Governors Ball 2015: 14 best things we saw
More than 60 artists invaded New York City’s Randall’s Island this weekend for one of the city’s largest music festivals, Governors Ball. Now in its fifth year, there was something for every discerning music fan: thumping house music from EDM superstar DeadMau5, an over-the-top, career-spanning set from Bjork, eardrum-bursting noise rock from Canadian duo Death From Above 1979, and a high-octane run of hits from headliner Drake.
Oh, yeah: there was plenty of rain, too.
Still, EW weathered the mud, mist and bros gleefully downing all the Miller Lites to catch what really mattered: the music. Here are the 14 best things we saw.
Best Excuse To Wear Your Sunglasses At Night: Deadmau5
The Canadian EDM superstar teased a new light show all week on Instagram and while it didn’t break the Internet, it almost broke the main stage. After emerging in a glowing, neon green dome, Joel Zimmerman’s first twenty minutes were plagued by repeated power outages—hardly more than 15 seconds of a song could kick before everything went dark. Fans stuck around in good cheer and their patience was rewarded: the power issues were resolved and Saturday night was suddenly transformed into a euphoric, technicolor dance party.
Most Underappreciated Set: Bjork
The audiences at headliners’ festival performances tend to get watered down with casual fans. Enter seminal Icelandic artist Bjork who, only months removed from playing Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, found herself opening for Deadmau5 as fest-goers downed $13 Miller Lites. A mass exodus from the stage began within moments of her 15-member string section emerging onstage—“Which one is her?” someone asked before Björk appeared in an ornate moth costume. It never quite ended. But she rewarded fans who stuck around with an intricate, career-spanning set, ranging from delicate tunes (“Stonemilker”) to amped-up classics (“Army of Me”).
Best Set for Brooding Fest-Goers: Sharon van Etten
Surrounded by everything from peppy indie pop to trippy electronica, singer-songwriters can often get the short end of the stick at festivals. Decked out in all black and standing before a marquee that consisted solely of her name in giant Helvetica letters, Sharon van Etten wasn’t trying to convert any Governors Ball attendees to her dark brand of folk-rock. No matter: Her gorgeous voice and highly capable backing band caught people’s attention as she barreled through gems like “Tarifa” and “Taking Chances.” Despite the brooding tone of her material, van Etten kept things light and talked about a personal milestone achieved that day for one of her guitarists. “His baby started walking today!” the singer-songwriter shouted, fists raised. “And my parents are at a festival! They’re rock and roll!”
Best Noise-Rockers: Death From Above 1979
The reformed Toronto noise-rock duo—who billed themselves as “the other guys from the 6,” in a nod to the headlining Drake—didn’t bring their A-game to the Big Apple Stage. Bassist Jesse F. Keeler appeared to forget cues multiple times. Drummer-singer Sebastien Grainger played it safe on the kit and his vocals were startlingly low in the mix. But musical acumen isn’t Death From Above 1979’s bag, and the duo counteracted technical shortcomings with enough rage to offset getting bookended by Vance Joy and the Decemberists. This may have been the closest Colin Meloy has been to a mosh pit in decades.
Best Headlining Set by a Non-Headliner: St. Vincent
St. Vincent’s Friday evening set coincided with the end of Florence + the Machine’s across the park (and overlapped with much of Ratatat’s electro-rock jamming), so only a moderate crowd turned out. But those who did had their minds blown. Singer-guitarist Annie Clark always brings impressive vocal and six-string chops, but with her self-titled album last year she beefed up her stage aesthetic, adding jagged choreography and banter to the mix. Her Governors Ball set, then, was a marriage of the two—Clark brought two backup dancers, but scaled back her bizarro storytelling just enough to make poignant stories about equality and love. And, of course, there was the guitar squall that she brought to booming anthems (“Digital Witness,” “Cheerleader”) and deep cuts (“Krokodil,” “Chloe In the Afternoon”). The art-rock queen blew out all the stops for standard closer “Your Lips Are Red,” where she faked death and then played a cascading solo from a hospital bed.
Best Headliner Audition by a Headliner: Drake
He may not have headlined as many fests as fellow rappers Kanye West or Jay Z, but the Canadian rhymer proved he’s got top-billing festival power when, on Friday, he blazed through a 22-song set ranging from early gems (“Over”) to highlights from this year’s excellent If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Despite the fireworks and massive jungle set mere feet behind him, he played the night off with a humility rarely seen in hip-hop headliners. After a moving rendition of “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” Drake told “the ladies” he hoped they’d enjoyed their portion of the set. Then he segued into his “old New York s–t”—a high-octane sprint that included “0 to 100,” “Started From the Bottom,” and “Know Yourself.” Drizzy’s backdrop for part of the set summed things up best: “If you’re reading this we made it.”
Best Saturday Hip-Hop By (Near) Default: Atmosphere
The 2014 iteration of Governors Ball had plenty of hip-hop: Outkast, J. Cole, Childish Gambino, Tyler, the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Chance the Rapper, and Run the Jewels. Drake’s star power and fiery set masked this year’s largest deficiency, a hip-hop roster that only included Atmosphere and a handful of smaller acts like Bishop Nehru and Logic. Despite being slotted against Future Islands, Atmosphere drew a massive crowd because, other than an early set by British rapper Kate Tempest, they were Governors Ball’s only Saturday hip-hop option. (“There’s a shitload of people here,” rapper Slug remarked. “There’s gotta be a good amount of people who have no idea who we are.”)
Best Dance Party: Charli XCX
Most pop stars press play on their biggest hit and let audiences do the leg work. Not Charli XCX, who led her backing band through a grimy, pseudo-metal version of her No. 1 hit “Fancy” as rays of sun broke through storm clouds for the first time Friday afternoon. No matter that collaborator Iggy Azalea wasn’t there—Charli spit the Aussie rapper’s verses with dexterity, before recruiting the crowd for a call-and-response “pussy power!” chant as sludgy bass kept the groove going. Juxtapose that downright nastiness with the bubblegum charm of her next song, the set-closing “Boom Clap,” and it’s clear Charli will be wowing crowds for years to come.
Best Crisis Management: Rae Sremmurd
Early Friday afternoon, to a relatively massive main stage crowd, the dynamic hip-hop duo suffered a huge setback: Slim Jimmy fell from the stage, busted his leg open, and had to be hauled off stage. The show must go on, of course, and Jimmi’s cohort Swae Lee continued with savvy, urging the crowd to turn up in his fallen comrade’s honor and post any footage of the event to social media.
Best Jack White Substitute: Benjamin Booker
When New Orleans rocker Benjamin Booker opened for Jack White last summer, his sound was still unfocused—think minor league pitcher with all the firepower, but not enough control. A year can make all the difference for an up-and-comer, though. With quiet swagger and a cigarette dangling from his lips for much of the set, Booker blazed through the type of minimalist guitar mastery that made early White Stripes records so stellar, while infusing the music with Queens of the Stone Age stomp and a voice that’d make Otis Redding jealous.
Best Guest Appearance: Cherub joining Big Gigantic
Aside from Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig popping up in two sets this weekend (Sbtrkt and Chromeo), Big Gigantic was the only act to bring out some surprise support, when the “Doses and Mimosas” duo joined them mid-Sunday afternoon. The crowd, one of the most turnt of the weekend, showered them with jumping-dancing-screaming-waving-clapping-and-mainly-smiling love.
Best Reminder That Rock n’ Roll Isn’t Dead: Black Keys
It was pretty obvious over the festival’s three days that fans had come to Governors Ball for Drake and dance music, but on Sunday night the tens of thousands still in attendance flooded the main stage to jump, head bang, and shred air guitars for the Black Keys. Frontman Dan Auerbach and drummer Pat Carney, who were forced to cancel the European leg of their Turn Blue tour so Carney could recover from a dislocated shoulder, shredded, banged, and rocked right back.
Best Sunshine Daydream: Tame Impala
Ignore the irony that a band who first made waves with a song called “Solitude Is Bliss” and then broke through with an album called Lonerism drew one of the festival’s most passionate audiences. The band’s late afternoon set on Sunday proved what longtime fans have known for a while: Tame Impala’s only getting started. The Aussie psych-rockers jammed on deep cuts like “Why Won’t They Talk To Me?” and brought the groove for new singles “Eventually” and “‘Cause I’m A Man,” silencing doubts that their recent synth-heavy material wouldn’t translate live. From frontman Kevin Parker’s affable banter to the band’s psychedelic backdrop animation to the cathartic “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” singalong, Tame Impala brought hippie vibes to Randall’s Island in the best possible way. As we overheard one girl told her friend, “This is some true 1960s s–t.”
Best Cultural Relevance: Flying Lotus
Flying Lotus ended his set in the Gotham tent — essentially an opener for the Black Keys’ festival-closing main stage slot — with a sentiment probably shared by many EW readers. “You know what’s f—ed up?” the DJ said just before leaving the stage. “I love y’all, but all I can think about right now is Game of Thrones.” Flying Lotus brought some amazing beats and a magnificently trippy batch of 3D animation to the Gotham tent, but his cultural relevance helped propel the set through the jazzy explorations that differentiate the DJ’s music from other EDM performers. FlyLo made Drake into a chipmunk for a thrilling “Know Yourself” remix, name-dropped Odd Future, and played a funked-up version of his contribution to Kendrick Lamar’s recent album To Pimp a Butterfly. He also stepped away from his computer to perform a couple songs by his goofy rap alter ego Captain Murphy. All just another day on the job for Ser Lotus.