I've generally believed that when large groups of people get together to hear music, some level of chaos is inevitable -- the light rail line at All Points West comes to mind -- but the organizers behind Governors Ball proved me wrong this weekend. At every turn, I was amazed by how organized and thought out the festival was. From walking out of the train station at 125th Street directly onto a waiting bus that whisked my friend and me to the grounds on Randall's Island in mere minutes to walking in the gate shortly after, it couldn't have been easier.
We arrived around 3:30 p.m. on Sunday as Cults was finishing up an energetic set and headed straight to the Honda stage to see Devendra Banhart, who sounds even more low key in the expansive setting and blazing sun. It was a set best enjoyed sitting down despite Banhart's call for people to dance. Hunger soon set in and thus the search for Luke's Lobster. The fest is so compact it didn't take long to spot the truck parked at the top of a hill that provided a bird's eye view of both stages. After a short wait, we found a shady spot opposite the Hype Machine Stage and were amazed how clearly the sound traveled. While Martsch and co. were just blurred masses, their songs stood out. Listening to "Distopian Dream Girl" while eating a lobster roll was one of the day's many perfect moments.
The next one came when Fiona Apple took the stage. I remember being infatuated with her when I first heard Tidal back in middle school, but this was the first time I saw her live. Backed by a superb band, she was a joy to listen to as she worked her way through songs on her newest album along with some Tidal favorites, "Sleep to Dream" and "Criminal." What surprised me most were the long stretches of improvisation absent in studio versions, and how they strengthened the songs giving them a moody texture that breathed new life into songs like "Fast as You Can."
Explosions in the Sky followed with an hour-long instrumental set of blazing guitars and melodies that get lost mid-phrase only to wander back later for a magnified effect much like in jazz. The placement of the set before the two main headliners was a perfect palate cleanser, and the hill once again provided an ideal space to stretch out and relax along with a pretty good view of the stage.
It's hard not to gush about the fest because save for some spotty sound during Modest Mouse, the experience was pretty sublime. There were VIP tents at each stage I only glimpsed from the outside, but the truth is the whole fest felt like a VIP experience: no beer or bathroom lines and relative ease finding a great spot at each set. For both Beck and Modest Mouse (who delivered rousing sets that complimented each other nicely), it was easy to get far closer than I got five years ago when Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem played the same island.
The night before I had a similarly satisfying if completely different experience seeing David Auburn's The Columnist at Manhattan Theatre Club. Set in the rapidly shifting political climate of the '60s, the play focuses on a powerful political writer Joseph Alsop (John Lithgow) who sees his influence diminish over the next decade, but as in any great work, it can't be pinned down to just that. Auburn's writing, naturalistic and sprawling, is a joy to hear spoken by Lithgow and a talented cast that includes Boyd Gaines as Alsop's brother and writing partner, Stewart, and Stephen Kunken as a young David Halberstam who's critical of Alsop's whitewashed coverage of the Vietnam War. Auburn along with director Daniel Sullivan seamlessly blend fact and fiction to evoke a divisive time when our country was on the precipice of a major change, not unlike today.