Governors Ball 2016: The Not-So-Calm Before the Storm

This weekend saw the return of the Governors Ball to NYC — well, sort of, because in a continuation of the festival’s bad luck with weather, Sunday’s sets were cancelled entirely due to a storm. Still, there was plenty of music to see on Friday and Saturday, and Flavorwire’s intrepid festival team — music editor Matthew Ismael Ruiz and photographer Andrew Boyle — were there to cover all the action!

We’ve been thinking a lot about the state of the music festival ever since the New York Times announced that they would be passing hard on the tentpole festivals this season. The Grey Lady decided to focus on smaller, more genre-specific, carefully curated festivals, like the recent Moogfest in North Carolina. Since that article was published, the festival market has further consolidated, with Live Nation and AEG Live racing to swallow it whole.

Which brings us to Governors Ball, the big NYC tentpole festival that was supposed to bring Kanye and The Strokes to a grassy knoll in the middle of the East River. The independently produced festival was recently purchased by Live Nation, giving them an army of support in the war against Panorama, the competing NYC tentpole festival put on by AEG Live.

Past Governors Balls have been plagued by rain, and this one seemed to be marked for mud; a glance at the radar on Saturday, June 4, showed a narrow sliver of rain clouds aiming directly for Randall’s Island (while missing much of Manhattan and nearly all of Brooklyn.) After the Saturday deluge, Sunday’s festivities were cancelled entirely, sending acts scrambling to book last-minute shows and whipping the Kanye kids into a frenzy. But there were still two days of performances, so what of the music?

On day one, we caught Big Grams continuing in indie vein that’s characterized Big Boi’s output since the release of his second LP. The duo did a couple Outkast songs for good measure, but we’re just not with this Phantogram collabo at all. Father John Misty played while the sun was still out, and his sweaty exposed chest had several ladies swooning. Beck played hits from his long and storied career, but curiously, his new OG Maco-sampling single, “Wow,” was conspicuously absent. Amazingly, Matt & Kim have endured, and are still a thing.

Jamie xx continues to prove he’s one of the more capable DJs when it comes to mixing a set, working in his solo joints, xx tunes, and assorted club and house tracks to a rapt crowd with their eyes locked firmly on the stage. It’s kinda hard to dance crammed into the too-small dance tent, anyway, we suppose.

Robyn turned in one of our favorite sets of the weekend, with a funhouse of mirrors on her stage setup and a small crew of dancers that were as much of the performance as she was. At one point, one of her dancers’ elaborate Lady Liberty themed outfit — complete with an LED crown — was steadily deconstructed, the skirt flying up in the back like a Peacock’s feathers, before being tossed aside. It was both elaborate and entertaining. The same could not be said for The Strokes, who thankfully played the fucking hits, but hid in the shadows of their giant LED display for the entire set.

On day two, Torres, with her booming voice and clanging riffs, predictably filled the space of the grassy lawn with ease, just before Jon Bellion put us to sleep on the opposite stage. Catfish & the Bottlemen seem to have carried their NME pedigree across the pond, drawing more fans than we might have expected from a 3:00 set. Thundercat was definitely too weird for the daytime, but he killed it, and wedged up against the stage in the dance tent, it almost felt like a small club. Mac Miller was the most popular rapper to perform all weekend, and certainly delivered a high energy set to a rowdy crowd. Miguel won the weekend’s fashion pageant with his brightly colored poncho, and worked himself up into a sweat to match that of his screaming and swooning fans. Purity Ring’s stage setup was likely the most elaborate, technology-wise, with a weeping willow LED setup that made for 3D shapes, and an array of light-up eggs surrounding Corin Roddick. Pretentious? Maybe. But certainly pretty to look at.

The last records from M83 and The Killers were arguably their most boring, but they played the festival game and did the hits—during what would be the last sets of the festival, after Sunday’s rainout. So was any of it worthwhile? For a curious music fan, there were plenty of somewhat obscure indie acts for them to discover early in the afternoon; Nothing, Holly Miranda, and Bully all played before 3pm. But the grounds were nearly empty early on, with most people coming to see the biggest bands, the ones they already knew, who likely already played in town within the last year. Other than the disastrous transportation options, there’s little to separate Governors Ball from the countless other festivals on tap this summer — especially its main competition, Panorama. And now that Governors Ball is the latest jewel in the Live Nation crown — solidifying the AEG Live/Live Nation duopoly — the most interesting thing about festivals might just be which one wins the war over the top 40 festival industry. Is anything else on?