Governors Ball really is a New York City festival. There’s no glamping at Gov Ball, no frilly art installations, no Ferris wheels or people in flower crowns. Who has the time? People who go to Gov Ball are all business: Show up, do drugs, listen to music, get back on the train. Then do it all again for two more days — that’s New York Tough. And this year, the festival felt more New York than ever, since it was held in the parking lot outside the stadium where the Mets play and the 7 train rumbles back and forth in the distance. It never stops — and neither does Gov Ball.
There was more music packed into three days than anyone could possibly see. This year also marked Gov Ball’s 10th birthday, so each day had a celebratory tone, bolstered by wildly euphoric sets by Rufus Du Sol, J Balvin, Ellie Goulding, Carly Rae Jepsen, and many more. After 18 months without live music, this was the spiritual healing we all desperately needed. Nearly every artist commented about how great it was to be back. Singer-songwriter Caroline Polachek began to cry during her first song because she was so moved to see people enjoying live music again. We could not agree more with her. These are just a few of the highlights.
Bartees Strange’s Flying Kicks
Bartees Strange reveled in contrast during his sharp Friday afternoon set. He moved from the agitated rock of “In a Cab” to the sinuous R&B of “Kelly Rowland,” which surprisingly sounded like a more fervent version of something that might have appeared in RMR’s set an hour earlier. The new song “Weights” was a pop-punk blast, with a shout-along, fists-in-the-air hook, but Strange followed that with “Far,” which opens acoustic and melancholy, only gradually building to an eruptive ending. “Flagey God” nodded toward disco, with a four-four thump, and a slick come-on for a hook; Strange switched from guitar to bass, helping to anchor the track as two keyboards kicked up squalling clouds of electronics. He closed with “Boomer,” a gleeful mix of tangled guitars and pummeling bass. Strange leaped and scissor-kicked before delivering the final hook to this anti-anthem: “Right when I get all of my hopes up, something explodes — lord, I never win.” —E.L.
Phoebe Bridgers’ Trumpet Player
It definitely came as no surprise that Phoebe Bridgers delivered one of the most moving sets of Governors Ball. The singer, whose music unwittingly maintained the emotional stability of much of the country during quarantine, managed to make an enormous sports stadium feel intimate. What was less expected, however, was how much the band’s trumpet player would steal the show. At one point, with the entire crowd singing the lyrics to “Chinese Satellite” verbatim, he belted out the song’s moody bassline, turning the crowd, briefly, into something like a choir. It’s ironic since Bridgers introduced the song with a treatise against religion. “Fuck nihilism, too,” she assured. —J.I.
J Balvin Security-Staff Champion
The job of a music festival security guard isn’t a particularly enviable one. A crowd of hyperactive young people that have been pent up inside for more than a year doesn’t make for the most well-behaved of attendees. It made it gratifying to see, just as the thunderous bass of J Balvin’s set rang out of Citi Field on Saturday, the event’s staff light up one by one. Festival scenes are typically marked by chaos: lost friends, dehydration, and delirious exhaustion. For a brief moment, however, J Balvin made those concerns, for everyone, melt away. I saw guards giddily capture the set on their phones, taking a brief moment away from the abundance of hormonal exuberance on display to catch a vibe. —J.I.
Duck Sauce’s Inflatable Friend
DJs Armand van Helden and A-Trak — known as the electronic duo Duck Sauce — got to work under a giant inflatable duck wearing a little golden bomber jacket. Almost immediately, their 4 p.m. Sunday time slot turned into a freaky parking lot rave with their deliriously catchy jams like “Big Bad Wolf,” “aNYway,” and their piece de resistance, “Barbra Streisand,” blasting over the sound of the 7 train rumbling by in the distance. The only indication we’d all just endured a global pandemic was a single Purell keychain wagging on the clear backpack of a teenage girl jumping in front of me to a remix of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Heads Will Roll” — the part where Karen O. yelps, “Off, off, off with your head.” Oddly beautiful. —S.G.
Leon Bridges’ Dance Break
Bridges’ albums have the quality of warm fall afternoons — pretty, but also snoozy. So it was a pleasant surprise when he turned “Shy” into a funky march, turbocharging the staggered, smacking rhythm section that reached back to J Dilla. Later, he let his band digress into a lengthy instrumental interlude, slathered with wah-wah guitar and rat-a-tat breakbeat percussion. “Can we switch it up a little bit?” he asked before singing “Brown Skin Girl.” “Where are my dancers in the house?” Dancers would have a hard time getting worked up to the recorded version of the track, but Bridges delivered a rendition that was considerably more energetic than the original, with a fluttering, shuffling beat, and listeners who were swaying before started to move with more vigor. —E.L.
The return to festivals means a lot to musicians who haven’t been able to do much of anything during lockdown. You could sense this excitement from pretty much every performer, but Aminé, adorned in a sweatshirt featuring a drawing of his face on it (“Y’all like my face?” he asked the crowd at one point) was like an excited puppy on its way to the park. He even let the crowd know as much, introducing his set with an affirming “Fuck Covid!” chant. Of course, we’re not necessarily out of the woods yet, but Aminé’s joy at performing in front of a crowd again was infectious. By the end of his set, it was easy to feel more optimistic about the future. —J.I.
Megan Thee Stallion’s Takeover
Although inexplicably scheduled for an early evening set, Megan Thee Stallion delivered what easily could have been a headlining performance. By now praise for Meg seems rote. She is a skilled performer, possesses an inimitable stage presence, and makes some of the most exciting music being released right now. Of course, her set delivered on being a highlight for the weekend. With a pitch-perfect set list, Megan used her criminally abbreviated time slot to the best of her ability, which is to say she absolutely crushed it. By the time she left the stage, a significant portion of the audience didn’t see much of a reason to stick around. They should simply give Megan her own music festival at this point. —J.I.
A$AP Rocky’s 2011 Flashback
Seeing A$AP Rocky headline a music festival in 2021 feels inherently nostalgic, like the early blog era when A$AP and his cohorts first came onto the scene. His set was filled with a healthy dose of old and new, which at some points made for a kind of whiplash — young adults turning up to the same A$AP Rocky songs that came out when I was in college. But Rocky’s set delivered on more than nostalgia. A reminder of the kind of celebrity pandemonium that typified our pre-pandemic lives, Rocky’s girlfriend Rihanna was spotted in the crowd, making for a small frenzy that would make you swear it was 2011 again in the best way. —J.I.
Future Islands’ Pinch Hitter
“We’re going to punch you in your hearts,” said Samuel Herring at the point in every Future Islands set where he’s stalking around the stage, doused in his own blood, sweat, and tears like Russell Crowe in Gladiator, readying himself for the emotional battle royale that is the fan-beloved lullaby, “Little Dreamer.” But tonight, the most amazing thing about this set was that it almost didn’t happen at all. On September 18, Future Islands drummer Michael Lowry tested positive for Covid-19. The band didn’t know what they’d do with their remaining tour dates, including the Gov Ball performance, when one of their longtime monitor engineers, Matt Ricchini said he could fill in on drums. Ricchini hadn’t played drums in a live band in about a decade, but he’d toured with the Baltimore group enough that he knew the songs by ear. He rehearsed with the band for the first time that day and played his first show with them in Chicago the same night. Six days later, Ricchini was performing at Gov Ball to hundreds. —S.G.
Freddie Gibbs’ New York Love Song
Gibbs was joined by the great DJ-producer the Alchemist for his pugnacious, heaving set of hard-nosed hip-hop. The bass was colossal, almost comically booming; the rapper was unerringly cheerful — “I got up and did my calisthenics this morning; I’m feeling good!” — as if there was nothing in the world he’d rather be doing instead of rapping his ass off. This energy was wonderfully infectious, and the crowd alternated between chanting “Freddie! Freddie!” and “Fuck police!” He performed “Crime Pays,” with its crooked, haunted house keyboard riff, and “Scottie Beam,” a spooky head-nodder. “I love New York so much I made a baby in this motherfucker!” Gibbs said happily. —E.L.
Billie Eilish’s Ode to Climate Action
“If you don’t think global warming is real, then you’re a fucking idiot.” Thank you, Billie Eilish. The Grammy-winning pop star talked to the audience in her casual, BFF tone throughout the night, but she managed to get a word in about saving the planet. Unfortunately, that message might have been a little lost on a crowd standing in an actual litter pile of Liquid Death cans and other detritus from Casa Bacardi. In any event, Eilish came, she saw, she flew. Her brother, Finneas, had an epic Slash moment, striding down the stage ramp with his wailing electric guitar during “All the Good Girls Go to Hell.” Eilish also capped off Gov Ball Night One in the most epic of ways: turning her new song “Happier Than Ever” into the gale-force thrash-fest we didn’t know how badly we needed. —S.G.
Orville Peck’s Country-Western Flashback
While Gibbs was busy reviving the scrappy spirit of Nineties boom-bap, Orville Peck was reaching back even further in pop history, singing majestically austere ballads with the stern charisma of Johnny Cash. His voice is a wild instrument unlike anything else in popular music, deep and wide and dour, indomitable verging on operatic, swelling and rising over his band’s ringing guitars. The twanging riffs in “Legends Never Die” evoked Tom Petty’s “Last Dance of Mary Jane,” while “Dead of Night” had the bleak appeal of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” with a booming “Be My Baby” beat thrown in for good measure. He ended with whistling honky-tonk, “Take You Back (The Iron Hoof Cattle Call),” which he sped up into growling romp. “If there’s one thing I know for sure,” he sang, “it’d be a long cold day in hell when I take you back.” —E.L.
Kehlani put on an R&B masterclass late afternoon on Friday, adventuring far beyond the trap-soul formulas of her records. Her voice is thin but impressively pliable, and she showcased its full range, jolting her melodies with bursts of quavery melisma and unexpected swerves as she worked her way through a series of magnificently glacial slow jams about various forms of romantic torture. She was backed by an all-female band dressed in white, with a drummer like thunder and a formidable guitarist who played like she was auditioning for the Isley Brothers. “Y’all know I make R&B music, right?” Kehlani chided the crowd. “No mosh pits, just vibes.” That was more than enough. —E.L.
Dominic Fike’s Mixed Bag
Florida son Dominic Fike is the quintessential Gen-Z multihyphenate: singer, rapper, Euphoria cast member. His set was unexpectedly stripped down, just him, his Fender guitar, and his little apple cheek tattoo. There is something enticing about the combination of the urgent guitar, the inventive, reggae-inflected backing tracks, and the jagged way he mutters through the verses on songs like “Falling Asleep” and “Acai Bowl.” His stage banter could use some work. He called a security officer a “dickhead” for not recognizing he was “an artist” and then groused about having to end his set playing the song that made him famous, “3 Nights,” an undeniably catchy rock song about getting nude pics over text while in Fort Myers, Florida. Fike is a mixed bag. But, hey, it’s nice to hear someone on a stage say, “Turn my guitar up!” —S.G.
Post Malone’s Endless Gratitude
“Everyone knows I can’t sing without Auto-Tune, right?” said Post Malone in what felt like a moment of genuine self-consciousness, before launching into his mellow monster hit “Circles.” There was no one better than this lovable dope in a striped Hello Kitty shirt and cut-offs to close out the third and final night of Gov Ball. For those who might be skeptical, Posty is downright beatific onstage, counting his blessings and saying “Thank you so fucking much” to the crowd after literally every song. He gave the weary masses dessert first, singing big hits like “Better Now” and “Psycho” early in the hourlong set. He also played a “deep cut” from his 2016 album Stoney, “Too Young,” which he dedicated to his Day Ones after chugging some kind of liquid from a red solo cup and launching it into the throng of arms. Posty brought the pyro and fireworks for “Saint Tropez.” And then he brought out Young Thug — whose set was cut criminally short about an hour earlier — and they greeted each other with a big, bro-y bear hug before closing out three crazy days of peace, love, and crop tops with their ballad “Goodbyes.” Thank you so fucking much, Gov Ball. See you next year. —S.G.