Amid earth-shaking thunderstorms and sweltering heat, New York City’s Governors Ball started and ended with a bang — literally. The third and final day of the outdoor music festival on Randall’s Island came to a close with performance cancellations, a torrential downpour and hundreds stranded as they awaited a break in the storm. But before Mother Nature arrived in all her wondrous fury (some cosmic karma, perhaps, for all the littered beer cans), there was Saturday night. And Saturday night at the Governors Ball was glorious.
With several stages and an extensive list of performances to choose from, the Governors stage in particular beckoned with promises of Kacey Musgraves’ sweetheart country, The 1975’s techno rock ‘n’ roll and Florence + the Machine’s otherworldly performance.
Musgraves took to stage first, adding a dose of country flair to the evening lineup. Dressed in a matching floral top and pants, her outfit was reminiscent of the rhinestone-studded glamor of previous country icons. Standing atop the Governors stage, Musgraves put on a show, the crowd eagerly singing along to her mellow tunes. As she serenaded the sizable audience with her hit “High Time,” fans could be seen “swimming” through the crowd in an amusing display of misheard lyrics, mistaking the line “It’s high time” for “It’s high tide.”
Musgraves’s songs, although beautiful, were ill-suited for an outdoor festival; much of her performance lacked the electricity and energy needed to amp up a crowd. However, Musgraves put forth a good effort to engage with fans, throwing in some admirable (but flat) remarks about the start of Pride month. Her heart of gold, too, was on full display as she reflected on promoting positivity and love — the belief that love can find a way fueling her music-making. But as fun as it was to “yee-haw” and “hell nah” alongside Musgraves as she tried to add a spark to an eager but stifled crowd, the performance itself was ultimately lackluster.
Where Musgraves failed, however, British pop-rock band The 1975 succeeded. The band rolled in like thunder and struck the crowd with lighting. Everything about the performance was energetic and colorful: Behind the band, a kaleidoscope of lights and images played on stage, mirrored by the setting sun, which illuminated the sky with rainbow hues (a natural phenomenon that seemed a cosmic salute to Pride month).
The smell of stale beer and press of sweaty bodies aside, as The 1975 played the crowd in an almost sinful display of musical mastery, everything was overwhelmingly beautiful. A “New York moment” is what I would call that Saturday night: a rare experience of the intimate, innate connection between strangers in New York City.
Lead singer Matt Healy was a sight to behold, dancing, grinding and gyrating like a pro — at risk of offending the king of rock ‘n’ roll, Healy could have given Elvis Presley a run for his money. About three songs into the band’s hour long set, Healy stripped some layers off to the animalistic cheers of the audience. “I know, we keep getting better, right?” Healy called out, at once arrogant and delightful. The second half of the set saw Healy’s swagger on stage, accompanied by a cigarette in one hand and a cocktail in the other: a true man of the people.
What was most enthralling about The 1975 was the deep sincerity with which they performed each song. Nothing about their performance suggested they were going through the motions. No, Healy and the rest of his beloved band made every song an independent, emotional experience. By the time the band finally left the stage, the audience visibly deflated, a mix of disappointment and utter exhaustion. It was like The 1975 had held the crowd in some hypnotic state, where release was only granted when the band was good and done.
The 1975, without doubt, improved upon Musgraves’s earlier performance by leaps and bounds. As the clock ticked on and the final rays of sunshine flickered out, Governors Ball came to a quiet pause. Or, more accurately, it was the calm before the storm.
Then, out of the darkness came Florence + the Machine.
Florence herself arrived barefoot, dressed in a sheer gown like a heroine from a gothic novel. Her fiery red hair swung unbound behind her. The night was dark, but not fearful; there is never room for fear in the presence of Florence. As the beat dropped, she raised her arms up to the sky as if in offering, and then, there was light — literally, it wasn’t until 30 seconds into the first song that any lights turned on at all.
The entire experience was otherworldly. Florence + the Machine always have a dreamlike style, with songs that are lyrically beautiful and complex. But to see Florence perform in person is something else entirely. She seemed almost ethereal; a wild, beautiful creature, running and dancing across the stage. Her movements sharp, then suddenly soft and flowing. With every song, every note, every word, Florence channeled the energy through her, as if her body was a mere conduit for some greater power. Take the music away, and Florence could have been a body possessed in a horror movie — not horrifying, but as if there was something else present on stage with her.
Her music, powerful and strong-willed, seemed a complement, rather than a contradiction, to Florence’s sweet, gentle personality. As she spoke for the first time to the audience, Florence gently admitted her own anxiety about speaking to such a large crowd. In response, jubilant cheers and cries of love erupted almost violently from the audience. It was like a harsh, demanding tug on your soul: No, Florence, do not apologize or be afraid! It seemed divinely unjust for a person so beautiful (both inside and out) to be humbled by the masses that often weep and whisper her name like a prayer in their darkest moments.
And really, it was as if Florence was a goddess. Every word she spoke, the audience strained to hear, catch and hold within their hearts; every request was treated like a commandment. Florence asked us to turn to one another and embrace each other — so we did. She asked us to give words of love and positivity to each other — a girl yelled in my ear that she liked my scarf, and I hugged her and waxed poetic on her earrings. Florence asked us to put away our cell phones — every screen switched off.
The magnificence of Florence + the Machine was a combination of evocative music and a powerful stage presence. Audiences react and take their cues from the artists on stage; an engaging artist makes for an engaging performance. Florence, more so than Musgraves or The 1975, gave herself utterly and completely to the moment, to the music. Her scant dress and bare feet heightened the connection between musician and audience member. It was as if Florence rooted herself to the stage, to the very ground. It was watching Florence on the jumbo screen kiss the forehead of a young man at the front of the crowd; desperately clasp hands with the arms that reached out to touch her; sing among the audience with a flower-crown a fan gave her that made Florence seem both larger-than-life, but also closer and more intimate than any artist before.
Florence told the audience that she wanted everyone there to share and indulge in an experience. She wanted to create something that would stay with us — with her — and mark the moment. Together, we did. No one who cheered for an encore at near-midnight will ever forget the evening of Saturday, June 1, 2019, spent sweaty, tired and cramped on Randall’s Island, awaiting that moment we would never forget. The moment we would tell our friends, our family and maybe one day our children, grandchildren and nurses at the senior living facility.