Music Features

The Rest Is Noise: A First-Time Festivalgoer Reports from Governor’s Ball

As far as I can tell, Music Writer Twitter is defined by two hallmarks when it comes to discussion of festivals. The first is praise of the Pitchfork Music Festival, usually carried by Pitchfork staffers as well as other Chicago-based writers. This one only bothers me when it’s compared with the second hallmark, which is posturing dismissal of essentially every other festival and its attendees. This is mostly directed towards South by Southwest and Coachella, but the overriding critical contempt for festivals still weighed heavily on my mind while attending Governors Ball, my first-ever festival.

It wasn’t promising that among my first reactions to the Gov Ball scene, before the festival had even started, was surprise that I hadn’t seen more ire thrown in its direction. A New Yorker friend had told me recently that he hated the festival weekend for bringing massive swaths of “hipsters” through Manhattan (hipsters in New York? Unimaginable!). Subway stations overrun with attendees, many of the young and insufferable type, proved his point quickly, though, and I turned my attention to the actual festival to ease my guilt for contributing another body to the hoard.

The first show my friend (henceforth known as Gabi) and I actually made plans to see was Public Access T.V., who played a solid set of sunny power pop at the Big Apple stage that unfortunately couldn’t make it a whole 45 minutes without getting old. After finding out what exactly Elle King is beyond that one song (and being kind of pleasantly surprised), we made our way back to the Big Apple stage for our first legitimately anticipated set of the weekend, Nashville punks Bully. I liked Bully’s record Feels Like, but not quite as much as Gabi, who had bought a special vinyl edition of the album and had repeatedly expressed having a crush on singer Alicia Bognanno.

About 15 seconds into the set, I had made three important realizations: first, that this was not a show where I would be singing along, no matter how well I knew the words to the songs. Bognanno’s roaring of the opening verse of “I Remember” made it perfectly clear that any attempt to match her overpowering presence would be not only futile but fairly embarrassing. Second, I realized that the raw power of Bully’s live show was the missing element of their more reserved sound on record that had kept me from loving it unabashedly. And third, I realized once again what rock and roll really was, and that it wasn’t contained in the perfectly enjoyable but ultimately inconsequential pop songs of Public Access T.V. There are very few experiences in the world that send a shockwave through the entire bodily system, that restore your faith in something essential to who you are, like a truly revelatory, bone-shakingly intense rock show, and Bully delivered one before the festival was 3 hours old. Once Bognanno dropped her guitar for the penultimate song (a still-unrecognized cover) and somehow managed to turn her energy level from 11 to about 13 and a half, I realized that she was the best singer I had ever seen and that no one else at Gov Ball would come close to her. Gabi and I left the show with ears ringing and souls stirred, stumbling off to find something to eat and passively watch Christine and the Queens do their entertainingly offbeat synthpop art installment. 

The next few shows were inevitably a comedown, starting with a disappointing Action Bronson set, who apparently hasn’t figured out a way to conduct any significant percentage of the fun he seems to be having to the audience. Next was Of Monsters and Men, a set I would have gladly chosen Big Grams over, but Gabi somewhat ashamedly identified as a Monsters fan, and I still prefer Big Boi and Phantogram when they’re separated. After some cutesy Scandinavian folk rock and some genuinely enjoyable sing-alongs of their two or three hits, we headed over to Father John Misty, who we had both not-so-coincidentally just retweeted. I’m fairly repelled by just about every aspect of Josh Tillman’s persona/personality, but there’s no denying his skill as a songwriter and arranger (even if I think his music can frequently be best summarized as “bland”). The show was mercifully stage banter-free, and Tillman’s stage presence, including the most flamboyant microphone twirls and falls to the knees you’ll see from a louche singer-songwriter in 2016, was impressive, and I actually saw Tillman as likable for the first time in my life. Unfortunately, his laid-back musical style ultimately fell victim to sound bleed from EDM artist Duke Dumont. I look forward to Father John Misty’s upcoming “Duke Dumont Can Suck My Fucking Cock.”

The sound bleed situation gave us an excuse to leave early to get a good spot for Beck, on the way to which we crossed paths with Jamie xx, author of my favorite album of last year. I knew the guy was unassuming, but literally walking right through the center of the festival was something I hadn’t anticipated (I’m sure I managed to make him feel awkward by hurriedly pointing him out to Gabi from about 3 feet away). Beck put on an effortlessly fun show that bore the mark of 20 years of experience doing this thing, with a mix of comfort and energy that was an easy wavelength to get on. Beck was the elder statesman of the festival, and his set accordingly spanned from 1994’s “Loser” to last year’s “Dreams.” Other highlights included a monster rendition of “Devil’s Haircut” in the leadoff position, a middle triptych of songs from his more acoustic efforts Sea Change and Morning Phase, and a touching anecdote about an encounter with Prince at the Grammys that followed a cover of “Raspberry Beret.” My favorite Beck songs are generally the ones he would never play live, and the set was heavy on songs from the 2000s that have never done much for me, but they were still shot through with enough energy to satisfy.

Gabi, a Strokes fanatic with little interest in electronic music, decided to stake out his spot for the Strokes (who were playing at the same stage as Beck) while I went to Jamie xx. Aside from having easily the best light show of the festival (that disco ball!), Jamie proved to have a live show as dazzling and infused with pure joy as In Colour. His array of DJ tricks never ceases to impress, here teasing his next songs by looping small samples of their beginnings in with the end of the previous song. It’s quite a sensation, losing your shit over “The Rest Is Noise” before “I’ll Take Care Of U” is even over. The arguable highlight, however, was an EDM-ified and thoroughly sincere version of the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” which rivaled “Loser” for the biggest sing-along of the night.

Finding Gabi after Jamie xx was, to put it lightly, a struggle. As much as I hated being the guy that pushes through seemingly impenetrable walls of people to find his friend, I was not about to compromise in my first and likely only experience of one of the most important bands of my life. Is This It essentially introduced me to the concept of alternative music, and its reverberations could still be felt throughout their hometown festival. Despite playing almost aggressively uncool (and mostly unremarkable) music for the last several years in records under both the Strokes name and in Julian Casablancas’ solo records, the minute they strode onto stage about 25 minutes late it was clear what guitars, sunglasses and great fucking rock songs (even 15-year-old-ones) could do to someone’s image. Even though I never got the sense that this was a particularly important set to anyone in the band (and I was right), Gabi, myself and everyone around us were transported from the first chords of “The Modern Age.” It was a set heavy on Is This It, which was good, and which committed the cardinal sin of featuring more songs from First Impressions of Earth than Room on Fire, which was bad. But it didn’t matter. First loves never really go away, and Friday night was the most forceful reminder I’ve had in a long time of the depth of that love.

The lineup on Saturday was easily the least promising of the weekend, but there were still several acts to get excited about during what would be the middle leg of an exhausting journey (or so I thought). It started even worse than I imagined, namely by missing a set from the excellent Philly shoegazers Nothing. Our first scheduled show of the day picked up where Friday night left off, with Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. playing a set of his solo material. It was above average but fairly MOR indie material, played with the skill expected of an icon, but there was no mistaking the lack of that certain, ineffable something that Casablancas brings to the Strokes to make them so irresistible. Next up was Thundercat, who played as part of a trio that put the most impressive musicianship of the festival on display, if not the most riveting songs. But the deep swing of his jazz still gave the crowd something to move to, especially during a reworking of his To Pimp A Butterfly feature “Complexion.” Next was food and watching Lord Huron from afar, a group that could only be called a “rock band” in the 2010s, and whose appeal seems to be best described as “handsome.”

The interesting part of the night kicked off with Against Me!, whose frontwoman Laura Jane Grace seems to be a transgender icon in the making after burning her birth certificate onstage in North Carolina as an act of protest against the state’s recent, hideously transphobic public bathroom laws, and her magnetic presence was undeniable from the start. Here was a musician that was undeniably the real deal, who lives with a courage and conviction that can perhaps only be truly understood by sharing a cathartic experience like a punk rock show with her. As averse as I am to making labored connections to whatever current events were happening at the time, it was hard not to see her in the context of the passing of Muhammad Ali, a man who, like Grace, made his life into an act of public protest and stood on the right side of the history no matter how much it jeopardized his image and his career. In a country being fast overrun by a hateful bigot, the experience of a crowd of people holding “a middle finger up to gender” and moshing to a song called “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” was an unmistakably powerful experience.

I wasn’t sure Haim, a band I unabashedly love but who could hardly be called revolutionary, would be able to match the experience of Against Me! They didn’t, but they did something just as good: they provided a counter to it, in the form of the most purely joyful set of the weekend. Around the time Este spontaneously screamed, “I fucking love you guys!” at the top of a crescendo to “Don’t Save Me,” I was fully under their spell. This was lucky, as it started pouring rain at about the same time. They were quite possibly the only band who could have completely negated the effect of the rain, and who transformed it from gross and miserable to freeing and joyful. Haim are perhaps the most egalitarian band in the world, composed of three equally prominent women who seemingly meld every pop music trend of the last 50 years into their songs, and their pure thrill at playing music together radiated through the crowd in every moment of their set.

In no hurry to see either Miike Snow or Purity Ring while drenched to the bone, Gabi and I set about finding shelter and waiting for The Killers. As I find the band deeply mediocre, and Gabi already saw them a few years ago, we had no reason to hold down a position as close as we did for the Strokes. After about an hour of abject misery in the rain, the sky cleared and the Killers jumped straight into their only song that even a cynic like myself can’t deny, “Mr. Brightside.” The band is undeniable built for festivals, and they played their arena pop-rock with admirable craft and an energy that unfortunately never approached abandon. The only other real highlight was a cover of Interpol’s classic “Obstacle 1,” with Brandon Flowers apparently doing a very real vocal impression of Paul Banks. At the end of the show, we knew that a maelstrom was on its way to greet us the next day, but we held onto our optimism as best we could.

We got the news of the cancellation at about 12:15 the next day, confirming what we had suspected would happen since we woke up to the news that the opening had been delayed. The expectation of the cancellation dulled the hurt somewhat, as did the refund we were promised. But this was still my most-anticipated day of the festival, with personal favorites Vince Staples, CHVRCHES and Courtney Barnett leading up to Kanye West. This was what really cemented my more qualified opinion of music writers’ condescension towards festivalgoers, and not in a positive way. There are few more infuriating forms of music elitism than this condescension, that the idea that anyone who goes to one of these things is just a dumb kid who wants to sing the one hit he knows, take cell phone videos so that everyone knows he was there and get fucked up on $12 beers. Gabi and I went because we love music, and because we love many of the acts at the festival, and because we don’t live in New York or Chicago and thus don’t have the chance to see them all that often. We were crushed by the cancellation, because we would have braved any type of weather to see those shows. Not because we’re idiots, because we’re passionate and because it might be the only chance we have. The callous dismissal with which these things are treated is the furthest thing from the spirit of the music we all supposedly love. Luckily, the experience is enough to drown it out, if only for a little while.