Words and photos by Megan Schaller
Three years ago, I looked to music festivals with a sense of mysticism and teenage yearning. At the time, I was still inexperienced enough to think that the idea of 30,000 tightly packed, sweaty armpits seemed strangely glamorous. While I’m no longer too naïve to let those delusions of grandeur fool me, there are some festivals that make three days of sleep deprivation, sunburn, and mile-long food lines worth it.
Yes, I suppose there is something alluring about moshing on a carpet of ripped-out grass stubs and crushed beer cans, or waiting an entire hour in 95-degree-heat to buy a $15 roll of lukewarm sushi. And yet, that’s not what keeps me coming back to Governor’s Ball Festival in New York City. At GovBall, it’s all about the music. This year’s lineup? The Strokes! The Killers! Kanye!
So here, without further ado, were the three favorite acts I saw throughout the two-day New York City festival. Had the third day of the festival not been cancelled for weather, all three of these acts would probably have been Kanye.
Christine and the Queens
It’s not often that I go to a festival while not knowing the music of a performer that I explicitly plan to see. In fact, “not often” is putting it euphemistically – I never go to a festival unprepared. I had seen Christine’s name peppered around social media, and I knew that she had opened for Marina and the Diamonds on her latest tour, but I had no clue what differentiated her from other modern pop singers. And now, weeks later, I’m still cursing myself for not hopping on her bandwagon sooner.
I, a self-proclaimed pop music worshipper, expected something good. Heck, I expected something very good – a badass woman making music never disappoints. I did not, however, expect something so ridiculously great that it would snowball into a week of late nights spent watching every single live Christine performance on Youtube.
Let’s get to the point. The music? It was fantastic. Oh yes, her bilingual “freakpop” was devilishly catchy in all of the best ways. But with Christine, this wasn’t just a music show. No, this was a cascading performance of dance, song, spoken word, and passion. The Queens, I quickly learned, weren’t just a rhyme for the sake of a snappy band name – the Queens were dancers, and they were as wholly a part of the group as Christine. This wasn’t just Christine’s show; this was the incredibly complex brainchild of a small troupe of human beings dancing, singing, and bursting across the stage. This was fully realized art.
It was explosive to watch the spirits of Michael Jackson, Prince, and Stromae manifest themselves so readily in the body of a small French woman and her elegant crew. Now, as I try to put this set into a series of words, it feels like trying to bottle the entire sky into a single sentence. So with that, I will stop. I will stop, and insist you check out Christine and the Queens live for yourself, because it might just be the most important thing you do all year.
I love Beck. Everybody should love Beck. He’s one of those special kinds of performers whose discography is so undeniably likeable and versatile that you can’t help but downright love it. Months ago, when I initially saw his name on the Govball lineup, I swelled with hot, girlish excitement. After years of waiting, I’d finally – finally! – get to see the magnificent, mega-talented “Who’s Beck?” Beck in the flesh. He deserved a hero’s welcome.
I went into his set hungry for just two specific songs: WOW, an infectiously fun new single that he had released the very day before his Govball set, and Dreams, his spontaneous single from last summer (and undoubtedly one of the greatest pop songs of all time). Yes, I was also excited for other Beck classics – particularly his picks from the 2014 Grammy-award-winning album Morning Phase- but the anticipation of WOW and Dreams kept my heart nearly bursting out of my slightly-sunburned chest from the crack of dawn to the moment Beck picked up his guitar.
Beck put on an incredibly solid show. It pulsed with ardor and punch, but also with an aura of comfort that made looking onstage feel like saying hi to an old friend. Folk, rock, hip hop – he skipped around his expansive discography with a master’s precision, keeping me constantly on my toes, wishing on a star that one of my favorite songs would be next.
When Beck finally played Dreams, it was an awakening. No English words pack enough weight to describe the mighty voltage of finally hearing one of your favorite songs live. You know, one of those songs that you’ve shouted along to in the car on repeat, shamelessly waltzed to in your bedroom, and enthusiastically shared with every human being in a five-mile radius from your house. Any wary existentialist merely needs to hear Dreams live to realize how whole, radiant, and alive they really are.
Beck didn’t play WOW, and although I was crushed, I couldn’t help but smile a crooked little grin as I realized I wasn’t going to hear my song. This wasn’t the end, I thought. If I wanted to hear WOW, I’d just have to go see him again. And so, until then, I wait patiently, heart still bursting anticipatively, dreaming not only of Dreams, but of new Beck tour dates.
Listen, it’d be an absolute lie to say my primary motivation for coming to Governor’s Ball was anything other than to see The Strokes. Ever since The Strokes announced their live comeback in 2014 with a Governor’s Ball set, the festival has held mythical power. That hallowed 2014 set was the first time I ever saw The Strokes, and also, I’d say, the most important milestone of my teenage years. So, naturally, when I saw their name on the 2016 lineup, I stopped reading band names, curled into fetal position, and thanked whatever higher managerial power let this miracle happen.
Strokes crowds are truly something special, especially at a hometown show. You’ll find fans in the crowd from all over the world – Iraq, Italy, France, Mexico – singing their hearts out in that oh-so-sacred universal language of early 2000s garage rock. You’ll find plenty of people who camped out for the coveted center barrier spot (…I reluctantly admit to being one of those people). You’ll also find plenty of hair-pullers, pushers, and kickers hungry to snatch those barrier spots the second the first row shows any weakness (traditional festival etiquette? Nope, not today). The crowd is tense; the crowd is charged. The crowd is never, ever prepared for the downright badassery that they are about to witness.
For the past few years, The Strokes have been playing a fairly consistent show. Yes, it’s certainly mesmerizing and life-changing every single time, but it’s always more-or-less the same setlist, under the same tri-colored lights, with the same familiar energy. Govball was not this show. It was something completely different, something wholly the same and yet terrifyingly, gloriously new. Dazzling new lighting. Fireworks of intense energy from every single band member. A completely reworked setlist, featuring over half of The Strokes’s surprise EP (that, coincidentally, had been released the exact same day as their set), and a fan-favorite cover that had last been performed in 2004. This, in all their glory, was the band that revitalized American rock. These, in tangible flesh-and-blood bodies, were our legendary heroes, giving us the same show that we felt inside our bones the first time we listened to Is This It.
And so, we wept. We laughed. We screamed the lyrics to our favorite songs until our voices dried up completely. We let the bruises envelope our bodies until we were more black-and-blue than flesh-toned. And, when we were done with our bodies, let them dissolve into the night, knowing that even after we left the festival grounds, the crowd’s collective soul would live on forever in the very soil beneath our toes.
Albert Hammond Jr
I feel extremely guilty not listing Albert Hammond Jr’s set in my top three. His shows are ridiculously fun, ridiculously good, and ridiculously dynamic. Even though his name on lineups is always on a slightly lower tier, he’s a headliner through-and-through. His set took place during the mid-afternoon after The Strokes’s magnetizing Friday night set, so it was warmly comforting to see him again after a bone-rattling Friday – and doubly exciting to see him in a crowd of similarly passionate AHJ fans. The crowd belted every one of his songs like an anthem, letting them cloak us in momentary invincibility.
Okay, I made a big mistake: I didn’t see The Killers. I’m still kicking myself over my loss – can you imagine anything more strangely beautiful than 30,000 strangers singing “Mr. Brightside” at the top of their lungs? Can you even begin to imagine bottling the electricity from that air? Along with playing through their dance-your-pants-off, hands-in-the-air hits, The Killers covered Interpol at Govball. Freakin’ Interpol! Oh, man. I need to stop talking about this set, because my heart is breaking just thinking about how I missed it.
Okay, I get it. Kanye’s show was cancelled. But, hear me out: his presence throughout the weekend was undeniable. His spirit saturated the air in a thick blanket of raw Yeezy, nearly choking me with the promise of overpriced tee shirts and angry twitter rants. No matter whether patrons of the festival came for Father John Misty, Purity Ring, or Eagles of Death Metal, at their core, they were all here for Kanye. I mean, come on – there was enough Yeezus merch being worn by the crowd to fund my college tuition several times over. The Kanye magic was ethereal, consuming, and really, truly cool. Thanks, Ye, for the (cut-short) weekend of a lifetime. ✿