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Governors Ball: Day 2 (Axl was early!) recap

Caleb Followill, right, and Nathan Followill from the

Caleb Followill, right, and Nathan Followill from the band Kings of Leon perform at the 3rd annual Governors Ball Music Festival in New York. (June 8, 2013) (Credit: AP )

Here's when it became clear that the second day of Governors Ball, the three-day music festival held on Randall's Island, stood in marked contrast to the first: Guns N’ Roses went on 10 minutes early.

That occurrence -- the musical equivalent to a minor act of God -- was the capstone of a day that fought harder and accomplished more than its predecessor, a day whose acts were characterized by a spirit of triumphalism. If Friday was a perilous, unendurable, waterlogged disaster, Saturday was the hard-earned reprieve. And if the natural consequence of the torrential downpour was that the island was rendered a vast expanse of shoe-swallowing mud, at least it was better than biting winds and brutal rain.

The warmer weather afforded a second chance to Friday's should've-been headliners Kings of Leon, who are slowly returning to the touring circuit following front man Caleb Followill's onstage meltdown in July 2011. In the past, Kings of Leon's worst sin was being utterly characterless. Their songs endeavored to fuse Southern rock gristle with arena rock posturing, but the results often felt streamlined and toothless. The group that took the stage on Randall's Island Saturday evening seemed at once more threatening and more determined; they entered to the unnerving strains of Scott Walker's "The Electrician," a brooding song written from the perspective of a torturer. From there, their set was all snarl and fight, their sleekest songs stripped to raw husks and left to howl and claw and kick. "Radioactive" felt both deeply primal and strangely uplifting, Followill straining to reach the afterlife across a bed of tense, twitching guitars. "Molly's Chambers" was as lithe and menacing as a panther, a tight coil of energy ready to pounce. It was alarming and arresting -- the group's past performances prized a kind of Plasticine professionalism, but on Saturday they seemed eager to get some grit in the gears. The whole set felt feral and bug-eyed, a band scratching and kicking their way back to life.

They were followed by Guns N’ Roses, a band for whom danger and malice has long been a thing of the past. Anyone seeing them at this stage of the game knows they are effectively getting Guns N’ Roses: The Ride, a mechanically-perfect, meticulously-diagrammed contraption that whips along all the familiar peaks and corners, sells the big moments with the appropriate measure of pyrotechnics, and apparently now has the added bonus of starting on time. The linchpin of any Guns N’ Roses performance is Axl Rose's voice, and on Saturday he sounded more-or-less OK -- a bit pinched when he pushed for the upper regions, a bit out-of-breath when the cadence kicked into double-time. What was disheartening was how leadfooted it all felt. "Welcome to the Jungle" didn't shimmy so much as trudge, and the chintzy projections of women in lingerie writhing in front of a white screen that augmented "Rocket Queen" felt nicked from the karaoke accompaniment video of the same song. "Live and Let Die" was big and boisterous, fireworks accentuating every crescendo, and "You Could Be Mine" leered and hissed, but the whole affair felt strangely remote -- note-perfect, well-scripted and blindingly bright, but unmistakably hollow at the center.

On the other side of the field, Nas was doing more with less. Though he was backed by nearly as many musicians as the current configuration of Guns N’ Roses, their attack was laser-focused. He allowed his songs to gradually change shape beneath him. On "Accident Murderers," his band moved from short, punkish riffs to a long section of Chopin's "Revolutionary Etude" back into dank, apocalyptic funk. Nas delivered his lyrics in long, liquid passages, sounding at times like an actor delivering a particularly impassioned monologue. On "Made You Look," they lunged and snarled, summoning the primacy of metal to support Nas' finely-wrought boasts.

If Nas was concerned with the content of his lyrics, Azealia Banks seemed more focused on the sound. She's a brisk, breathless rapper, firing an endless barrage of clipped syllables. On "1991," which she described as "my favorite song that I've written," her voice rattled over a rhythm track that built slowly -- first depth-charge bass, then, flickering synth, then a snatch of looped vocal. On "Jumanji," a bounding synth line approximated the sound of a steel drum while Banks giddily bounced lyrics across them like a teenager playing jacks in the schoolyard. 

Japandroids displayed a similar impishness, offsetting shots of hurtling punk rock with tart stage banter. "This next one is from our first album," guitarist Brian King announced early in the set. "It's called ‘Appetite for Destruction.’ Maybe you've heard of it?" Guns N’ Roses acted as a de facto punching bag for Japandroids throughout their set. They dedicated the raucous "The House That Heaven Built" to Tommy Stinson, the former Replacements bassist currently playing with Guns N’ Roses by saying, "we love the work he did in the '80s with his other band," and declared at the close of their set, "For anyone who came late, we're Guns N’ Roses from Los Angeles, California."

Rather than merely mocking, the Toronto band whose name cannot be printed in a family paper -- let's just say it rhymes with Trucked Up -- found ways to make punk and arena rock coexist. Their latest album, “David Comes to Life,” is a minor masterpiece, a breathless synthesis of art-rock scope and hardcore brutality. Live, they felt nervy and vital, front man Damian Abraham clambering off the stage to howl lyrics directly into the audience. Their songs speak of renewal and rebirth, and their ragged energy felt desperate and hopeful all at once. "This song goes out to anyone who's ever been called too fat or too skinny," Abraham said by way of introducing "I Hate Summer," a hurricane of sound that built to a quaking, cathartic chorus. It was the ideal anthem for a day that was sun-soaked and full of promise.

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