Sandwiched between Manhattan and the J-Lo part of the Bronx, and housing an extensive psychiatric hospital, Randall’s Island is a slightly unnerving rustic idyll which ostensibly exists to give a middle finger to the surrounding urban development. It is also home to the Governor’s Ball, a boutique city festival with an impressive line-up and artsy sideshows which nevertheless feels like Spring Break for people on probation. Given the nature of Ireland’s impressively accessorised festival scene a lot of the extras at Governor’s Ball seem par for the course. There is mini-golf and carnival throwing games, all of whose participants and onlooker friends seemed to be taking very seriously, something which raised questions about what it is about multi-coloured windmill fans that brings out everyone’s inner Tiger Mom. The extreme heat and the fact that a bottle of beer is ten dollars means that the music is prioritised almost by default, but the resulting sobriety allows you the option of lying down on the grass without the fear that an inebriated festival moralist will throw an entire blow-up chaise longue on you for being a dry shite.
Built To Spill are the first band of note, yet the combination of the truncated nature of the festival timetabling and the band’s uncompromising insistence on not curtailing their characteristic wig-outs meant that the set feels shorter than it was. Despite this, it’s great to see the band play the physical festival equivalent of their college radio base, and the crowd cheer on every sudden chord change or instance of guitar abuse. Highlights include an unexpectedly lairy sing-along to ‘Distopian Dream Girl’ and an excellent Halo Benders cover.
Next up is Fiona Apple. State has vivid memories of listening to Apple via a babysitter with non-committal dreadlocks, and for that reason if nothing else we prioritise seeing her. The candour of her lyrics can tend to recall those situations where a drunk person you only tangentially know starts an awkwardly in-depth discussion of their sex life during what was previously small talk, and her lyrical Lena Dunham-isms make it easy to see why she is frequently taken as emblematic of a certain kind of privileged navel-gazing. We also end up in a particularly enthusiastic section of die-hard fans, all of whom know all of the words and some of whom had graphic tattoos illustrating what might happen to us if we don’t mouth along with the same fervour (her arrival on stage is greeted by one of these with a terrifyingly intense cry of “oh my God she’s wearing purple”).
Despite this, the set was considerably more upbeat than could have been expected. Paced extremely well, it starts with a heavy version of ‘Fast As You Can’ and is sprinkled it with the right amount of new material. Apple is as vocally dextrous and psychotically fidgety as ever, both of which lend themselves well to the incendiary versions of ‘Not About Love’ and ‘Criminal’ which close the set. The audience is left with a final image of Apple light-heartedly slapping the top of her piano, a sight she manages to render as more disturbing than the horrified middle-distance gaze she maintains for the majority of the gig.
Starting off exactly on time with ‘Black Tambourine’, Beck demonstrates a highly impressive ability to engage with a huge crowd on what seems like a personal basis, both through song choice and his own frequent non-sequiturs. He mentions that his band for that gig were the original session musicians for the Sea Changes recordings and both ‘Lost Cause’ and ‘The Golden Age’ get particularly fluid and soulful airings tonight. Both hits and lesser known album cuts are greeted with cheers of recognition, and there is no palpable drunken impatience at Hansen for not just playing ‘Loser’ every second song. There are a few sound hiccups, and a couple of the most interesting curveballs on Beck’s records are lost due to the privileging of cohesiveness as a live band over the use of the relevant samplers, yet this relatively short set (the combination of curfew restrictions and the organisers’ promise of no over-lapping artists) is razor sharp.
The Governor’s Ball is a pricey addition to the festival circuit for a city that won’t camp unless it thinks it can get a humour piece to submit to McSweeneys out of it. It succeeds by knowing its audience and pandering to these prerogatives. When the friendliness of the staff, the level of organisation involved, and the frankly suspiciously fragrant Portaloos are considered, the shortness of the festival day relative to its cost is somewhat thrown into relief. Despite the enforced, regulated fun suggested by its bureaucratic title, the Governor’s Ball is a largely stress-free and easy experience.