In New York City, stress exudes from seas of bodies like steam from a boiling pot. Simple tasks like grocery shopping after work can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, and if you don’t have insomnia or anxiety issues, you’re in the minority. Yes, New York City is high-strung.
Perhaps nothing in NYC is as stressful as a crowded subway car on a hot, muggy day. Humidity blankets everything like an extra layer of skin, artificial light reflects from scratched metal and plastic, and offensive smells of urine, body odor, and urban decay are as constant as the pressure in deep, murky waters.
This particular breed of subway ride was the first step in the journey to Governors Ball 2012. We rode to 125th where we got off and crossed the street, confronted by a line for the buses heading to Randall’s Island, where the two-day music festival took place. We walked to the end of the line, only to be greeted by an unpleasant man who pointed around the corner to the real end of the line. Temporary metal blockades guarded both sides of the narrow line. Waiting in these lines, it’s hard not to feel like a cow heading to slaughter (even though most slaughters don’t happen to the tune of Duck Sauce and Diplo).
We shuffled onto the bus, endured another crowded ride, and finally made it to the island. When we landed, we were in another world. Walking onto the festival grounds, we were met with a friendly smile and handed a card. On one side of the card it said, “The Governors Ball Music Festival.” On the other it read, “YOU’RE DOING GREAT!”
The power of suggestion is a very real thing.
Governors Ball isn’t so much a musical experience as an experience with music, a sort of walled-in world of summer pleasures. It could just as easily be called Two Days of Splendor in the Grass, as droves of tightly wound New Yorkers were gently herded into a green playpen of food trucks, lawn games, and plentiful blanket napping, all accompanied by an occasionally curious mix of acts. Over two days, the intrepid festival-going duo of Confusion and Jon Tanners braved rejected photo passes, beer pong, and extreme bewilderment to bring you coverage the P&P way.
Hit next or press shift+right to read on…
3:00PM – We arrive at the bus
Jon: The last time I found myself standing on this exact line, waiting for a bus to take me to Randall’s Island, I was going to see Rock the Bells 2008. The headlining acts–Wu Tang and Rage Against the Machine–dictated the crowd: a group consisting largely of black clad metal heads swigging whiskey from flasks, the occasional Bob Marley t-shirt, and a broad, predominantly male spectrum of races and ages preparing themselves to kneel at the alter of Black Star. The line for the Gov Ball bus? Mostly white 20 somethings, adorned in headbands and jerseys or, alternately, Sartorialist-lite outfits fresh for a Fader cover. Con and I hit the bus and tried to recollect who exactly was on the bill for Day 1. More than anything, perhaps, I was excited for the presence of the Taco Truck.
Con: I am already an anxious person by nature. Most of my existence is slightly tarnished by an ever-present aura of uncomfortability, so you can probably imagine what it’s like to be constricted to the toxic sweat boxes that are New York City public transportation. Waiting in line for those buses, I spent most of my energy avoiding eye contact and fighting the uneasiness in my stomach that I can only assume will soon develop into a full-blown ulcer by the time I actually get to this fucking festival.
Maybe I should have just told Jon that I was sick, or that I had been hit by a car. But you can only be hit by a car so many times in a week before people start to doubt your credibility or take you for a fool, incapable of understanding the pretty straightforward rules of traffic.
3:30PM – Arrival at Randall’s Island, tacos, Santigold
Jon: As we stepped onto the festival grounds, it became clear that the day’s confusion was just beginning. Part of Gov Ball’s hook is that there are no overlapping sets. Two stages sit on opposite ends of a large, mostly open field; patrons have five minutes to get from one set to another.
It doesn’t seem like anyone is in much of a rush to go anywhere as we walk in. Santigold is playing, frisbees are being tossed in the area, and a sizable chunk of the audience is very distinctly not paying attention to the music. So, as good journalists do, we decide it’s time for beer and tacos.
Con: Grass! Trees! Frisbees! “I should have brought a frisbee. Do you like frisbee,” I asked Jon. He confirms that he does. Things are looking up. “I’m going to bring a frisbee tomorrow. I need a beer.” Oh, giant oil cans of Foster’s. Okay.
4:00PM – Is this Major Lazer?
Jon: Loud semi-disco music accompanies our late lunch and the crowd seems pretty excited. I snap some pictures. We know Major Lazer is supposed to be here, and but neither of the two men DJing now is quite as dapperly dressed as Diplo, no reggae artists are in sight, and there’s certainly no daggering taking place on stage. So…what’s going on? Where’s “Pon De Floor?” What’s all this disco?
Con: Less than half the people at this festival seem to even notice that there is music being played on a stage.
4:30PM – THIS is Major Lazer
Jon: Wait a minute, that last act wasn’t Major Lazer (it was James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem and Pat Mahoney, collectively known as Special Disco Version), this is Major Lazer. Our first experience in the thick of the crowd, we are surrounded by a very excited group of fans ready for some serious bass. I run into a girl I haven’t seen since high school and we try to chat–Diplo, apparently, doesn’t like conversation, because air horns and bass obliterated any chance we had at a catch up. Oh, and there are a few things on stage keeping us mesmerized, to wit Diplo and Switch-replacement Jillionaire shooting confetti into the crowd, the duo’s hype man jumping into a giant hamster ball and only making it about 10 feet out into awaiting hands, two hypnotic, neon-clad dancers, and one fan who jumped up on stage and was, a few seconds later, quite topless. Say what you will of Diplo as an artist, but he and Jillionaire did a hell of a job keeping the crowd going.
Con: If we’re going to cover this thing right, I better take notes. I grab my new iPhone from my pocket. I have not mastered typing on this thing yet. I go into “Notes” and type “Santigold Major Lazer. Ball Major Lazer. Fail bro hit ball.” Except I spelled “Major Lazer” wrong once. I’m still not completely sure what “Fail bro hit ball” means, but I like to think that if I was able to decipher the meaning, it would have been flipped into an amazing, beautiful piece of journalism. Some things just aren’t meant to be, and instead, we are bringing you this.
Although my intention was to document the whole experience through notes, this first set of notes ended up being the sole attempt. While we watched Major Lazer a woman in front of us was scribbling in her journal. I read some of her notes over her shoulder. They sucked. “Major Lazer: ‘Everybody put your hands up in the air!’” Oh, nice notes. Sike.
“Jon, you need another beer?” Of course Jon needs another beer.
5:30PM – ATMOSPHERE
Jon: Teenage dreams fulfilled (as my Twitter can attest). I’m unsure that I can give a properly objective summation of Atmosphere’s performance–it was certainly a solid, workmanlike set, filled with the precision you’d expect of a group that’s been touring for almost 20 years. When “Scapegoat” hits, I lose all chance at distanced opinion. When idols–even former idols–stand before you, and don’t embarrass themselves, it can be very difficult to properly judge them. I do know that “Scapegoat,” one of Atmosphere’s earliest and most enduring highlights, sounds spectacular coming out of the massive Gov Ball speakers, its dark piano chords drenched in waves of guitar feedback.
7:00PM – Duck Sauce & beer pong
Jon: We played beer pong with two atrocious girls (though Con’s partner definitely acquitted herself a bit better than mine, who was something like a drunken sniper: hitting everything but the target with extreme accuracy). We ate some really good pizza. Duck Sauce jammed in the background. What they played I can’t precisely tell you. I was on a hill, half listening. We played a lawn game I had never previously encountered. Con demolished me.
Con: Shoutout to my beer pong partner, we killed it. Normally, I’d be all about the music, but as you may have gathered, Governors Ball isn’t just about the music. If you’re one of those people willing to wait by the front of the stage for a prime spot during the show, you can probably make it just about the music, but you’d be doing it wrong. There are lawn games. You should play the lawn games.
Yes, it sounds odd that we’re there to cover a music festival and instead we’re sitting on a hill eating pizza and drinking beer, but that was surprisingly one of the best parts—sitting there on that hill, the pressure from the earlier days was a distant memory. The sun was setting, a line of balloons strung over the entire field danced around in the breeze, and in that gathering of humans and entertainment, the moment was surely ours.
9:50PM – Kid Cudi arrives
Jon: After a day of partying, occasional aimless wandering, and delicious, delicious tacos, we found ourselves focusing on the stage again. The energy of the the previous six hours buoyed my spirits as we waited for the final performance, and after the day’s only delay, Cudi mounted the stage with Dot Da Genius, a drummer, and guitarist in tow. The show left much to be desired, in particular the party Cudi kept promising (as a few other reviews have noted, there was a bit of confusing dichotomy between the constant reminders that we were at a big party and the dour introspection that colors much of Cudi’s catalog).
Con: The festival was very much skewed toward non-rap, and we didn’t know what to expect from Cudi—whether he’s on his melodic rock flow or his more straightforward hip-hop tip, he’s got the ability to dictate how the night ends. Instead of taking it in one direction, he kept things somewhere in the middle. He rapped through some of his older hits, but throughout the entire performance a guitarist stood on the center of the stage, awkwardly posing in his most rock star-esque stances while Cudi mostly failed to acknowledge his existence. It was awkward and seemed forced, and when the kid next to me passed out and got carried away by his friends, I realized that Day 1 wouldn’t end on a high note.
11:00PM – Walking home
Jon: Day 1 completed, we reprised another leg of my Rock the Bells experience: walking across the bridge from Randall’s Island back into Manhattan. Beer pong isn’t good enough cardio.
Con: Before getting on the bridge, I peed on a tree. It was like the final moment of freedom before entering back into a very different reality. As we crossed that bridge, everything shifted back to normality in NYC. Instead of staring at balloons and a wide open field, we walked on a path with a concrete barrier to our right. Just feet away from us, cars sped by, beeping and cutting each other off, just as they’re supposed to do in New York.
4:30PM – Arrival at Randall’s Island, Chinese food and Built to Spill
Jon: A mellower day on tap after a big, electronic party on Saturday. Con and I immediately grab some Chinese food and make our way to an inviting patch of grass as Built to Spill plays in the background. I snap a few photos and we discuss the relative merits of Day 2’s bill vs. Day 1’s. One point of avid agreement: we can’t wait to see Fiona Apple. As I inhale my chicken teriyaki, I think about the moment for which I’m most excited: Beck’s performance.
Con: One track mind, Fiona is the mission.
6:00PM – FIONA
Jon: I could write a lot about Fiona Apple’s performance–her incredible, studio perfect voice, her dynamic (and suitably wily) stage show, her great band (whose members appear to really love the musi)c, her shocking gauntness–but I’ll leave all this to Con. In short, she was great.
Con: I had high expectations for Fiona Apple. I’ve become increasingly obsessed with her ever since my first taste of The Idler Wheel, and if it wasn’t for her presence at this festival, I might still be explaining to Jon how yes, I was hit by a car, but I’m fine now.
When Fiona stepped out on stage, someone behind me said, “She looks like a skeleton.” I turned around and spotted a girl with bug eyes. I wanted to say, “You look like an insect,” but I couldn’t be sure if she was the one who said it, since she was a stranger and I was unfamiliar with her voice. I wouldn’t have said that anyways, because I really don’t like hurting people’s feelings.
The first thing Fiona said to the audience was, “Are you guys getting enough breeze out there?” Aw, Fiona. We’re good, thanks for the concern, though. Instantly, that bond that sometimes happens between the performer and the audience was formed.
Fiona was in complete control. Even when she wandered around the stage, shook and twisted to the music like she was possessed, and drooped her tiny body over the top of the piano, she was in control. Her voice was the dominant force in that field for the entire hour. She performed old favorites like “Sleep To Dream” and “Criminal” and new material like “Every Single Night” and “Anything We Want,” and different segments sang along at different points.
When she finished her set, the crowd showed approval with clapping and wooing. She faced the right, middle, and left side of the audience and hugged the air with a look of gratitude and modesty. Modest Mouse and Beck, two of the other acts I was really looking forward to, had yet to perform, but I knew I had just had just experienced my personal high point. Expectations met.
7:00PM – WHO CARES FIONA JUST HAPPENED
Jon: We sat on a hill with a few friends, eating dinner and watching a woman dance alone in a patch of dirt amid the grass. She twirled batons with orange and yellow cloth attached, as a fire spinner might. Were she a fire spinner, she’d have lit her body on fire about a minute or so into her performance–which was, seemingly, for no one and everyone simultaneously, a personal show with no particular audience that ended up drawing instagrammers and awed onlookers. Her miniature showcase was emblematic of Governor’s Ball as a whole: go your own way, and do great at it!
Con: There was nobody in that whole festival having a better time than the faux fire dancer. And as I sat there, still riding high off the Fiona experience, I was happy for her. A lot of people watching were probably thinking, “wow, this chick is crazy,” but she gave zero fucks, and that’s the kind of freedom that any good music festival should inspire.
7:30PM – Explosions in the….grass on the hill where we weren’t really listening
Jon: We followed our Gov Ball sanctioned prerogative and decided to “do great” on the hill. We finished our food as we attempted to recharge our batteries after a day and a half of Governors Balling (and I can’t even say that we balled so hard, but two full days of anything that includes standing can have a certain sapping effect on the human body, particularly if beer, tacos, and Diplo are involved.)
Con: If you ever get the chance to see Explosions In The Sky in a field, lying back in the grass while the sun dips, take that chance. Standing in the audience for this one probably would have been cool, but I can say with certainty that lying in the grass was perfect.
8:30PM – Modest Mouse
Con: Modest Mouse was almost exactly what you expected Modest Mouse to be, and their raucous energy made an impact on the mood of the crowd. Within five minutes of the show, I was approached for molly. “I want molly,” said the dirty, wild-eyed manboy. I misheard him and thought he said, “I’m on molly.” I nodded in approval, as if to say, “That’s cool, thanks for sharing that but I don’t really want to take this conversation any further.” He walked away.
9:30PM – BECK!
Jon: Another pillar of my teenage years rises before me and doesn’t disappoint–but unlike Atmosphere, not only did Beck not embarrass himself, he tore shit down.
With the exception of a few mid-set songs from his break up album Sea Change (great songs, bad timing), Beck was a very image of energetic cool, whipping the crowd into a frenzy more reasonably expected of one of the previous day’s DJ sets. Careening through material from Odelay, Mellow GoldGuero, we watched Beck and his band reinvent his hits–and indeed they hit–with just enough wiggle room to constitute “new life.” A light rain provided a memorable backdrop and ample fodder for Beck’s expectedly mellow, often funny banter with adoring fans.
And when “Loser” hit? It was a feeling, first a rush through the crowd, and then a legitimate surge–the kind that accompanies the truly enduring songs and only comes with music so good it divorces itself from time and place. “Loser” might be an anthem of an aging generation, but it still burns brightly and sounds as fresh as it must have when it dropped and I was all of 6 years old.
Con: I was standing next to an older gentleman for this set. He was probably in his 60’s, and seemed pretty aware of the difference between himself and the rest of the audience. A dreadlocked white girl with face piercings pushed by him to get closer to the stage, and as he awkwardly shifted over, I wondered what was going on in his head.
Jon: Governors Ball was a hell of a good time–an unconventional festival that presented music as an option, but never overwhelmed with anything other than open-ended possibilities for a good time. Each day offered a diverse spectrum of related musical acts and, though I can’t say either touched my heart deeply outside of a few beloved performers, spirits were generally kept high by the cool buzz in the air–even when you weren’t focusing on what’s emanating from massive speakers at either end of the field, you felt like some good is about to happen next.
This buzz doesn’t necessarily mean you expected surprises or big things–as Con noted at one point, Gov Ball didn’t feel like an atmosphere poised for the unexpected and, indeed, no special guests waited in the wings. But the importance of meteoric shockers fades in the midst of good old summer fun. On a Saturday and Sunday, at the end of a long week, sometimes that’s the perfect, preferred remedy. If you want musical overload, you’ve no shortage of options across America. If you’re after a great time and some delicious tacos dappled with a handful of memorable performances, Gov Ball’s got your prescription.