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Festival Review: Top Sets at Governors Ball 2012

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governors ball Festival Review: Top Sets at Governors Ball 2012

Governors Ball is about as straightforward as a festival can get: two stages, no overlapping sets, and an even split between electronic music on Saturday and alternative rock on Sunday. For its second installation, Gov. Ball relocated to Randalls Island on the upper end of Manhattan from its namesake outpost at the lower, which didn’t affect much in the way of attendance but unfortunately added more of a commute to the festival’s official afterparties at the Brooklyn Bowl (#firstworldproblems). Other than that, however, there was enough space, water, bathrooms, lawn games, and food trucks to keep fussy New Yorkers happy.

Every festival attendee seemed remarkably well-behaved, engaging in games of croquet, chatting with strangers about high school melodrama and Modest Mouse, and debating whether those familiar wafts from concert crowds were the “good stuff” with laid-back security guards. While the festival didn’t exactly dig deep to find acts furthest underground or from the festival circuit, it doesn’t really matter when there’s a topless girl wearing a cape dancing to Kid Cudi or a sweaty young man who tries to serenade a new friend with every word to Chromeo’s “Call Me Up”.

It was difficult to decide what to write about, because there’s only so much you can say about people having a great time dancing silently while wearing giant Sennheiser headphones or experiencing aural nirvana, again, during Explosions In the Sky’s set. So I wrote about acts that changed the way I feel about so-called EDM, that pulled off a stellar set against all odds, or charmed the pants off me and/or made me dance my pants off. And most importantly, they were all acts I could check off my bucket list and also wanted to see again. Who knows? Maybe next time Penguin Prison will cover that other song by Lana Del Rey.

-Harley Brown
Associate Editor

Big Gigantic

biggigantic2 Festival Review: Top Sets at Governors Ball 2012

Big Gigantic’s redundancy may offend my inner grammarian, but the Denver, CO duo’s live set proved to be one of the biggest surprises of Governors Ball. Producer Dominic Lalli’s saxophone riffs and drummer Jeremy Salkin’s big beats propelled their blend of drum ‘n bass, glitch, house, and jazz past the realm of cheesy space-age and into something I just hadn’t heard before. Besides playing their own material off this year’s Nocturnal like “It’s Goin’ Down” and “Sky High”, Lalli and Salkin made sure to spin their re-working of Kanye West’s “Get ‘Em High”. The open, brightly lit Honda Stage– and its unparalleled sound system– made listening to Big Gigantic more visceral and finely nuanced than hearing them on record: I could feel Salkin’s kick drum in my sternum and coast on the sexy-smooth segues between Lalli’s tenor and his laptop production, even if the bulging veins in his neck meant he was definitely working harder than I was.

Special Disco Version

specialdiscoversion2 Festival Review: Top Sets at Governors Ball 2012

Special disco version” is a retro term for what today would be called a remix, a sticker that might be slapped on an extended club mix of, say, Carly Simon in the ‘80s. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and Pat Mahoney decided to name their crate-digging DJ duo as such when they started playing live shows around New York City a few years ago, spinning records and using laptops at parties and warehouses. For their set on Saturday, they brought to light rarities like a Staples Singers’ cover of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People”. True to form, Murphy and Mahoney’s set placed me squarely in the ‘70s, as though I were jamming to Tom Moulton on the floor, albeit a very sunny, hot floor. “We’re going to turn this into a big block party. Can we turn it up out there?” Murphy asked in his signature deadpan, cranking the bass so high my sunglasses started to vibrate. Like Big Gigantic, the two Irishmen fluidly combined contemporary synthetic beats with decades-old B-sides to collapse space and time, making retro just another dance move.

Major Lazer

majorlazer3 Festival Review: Top Sets at Governors Ball 2012

“Is that… Major Lazer? Is that… Diplo?” The guy behind me apparently had no idea that the Producer Formerly Known As Wes Pentz was behind the dancehall/reggae phenomenon, even though Major Lazer’s mastermind stayed behind a barricade of speakers during a set that, if not the inarguable pinnacle of the festival, was definitely most talked about. Since the departure of co-producer Switch and hype man Skerritt Bwoy late last year, Diplo has enlisted Trinidadian producer and Mad Decent signee Jillionaire and talents of hype man Walshy Fire. The latter seemed to realize that he had a lot to live up to and spent most of his time onstage off of it, crowd-surfing either solo or in a Wayne Coyne-style clear plastic bubble. But everyone focused on Diplo’s dancers, who bumped and grinded with impressive dexterity across the stage, on the scaffolding, in the photo pit, and above the heads of the audience. With so much booty-shaking to the thundering beats of “Original Don”, “Hold the Line” (guest vocalist Santigold, who played the same stage just a few hours earlier, unfortunately did not appear), and “Express Yourself”, it’s no wonder some people, i.e. women, took their shirts off.

Chromeo 

chromeo3 Festival Review: Top Sets at Governors Ball 2012

I really wish I had gotten up the nerve to ask Chromeo how they feel about female objectification during my interview with them, because between their high-heeled keyboard stands and Kraftwerk-esque backup dancers– not to mention Dave 1’s devastating good looks and comments like, “You’re looking good!” and “I love the girls on the shoulders”– I have a feeling they’d have a lot to say about it. But between the singing, flattery, and genuine appreciation for the music they were making and the audience screaming, “Chrom-EE-oh!”, there wasn’t much time for intellectual discussion. P-Thugg and his companion struck a balance between Auto-Tuned hamming onstage and pitch-perfect renditions of “Tenderoni”, “Bonafied Lovin’”, “Hot Mess”, “Fancy Footwork”, and other songs that will someday appear on Chromeo’s Greatest Hits. This was also the duo’s first and only show in New York this year, after which they’ll retreat to the studio to finish up their long-awaited next LP.

Passion Pit

passionpit1 Festival Review: Top Sets at Governors Ball 2012

Passion Pit blasted out of the gate with “Moth Wings”, “Take A Walk”, and a surprisingly bass-heavy “The Reeling”, which was a bold move that paid off with a big, tight set that cemented the proudly Boston-based outfit alongside acts like Foster the People and fun. The smoothly minimal light show reminded me of motion sensors in spy movies, enhancing instead of detracting from the music itself. The sound cut out briefly during “It’s Alright”, but Passion Pit picked up right where they left off and the audience was too enraptured (the girl next to me worried she might start rolling too hard) to notice. Passion Pit have also expanded their sonic parameters for Gossamer, introducing a very slight wub wub synth before the chorus on “It’s Not My Fault I’m Happy” and taking it down a notch for an almost R&B-slow jam in the middle of their set. Even though frontman Michael Angelakos didn’t always appear as into the performance as his audience, it didn’t matter once the blissful opening bars of “Sleepyhead” came on.

Kid Cudi

kidcudi1 Festival Review: Top Sets at Governors Ball 2012

Kid Cudi may be a prima donna, live up to his juvenile moniker, and forget the words to his songs, but somehow he still manages to put on a great show. He took the stage late and then proceeded to blame his sound crew, warning, “In two minutes I’m going to get frustrated” and then complaining, “This is the worst!” Once things started going his way, however, he gave the audience exactly what they wanted. Shouting out to the “Cudder fans” out there, he introduced WZRD beatmaker Dot Da Genius and launched into “Mojo So Dope”, “Scott Mescudi Vs. the World”, and “one of my favorites” “Solo Dolo” off Man on the Moon. “Cud Life” tourmate and fellow Clevelander Chip Tha Ripper also made an appearance for “All Talk”, lending Cudi some street cred before he fumbled “Cudi Zone” and had to start over. Despite all that, which for anyone else would probably be a dealbreaker (and for many people in the audience who left early, it certainly was), Dot Da Genius’ beats and Cudi’s sheer enthusiasm — not to mention David Guetta-produced closer “Memories” — made it worthwhile to stick around. Even if Cudi did get cut off promptly at 11, unceremoniously halted before a rumored rendition of “Pursuit of Happiness”.

Nobody Beats the Drum

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Perhaps the best set of the day didn’t even happen at the festival itself, but at the official afterparty later that night at the Brooklyn Bowl at the other end of town. I missed both Nobody Beats the Drums’ (NBTD) live set early Saturday afternoon and DJ set at the Silent Disco in the early evening, the Utrecht electronic trio (they eschew the term EDM since apparently it doesn’t exist in Europe to the same degree in the United States) came into their own in front of a packed house next to the bowling lanes. Sjam Sjamsoedin and Jori Collignon manned the beats and Rogier van Zwagg took charge of the visuals, which range from quickly fading naturalistic shots to more abstract images. Even though the trio works entirely behind the usually unexciting laptops of many producers, they danced as hard as their audience and melded their sonic and visual elements for a synesthesic experience that allowed me to enjoy dancing to EDM for the first time ever, really. Collignon and Sjamsoedin bumped mostly newer material like “Blood On My Hands”, which starts out slow and slinky before snapping a low, rubbery synthpad and an OK Computer-like voice echoing the lyrics. As we wrote of NBTD regarding their set at Ultra this year, these guys are going somewhere.

Freelance Whales

freelancewhales3 Festival Review: Top Sets at Governors Ball 2012

Queens-based alternative folk outfit Freelance Whales has come a long way since their lackluster performance at Newport Folk Festival nearly a year ago, whether because their next record is more of a collaborative, synchronized effort that was reflected in the day’s performance or whether they brought their A-game for “an actual ball,” as frontman Judah Dadone thought, admitting that he felt overdressed. Opening the afternoon with refreshing, harmonic blasts of “Ah! Ah! Ah!” that stood in stark contrast to the previous day’s thumping beats, the band layered instruments like Doris Cellar’s harmonium and glockenspiel over traditional strings for a rich tapestry of sounds. While they played fan favorites like Weathervanes’ “Generator (First Floor)” and “Generator (Second Floor)”, Freelance Whales also indulged the audience in a couple of new, allegedly science fiction-influenced songs.

Phantogram

phantogram2 Festival Review: Top Sets at Governors Ball 2012

It seemed like Honda’s sound system stayed stuck on gratuitously loud ever since Special Disco Version, but no one was complaining during Phantogram’s newly ribcage-pounding set. The now New York City-based duo of Sarah Barthel and Joshua Carter chose an array of their strongest cuts off Eyelid Movies and Nightlife, including a deceptively quiet start– so lo-fi I thought the sound system was broken– to “When I’m Small” that raised hairs and induced standing-still reverie in everyone (except for the dude who yelled “Nice pants!” at Barthel’s leather/fishnet leggings). During “Running from the Cops”, Carter mimed driving by holding a steering wheel and holding his hand out as a sort of stop sign. It was a clear, well-mixed, set that only reinforced what we noticed at Bonnaroo: The Honda Stage was a much better fit for a band that’s just getting too big for The Other Tent.

Devendra Banhart

devendra1 Festival Review: Top Sets at Governors Ball 2012

“Hola. Happy Pride!” Aside from the rainbow balloons strung over the Governors Ball grounds, Devendra Banhart was one of the few artists to mention the fact that Pride events were occurring just across the river. It was very much in keeping with his gentle, unassuming, all-encompassing nature, which might have led to Jesus comparisons if Banhart hadn’t cut off his hair. He started with exquisite acoustic versions of “The Body Breaks” and “At the Hop”, joined by a few band members for the latter’s choral harmonies. Banhart continued to pay dues to quieter cuts like “Mama Wolf” even after he was joined by the rest of his band, but the audience responded best to the charmingly ‘50s rhythms of “Shabop Shalom” and articulate Spanish on closer “Carmensita”. After watching his elastic facial expressions, which closely mirror Joanna Newsom’s, I no longer question that they are the same person.

Cage the Elephant

cagetheelephant1 Festival Review: Top Sets at Governors Ball 2012

I last saw Cage the Elephant when they opened for The Black Keys about a year ago, and since then, I’ve always thought of what Minneapolis music critic Chris Riemenschneider said of that performance: “like uncaged chimpanzees, wild, sort of cute, and sort of annoying.” This time, Cage the Elephant maintained that energetic, uncontrolled angst but couched it in world-weariness, especially when frontman Matthew Schultz sounded like he was sobbing into his microphone. The Cleveland outfit let loose the most raw emotion onstage– even more than Fiona Apple’s set directly afterward– that I’ve ever seen. This instability translated into a love/hate relationship with the audience, for which Schultz ignored his lost voice but also accused them of stealing his wallet. But in the end, he came around, asking his fans if they would help him out for “Shake Me Down” since he couldn’t “sing for shit.” It was an emotional rollercoaster of a performance, but Schultz brought us along right by his side for every minute of it.

Fiona Apple

fiona2 Festival Review: Top Sets at Governors Ball 2012

Forgive the pun, but Fiona Apple really is an extraordinary machine. Like her performance at SXSW, she opened with “Fast As You Can”, yet still conveyed the same urgency with a full backing band on a big, open stage as she did with just a guitarist in a candlelit church. Guitarist Blake Mills’ electric riffs fortified Apple’s admissions and admonitions, providing another avenue for the raw emotion behind “Used to Love Him” and “Sleep To Dream”. It was almost exactly the same setlist as her performance in Austin, actually, right down to the spastic flailing and long skirt with which Apple opened her set. My only complaint is that like a confessional, Apple’s songs deserve to be listened to with the kind of introspection and attention that’s easiest to find in quiet places, like a church. In a festival setting, it’s easy to lose sight and sound of the finer nuances driving songs stripped bone-bare, like “I Know”.

Gallery

Photographer: Harley Brown

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