Anyone looking for the right moment to pull the plug on the washout first day of Governors Ball could have done worse than the one right after Leslie Feist stopped her set after the first song because, to quote her, "I think they think we're going to get electrocuted." Instead, though, the festival trudged glumly, stubbornly forward, despite the fact that Randall's Island was effectively a lake, and there was no way to get from one stage to the next that did not involve wading through ankle-deep water. The combination of rain and mud made depth perception a fine art – one moment, the water was only up to your ankles. Take the wrong step forward, and it’s halfway up your thigh.
To be fair, the situation is a tricky one. The financial logistics of outdoor music festivals are so upside-down that shutting down prematurely can incur significant financial loss. But pressing on results in the kind of situation that happened at Randall's Island on Friday, where soaked festival-goers trudged barefoot for hours through streams of silt and rainwater. A decision to suspend the festival due to "high winds and unsafe stage conditions" came just before headliners Kings of Leon were set to take the stage and long after the ferries – the festival's recommended mode of transportation – had stopped running because of the weather. This led to astonishingly long lines – in, you guessed it, more water – for city buses that, initially, took several minutes to arrive. At one of the grimmer moments of the night, a concertgoer was overheard saying, "Yo, there's gonna be a riot." It was an overstatement, but suffice it to say, spirits were not high.
Which is a shame, because the earlier moments of the day were full of mostly bright, winning performances. Swear and Shake, whose members hail from Center Moriches, delivered a brisk, charming set of songs whose placid surface belied their stormy centers. The group puts instrumentation typically associated with country music – specifically, harmonica and banjo – in service of gently surging indie rock. A pinwheeling banjo figure opened "Marbles," which gradually built to a jubilant, clattering racket. Like many of their songs, it draws its tension from the interplay between Adam McHeffy's rugged, rummy voice and Kari Spieler's cotton-candy coo. In the nimble, skipping "These White Walls," they ran parallel to each other, the song's heartbroken lyrics sounding like a conversation between two distant lovers.
Best Coast's music is similarly contradictory. Although front woman Bethany Cosentino's personality on Twitter is relentlessly upbeat and her music borrows from sun-dappled California pop, her lyrics – especially on last year's underrated "The Only Place" – wrestle with doubt and depression and personal shortcomings. She opened "No One Like You," a love song with an aching melody that recalls '50s doo-wop ballads, asking, "If I sleep on the floor, will it make you love me more?" "When the Sun Don't Shine," a particularly apt song given the weather, moved from optimism – "I just want to tell you, that I've always loved you" – to uncertainty, swapping out the last phrase for "I've always missed you." "This song is about California," she said by way of introducing the Go-Go's jangle-pop of "The Only Place" before adding, with a look up at the sky – "and I wish we were all there right now."
Erykah Badu's songs are more mysterious and more measured. She's spent the past several years quietly honing her persona and perfecting her live act. The group that played the Skyy Vodka Tent – one of the few covered areas on the island – slid effortlessly from dusky reggae to lithe R&B to twitching jazz, sometimes within the space of single song. Badu's music benefits from such on-the-fly reconfiguration. "The Healer," a doomy, cultish roots number on record had its center opened to bright, brash funk, and "…& On" felt like a gospel call-and-response. Badu remained coolly in control, stopping and starting songs with a simple raising of her hand.
Crystal Castles and St. Lucia were more forceful. The former – who directly preceded Badu – blew in as ominous and threatening black clouds. Vocalist Alice Glass twitched and contorted herself like the zombie in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” a devilish tarantula perched atop a speaker, stalking and slashing. Her voice, buried beneath layers of echo, sounded devilish and inhuman, a restless ghost trying to claw its way out of the machine. Their music was appropriately grim – bright neon blades of synth that slash and stab. Even in the downpour, it was arresting. St. Lucia take similar instrumentation to sunnier ends, combining the fizziness of synthpop with the arena grandeur of bands like Styx and REO Speedwagon. Vocalist Jean-Philip Grobler has an acrobatic voice, and he lets it somersault across bright beams of electronics.
Of Monsters and Men, from Iceland, were just as anthem-like, but if St. Lucia was an onslaught of explosions, their music was more of a slow, steady boil. "From Finner" pulses gently, Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir's voice arcing like a gull over broad acoustic strumming. Like St. Lucia, they're fans of the grand gesture – every song seems not so much like a little moment as a deliberate, major statement. Their crescendos arrived loud as thunder, and just as predictable.
There was more subtlety in the music of Beach House, who were one of the last bands to play before the day was finally brought to a merciful close. Their music is eerie and filmy, and Victoria Legrand's haunting, chalky voice rises from the music like mist off water. Unfortunately, there was a bit too much water to make their music as effective as it could be. After wrestling through countless technical malfunctions due to the increasingly perilous storm, they bid an apologetic farewell, That theirs was some of the last music played Friday night was fitting – a brief moment of calm before a monstrous storm.
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