To those hardy enough to trek out to Randall's Island in the torrential downpour on Friday, for Day #1 of this year's Governors Ball, we salute you.
In contrast with 2012's Ball, for which temperatures spiked in the 90s and the sun shone almost relentlessly, the conditions out on the island for this year's three-day-long fest (for which they added an extra day and two stages) were, well, inclement. OK, they were downright horrible. Those (this reporter included) who were foolish enough to wear flip-flops (or any other footwear less substantial than galoshes or knee-high rubber boots) regretted it seconds after stepping off the ferry into mid-calf-high slop on Saturday afternoon.
After a full day and night of rain, with people kicking up the grounds, Randall's Island was torn up. (In retrospect, they probably should have canceled Friday altogether, to benefit the rest of the weekend.) Where once there was grass, now were acres of mud — so deep and viscous that navigating from stage to stage became a treacherous safari, the only goal of which was to remain upright and not pitch face first in the muck. Muck that, after a full day of foot traffic and sun exposure, began to smell strongly of cow dung — as did all the people standing around in it.
But festival-goers are resilient sorts and, soon enough, shoes were abandoned (they'll be mining footwear out of the soil on that island for months to come), as were any pretenses of staying clean. Let's get weird, tweeted Governors Ball on more than one occasion — and so we did.
Girls with garlands of flowers traipsed by, faces streaked with neon paint from a free face painting booth and swatches of mud like war paint. It was us versus Mother Nature and, with ten straight hours of music the prize to be won, everyone came ready for a throw-down.
Four stages and overlapping sets (in comparison to past years, when no sets overlapped and people had ample time to get from one stage to the other) meant that attendees were required to choose the bands they wanted to catch carefully — and lay out an attack plan for getting to those respective stages.
Conveniently, Governors Ball had an app for which you could do both, that let you know where your shows were at, and when. Not conveniently, the crowds flooding the island meant that cell service was limited if not nonexistent, so most of us ended up fending for ourselves. After a particularly arduous slog from Japandroids at the "Gov Ball NYC Stage" on one end of the island to see Alt-J (glad to have caught them, though, the geeky British indie-rockers are great live) at the "HondaStage" on the other, I decided to stick with shows on the "Gov Ball NYC" and "Skyy Vodka Tent" stages, both positioned on the slightly-less soggy part of the park. That said, the acoustics at "Gov Ball" (where all the headliners played) were far better than the the other stages, particularly "Honda," at which loud conversations consistently overshadowed the music. My companions and I actually abandoned the Lumineers' Sunday show at that stage, because the drunken chatter around us drowned out almost all of their set. Bummer.
Japandroids were dynamic and hyped, amping up the crowd through chummy banter and repeatedly noting how excited they were to be on the same stage that Guns N' Roses would play a few hours later (as Saturday's headliners opposite Nas, an odd match-up if ever there was one). This, perhaps, as a conciliatory nod to the backlash that followed the initial announcement that G&R were headlining. (Some people went as far as to start an online petition to get Axl and the gang kicked off the bill.)
The Canadian duo blazed through "Celebration Rock," kicking off with "Fire's Highway" and holding out on fan favorite "House That Heaven Built" until the near-end of their roughly 45-minute-long set. "We are Guns n' Roses from Los Angeles, California," they shouted before one of their last songs — perhaps a nod to those in attendance who didn't give a damn about the old heads on the bill — to which the crowd roared their approval.
As the day wore on and the crowd got drunker, navigating the increasingly sloppy terrain got, well, sloppier. I witnessed more than one person, staggering zombie-like through the mud, take a spill, arms pinwheeling helplessly. Luckily, most of those still standing were kind enough to help haul a fallen comrade up out of the ooze.
Kings of Leon's Friday night headlining set was canceled late Friday — to the dismay and outrage of those who'd braved the weather to make it there — but they showed up for an early evening Saturday set on the "Gov Ball NYC" stage. To the delight of the crowd, and this writer, they played heavily from their back catalog, mixing old fan favorites like "Taper Jean Girl" and "Molly's Chambers" in among more recent jams, including a new song from their forthcoming album. KoL, though increasingly rumored to be becoming prima donnas (remember when that bird crapped all over their show?), are fantastic live, and they brought no drama to this festival. Instead, they seemed eager to please, commending the crowd for sticking it out in the mud and rewarding us with exactly what we wanted to hear.
Other highlights from the day included Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros' mid-afternoon set — from what I hear. I stuck close to home base to catch F*cked Up's show in the Skyy Vodka Tent, which — true to form — was like a sonic boot to the face. In a totally awesome way. The only "hardcore" band on a hip-hop and indie-centric bill, their raging set contrasted boldly with what I'm told was a jubilantly high energy showing from the Zeros.
By 9:30 pm, after hours spent slogging through the mud and putting back the massive 24-ounce oil cans of Fosters that were the weekend's brew of choice, I was frankly too knackered to make it to either of the competing stages. Instead, I kicked back on a blanket we'd laid out under an overhang of trees across from the Skyy tent. From where I sat in the dark, I could clearly make out the strains of "Welcome to the Jungle" as Guns n' Roses (whom I had high bets on not showing up) took the stage. And, well shoot, these dudes still have it. They ran through the big hits in quick succession — "Paradise City," a rather nostalgia-inducing "November Rain" — to the crowd's evident delight. "They sound exactly the same," marveled a girl to her companion, from where they sat propped against the foot of a tree. Proud of you, Axl, bro. Also, they brought pyrotechnics. From where I half-sat, half-lay, nursing the last of my giant can of Fosters, I had a prime view of fireworks lighting up the night sky above the stage. A rather spectacular end to a rather unusual day.