If you’ll allow me, a bit of fan fiction: the members of Built to Spill are hanging around waiting for their mid-afternoon set at Governors Ball to begin, doing whatever it is members of Built to Spill do when they’re hanging around, when Fiona Apple and Beck, who are both playing later in the day, come over and begin talking to them. They’re not shooting the shit, though; they’re talking about their music. Fiona asks Beck, “What did you mean when you sang of a ‘paradise camouflage?” while Doug Martsch flatters Fiona with, “I love the way ‘Fast As You Can’ slows down midway through, only to speed up again.” Soon, Isaac Brock and the rest of Modest Mouse join the conversation, and so begins a 45-minute chat about The Lonesome Crowded West.
It’s unlikely that this chat happened — in fact, it’s not likely at all — but it COULD have, because Beck, Modest Mouse, Fiona Apple, and Built to Spill, all of whom made some of the ‘90s (and 2000s) greatest music, all played Governors Ball, held confusingly on Randall’s Island, yesterday. (Explosions in the Sky, Devendra Banhart, Phantogram, Cage the Elephant, and others played, too, but we mostly set up shop at a single spot, the Hype Machine Stage, before heading over to the bigger Honda Stage for Beck.)
After Cults, the pseudo goth-poppers who made headlines last year by signing with a Columbia Records imprint with just a three-song EP to their name, played a charming 40-minute set that had teen girls freaking out over a glockenspiel (singer Madeline Follin has a great voice; I just wish it wasn’t so often buried in reverb), Built to Spill came on stage. They had the unenviable task of playing before Fiona Apple and Modest Mouse, groups with more outspoken, vocal fanbases, but predictably, they didn’t give it a shit and after a somewhat lethargic beginning, the band kicked it not into the sun, though it was pretty damn hot yesterday, but into gear. A spry “Distopian Dream Girl” was followed by fan-favorite “You Were Right” was followed by the shuffling early single “Joyride,” and so on for 45 minutes The set ended with an extended “Carry the Zero,” with Martsch’s leg shaking in time with the song’s wobbly feel.
Then came Fiona Apple. I have never heard a festival crowd quieter than I did during the sultry “I Know” — there were no inane conversations about getting a pretzel or going to the bathroom after the set. It was just thousands of people in awe of the Artist of the Moment, soaking in every second. With good reason, too, because she is completely riveting to watch on stage. While singing “Fast As You Can,” she contorted her body and spun and jumped in the air, and later, during “Every Single Night,” she pounded her chest with a tightly clenched fist to highlight the primal-chant chorus. She also had a sheepish, childlike glee to her at times, crouching beneath her sideways-facing piano to peer out into the audience with a slight grin on her face or sitting down in the middle of stage during “Criminal” to wave. Her tight, jazzy band and voice, which bounced around the words, waiting for the perfect moment and even-more-perfect word to enthusiastically emphasize, were both in fine form, too. She was thrilling, slinky, forceful, and tearful, sometimes all in the same song. She was Fiona Apple.
Modest Mouse came on next, and the crowd couldn’t have had a more different feel to it. It was the same group of people as before (you were so tightly wedged in that even if you wanted to move, those near the barrier, like we were, couldn’t have), but they came out of their shells from the time Fiona left and Modest Mouse began, and became raucous and feisty. Much to Isaac Brock’s delight, too, because the day before, they had played a poorly received set at Metallica’s Orion Fest, which is just as much of a genre mish-mash as you think it is. He made fun of the Metallica fans, claiming that they were the type of people who still lived in their mother’s basements. “Congrats on having jobs,” he said to the Governors crowd, midway through a spirited, 14-song set that was heavy on The Moon and Antarctica (“Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” “Paper Thin Walls”), Good News for People Who Love Bad News (“Bury Me With It,” “Satin in a Coffin”), and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (“Dashboard,” “Fire It Up”). No longer the scrappy, rambling band of The Lonesome Crowded West, Modest Mouse have, in the years since “Float On” made them a household name, become a strong contender to be any festival’s headliner—were it not for Beck, that is.
We weren’t able to stay for all of Beck’s set (standing out in the sun since 11 a.m. will take a lot of a person), but we heard enough to say that he’s still got it. I mean, there was never a question that he “lost” it, but his last three albums are at best good, which might explain his heavy-with-Odelay setlist, including “Devil’s Haircut,” “Where It’s At,” and “Jack-Ass.” (Sea Change, my favorite album of his, also got some love, with “The Golden Age,” “Lost Cause,” and “Sunday Sun” being performed by the same band that recorded it 10 years ago.) He seamlessly shuffled from the rap-funk Beck to balladeer Beck, and in a day dominated by indie rock favorites, his set would be the one that Built, Modest, and Fiona would have chatted about to end my imaginary fan fiction.