Governors Ball returned to New York over the weekend for the first time in well over a year. For some, it was a daunting prospect, returning to a crowd of thousands after isolating for so long. Nobody is still quite sure how to navigate this period of the pandemic but the return of music festivals feels like a triumphant step for New York.
NYC was one of the worst-hit cities at the beginning of the pandemic and Gov Ball is the first major music festival to make its return to the city. From long lines to a general feeling of caution, there were definitely teething problems but as a whole it was a mighty exhibit of live music and one that left plenty of people feeling rejuvenated. Here's exactly what it was like on the ground.
Governors Ball had a strict vaccination or negative COVID test rule that was enforced on entry. Festivalgoers were made to show their vaccination pass and ID on entry and received a yellow wristband. It would have been near impossible to skip this test meaning that attendees could be pretty sure that nearly everybody inside the festival was vaccinated.
Inside the festival, masks were not mandated and they were barely anywhere to be seen. The entire festival was outside and the big space ensured that you could always have distance if you wanted it, even though those vying to be close to the stage experienced that festival coziness.
At festivals in the past, there's always a lack of soap in the portaloos particularly by the last day but they were always well-stocked with both soap and sanitiser at Gov Ball.
It remains to be seen what the COVID rates were like at Gov Ball but other events in the US have gone ahead over the summer with relative success despite the spread of the Delta variant. Despite daily crowds of well over 100k, Lollapalooza in Chicago only recorded 203 infections.
A Common Sense Of Gratitude
Now we've got the serious stuff out of the way, onto the music. Gov Ball gathered a slightly smaller lineup for its return event this year but it wasn't any less mighty. There was a celebratory atmosphere to most artists' sets where they looked overjoyed just to be back on the stage, after more than a year's absence for many. Some have played shows through the summer including headliners A$AP Rocky and Billie Eilish but others were hitting the stage for the first time including Carly Rae Jepsen, Ellie Goulding, and Aussies RÜFÜS DU SOL.
It seemed everybody that hit the stage was feeling emotional about the opportunity to be back in front of a live audience. Caroline Polachek choked up while telling the crowd "it's good to be back," Jepsen bounced around the stage giddy with excitement and Eilish remarked that it's her favourite show that she's ever played. The latter doubled down on that comment on Instagram after the show writing, "last night was one of my all time favorites."
On the crowd side, all that pent-up energy seemed to shine through with some raucous singalongs. Eilish tore the place apart with the final two minutes of Happier Than Ever with the crowd screaming at a deafening volume, Goulding got emotional watching the crowd sing Love Me Like You Do and J Balvin looked down on the crowd in amazement as they exploded to his verse in Cardi B's I Like It. There was a heartwarming sense that everyone was grateful to be back and it created a positive, electric atmosphere.
It's hard to go past Eilish when thinking of immediate standouts. Her tight, 90-minute set moved through her short but impressive career with ease, toying with emotions throughout. The songs from WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP WHERE DO WE GO have punk-infused, dark energy to them live and cause the biggest stir in the moshpit but the cuts from Happier Than Ever feel like classics. Lost Cause was a rousing "fuck you", far more so than it sounds on the album and Billie Bossa Nova was a slippery, sleek addition that showcased her beautiful voice. The closing one-two-punch of Bad Guy and Happier Than Ever though was truly spectacular. If you're after just one festival moment to restart your heart post-lockdown the final two minutes of Happier Than Ever is where to start. It was a triumphant, howling finish that left all the hairs on the arm standing up.
Kehlani's set may not have had the grandeur of Eilish's but she delivered nonetheless. She was one of the brave ones who released a project during COVID and she celebrated that by packing the set with songs from It Was Good Until It Wasn't. The R&B-focussed album perfectly showcases her voice, raised in the live arena by Kehlani's magnetic charisma. She also gave her new song Altar its first live outing, giving a warming, heartfelt performance.
RÜFÜS DU SOL also had us feeling emotional with their set. Watching the Australian trio is an all-encompassing experience as they lay on the bass and hypnotise the head with those blaring synth-lines. The classics like You Were Right and Innerbloom were transcendent under the lasers but the new songs sounded particularly good. The first live outing of On My Knees showcases the newfound power that the new cuts from their upcoming album Surrender harness.
A$AP Rocky was the true headliner of day two but it was Megan Thee Stallion and J Balvin who truly stole the show. Megan is a powerhouse performer with an undeniable lineup of hits for someone so fresh into their career. She brings strength and charisma to the stage moving thunderously through WAP, Cash Shit and Savage - a trio of perfect rap songs. Later in the day Latin superstar Balvin did everything to start the party with a reggaeton-heavy set. He never let the energy slip as he double-timed many of the beats and then had the whole festival salsa dancing with his airing of Cardi B's I Like It. It was heartening to see just how far Latin music has come in mainstream America.
The award for the happiest performer of the festival goes to Carly Rae Jepsen though, who wore a grin for the entirety of her set. She was overjoyed to be back on the stage and the contentment only added to the likeability of a very camp set. She was over-the-top and cheeky as she called out exes and declared her love for others. Runaway With Me was euphoric but it was Cut To The Feeling that really made us feel emotional about being back at a festival. The set was a big bursting heart and left us feeling all gooey inside.
The only other performer that came close to beating Jepsen on the happiness scale was Burna Boy, finally bringing Afropop to the mainstream festival scene in America. His set was both breezy and powerful, taking songs from both African Giant and Twice As Tall. He's featured on plenty of massive pop tracks from Sam Smith to Justin Bieber but his set played off the strength of his own solo material with highlights like Kilometre and Way Too Big.
The Experience As A Whole
It was hard to know how we'd respond to a major festival after all this time away. Admittedly, being shoved onto the Subway amongst a sea of thousands was triggering on the first day but more than anything the experience was positive. Generally, festivalgoers were safe and respectful, giving space where needed. There was a new sort of positivity gleaming from every end of the festival as people were just happy to experience the euphoria and energy of a festival again. Great festival moments are stirring at the best of times but the appreciation for that was heightened at Governor's Ball thanks to its absence. We've spent so long playing music in our headphones for ourselves, it's incredible to experience it amongst others and feed off other people's reactions. There's nothing quite like watching a sea of people with hands in the air, singing at the top of their lungs.
At a time where Australia is still experiencing widespread lockdowns and music festivals are still over 6-9 months away, Governor's Ball felt like a breath of fresh air.