This past weekend, New York braved the sweltering heat to gather in the name of music, good vibes, and partying on an island. Panorama Music Festival, the first of its kind, brought a Coachella-like experience to New York City’s Randall’s Island, doubling down on the efforts of Governor’s Ball, the music festival that occurred on the same island just six weeks earlier.
Goldenvoice, the seasoned production company that also runs Coachella, offered a well organized, largely hands-off festival experience that, according to many of the concert goers I spoke with, trumped Governor’s Ball in nearly every regard. One of the winning criteria—and probably its most important—was the lineup itself, which was filled with talented industry veterans that had a lot to say about the current state of things.
Normally Randall’s Island is simply an odd collection of bridges, connecting highways, and sports fields, but last weekend it saw itself transformed into a musical paradise with three stages and other fascinating arts attractions. THE LAB, for instance, featured an incredible collection of locally curated interactive art installations. All City Express paid homage to New York City’s storied graffiti scene by combining video technology with real-life graffiti artists—an amalgam that looks toward the art form’s virtual future. And Despacio, Spanish for “slow,” was a jungle-like dance dome where DJ’s spun classic records through seven stacks of McIntosh amplifiers—equivalent to 50,000 watts of sound. (‘Despacio’, then, is a bit of a misnomer.)
Sound permeated everything at Panorama, most notably on the stages, of course. Broken Social Scene was the first of the many veteran artists to grace the festival. Their Friday set was highlighted by a protracted version of “Shampoo Suicide,” which featured a symphony of voices raining down in round and all the raised hairs, goosebumps, and tingles anyone could ask for.
FKA Twigs (aka Tahliah Barnett) followed BSS at the shaded Pavilion stage, and she dropped one of the best performances of the weekend. The British artist was absolutely mesmerizing. Her eerie soprano soared unpredictably over dark electronics as her lithe body led a dance troupe through choreographed jerks and swoons. I had the sense that an entire era of humanity was being reenacted before my eyes. Her command of every aspect of the performance was simply unparalleled by anything I’ve seen before. Though she’s a much different musician and performer, and though I may be labeled a heretic for saying it, the only other person who provides a decent frame of comparison is Queen Beyoncé herself.
Arcade Fire ended day one with politically charged messages of unifying against impending tyranny. Frontman Win Butler’s impassioned rhetoric carried into the set, which included a smattering of hits from the band’s discography and a heartfelt tribute to David Bowie. After displaying images of Bowie on the jumbotron during “Reflektor,” the Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined Arcade Fire for “Heroes” and “Suffragette City” as Butler paraded the band through the crowd—reminiscent of this New Orleans-style cortege that happened just following Starman’s death.
Another Friday highlight was the voice of Alabama Shakes’ frontwoman, Brittany Howard. She just never ceases to amaze. Her voice is like an entire liquor cabinet: at times bright and lucid like fine tequila. Other times rough and weathered like 25-year-old scotch. And sometimes cloudy and broken, like the last drink of the night dropped and shattered on the floor: jagged and vulnerable.
Some highlights from Saturday included: Anderson Paak, who sweated through a Team USA jersey in the 100+ degree weather while simultaneously singing/rapping/talking and battering his drumset (it was jaw-droppingly impressive); The National, whose frontman Matt Berninger rumbled about the stage like a man possessed, leading another very solid set from an indie veteran; and Sufjan Stevens, whose intimate, feel-good performance was bathed in brilliant psychedelic visuals.
Kendrick Lamar ended day two with an incendiary performance. The uber talented rapper used the jumbotron to provide auxiliary commentary to his already political lyrics. In one moment during Lamar’s “Swimming Pools”—a dark song about ritualized drug use—Prince’s face appeared on the screens behind him, providing harrowing context to the song. Over the course of the set, many other figures appeared onscreen to supplement his messages. And throughout it all, Kendrick was razor sharp, and appreciative, too. He repeatedly showered with love those that had been with him since “Day 1,” and he appropriately ended the night with his first hit, “ADHD.”
Run the Jewels carried the political commentary into Sunday. Killer Mike and El-P, both great MCs in their own rights, sprinkled their set with provocative dialogue that sat side-by-side with their profusely political repertoire.
But amidst all the politics and polish, there were thousands of happy people wandering in the sun with smiles on their sweaty faces. That consummate happiness was punctuated by the final performance of the weekend, a nearly two-hour set from the once-retired, still-amazing LCD Soundsystem. The air buzzed before the performance with fans whispering their excitement to see a band they thought they’d never have the opportunity to see again. And man did they show up. From their first song (“Us v Them”) to their last (“All My Friends”), James Murphy and Company were on point. Led by Murphy’s quirky presence and still remarkable vocal, LCD combed through the years, helping us set aside the world’s troubles for just a few moments. Sometimes time is best spent dancing yourself clean.
Image: MacEagon Voyce