“We’ve done a lot of festivals, and this is the most chill one we’ve ever done.” And with this remark would Cults guitarist Brian Oblivion capture Day 2 of New York City’s Governors Ball, situated on the East River’s Randall’s Island. It would be safe to say that Day 1 of the fest was every college campus’ dream lineup, with acts like Santigold, Major Lazer, Passion Pit and Kid Cudi all on the same bill (apparently the festival’s organizers are tight with CCC). But Day 2 boasted big names that united fiercely loyal fans mostly for the sake of nostalgia. Many of the acts, like freak-folkster Devendra Banhart and ’90s rock outfit Built to Spill, both of whom haven’t released LPs since 2009, were not there to self-promote, relying solely on their past (but much adored) work. But that’s not to say that festival goers weren’t treated to newer bands who have solidified themselves as indie mainstays for the Coachella generation. Of the more recent acts at the Governors Ball, boy-girl techno-pop duo Cults fit the sunny, carefree vibe of the weekend perfectly. Straying from awkward onstage banter except for a mousey “thank you” from singer Madeline Follin after nearly every song, the band, sporting identical long and unkempt black hair, launched into bouncy dance number / murder mystery “Abducted” and maintained a steady energy throughout the set before closing with breakout hit “Go Outside.” After heavier sets from The Jezabels and Phantogram, native New Yorkers Cults, who only hold one LP to their name, set the tone for what would be a (mostly) mellow afternoon of blasts from the ‘90s alt past.
Perhaps the most talked-about, non-headlining name of the lineup belonged to a certain Fiona Apple. The notoriously outspoken yet mysterious songstress was welcomed to the stage with a Latin-tinged intro by her stellar backup band before opening with “Fast As You Can” off her sophomore effort When the Pawn... The opener was the first in a set dedicated primarily to tracks off Apple’s previous albums rather than her newly-released fourth record The Idler Wheel..., hence the enormously enthusiastic reaction from the equally enormous crowd that sang along with each number. Apple also seldom sat at her signature instrument, sticking mainly to the microphone in the center of the stage. But the performance’s lack of showiness or acrobatics was more than appropriate, even during playful numbers like “Extraordinary Machine.” Even as she predictably ended the set with the career-defining girl-power hit “Criminal,” she effortlessly fixated the audience with her smoky, robust vocals that, aside from brief hoarseness, just refused to give out. The sheer power that her voice evoked even got her biggest fans to stop singing and just listen.
Explosions in the Sky, the Texas instrumental rock group that has lately become a staple at all summer festivals, proved their ubiquity with a transcendentally awesome set. Their sound, which consists of two guitars, a bass guitar and drums, resonated across the park. Considering their music features no vocals, they do not demand to be seen as much as heard. If you were appreciating the music on Day 2, you stopped for at least one of Explosions’ “mini-symphonies,” six of which they played during their hour-long set. Their songs usually start with spacey guitar twinkles, only to build and welcome the force of the band over rousing crescendos and a climactic, yet beautifully serene, finish. It’s all very … sexy, if you know what I mean. Explosions’ set at Lollapalooza last year, which was cut short by weather and the Arctic Monkeys’ refusal to adjust accordingly to it, packed ineffable post-rock nirvana into just about 40 minutes. At this year’s Governors Ball, their full set time still seemed short, if only this time due to disappointment that the music had to end.
Cutthroat anticipation — read: impatient shoving — welcomed the not so serene but perhaps more exciting Modest Mouse set that followed. The Modest Mouse fanbase is an incredibly diverse and passionate collective, reciting the lyrics to every song, and sometimes shouting them, like the “This plane is definitely crashing!!!” that opens “Shit Luck.” Isaac Brock and Co. breezed through a 14-song retrospective of their career, from hits like “Fire It Up” to older gems like “Custom Concern.” Live performances always sound different than the studio versions, but the band added minor tweaks to some songs’ structure, like starting the verse of “Dashboard” on an upbeat, giving it a bouncy feel. “Gravity Rides Everything,” a personal favorite from their seminal The Moon & Antarctica, bares raw when stripped of that backwards-looped intro accomplished in studio post-production, sounding vulnerable and open even in a sweaty festival setting. Despite some rowdiness prior to the band’s arrival, there was a welcoming, communal vibe pulsing for the set’s duration. One girl was just blowing bubbles the whole time, without pause. And when one drunk fan threw a punch at another, a gap instantly widened between the brawlers and filled with a half dozen folks eager to peacefully break up the fight. One dude subsequently yelled, “This is fucking Modest Mouse — chill the fuck out!” He belted the mood of the night.
Headliner Beck, backed by an absolutely fantastic band of familiar faces from tours past, brought a mixed bag of his Mellow Gold-era bizzaro sound collages and his chiller, more mature and polished tracks from albums like Guero and Modern Guilt, his last full LP. Playing for an understandably sleepy (yet surprisingly sparse) crowd for his first New York City show in four years, Beck undoubtedly proved the timelessness of his extensive discography. Unlike his past shows of the early 2000s that featured marionettes and spastic dancing, Beck’s set at the Governors Ball was totally void of gimmick and all about the music. The guy himself even shrouded his face with shaggy hair under a fedora and was, for the most part, glued to the mic, guitar strapped to his chest. The performance was evidently in three acts: the first was dedicated to the more recent Guero, The Information and Modern Guilt, the middle solely to ballads from token breakup album Sea Change and the last to the eclectic, nonsensical raps from Mellow Gold and Odelay that solidified Beck as a god to dudes across America in the mid- to late-90s. But despite the obvious presence of the set’s three distinct parts, the songs he pulled from each era of his sweeping catalogue, from tongue-in-cheek lo-fi rap “Loser” to somber ballad “The Golden Age” to synth pop ditty “Girl,” molded together seamlessly. Beneath the overall weirdness of his sound, Beck’s music has an undeniable intelligence, from the intricately crafted riffs and arrangements to the slyly profound lyrics. Beck’s lasting relevance as well as the crowd’s appreciation for his performance despite a lack of any new material for over four years is more of a testament to the timelessness of his music than anything else. And if the Governors Ball continues to recruit big names without big commitments, this New York chillfest may continue to offer some beautiful respite during the hectic summer festival season.