There’s something very non-New York about music festivals. From the combo-platter concept (which is sort of like having a mall in the middle of a city brimming with retailers) to the largely suburban fans to the location (which usually ends up being Randall’s Island, an uninhabited way-station in the middle of the East River), music festivals — which have been in a boom phase in the U.S. for the past decade — have faced many challenges in the city. Yet for the past nine years Governors Ball has proved the exception to the rule — despite more than one weather-based fiasco, including last night’s thunderstorm-truncated finale — and it ultimately has delivered in the category that really matters: the music.
And like most large-scale festivals, the lineup of this year’s Gov Ball on Randall’s Island featured something for nearly everyone. From the oddball artistry of Tyler, the Creator (read our recap of Gov Ball day one here) to the symphonic indie rock of Florence + the Machine, from the streetwise poetry of Nas to the country-pop swagger of Kacey Musgraves, the festival was a true melting pot of cultures, styles and sounds. Although the festival’s third and final day on Sunday was shortened due to a weather-related late start and early finish — read more on that here — some of the most exciting emerging talent hit the stage that day as well — such as Chance the Rapper disciples Saba and Noname, the latter unfortunately being forced to rush through her set because of the rescheduling, and also suffered from technical difficulties. But the Chicagoan Noname powered through her abbreviated set regardless, rocking several songs from last year’s “Room 25” album even when her mic went out.
With SZA and the Strokes getting cut at the last minute, Nas — the only scheduled headliner who actually got to perform on Sunday — was by far the finale’s highlight. For the true fan, his set was enough to make the truncated day and hellish evacuation worth the trip. Playing only one song — “Adam and Eve” — from his latest album, last year’s “Nasir” collaboration with Kanye West, the veteran emcee flexed his extensive back catalog, powering through classic after classic including “Illmatic” cuts “N.Y. State of Mind,” “Life’s a Bitch,” “The World is Yours,” “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” and “Halftime” (part of which he rocked over GZA’s “Liquid Swords” instrumental), as well as other celebrated singles like “Street Dreams,” “Got Ur Self a Gun,” “Nas Is Like” and “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That),” among others. After his reference to the song in “You’re da Man,” he even performed his breakout verse from Main Source’s “Live at the Barbecue,” with a seamless transition by his DJ.
Noting the young audience, Nas jokingly asked, “Anyone here ever own a cassette?” and proceeded to tell the story of opening his “Halftime” cassette single for the first time. “[It was] a proud day,” he recalled. “It was a summer, spring day — it felt like this. So let’s just go back to that: here’s a radio; open the package; slide that sh– in; press it in and press play like this,” he acted out as his DJ dropped the beat right on cue, to a roar of applause from the crowd.
After his verse from Raekwon’s “Verbal Intercourse,” the Queensbridge statesman brought out Havoc to perform their collaboration “Eye for a Eye (Your Beef Is Mines)” (which also featured Raekwon) from Mobb Deep’s “The Infamous” as well as the Mobb classic “Shook Ones (Part II)” — together rapping Prodigy’s verse in tribute to the deceased legend. Nas’ protégé Dave East also made an appearance, performing “Forbes List.”
When it began to rain during “Hate Me Now,” the crowd didn’t seem to mind — in fact, it almost added to the ambience. Finally, after a rendition of “Made You Look” set to a mash-up of different classic hip-hop beats, Nas laid down on the stage and then sat back up for “One Mic” — after which he said goodbye and the audience was told to leave. On the way out, a crowd of dedicated Beast Coast fans formed by the Bacardi stage, demanding a show from the collective of Joey Bada$$ his Pro Era brethren, Flatbush Zombies, and the Underachievers, but in vain.
On Saturday, headliners Florence + the Machine and Major Lazer divvied concertgoers, seemingly by age. On one side of the park, elders (which at Gov Ball refers to anyone over 25) swayed to the soaring vocals of Florence Welch, while their youthful counterparts bounced and slammed into each other to the earth-shaking beats of the Diplo-led Major Lazer on the other. It was almost like the “kids club” on a cruise, with the EDM DJs serving as babysitters — distracting the teens with pyrotechnics and smoke machines while the parents communed with yogi Florence.
Clad in a billowing gauze dress, Florence has a remarkably engaging presence — her stare alone roused cheers from the crowd. Gracefully leaping and spinning like a ballerina, she made full use of the stage and sometimes moved across it almost in a panic. In her charmingly breathy British accent, accented by giggles, Florence told anecdotes and interacted with the crowd between songs. “I find speaking on stage so hard,” she shared. “I know it’s weird that I’m shy, isn’t it? You wouldn’t think I would be shy, ’cause all this stuff. I feel like we’re gonna have fun tonight, though. I feel like there’s a lot of kindred spirits… people who are both shy and extra.” Laughing and speaking directly to an audience member, she added, “I see you! I see you, I feel you, I understand!”
Florence also touched on the recent controversy surrounding anti-abortion laws in parts of the U.S. “American women, you deserve so much better!” she exclaimed. “I know that concert and festival tickets are expensive, so I would never ask you to give any more than you have, but if you were passing a merch stand maybe and you were thinking of buying a t-shirt, I would really love it if you could give that money to the ACLU.”
Elsewhere on Saturday, Vince Staples was another performer who addressed multiple concertgoers directly. With the sociopolitical context of his music lost on much of the audience, he kept the banter light — randomly jabbing members of the crowd. “You got problems at home or something?” he asked one fan. “I like that. White people crazy!” He instructed another to dance, suggesting that they “hit a wop,” and requested that someone throw him a wig that had apparently fallen to the ground. “This how y’all comin’ at the festival?” he asked. “Y’all gotta get some Indian hair, okay? I don’t know if they sell that out here, but like get on the internet and find some shit, ’cause this is nasty… Only white people get to wear shit like this and not go to jail.” He also had the crowd shouting, “I ain’t never ran from nothin’ but the police,” though many most likely hadn’t.
“Y’all cute,” he mentioned several times throughout the show.