The Governors Ball Music Festival, Day 1: Bob Moses, Big Grams, Father John Misty, Bloc Party, The Strokes

photos by Sally Gray Mahon

Only a year or two after establishing itself as the first NYC music festival to actually pull off an event with the caliber and scope fitting of the city, The Governors Ball Music Festival is at a crossroads. Stereogum’s Michael Nelson does an excellent job explaining it in depth, but due to the emergence of the rival Panorama festival on the same site (Randall’s Island) with a similarly-geared lineup (indie rock with dashes of big name hip-hop and pop) and only a month later, this looks to be the last year Gov Ball runs as an independent promotion led by a gang of New Yorkers who took the fest from a small, two-day affair to an event that has The Strokes and Kanye West on speed dial. But despite all of the behind the scenes drama that led up to the festival – and a still-looming (as of this writing) threat of the weather turning Randall’s Island into a giant case of trench foot case not unlike the 2013 edition –  the first day of Governors Ball (no apostrophe, as they’re quick to point out) was a success, a festival and crowd that felt distinctly New York without ever becoming kitschy. Like any fest that’s doing its job well, there was too much good stuff to soak in to see it all, but these are some of Friday’s highlights:

Bob Moses – 3:45 p.m.

The hours preceding Bob Moses‘ set were defined by a light but persistent rain, meaning that the tent-covered stage the Vancouver-via-Brooklyn duo had a larger-than-expected audience augmented by a throng of festival goers seeking to get dried off. It was an opportunity Jimmy Vallance and Tom Howie seized, playing a set that excelled in its subtleties and flow, not unlike that of Jamie xx (who would play the same stage later that night). Although the duo (and their live drummer, a relatively new addition) were set up like a rock band onstage, the set felt far more in tune with a DJ set, seamlessly transitioning from song to song and tapping into the downtempo mood that defines the majority of their work. Danceable but never overwhelming, Bob Moses was the perfect daytime dance set – a silver hour of cerebral and emphatic tunes that revealed themselves to be a great antidote to the afternoon drizzle.

Big Grams – 4:45 p.m.

Big Grams, however, was about as high energy as it got on Friday, arriving just as the crowds started to roll in after the skies cleared up. While the trio were a tad late – shoutout to Big Boi’s DJ for playing a killer “I Want You Back” remix and Daddy Fat Sax’s own “Shutterbug” to hold the crowd over – they hit the ground running with an incredibly efficient run of their opening numbers. Where their Sasquatch set was a loosely put together party, Big Boi, Josh Carter, and Sarah Barthel’s Gov Ball outing was a far more concentrated affair. When they’re focused, Barthel and Big Boi are compelling foils: the Atlantan’s speedy, laser-gun precision is gracefully offset by Barthel’s airy, hook-laden runs. The Big Grams EP could have easily been a curious one-off, a release between friends who just wanted to see how their chemistry translated to a bigger project. Instead, it’s a crossover issue of a comic that actually works – especially in a live setting – because the two acts’ longstanding interest in genres outside their own pairs well with their penchant for having a good time.

Father John Misty – 5:45 p.m.

At some point on the seemingly neverending tour behind last year’s I Love You, Honeybear, Josh Tillman stopped being an endlessly quotable onstage quip machine. Performances that used to be highlighted by one liners about the audience or charmingly bizarre anecdotes about his own life are now focused squarely on the songs. And while Tillman is undoubtedly a charismatic conversationalist, the eschewing of his typical garrulousness on Friday evening was not necessarily a bad thing. Tillman and his band – which now features a backing vocalist, who looked absolutely thrilled to be there – were hardly lethargic (despite flying in from Europe only a few days prior), and Tillman remains an inimitable, hip-shaking tour de force of a performer. Honeybear‘s success has made Tillman into one of the most in-demand festival acts on the circuit, but his versatility is key to pulling that off: he’s probably the only performer on any given bill who will show up with his shirt only halfway buttoned and his beard at full-length and still come across even smarter than he is sexual. So if he doesn’t want to talk as much as he used to onstage – he did have a few dryly-delivered ad-libs and asides here and there – that’s totally fine: even a purely business Father John Misty is plenty of pleasure. To quote one extra loud screaming fan at the start of Misty’s set, “LET US PRAY.”

Bloc Party – 8:00 p.m.

The legacy and status of the major players of the ’00s post-punk revival is a curious thing right now, not least with Bloc Party, who lost the most dynamic rhythm section of the era (in drummer Matt Tong and bassist Gordon Moakes) and replaced them with Justin Harris from Menomena and a young drummer they found on YouTube. If it sounds weird on paper, it’s because it is, but Bloc Party have always had the strangest path of their contemporaries. Frontman Kele Okereke’s electronic exploits changed the direction of the band irreversibly, and considering that now he and guitarist Russell Lissack are the core of the band, it makes sense that sensual synths defined their latest record, the often somber Hymns. Despite all the changeover, though, Bloc Party are still a tenacious live band with a deep catalog to pull from. (Smartly, they offset the slower Hymns songs with riffing classics on either side.) 2005’s Silent Alarm has aged far better than most records of the era, so it was understandable that its cuts got the biggest cheers of the night, but the other smattering of tracks ended up showing Bloc Party as more than the spiky mid-2000s upstarts they’ll probably be best remembered for. Harris and drummer Louise Bartle have plenty of depth between the two of them, making the band feel like a completely different live unit than they did in their original incarnation. If nothing else, “Bloc Party Mk. II”, as Okereke has dubbed it, is at least a positive engagement, a far cry from the frosty and sometimes awkward gigs behind 2012’s Four. “This one is dedicated to everyone smoking weed,” Okereke said with an impish grin before starting “Different Drugs”, clearly interested in getting a reaction from the crowd. “So come one, you bunch of d-bags.”

The Strokes – 9:15 p.m.

It’s 9:43 p.m. and The Strokes are half an hour late for their big NYC comeback show. This is a classic Strokes move. But in their hometown, playing one of a handful of gigs they have slotted for this year, it wouldn’t matter if they had showed up an hour late, played “Last Nite”, and then walked offstage without saying a word. They still would have been rapturously received as gods, the last bastion of New York City leading a musical revolution. To be fair, that’s not exactly a wrong opinion, and certainly one that was held at Governors Ball on Friday, where seemingly every fifth person was wearing a Strokes shirt. But then it’s 9:44 p.m., and Julian Casablancas and co. step onstage and it’s received like the Second Coming. And while it is categorically uncool to show up half an hour late, there were plenty of moments during The Strokes’ headlining set where it felt like, for a moment, they were the coolest band in the world. Seeing The Strokes play at all is a rarity these days, so catching them in their hometown playing to a massive crowd that clearly adores them is a special experience. And despite their tardiness, the notoriously icy-at-times band seemed like they were actually having fun doing the one thing God put them on this Earth to do: look cool and play tracks from Is This It. (Aside from relying on their classic debut, the setlist was a total curveball, throwing in a Clash cover, two new songs, and six tracks from the divisive First Impressions of Earth.) Casablancas especially was in a great mood, incredibly talkative (“Good times! Gorillas in the mist!”) and vocally on-point. The past few years have seen The Strokes turn into a primarily legacy act, and there’s plenty more to be said about that, but the important thing is to remember that for a year or two, The Strokes were a gang, the coolest and maybe best band in the world. That fact wasn’t always apparent throughout their first big show of the year, but there were moments where it was – when tens of thousands of New Yorkers all erupted in the chorus to “Hard To Explain”, for example – that were inimitably, ineffably, for lack of a better word, cool.

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