Sure, it wasn’t completely underwater this year, but Governors Ball remains one of the more problematic three-day festivals on the summer calendar: it’s in too remote a location, the layout is cramped, and the lineup too schizophrenic for the volume of acts on the bill.
The bulk of those negative vibes got washed away the second the curtain dropped on the GovBallNYC Stage, revealing OutKast’s Andre 3000 and Big Boi, who immediately tore into a neck-snapping rendition of the blistering Stankonia single “B.O.B (Bombs Over Baghdad).”
Throughout the day, OutKast was the one thing the bulk of the gathered masses at the Ball were waiting for (the few dudes actually wearing shirts tended to be sporting various OutKast logos on their tees), and that moment of release was genuine. The men from OutKast seemed to feed off of that, clearly elevating their game from a disappointing showing at Coachella. Big Boi is a consummate pro, but it was Andre, clad in a sweatshirt that read, “Art or Fart?,” who really stepped his game up. In the first part of the set, which found the pair trading verses on a handful of classics, he spit his parts on cuts like “ATLiens” and “Skew It On the Bar-B” with laser-guided abandon, fully wrapped up in the joy of the goofy thug wordplay he constructed for himself decades ago. It was as though he was rediscovering the joy of those earlier OutKast albums, and realizing why tens of thousands of people had gone out of their way just to catch the group at the end of a long day.
Each member of OutKast ceded the stage to the other for the middle part of the set for brief solo interludes. That allowed Big Boi to spit the underrated banger “Kryptonite (I’m On It),” as well as the definitive Speakerboxxx anthem “The Way You Move.” Andre chose some more esoteric titles from The Love Below before dragging everybody back for an extended jam on “Hey Ya!” that found women both famous (Janelle Monae) and not (the small cadre of ladies shaking it like a Polaroid picture) joining him on stage.
They wrapped up the first day of Governors Ball with a run through some of, as Big Boi noted, “that old pimp s—.” That included the extra-dope three punch combination “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik,” “Player’s Ball,” and “Elevators (Me & You).” The one truly curious choice the group made was closing with “The Whole World,” which didn’t feel as definitive a send-off as it could have been—though the stunning guest verse by Killer Mike helped end the show on a high note.
OutKast mostly operated on their own (it was mildly disappointing when Wu-Tang member and New York native Raekwon failed to appear for his spot on “Skew It On the Bar-B”), but Damon Albarn, who was playing a competing headlining set across the park, may have had the last laugh when it came to hip-hop guest stars. His set was made up primarily of tunes from his new solo album Everyday Robots, a set of well-constructed but sleepy pop tunes that often got lost in the ether of the New York night (and tended to be drowned out by the raucous OutKast performance going on simultaneously).
Still, when Albarn shifted into Gorillaz mode, he made it count. He brought out two-thirds of De La Soul for a spin through “Feel Good, Inc.” and later introduced crazy-good up-and-coming MC Vic Mensa to take Del the Funkee Homosapien’s verse on “Clint Eastwood.” Those funky, weird interludes, plus the appearance of Blur’s “Out of Time,” made for a more subtly dynamic festival experience that showed off both Albarn’s range and his ability to shape-shift.
Earlier in the evening, Phoenix blew everybody away by not shifting at all. The French combo are only good at one thing—swirling, dance-ready electronic alt-pop songs—but they do it better than perhaps anybody else ever has. They are the ideal festival band: a group with a handful of recognizably great songs (“1901,” “Entertainment,”), easy-to-spot grooves, and choruses you can sing along to even if you don’t know the words.
“Lisztomania” was nearly as galvanizing a force as “B.O.B” would be a few hours later—no matter what food line they were standing in or what Instagram account they were updating, most everybody within listening distance of the GovBallNYC stage stopped what they were doing and shook around a bit during that song. It’s deeply compelling. Phoenix even added a bit of theatrics to their set, somehow timing the appearance of “Love Like a Sunset” (which they deftly mashed-up with the title track from their excellent album Bankrupt!) with the actual disappearance of the sun over the horizon.
Neko Case could have used that timing herself. During her hour in the afternoon, her west-facing stage pointed her directly at the center of the solar system, forcing her to hold her hand up to block it out between songs and sing primarily with her eyes closed. (She explained that she doesn’t wear sunglasses because her head is too big.) That’s okay, because Case’s brand of acerbic Americana drama often demands eyes-closed passion. Case’s songs are a lot like a deceptive summer breeze: sweet and calming, but deceptive because you’re probably still getting burned. There was the utter destruction working beneath the gorgeous harmonies of “This Tornado Loves You,” and the emotional devastation creeping through “The Pharoahs.” Though she ran into some technical difficulties, Case was in great spirits—for someone who has a reputation for being outwardly cantankerous most of the time, she appeared to be having genuine fun.
But nobody enjoyed herself more than Jenny Lewis, the early MVP of Governors Ball. Armed with a clutch of new songs from her eagerly-anticipated album The Voyager and dressed in that awesome Elton John-esque summer suit she’s been wearing, Lewis ambled her way through a gently ferocious blast of jangly, rugged Laurel Canyon pop. Set opener “Just One of the Guys,” her new single, set the tone for Lewis’ subtle sneer and disarmingly confessional approach to anthems.
The Rilo Kiley songs got great reactions (people even seemed to be into “The Moneymaker,” from the band’s deeply maligned 2007 coke-disco experiment Under the Blacklight), but the new stuff actually hit hardest: the thumping “Head Underwater” built a great dust-kicking vibe, and the crazy-excellent “Love U Forever” is the best Tom Petty song in 20 years. OutKast ruled the day by looking back on the past, but Lewis came out the victor in planting seeds for an exciting future.