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Governors Ball 2016 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

The rain and cancellation sucked, but the rest of the weekend sure didn't

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Through a blend of savvy planning and good luck, this year’s edition of Governors Ball arrived in a maelstrom of exciting new music from its artists. Hometown heroes The Strokes released the Future Present Past EP, their first new music in over three years. Kanye West teased G.O.O.D. Music’s Cruel Winter compilation with “Champions”. Vic Mensa dropped his There’s Alot Going On EP for free if you pledged to vote in November. And of course, the special guest turned out to be new supergroup Prophets of Rage.

With new kid on the block Panorama looming – also at Randall’s Island next July – landing all these timely acts boded well for New York City’s current premier music festival in its first year not run independently. (In an effort to compete with the AEG Live-backed Panorama, GovBall ultimately succumbed and was bought by Live Nation.)

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Photo by Ben Kaye

The sprawling, boomerang-shaped festival grounds were relatively easy to navigate, even as crowds began to peak by Saturday afternoon. Art installations memorializing Prince and Lemmy Kilmister stood tall near the main stage. Water refilling stations moved quickly, and lines for bathrooms weren’t outrageously long. And The Infatuation stacked the food lineup with an impressive array of NYC’s favorite restaurants and food trucks, including Wafels and Dinges, Korilla BBQ, Momofuku Milk Bar, and Mighty Quinn’s BBQ. Lines for #govballeeeeeeats did grow long around dinner time, but I never waited more than about 20 minutes for food.

However, all the planning couldn’t anticipate the weekend’s other major story line, (surprise!) the weather. Friday brought near-ideal festival conditions: overcast and cool with the occasional drizzle. Saturday arrived with more stifling heat, which gave way to ominous clouds overhead. Finally, during HAIM and Miguel’s evening sets, the sky opened up, unleashing a torrential downpour on the packed crowds. Because leaving Randall’s Island isn’t especially easy, most fans stuck around till The Killers’ triumphant headlining set, which kicked off magically as the rain finally tapered off.

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Photo by Philip Cosores

With thunderstorms forecasted throughout Sunday, the final day was officially canceled “due to severe weather and a high likelihood of lightning in the area.” As dangerous lightning caused injuries at Rock am Ring in Germany this same weekend, it’s hard to blame organizers for not wanting to risk stranding tens of thousands of people on Randall’s Island in the middle of a thunderstorm. This resulted in some of the most anticipated sets of the weekend not going forward, including Kanye West, Vic Mensa, and Prophets of Rage.

Despite the unfortunately abbreviated lineup, dry off and revisit the best and worst moments GovBall had to offer in 2016.

–Killian Young
Staff Writer

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Lord Huron

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Photo by Killian Young

Easygoing folk music is usually a pretty safe bet for music festivals, but Lord Huron didn’t quite connect during their early evening Saturday spot on the main stage. (The audience partly consisted of early arrivals for later sets by HAIM and The Killers.) To their credit, the Los Angeles folk quartet’s performance was technically sound and showed the band members’ rapport despite not evoking much of a crowd response on tracks like “Lonesome Dreams” and “Meet Me in the Woods”. At last, toward the end of the set, Lord Huron got the crowd moving with their catchiest (although lyrically bleak) track, “Fool for Love”. –Killian Young
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Mac Miller

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Photo by Philip Cosores

Mac Miller probably should have been on the main stage. Not sure what it is about dudes nicknamed Mac (see: De Marco as well), but his main crowd easily dwarfed Lord Huron’s and stretched nearly halfway back to the adjacent Big Apple stage. And it makes a lot of sense: Gov Ball is easily one of the most hip-hop-heavy festivals of the year. However, compared to a lot of this year’s stellar lineup, Miller’s music isn’t really up to par. He puts a lot of energy into his set when’s he’s actually performing, but there’s way too many genre cliches. He must have told people to put their hands up nearly every other song and repeatedly asked the crowd to make some noise. That would be cool if he was an old-school rapper or at least had the songs to back up the participation. Hip-hop has always been a tough genre to translate into a live setting, and, while Miller had plenty of time to refine his show, right now he’s sub-par when he should be justifying his late afternoon slot. Maybe next time, Mac. –Edward Dunbar
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M83

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Photo by Ben Kaye

It takes determination to wait out a downpour to see a beloved act, so major credit to the fans who stuck around for M83. I’m just not sure it was all that worth it. Anthony Gonzalez and co. were fine, and even occasionally breathtaking in their cinematic orchestrations, but for a closing act that required braving the weather, they did awfully little with what felt like an awful lot. A stunning light show set the mood well; it’s just that mood felt terribly one-note by halfway through the set. The fact that even the notably odder sounds of Junk failed to stand out only underlines how flat the entire show felt — especially with a standout set from the The Killers bleeding in over the damp and muddy fields. –Ben Kaye
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Catfish and the Bottlemen

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Photo by Philip Cosores

Rocking the same slacker cool style of The Strokes – who headlined the same stage the night before – charismatic lead singer Van McCann warmed up a small but dedicated main stage audience on Saturday afternoon. On early highlight “Soundcheck”, McCann slung his guitar overhead and head-banged his shaggy hair, while the fans shouted along to the chorus. And Catfish and the Bottlemen deserve credit for sounding even more vibrant live than on recording, from the punchy guitar riff of “Twice” to the bouncy bass and thumping drum line on “Tyrants”. –Killian Young
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Bloc Party

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Similarly to The Strokes, Bloc Party are a band that had arguably peaked with their debut album, 2005’s Silent Alarm. However, unlike The Strokes, the goodwill that was generated was quickly squashed once the band was cut down by two members. Those Silent Alarm hits are here, but they don’t have the same bite as before. Previous drummer Matt Tong was such an integral part of the band’s frenzied sound that, despite the very talented Louise Bartle’s best efforts, everything felt a little sluggish compared to before. It doesn’t help that their new material is very average. A run through of the thrilling “Helicopter” brought the energy up, but sound issues were prevalent for anyone behind the sound booth. Come on Gov Ball, turn it up a bit! –Edward Dunbar
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Nothing

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Photo by Ben Kaye

A shoegazing rock band like Nothing is only bound for so much success during an afternoon festival set. Their music is meant for tighter corners and sound engineers who can handle their grittier assault without a feedback issue. Still, the Philly rockers played hard and heavy, and the small crowd of fans ready for the loud stuff certainly seemed to enjoy themselves. It was fairly evident that everyone — both the band and the audience — would’ve enjoyed themselves more in a dim-lit venue than the midday sun, but that’s more a remark on the location than the performance. Even the baby with the giant, sound-canceling headphones didn’t seem to mind a little noise to start off the day. –Ben Kaye
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Bully

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Photo by Killian Young

With clouds looming overhead and a light drizzle beginning to fall, the crowd’s initial response to Bully’s tracks was tepid, even on rollicking cuts “I Remember” and “Trash”. But as lead singer Alicia Bognanno roared back on “Six” over its climactic guitar riffs, a mosh pit opened up near the stage. The Nashville quartet sustained this energy with rocking renditions of Feels Like standouts “Trying” and “Milkman”. “This is one of my favorite festivals … starting now,” Bognanno joked toward the end of the set. The band’s debut record is nearing a year since its release, so Bully kept the set fresh by closing out with a headbanging McLusky cover. –Killian Young
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Torres

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Photo by Philip Cosores

While her music drifts between heartbreaking delicacy and spitting daggers, Torres’ Mackenzie Scott was wise enough to focus on the latter in the Saturday afternoon sun. That isn’t to say it’s a straight-up rock show. With the four-piece donning all white clothing and silver lipstick, Scott’s tense vocals tried to let in a darkness that simply was not present so early in the day. The set’s best moment came in the form of older song “Honey”, beefed up a bit from the album version but showcasing how Torres can juxtapose both of the project’s tendencies within a single song. –Philip Cosores
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Of Monsters and Men

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Photo by Killian Young

Of Monsters and Men have been opening most of their recent sets with the slow-burning track “Thousand Eyes”, the Beneath the Skin cut that starts with singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir’s reserved croon before giving way to swelling instrumentals and a militaristic drumbeat. It was a risk to try to inject some dramatic flair into a festival set that didn’t quite land. The audience really got energized and enthusiastically clapped along by the third track, My Head Is an Animal’s “King and Lionheart”. (The Icelandic band’s debut record resonated more with the audience throughout.) “This is a really good song to dance to – just a heads up,” Hilmarsdóttir warned the crowd before launching into the soaring harmonies of “Mountain Song”. One thing’s for sure: Of Monsters and Men’s older music is great festival material, from the climactic release of “Lakehouse” to the triumphant horns and shouted words on “Little Talks”. When the latter kicked off, the crowd erupted in euphoric movement. –Killian Young
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Purity Ring

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Photo by Philip Cosores

Gov Ball, here’s an idea: Take the Bacardi money you spent on booking a private (and very slow) ferry and drop it on making your tent even bigger. As more rain started to fall (albeit very lightly), the tent got more and more packed for Purity Ring. Not the biggest problem, but when you only have one other stage to distract people, sometimes a tent just doesn’t cut it. Shelter from the storm would have been nice, but at least everyone got to see Purity Ring’s very bright and very intricate light show. I mean, if it wasn’t in a tent, that shit could be seen from the moon. Unfortunately, singer Megan James’ vocals could barely be heard outside of the tent for the first couple of songs. It seems to be a pattern every year that all of the smaller stages at Gov Ball have inadequate volume for those stuck further away. Eventually, things improved, and Purity Ring had all the right moves to get the crowd to shake off the rain and have a damn good time. –Edward Dunbar
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Albert Hammond Jr.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Plain and simple: Gov Ball loves Ze Strokes. Last time they booked the NYC garage rock heroes, they also managed to grab a rare preview set of Julian Casablancas’ work with his then new band, The Voidz. This time, we had charismatic guitar player Albert Hammond Jr. on the mic. In many ways, his solo work is very appealing to old-school Strokes fans. Songs like “In Transit” and “Holiday” are throwbacks to that classic Strokes sound, while newer material like “Side Boob” explores new ideas but isn’t a million miles away from Is This It. On his own, Hammond Jr. is a charismatic frontman, not as mysterious or goofy as Casablancas can be, but still a captivating sight to watch. For Strokes fans and The Strokes alike, everybody got a star this weekend. –Edward Dunbar
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Christine and the Queens

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Main stages have a tendency to swallow up opening acts with their size, and Héloïse Letissier being so tiny doesn’t help matters. But few early afternoon performers can make as good a use of the larger platform as Christine and the Queens. Even with a slight drizzle and timing making any lighting design fruitless, the French outfit’s inclusive message and old-school pop energy make for a show worthy of the setting. Sure, it was essentially the same set I saw just six days earlier at Boston Calling, but the dance party was well worth the run over the RFK Bridge I had to pull off to get there in time. –Ben Kaye
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Action Bronson

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Photo by Killian Young

Action Bronson’s performance was, in a word, lit. With the crowd loudly chanting, “Bronson! Bronson!”, the Queens-born emcee lit a fat blunt at the start of his set in a hazy cloud of smoke. The hometown crowd roared in approval of the charismatic rapper’s swagger as he strutted around the stage, bringing out Mario Batali (!) and chucking a watermelon sky high. The energy of “Actin Crazy” pulsed through the audience as Bronson rapped the end of the first verse without any instrumentals, and the fans screamed back the chorus. After “Contemporary Man” (including a shout-out to Phil Collins, who’s sampled twice on the track), Bronsolino struck a power pose, raising his arms to raucous cheers. The later one-two punch of “Baby Blue” and “Easy Rider” led to huge sing-alongs as Bronson rode out his homecoming into the sunset. –Killian Young
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Big Grams

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Photo by Philip Cosores

The chemistry between Big Boi and Phantogram’s Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel was never in doubt for anyone who’s listened to their debut as Big Grams. Still, from the start, there seemed something rather calculated about the collaboration, like they knew they’d be a success before they even tried. On stage, though, any pre-judgement was washed away by shimmering grooves and the endless shared smiles between the Big and Barthel. Some of the smokier songs fell a bit flat, and the stage setup isn’t much to look at, but the real heart of the tracks beat even stronger live than on record. You could tell just by the way Barthel kept saying, “Oh, I love this song!” before different numbers, like she was rediscovering them on a playlist. There’s way more here than a vain or random team-up, and the true collaborative dynamic is palpable live. –Ben Kaye
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Father John Misty

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Father John Misty has come up with what could be his most well constructed festival setlist yet. The flow of songs was meticulous, going from big numbers (“Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)”) to slow-burning opuses (“Bored in the USA”, “Holy Shit”), back to crowd-pleasers (“I Love You, Honeybear”) at just the right speed. Sadly, this particular festival crowd wasn’t exactly ready to be enraptured by Josh Tillman’s craft. There were noticeable exoduses after each standout, and a lack of Tillman’s typical banter didn’t help in keeping the audience’s attention. Still, Tillman was, as always, a red-hot performer, even bringing out the sun for the first time all day. I’ve yet to see a bad FJM show, and even if everyone didn’t stick around long enough to agree completely, his performance Friday was far from an exception. –Ben Kaye
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Beck

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Photo by Philip Cosores

It’s tricky business juggling the role as a festival’s elder statesman while trying not to show your age. If anyone is capable of this, it’s Beck, who can open the set with “Devil’s Haircut”, a song as old as the typical Govs Ball attendee, and recall touring with The Strokes when they were just a baby band on their first record. Teens in the crowd could be heard asking each other who was performing, but at least Beck’s performance begs curiosity. He resisted a pandering hits set early on, opting instead for a linear display, sticking to the upbeat and bluesy while mixing his rock and hip-hop leanings. “It’s Friday night in New York City,” he screamed, a proclamation that led to early highlights like “Mixed Business” and “Black Tambourine”, all performed with flare and showmanship.

Because of this, when Beck announced a couple songs from Sea Change, it predictably was lost in an ocean of chatter. They were given enough muscle to keep the crowd, proving the swap wasn’t such a risk and done with the utmost confidence that he could win them back — and he did, with a sharp cover of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret”. Following the nostalgic homage, he relayed the story of hugging Prince at last year’s Grammys and how he looked up a photo of that moment upon news of the Purple One’s passing to see that the late legend had smiled a huge smile. The turn from the emotional story to an inviting run through “Loser” was one of the key moments of Friday’s slate. –Philip Cosores
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Robyn

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Photo by Killian Young

Robyn’s song “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do” acts as a perfect representation of her current live sets. At Boston Calling, she drew a small crowd because of her insistence on performing live remixes of her songs instead of closely sticking to the album versions. At Gov Ball, she decided to do the same. And guess what? It was fucking awesome then, and it’s fucking awesome now. Her live show was akin to LCD Soundsystem with minimal (if any) backing tracks and a full live band dropping an analog dance party right at your feet. The Studio 54-esque stage setup was flashy yet subdued compared to more modern light shows – a strong indicator that she isn’t trying to cater to a younger audience. This is live dance music done right, and, with an open mind, you’d surely be getting down on a Friday night. –Edward Dunbar
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Thundercat

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Photo by Killian Young

The kids love jazz again! Sort of. I’m sure I’m being a bit disingenuous when I say this, but I doubt many of the teens in the audience here are going home and throwing on A Love Supreme, but they were present for the insanely talented Thundercat. With a new album somewhere on the horizon and past work with Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, Kimbra, and so many other artists, dude is as busy as can be and justifiably so. At GovBall, the man’s fingers soared across his bass with ease to create some of the most sublime sounds of the fest — and man can he sing. Know that Thundercat is the entire package: a creator of music that’s both sophisticated and fun enough to get an entire tent bouncing. If there’s any justice in this world, he’ll keep moving up festival bills very, very soon. –Edward Dunbar
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Haim

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Photo by Killian Young

HAIM’s set kicked off without a hitch, as the three sisters sprinted onstage to raucous cheers and started with “If I Could Change Your Mind”. Bathed in purple light, Este Haim took the lead on paying tribute to Prince with a cover of “I Would Die 4 U” as she pointed skyward. At the coda, the sisters lined up and grooved in unison, eliciting a big hand from the crowd. As soon as the track ended, the threatening clouds that loomed overhead for most of Saturday finally opened up into a torrential downpour. Este offered solidarity with the sopping wet crowd by stepping out and pouring a bottle of water on herself.

Despite their last record being 2014’s Days Are Gone, HAIM’s soaked main stage performance showed why the sisters still remain such a dynamic draw for festivals. The band also performed two newer songs, “Give Me Just a Little of Your Love” and “Nothing’s Wrong”. Sure, they’ve been performing these cuts from their forthcoming sophomore album on their recent festival gigs, but the anthemic harmonies and Danielle Haim’s searing guitar solo on the latter energized the crowd. As HAIM closed out their set with joyous renditions of “The Wire” and “Falling”, not even the driving rain could put a damper on the spirit of the jubilant crowd who bounced along through it all. –Killian Young
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Against Me!

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Photo by Ben Kaye

To face facts, a punk band really sticks out at a festival like Governors Ball with its lineup of mostly pop, hip-hop, and “accessible” rock acts. No one told Against Me! or their fans that, though, as everyone at the Bacardi House Stage (which wasn’t quite as populated as other sets there) was going all out. Laura Jane Grace has found the cunt in her strut since Transgender Dysphoria Blues, and the band has never been better. Even their setlist is at the top of its game, opening with a classic in “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” and blowing out hits like “Unconditional Love”, “Thrash Unreal”, and a joyous cover of The Clash’s “Train in Vain”. Bassist Inge Johansson played like a kid at his first gig, all kicks and jumps that fired up the crowd as much as his fearless leader’s infectious energy. There’s something undeniably positive about their set, and walking away from a punk show in the middle of a festival day with such good vibes is a tribute to the lasting power of great bands playing loud music. –Ben Kaye
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The Strokes

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Photo by Philip Cosores

Twenty-five minutes late, full of swagger, and armed with songs that make New York crowds lose their mind — would you want The Strokes any other way? After a blistering start that included “Soma”, “What Ever Happened?”, and “Under Cover of Darkness”, the set’s lasting impression came in the form of a moment of sentimentality. Julian Casablancas took a second to speak about Brett Kilroe, who had done artwork for the band throughout their career and recently passed away. Going beyond a simple song dedication and speaking at length to recall memories of his friend, the typically bratty frontman demonstrated just how good maturity looks on him.

The band then launched into a pair of seldom-played knockouts from First Impressions of Earth, “Electricityscape” and “Ask Me Anything”, imbuing the tracks with vulnerability not usually present in their set. Yes, we got fireworks, new songs prefaced with the warning of “newwwww shit,” and all the hits the audience was hoping for, but following Beck’s speech about Prince, the main stage at Governors Ball was as memorable for somber, personal turns as it was for raucous sing-alongs. The day was better for it. –Philip Cosores
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Miguel

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Photo by Philip Cosores

There are two things that can’t stop Miguel: rain and shirts. Like clockwork, as soon as Miguel’s time slot rolled up, it started to pour hard. Like “it looks like a lot of people are leaving the fest” type of hard. But the man powered through, and his devoted fans sure did as well. Wallpapered by a rather psychedelic backdrop, Miguel’s emotional R&B eventually proved powerful enough to stop the rain for a brief moment. Perhaps it was his insistence in making everyone say they’re having a good time. Perhaps the rain just wanted to get everyone loose and funky for his set. Perhaps it was because he took his shirt off, threw on a dope poncho, and then took his shirt off again before venturing to the rail, much to the delight of the first few rows. Or hey, maybe he just has some damn good songs that made it hard to stay away. Regardless, Miguel triumphed against the rain and made it worthwhile for those who decided to tough it out. –Edward Dunbar
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Jamie xx

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Photo by Philip Cosores

We’re a year into Jamie xx’s festival sets in support of his instant classic In Colour, but his set on Friday evening was anything but routine. Easing into the show with a 7-inch old enough to be the audience’s parent, Jamie proved a master of weaving disco, UK house, and his own original compositions, transforming the Bacardi House stage into a sweaty discotheque. “Loud Places” showed up early, the crowd illuminated repeatedly to demonstrate their elation, a mirror ball blasting yellow lights with every chorus drop. “Girl” found a happy home just minutes away from The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me”, walking the line between ultimate party DJ and taste curator. In fact, Jamie’s best asset has often proven to be his taste level, knowing that his set will get people to move regardless of familiarity, as emotionally striking as it is intellectually engaging. –Philip Cosores
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De La Soul

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Photo by Philip Cosores

We’re in the presence of legends. Gov Ball has managed to book some of the biggest and hottest hip-hop acts of the year, but I can’t think of any other act today that has got me quite as excited as De La Soul have. “Who here is under 30?” asked Maseo before a quick chuckle, “You gon’ learn some shit today”. As Posdnuos and Dave joined him on stage, their goofy energy was absolutely infectious. “Photographers, I know you’re doing work, and I respect that a lot … But put your shit down for 50 seconds and join everyone behind you! I want to see everyone put their hands up for the next song!” And, just like that, a sea of hands both from the crowd and the photo pit shot up.

It’s a testament to their innovative music that this was probably the most diverse Gov Ball crowd age-wise. The feeling isn’t lost on the trio as Posdnuos put it, “We’ve been doing this shit for 27, 28 years, and we just want to say thank you to the new and old fans,” before dropping perhaps the best song of the day: “Me, Myself and I”. Sure, we didn’t get all of the hits (no “The Magic Number”?), and some of their set was taken up by a lot of talking among the trio (albeit in the form of very heartfelt statements like the few above), but damn were they good. Real New York legends showing everyone how it’s done. De La Soul will always be three feet high and continuously rising. –Edward Dunbar
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The Killers

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Photo by The Governors Ball

Unlike GovBall’s other two headliners, The Strokes and the cancelled Kanye West, The Killers didn’t really have anything to promote. Their last album is four years old, and Brandon Flowers and co., though rumored to be working on a new release, didn’t really offer up a glimpse of what’s to come. Maybe this even justified a solid contingent of the audience departing the festival during a downpour just prior to the headliner’s set. But anyone who left figuring the Killers didn’t warrant the risk of volatile weather missed out on a career-spanning display of showmanship than only seems possible from a band that calls Las Vegas home.

Right after the rain ceased, The Killers blasted into “Mr. Brightside”, with attendees sprinting from out of the shelter and into the muddy field. It was a moment of bliss that never really faded. Peppered between hits like “Human”, “Spaceman”, and “Somebody Told Me” were unexpected nods to figures of the recent (Interpol) and distant (Elvis) past. For the former, Flowers spoke about the influence that New York City bands had on their beginnings, shouting out The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs before mentioning that Interpol’s debut, Turn on the Bright Lights, was on repeat while The Killers recorded Hot Fuss. They offered a faithful rendition of “Obstacle 1” (following it with a completely unironic take on “Glamorous Indie Rock and Roll”) and later strutted through Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love”.

But it was towards the end of the set that The Killers demonstrated their beauty as a band. Anthems “Read My Mind” and “All These Things That I’ve Done” make no mystery of their intentions. Flowers never fears coming off as a ham, giving rock and roll the theater and respect that he feels it deserves. The band is never worried about looking cool, but more in honoring the uninhibited glow that loud music and big crowds can offer. By the fireworks finale of “When You Were Young”, the Govs Ball audience could let go of any preconception they had of the band or themselves. The mud and the rain all were afterthoughts to the show that had been witnessed. The Killers had accomplished exactly what every band should hope for. They had stolen the show. –Philip Cosores

Click ahead for an exclusive gallery from Governors Ball 2016.
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Gallery

Photographers: Ben Kaye, Philip Cosores, Killian Young

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