If Beck were not a solo artist, his recent shows, including his Sunday night headlining set at Governor’s Ball in New York, might be considered something of a reunion tour. He’s back with the same core group of musicians he played with back in the prime of his career – Odelay on through Sea Change – and his set lists have been packed with oldies, with just over half of Odelay turning up in nearly every gig. It’s a very good time, especially if you’re coming to Beck with a bit of nostalgia, but it’s a little frustrating if you’re hoping to get a sense of where he’s going next. He’s been working on a new album for a while now, but he’s given his fans absolutely no idea of what to expect. Judging by his performance on Randall’s Island, we can count out at least one possibility: He seems to have set aside the hyperactive postmodern funk of his Midnite Vultures period and settled into the sober, slightly distant introspection of his later work. He’s still quite a showman, but these days he’s more about projecting intensity rather than delivering a spectacle.
This year’s Governor’s Ball was very different from the one held last year on Governor’s Island. (It relocated to Randall’s Island this year; presumably they kept the name for brand equity, and because “Randall’s Ball” sounds a little gross.) The festival was split into two very different bills over two days at the venue. The second day – with Beck, Fiona Apple, Modest Mouse, Explosions in the Sky and Built to Spill – was clearly pitched toward people who graduated from liberal arts colleges circa the early aughts, and the first, with a dance and hip-hop-centric lineup featuring Passion Pit, Kid Cudi, Duck Sauce and Chromeo, aimed at kids who may have just recently graduated.
The vibe on Sunday was decidedly chill, with a crowd of late 20 and early 30-somethings milling out through the park, as the bands, which also included younger acts like Cults and Cage the Elephant, focused on familiar material. Aside from Fiona Apple, pretty much everyone on the bill was not promoting a new record, which added to the relaxed atmosphere. Modest Mouse, a band that can be a bit reluctant to deliver hits, were particularly generous with this crowd, omitting their breakthrough song “Float On” but performing fan favorites like “Paper Thin Walls,” “Gravity Rides Everything” and “Dramamine.” Built to Spill and Explosions in the Sky played to their very specific strengths, with the former veering closer to Neil Young and Crazy Horse territory than ever before, and the latter providing the musical equivalent of a refreshing sorbet course after a particularly intense early-evening Fiona Apple set.
While other acts kept things fairly mellow, Apple’s performance was startling in its unrestrained emotion. She’s a rare and remarkable vocalist, both in raw technical terms and in her talent for adjusting the nuance of her phrasing to express her emotion in that very moment. Apple is fully present in every syllable; no two renditions of any of her songs are quite the same. She was clearly in good spirits between numbers, but would reach into the darkest depths on a dime, bellowing, “You’re all I need,” with unhinged longing during “On the Bound,” or barking out the “gimme, gimme, gimme what you got” climax of “Daredevil” with unnerving fury. Apple mainly cut ballads from her current setlist to fit into her hour-long festival slot, but she wisely included “I Know,” possibly her most heart-wrenching torch song, near the end of the set. Festivals aren’t always the best environment for a slow-burning, lyrically-driven tune, but Apple had an entire field transfixed on every word.