all gave good-to-incredible performances, but the Festival’s real highlight was in its Sunday night closers, The xx and Kanye West.
Just after the sunset on Gov Ball’s final day, UK’s The xx launched into a dubby rendition of the crowd-favorite “Crystalised”– a new remix of their 2009 single that was a vamped with some wispy synth lines and a surprisingly wobbly bass. The chorus of the song– just after the “ay yi yi”, where the guitar riff normally kicks in– underwent a facelift in the course of some totally unexpected drops. It wasn’t exactly dubstep, but the bass propelled the song’s pace and for the first of several times that I’ve seen The xx perform, their music was uptempo– or at least syncopated and upbeat– and shockingly danceable. The audience was wildly excited– this being, from the looks of it, one of the more anticipated shows of the festival– and misty shadow effects lent the set a roiling, theatrical intimacy that would make the maximum-capacity audience seem otherwise incongruous.
When the show was over, there was a mass exodus to the main stage where Kanye West gave a performance that was generous by his standards: he not only showed up on time, but smiled frequently, encouraged the audience to sing along, and played hits from early albums College Dropout (“All Falls Down” and “Jesus Walks”), Graduation (“Flashing Lights”, “Stronger”), and Late Registration (“Diamonds From Sierra Leone”, which morphed into a cut of Rihanna’s “Diamonds”). He also glimpsed 808s & Heartbreaks with a drawn-out rendition of “Heartless”, and drew heavily from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, playing “Runaway”, “All of The Lights”, and “Power” in succession. We also heard “Clique” and “Don’t Like” from last year’s Cruel Summer. Watching Kanye perform so many of his hits back to back was a gentle reminder of why the producer has managed to become one of the most respected music-makers in the world despite his high-profile tendency to be an asshole.
During a brief interlude in the middle of the show– “the part of the show where I start complaining about shit”– West insisted on his distaste for the commercial direction that radio music has taken, structuring the argument in terms of his audience rather than in accordance with his implicit lust for self-import: “I could give a FUCK about album sales,” he told the crowd. “I just want to make good music, for you.”
In the course of his Governors Ball performance, West also debuted four songs off of his forthcoming record, Yeezus. They were: “I Am A God”, “On Site”, “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead”– the latter two of which are the producer’s first foray into avant-noise beatmaking. When West delivered the lines that come after “I’m a leader, not a follower…” from his new single “New Slaves”– a song that he debuted on SNL a mere few weeks ago– the audience already knew the words.
Meanwhile, on “I Am A God” he introduced a propulsive, shronky beat that carried the lyrics, “I just talked to Jesus/ He said, ‘What up, Yeezus?’…I told him I’m chillin’/ Tryna stack these millions.” The song also depicted a brief rendezvous at a “Fancy French Restaurant”, a verse that West rhymes with “now hurry up with my croissant”.
“Black Skinhead”, the first song that Kanye played for the mud-caked masses, was also his last. After a weekend of vexing, beleaguering filth, Gov Ball’s final imagery was of three giant pairs of eyes televised, presumably, as a reference to the accompanying song title: on a giant screen above Kanye’s stage, the eyes peered out at the audience from beneath a cloak of black, cone-shaped hoods. After a weekend of drudgery, the image seemed like a fitting send off: the opacity of their gaze was unrelenting, and all the audience could do was stare.