It was just a few months ago that Foo Fighters welcomed back live music in New York City with their Madison Square Garden show, and that already feels like a lifetime ago. If that was the city healing, the return of Governors Ball is NYC thriving.
The festival kicked off its 10th anniversary celebration on Friday night, beckoning the throngs of music-hungry youths to its new location at Citi Field. The parking lot setting is a far cry from the barely-accessible Randall’s Island of years’ past, and frankly that’s a good thing. There was already enough anxiety about being in such massive throngs once again (checked for vaccinations and negative tests though they were) without worrying about cramming onto a bus or missing the last ferry to get off the island.
That relative ease compared to years past certainly added to the feeling that this was all going to be okay. Sure, there was still some sense of chaos (you put 50,000 people in a circular parking lot festival, you’re going to have some disorder), but the fact is, everyone was still able to pull this off. A huge number of people were able to get in front of multiple stages filled with a variety of top-tier artists; no matter how you slice it, that’s a win.
And there were plenty of wins to go around. From wild sets by Bartees Strange and Portugal. The Man to the soothing sounds of Leon Bridges and the emotional explosion of Future Islands, the day was filled with loads of great music. It just feels good to be able to experience that again.
Read on for the five best things we experienced during Day 1 of Governors Ball 2021.
Best Multi-Genre Set: Bartees Strange
Bartees Strange kicked off Day 1 of Governors Ball with an eclectic blend of music that seemed to encapsulate each genre represented at the fest. Whether it was crushing alt-rock anthems like “Mustang” and the newly-released “Weights,” or the hip-hop and R&B-inflected cuts from 2020’s Live Forever, Bartees Strange delivered on all fronts, convincing us that rock doesn’t have to live and die by guitar jams. — Paolo Ragusa
Best Outfits: Orville Peck
Plenty has been said about schtick versus talent, but Orville Peck’s persona lives up to his distinctive alt-country sound. That bass-y, warm voice of his just bleeds mystery, and the Ghost Rider-chic style he dons provides the perfect balance of “who is this guy?” and “who is this guy?” Tossing roses to the crowd and, yes, smiling under his fringed mask, he strikes a figure you simply want to serenade you. It wouldn’t work so well of he didn’t sound as good as he looks. — Ben Kaye
Most Intimate Moment: Leon Bridges
One of the most touching moments of the day came from the end of Leon Bridges’ set when he closed the show with the fan-favorite “River.” Up until that point, he had brought tons of energy and flair with his nostalgic funk and soul, capturing our attention with ease. But when he sang “River,” almost the whole band left the stage, and it was just the crowd and Leon. It was a brilliant display of his impressive and commanding vocals, taking his time to indulge in the beauty of the moment. — P.R.
Best Reminder Why It’s Great to Have Live Music Back: Future Islands
After a year and a half without live music, just seeing a person with a tambourine can be joyous enough. But if anyone can remind you the true power of a concert, it’s Samuel T. Herring and Future Islands. Watching the growling frontman beat his chest, neck, and the stage itself as he ripped into his vocals was nothing short of life-affirming. To be fair, that’s long been the power of these guys (who were using their sound tech as a replacement drummer), but coming out of 18 months watching artists perform from their couches while sitting on our couches… It just felt good to be in front of that sort of power again. — B.K.
Best Cover Choices: Portugal. The Man
Portugal. The Man have been quiet with new music since 2017’s Woodstock, but their live show was loaded with some incredible cover songs. They often show their undying love for Metallica by opening with “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and this set was no different. Other exciting covers were Nirvana’s “In Bloom” to pay reverence to Nevermind’s 30th anniversary this week, and the It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia cut “Day Man,” which had the crowd soaring. — P.R.