Originally published June 20, 2011 on Intersections.
The inaugural Governor’s Ball music festival went down this Saturday on Governor’s Island, this random little island a short ferry ride away from Manhattan where, I am told, the parks department occasionally puts on the odd family-friendly carnival or outdoor concert. On Saturday, however, the island was host to a seriously sick day of some mind-blowing outdoor shows, featuring headliners Pretty Lights, Girl Talk, and Empire of the Sun.
1. The Shows
First things first: this was one sick lineup. About a month ago, I stumbled upon Gov Ball when I was looking for Empire of the Sun shows after hearing inspiring things about their Coachella performance. Imagine my delighted surprise at finding Girl Talk and Pretty Lights also headlining, not to mention an incredible array of supporting daytime acts like Das Racist, Mac Miller and Big Boi! I quickly signed up to volunteer ($7.50 in deposit, 6 hours of work and a free ticket that would’ve cost me $95 otherwise…success.)
I worked the first daytime shift, so I missed a few of the earlier acts, but I did manage to catch the second half of Passion Pit’s DJ set, most of Das Racist and all of Mac Miller. I’m a big fan of Passion Pit’s stuff and I can’t stop listening to their remix of Marina and the Diamonds’ “I Am Not a Robot”, so I was eager to see what the boys would do. I’m not going to say it was a disappointment; they were certainly good, and the crowd had a great time, but compared to what would later go down on that stage, it was just all right. Das Racist put on their usual goofy brilliance, Mac Miller put on an incredibly high-energy show to a crowd of hardcore fans who knew every word; all in all, the early acts were exactly what they needed to be: a chance for smaller-name artists to capitalize on the headliners’ draw and pick up some new fans while still satisfying longtime devotees.
I missed the next few acts with my second shift, but I managed to get back in time for EOTS. This was exactly what I had hoped for: a show in every sense of the word, with a band firing on all cylinders with ridiculous costumes, lights and energy, plus a crowd that ate up every bit of the shenanigans onstage. They sounded great, but more than anything I wish I had a clear video of the entire thing just so I could relive every moment of their show visually. A taste:
The lead singer wore a bright blue headdress and a matching costume that made him look like the blue Power Ranger, if the blue Power Ranger had a blue sun exploding out of his head. Those dancers in pink that you see in the picture made the same sprinkler-but-not-quite motion over and over for the duration of a song. Blue dancers appeared at another point, I believe. I felt like we were all collectively tripping on acid in the year 3045. It was amazing.
Here’s where things went a little less rosy: Gov Ball made it a point to not schedule any overlapping acts, saving us all the Sophie’s choice of Girl Talk vs. Pretty Lights, etc. They did this by running two stages on opposite ends of the field. The idea was that while one act was wrapping up on Gotham Stage, the next act would be warming up on Big Apple, and the crowd could just migrate on over. The problem was, of course, the migration. Those who wanted to be even remotely close for one act had to leave the previous one long before it was over, or else you would be stuck behind the bar tent in a mass of people craning their necks for the odd glimpse of the stage. Thus, we made the soul-crushing decision to leave EOTS early and migrate over to get a good spot for Girl Talk.
This turned out to be the best decision I’ve made in my entire life up to this point. We were within the first 10 rows for Girl Talk, smack dab in the middle with a clear view of his setup. In the time leading up to the start of his set, I chatted with a few of my neighbors, most of whom were on their fourth or fifth Girl Talk show. One twentysomething hipster in a gray v-neck apologized in advance for stepping on me or elbowing me in the face, and advised me to do the same. “It’s gonna be a crazy-ass rave,” he said.
He was right. This was my first Girl Talk show and also the most fun I’ve had in a long time. The crowd was going ballistic from the first “move, bitch, get out the way” of “Oh No” and didn’t quit. At well-timed intervals, confetti would be shot out over our heads, or balloons would fall from the sky, or a balloon filled with confetti would drop out of the sky, or he would spin some well-known hook that would get everyone chanting in unison (the “rah rah ah ah ah” from Gaga, “Living on a Prayer”, virtually all of “Pretty Boy Swag”, “All I Do is Win”, etc)–it didn’t matter, I don’t think I stopped moving for all of his 90 minutes. Beer was going everywhere, at one point someone broke a glowstick and just started spinning it everywhere, so all the people in his immediate vicinity got covered in specks of glow-in-the-dark that in hindsight was completely unsafe, one of Girl Talk’s people fired toilet paper at us and I think at one point there was mist, but the moisture I felt may very well have just been more beer. It was amazing, and my one regret is that I didn’t get to be one of the lucky bastards who got onstage to jam with him about 5 minutes in and just stayed the entire time. I know for a fact at least one of them was just a volunteer and not a VIP.
Of course, thanks to the schedule, my perfect placement for Girl Talk meant I was at the very back of the massive crowd for Pretty Lights. He threw down some seriously dope shit, and people in the back were still dancing and going out of their minds, but being a small, exhausted Asian girl, I couldn’t really see much of anything apart from, well, the pretty lights. My legs also stopped working about halfway through, so we left while I could still hobble painfully home. It was a decision that made sense at the time, but in hindsight I totally regret not sticking it out to at least just chill in the back and experience it.
2. The Volunteer Experience
Volunteers had to pay a $7.50 deposit, arrive early for a staff ferry, wear a green t-shirt all day and work six hours, but it was totally, 100% worth it. In exchange, we got a free festival ticket (including the cost of the ferry) and 1 free meal ticket. I arrived just barely on time (the downtown trains were down for repairs, I struggle with finding taxis, etc), met a few other kids who were also volunteering in the line for the ferry and just like that, I had a solid crew to chill with for the rest of the festival. I worked 11-2, first at catering (what up, PUDS), then picking weeds at the volleyball court, then scanning tickets and giving out VIP wristbands. My first shift was really chill and actually kind of fun–for some perverse reason, I really enjoy working in anything food-related, I got a second free meal ticket out of the volleyball court deal, and I could hear Reptar and the first half of Passion Pit from the ticketing area.
From 5-8, I had to get back on the ferry and go back to Manhattan to pick up trash. A few things that were wrong with this scenario: 1) we weren’t given gloves or those sharp, pointy sticks real maintenance workers were using to pick things up, and 2) there was a lot of trash. There were six volunteers total and we were responsible for bagging all the waste that people had left along the walkway where they had waited to get on the ferry. Apparently at one point, the line for the ferry stretched all the way down about a block and then some. The problem was that outside food and drink were not allowed onto the island, so people had to just drop their half-consumed sandwiches, snacks, beers and water bottles. One lady had to toss a Tupperware container full of pasta salad, and another had to throw away an empty Nalgene. Real maintenance workers couldn’t leave the island because by then the concert was full-on, so the piles of trash on the Manhattan side had just been growing and growing, overflowing all the bins they had set up and mutating into this gigantic evil creature that the six of us had to clean up…this was easily the worst part of my day, and possibly of my month.
Awful experience with trash aside, the volunteer deal was actually pretty sweet. I got plenty of food, the volunteer tent had a stock of water for volunteers I could dip into at any time (the water available to the public ran out, including the water for washing hands in front of the Port-a-Potties…something they’ll have to work on, for sure), and I paid $7.50 to see a full day of some seriously sick shows. I also appreciate that I had something to do in between the acts I had wanted to see, apart from walking around, looking at expensive things and getting sunburnt.
Speaking of which, Gov Ball made a pretty solid effort, I thought, with their various non-show-related amusements. There was a volleyball court and a basketball court set up off to the side, plenty of open space both in and out of tents where people could laze about on picnic blankets and/or toss a frisbee around, several bar stations (an ID check would get you a wristband, which would then get you access to a $7-$9 beer or some wine), loads of food, a Ben & Jerry’s truck giving out free(!) scoops of whatever you wanted, and a beer pong tournament that you had to sign up for in advance. From what I could tell, the lines were manageable everywhere except for the bars and the merch tent, which was selling concert t-shirts and paraphernalia (including stuff from the artists themselves) for the usual outrageous prices. ATMs were placed strategically on-site, but I never could really see any of those mystical coolers of water they had talked about.
All in all, I had a great time, I met some cool kids, and I would do it again if the lineup was worth it, but only as a volunteer–I would seriously advise people to suck it up and just work for your ticket. All the serious issues I heard from people were problems with the gigantic lines for the ferry throughout the day (avoided by being on the staff ferry, albeit earlier in the morning), problems with lack of water (avoided by having access to the inexhaustible supply of volunteer water), and problems migrating between back-to-back sets (unavoidable). This was Gov Ball’s inaugural year, though, and I heard from one of the ladies I worked with that one of the people responsible for Bonnaroo had switched over to help them start this, so I’m sure next year they’ll have the kinks worked out.