Governors Ball Opens With Killer Headliners: Concert Review

Matthew Allen
A day of strong performances ended with an Outkast set that gave "nostalgia act" a good name.

Crowds were a nightmare, but the music fest's fourth installment had an otherwise strong start, including performances by Outkast and Damon Albarn.

NEW YORK — Last year's Governors Ball was a mucky endurance test, with mud so thick one attendee recalled watching a friend drop a beer that quickly sunk below the surface, leaving just a foamy gurgle visible. A young couple from Philly remembered being mortified when they returned to the apartment of a friend who was putting them up: Even after stripping in the hallway, they were so caked it was hard not to soil the place on their way to shower.

But this year's event greeted festivalgoers with mild temperature, mostly clear skies, and mud puddles that were scarce enough they could be avoided if you weren't drunk or stoned. (With only Miller Lite and Foster's available to wash down the cornucopia of foodie treats, who would want to get drunk?) The day was made for standing outside listening to bands.

Plenty of performers have a hard time providing a compelling visual focus point during outdoor daytime sets, where light shows can't convince us they're more interesting to look at than the face-painted or barely-clad listeners nearby. But Janelle Monae and her black-and-white-uniformed band are an exception. The impeccably groomed singer was wheeled out Hannibal Lecter-style, strait-jacketed on a hand truck, before being unstrapped to shimmy across the stage. She ignored the sci-fi conceits that have underpinned her records, showing she can hold the stage relying just on James Brown-inspired showmanship and her own charisma. While songs from her latest disc, The Electric Lady, didn't stack up well against her breakthrough hit "Tightrope," she held her own in an early time slot few performers would envy.

The fest's alternating-stage schedule worked well for fans of roots-leaning female songwriters, who could move seamlessly from the end of Jenny Lewis' 70s-inflected set to see Neko Case. A boomy sound mix didn't do justice to Case's fine band, and the sun was not her friend. She turned down multiple offers of sunglasses once a harsh light broke through fluffy clouds (eyewear pinches her, she explained, because "my head's too big"), instead shielding her eyes with outstretched arms in a gesture she described as a hug for the sun. A plaintive, pedal-steel-heavy take on the deep cut "Set Out Running" was a standout here, as was the more recent "Still Night Comes."

A surprising number of people sat down in front of the stage once Case wrapped up, waiting out the hour and a quarter until TV on the Radio played. Whatever this might say about mobility at GovBall, the wait paid off for fans who were up front for the band's strong set. The falsetto-laden ballad "Million Miles" served as a teasing reminder that it's been almost a year since that song's release, with no sign of the new album it portended. But at least fans have Tunde Adebimpe's side project, Higgins Waterproof Black Magic Band, to keep them company.

The big event of the day (of the whole weekend, for many festgoers) was the chance to see the recently reunited Outkast. And whatever their issues at the Coachella shows that started the rap duo's reunion tour, the mood here was rapturous — a justified response to a high-energy set that made the two individual stars seem once again like a brotherly team.

That bond was evoked nostalgically mid-set as the two paced in circles within a large cube for an extended performance of "Aquemini." Video projection on the sides made them look like fish swimming in an aquarium, but Big Boi explained that this is how they used to rehearse, walking around a kitchen table testing rhymes. Longtime followers of the group got plenty of old favorites here, as a tight live band backed the rappers up on the title track from ATLiens and on "Hootie Hoo," which dates back to their first record. More casual admirers got plenty from Stankonia, with "Ms. Jackson" ending the first part of their joint set.

Energy flagged occasionally during the few songs each man performed solo, but Andre 3000 wrapped this interlude with a surefire energy boost: On "Hey Ya," he recruited some ladies from the audience to dance, then brought in a ringer — Janelle Monae, dressed in a letterman's jacket and with her usual tight coif girlishly unleashed, danced effusively right alongside them.

Getting tens of thousands of people from Manhattan and Brooklyn to little Randall's Island over the course of a day is one thing. Getting them all home once they've seen the headliner is something else. Even forward-thinking fans who started inching through the sea of people well before Outkast's last number found an extremely long wait to get to the ferries, prompting some in the mob to wonder aloud just how serious they were about seeing headliners like Skrillex and Vampire Weekend on Saturday and Sunday. At the end of that wait, happily, concertgoers were rewarded with a cool breeze and an unbeatable nighttime tour past the East River skyline.