At any weekend festival, Saturday is typically the most important day; it also tends to be the best attended. (Friday gets cut off because it’s still a work day; Sunday gets truncated because of exhaustion.)
With that many people going all-in, everything gets heightened: the weather hits harder, the choices made about who to watch and what to skip become more dramatic, and the pressure gets ratcheted up for everybody on stage, especially the closers.
Such was the case on Saturday, the second day of Governors Ball 2014, and luckily, headliner Jack White is no stranger to pressure. White has headlined many a festival before, so he’s an old hand at commanding the whims of tens of thousands at a time, and he stuck to the biggest meat-and-potatoes riffs in his catalog to keep the crowd stirred after a long day of baking in the sun.
White had to split the huge Saturday throng with Skrillex, who was manipulating bass drops with his bad haircut across the field. In fact, that particular choice really illustrated the state of Governors Ball, and of these types of festivals in general—a constant struggle between old and new, nostalgia and discovery, veterans with guitars and upstarts with samplers. Not only does White operate in an old-timey mode, but his performance at Governors Ball was at its best when he dipped into the White Stripes catalog to bust out familiar rousers like “We’re Going To Be Friends,” “Hotel Yorba,” and “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.” The songs from his just-released Lazaretto still sound like they are forming their live identities, but considering how stellar “Sixteen Saltines” (from his first solo album, 2012’s Blunderbuss) sounded, it’s only a matter of time.
Such was not the case for the Strokes, the hometown boys who drew what looked like the biggest crowd of Governors Ball so far. (Childish Gambino, who was performing a set during the same time slot across Randall’s Island Park, must have felt a little lonely, though his audience did include Andre 3000, with his son in tow.) I had completely forgotten that the Strokes had released a new album called Comedown Machine last year, right up until the moment they busted out “Welcome To Japan” early in their evening performance.
The big secret about the Strokes is that they’ve never been that good live, and there were moments that lacked focus during their 90 minutes on stage. But they seemed to feed off the energy of their neighbors, and by the set-closing one-two punch of “You Only Live Once” (from 2006’s deeply underrated First Impressions of Earth) and the watershed single “Last Nite,” they had discovered their inner rock gods. Props to them too for performing “New York City Cops” as their encore, as it is by far the best song in the band’s entire catalog, and there’s always self-conscious concern about playing that tune within the city limits.)
Sleigh Bells also got their start in the confines of the five boroughs, and though “Crown On The Ground” and “Infinity Guitars” already feel like classic rock thanks to countless appearances in movie trailers and TV commercials, their evening set inside the Gotham Tent seemed to be an hour-long attempt to buck the trappings of indie-rock careerism. Their shows can be a bit monochromatic because of their sound and set-up, but the tracks from last year’s overlooked Bitter Rivals showcased a new brand of dynamism for Alexis Kraus and Derek Miller, and those songs stood out best during their set. They opened with “Minnie,” a remarkably jittery blast of yawps and guitars, and the propulsive “Sing Like a Wire” acted as a fitting joyful climax. Sleigh Bells can be hard to dance to, but people were doing it anyway.
On the other hand, British electronic duo Disclosure should be very easy to dance to, and yet their afternoon set at Governors Ball was one of the more disappointing of the weekend. Perhaps they ran into technical difficulties (earlier in the afternoon, Tanlines’ equipment straight-up melted in the summer heat), or maybe their songs don’t have the same kind of impact without collaborators like Sam Smith singing over them. Or maybe it’s just too hard to get a good dance party going at five o’clock.
In any event, both the group and the crowd were flat, so I bolted to catch the tail end of Broken Bells at the other end of the park. There was no dancing at that show either, despite the fact that the group’s latest album is called After The Disco. Their subtle, moody compositions shouldn’t work in a festival setting—they play neither big-crowd music nor songs fit for the outdoors—but they made it work anyway, and After the Disco single “Holding On For Life” was one of the crisper performances of the weekend.
Considering frontman James Mercer’s other band the Shins also tend to be excellent at festivals, perhaps Mercer should give some sort of seminar about being both moody and compelling in the middle of a public park. Little victories like Broken Bells were few and far between on Saturday, as most acts took the “go big or go do a club show” approach to their Governors Ball experience. But it felt good to know that amidst all the guitar strutting and big beat blasts, there were still ample possibilities in the space between.