Governors Ball’s 2013 lineup was insane: Gun N’ Roses, Kings of Leon, and just about everyone else

Guns N' Roses perform at Governors Ball Music Festival on June 8th, 2013 on Randall's Island in New York City.

Guns N’ Roses perform at Governors Ball Music Festival on June 8th, 2013 on Randall’s Island in New York City. Rolling Stone

Pop Heroes Made and Remade

Notoriety was the key to headlining the Governors Ball Music Festival last weekend on Randalls Island. It used to be the making of a pop hero, and sometimes it still is.

Saturday’s main-stage closer was Guns N’ Roses, the band led by a vociferous bad boy of yesteryear, W. Axl Rose. Sunday’s finale — and by far the biggest draw, if tabulations by the festival’s scheduling app were any indication — was Kanye West, the rapper and producer who has so often acted up in the spotlight and then written songs about fame-induced folly and megalomania. He had a new one on Sunday, modestly titled “I Am a God.”

They both have long, tangled back stories that have become incentives for attending their shows; see it live before it’s reported by the tabloids. And their music was set at full blast. They’re two generations of pop hero: Mr. Rose stays shameless while Mr. West is (sometimes) repentant.

At Governors Ball they avoided the self-destructive rants of past occasions. Mr. Rose came back onstage after his band’s big fireworks display to announce, “I love New York.” And when Mr. West got to the spot in his song “Clique” where, he said, he usually starts complaining and justifying himself, he instead touted his artistic independence. “We just made some real music,” he said of his album “Yeezus,” due for release next Tuesday, going on to insist that he didn’t care about selling a million albums or tailoring songs for radio play. “When I listen to radio, that ain’t how I want to be no more,” he declared to roars of approval, though radio stations might be resentful.

If Mr. West was out to steamroll the acts that came before his — 63 others over three days — he came pretty close. His new songs relied on brutally stark synthesizer riffs and drumbeats, closer to industrial dance music than to current hip-hop, and they were delivered on Sunday through a sound system with bone-rattling bass. Most of his older songs were remixed along the same lines: all deep, ominous punch as Mr. West shouted nearly every line.

He spent most of his performance on a small stage in the audience, wearing a loose gray outfit that made him look something like a penitent; for those who could see him, he was heaving back and forth, working up a sweat. But he set aside the beat for two long ballads with only piano chords and his computer-tuned voice: “Heartless,” about a breakup, and “Runaway,” a toast to boorish behavior. Bragging and materialism are at war with self-consciousness and self-criticism in Mr. West’s songs; a hero of ambivalence, he slammed home all the contradictions.

Guns N’ Roses, by contrast, unabashedly celebrated excess. The group, which now consists of Mr. Rose and sidemen rather than the band of comrades from its 1987-91 heyday, is larger, slicker and even more cartoonish than it was in its early years. Mr. Rose and the band’s three guitarists struck rock-star poses, songs indulged themselves in long buildups and guitar interludes, and the stage spewed fireworks and confetti. It was an older school of rock-hero behavior, full of preening and bombast. Yet once Mr. Rose got his voice up to full, abrasive yowl and screech, Guns N’ Roses was the embodiment of nostalgia-enhanced memories, a relic reanimated like a woolly mammoth suddenly charging across the tundra.

Kings of Leon, whose headlining set was rained out on Friday, were squeezed into Saturday’s lineup for their first New York City show since 2010. They didn’t play hero; they worked their instruments and let their songs — brooding Southern rock updated with hints of punk agitation or U2’s arena-scale hooks — speak for themselves.

Most of the rock bands presented themselves with that kind of modesty. Gary Clark Jr., a blues-rocker from Texas, made his songs slash and scream and erupt with distortion, communing with his guitar rather than telegraphing the music’s drama. Divine Fits — the songwriting alliance of Britt Daniel, from Spoon, and Dan Boeckner, from Wolf Parade — did some clowning onstage, but never hid the rigorous neatness of songs that use every detail of an arrangement to tell their stories.

Deerhunter’s guitarists just stood there casually as they showed how two or three chords could swell into clouds of noise evoking specific eras: garage-rock, psychedelia, postpunk. A different variety of postpunk — revved up by breakneck, pointillistic guitar patterns — came through in galvanizing sets by two British bands, Bloc Party and Foals. Haim, a band led by three sisters from California, channeled guitar patterns into a sunnier style, like Fleetwood Mac thinking about the Feelies.

Crowds sang along on folky, toe-tapping ditties from the Lumineers and Of Monsters and Men, and mouthed the lyrics more quietly for the whispery, skeletal, lovesick pop of the xx, who used lasers and smoke to create an eerie virtual canopy over a big muddy field. Yeasayer, whose songs delight in intellectual constructs and musical convolutions, faced happy, hands-in-the-air fans who picked up the band’s elements of disco and electronica and danced to them.

The mesh of the programmed and the hand-played was one through-line of the festival. Erykah Badu’s tart, sassy voice humanized the two-chord vamps generated by her laptop-wielding band; Alt-J drew subtle but clear connections between folky picking and the blipping patterns of electronic dance music. Animal Collective played a mesmerizing set, mingling live and electronic instruments, in which loops and overlapping vocal lines became euphoric incantations. Thievery Corporation slipped programmed elements into live-sounding reggae and funk. Robert DeLong, a one-man band using loops and samples, constructed pop songs that he then zapped with the assaultive noises of dubstep. Crystal Castles reached back to the punk-tinged synthesizer riffs and out-of-tune vocals of the 1990s rave era, though it also had more current, consonant tracks. The festival also had some unaccompanied DJs — Dillon Francis and Griz — who played inventive, genre-hopping sets; there was a Silent Disco tent, where dance music was broadcast to headphones all day.

While most of the festival’s rockers weren’t acting heroic, its rappers were. Azealia Banks — the best dressed performer by far — had fans shouting encouragement as she presented herself in song after song as a “bad bitch,” bragging about raunchy exploits and picking fights, in a rapid-fire, indefatigable delivery that rivaled the twitchy momentum of her backup tracks.

Nas, whose set split the Saturday night audience with Guns N’ Roses, presented himself not as a bad guy but as a chronicler and preserver of hip-hop. He reached back to his 1994 debut album, “Illmatic,” for details of ghetto life and worked his way forward to grown-up reflections. Freddie Gibbs presented himself as the keeper of a disappearing genre — gangsta rap — but turned traditionalism into swagger, performing bare-chested and rattling off verse after verse a cappella, barely taking a breath. Kendrick Lamar’s album, “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City,” doesn’t endorse the gangsta life he observes, but onstage he barked his songs as if they were triumphal rather than wary.

The other headliner was mud: a result of the daylong deluge Friday. Festivalgoers tramping through shoe-swallowing mud, and dancing through it, may have been the real heroes.

Northside Festival June 13 – 20 Brooklyn NYC

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350 Bands – 50 Films – 70 Speakers

Among the bands performing at the festival are Arctic Monkeys, Solange and The Walkmen, with sold-out shows

 

Indie Rock Packed Densely

The Northside Festival, Thursday through June 20, is Brooklyn’s compressed answer to South by Southwest: a long weekend of digital entrepreneurship talks and music followed by a film festival. The music festival is New Yorkcentric and strong on indie rock and guitar squall. Its centerpieces are afternoon concerts at McCarren Park, at Bedford and North 12th Streets in Williamsburg, featuring the Walkmen and Phosphorescent on Saturday and Solange Knowles on Sunday; they require an $80 music-festival badge, which also provides admission to dozens of club shows.

Thursday’s selection roars with the looming, ominous postpunk of Swans at Warsaw, 261 Driggs Avenue, Greenpoint, 7 p.m., $32;and with the pressurized punk of Iceage at Music Hall of Williamsburg, 66 North Sixth Street, Williamsburg; 7 p.m., $15. Friday brings a collaboration by Rhys Chatham, a pioneer of Minimalist electric guitar ensembles, and the drone-loving band Oneida at Europa, 98 Meserole Avenue, Greenpoint; 8 p.m., $20. For something cozier, Kurt Wagner’s changeable but country-rooted band Lambchop, from Nashville, is at Warsaw on Sunday; 8 p.m., $25. (northsidefestival.com)

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See you there!

Vinyl is growing out of its niche

Thomas Bernich, who founded Brooklyn Phono in 2000, at his factory, which he says now produces around 440,000 LPs a year.  Photo: Andrea Mohin

Thomas Bernich, who founded Brooklyn Phono in 2000, at his factory, which he says now produces around 440,000 LPs a year. Photo: Andrea Mohin

Weaned on CDs, They’re Reaching for Vinyl -  By Allan Kozinn

There were always record collectors who disdained the compact disc, arguing that an LP’s grooves yielded warmth and depth that the CD’s digital code could not match.

But the market largely ignored them. Record labels shuttered their LP pressing plants, except for a few that pressed mostly dance music, since vinyl remained the medium of choice for D. J.s.

As it turned out, that early resistance was not futile, thanks largely to an audience of record collectors, many born after CDs were introduced in the 1980s.

These days, every major label and many smaller ones are releasing vinyl, and most major new releases have a vinyl version, leading to a spate of new pressing plants.

When the French electronica duo Daft Punk released “Random Access Memories” in mid-May, 6 percent of its first-week sales — 19,000 out of 339,000 — were on vinyl, according to Nielsen SoundScan, which measures music sales.

Other groups with a predominantly college-age audience have had similar success: the same week, the National sold 7,000 vinyl copies of its latest album, “Trouble Will Find Me,” and 10,000 Vampire Weekend fans opted for the LP version of “Modern Vampires of the City.” When the Front Bottoms, a New Jersey indie band, posted a photo of their players carrying stacks of LP mailing boxes on their Facebook page recently, their label, Bar/None, racked up what Glenn Morrow, who owns the label, described as “phone orders for $2,000 worth of LPs in 10 minutes.”

A growing number of classic albums — including the complete Beatles and early Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan catalogs — have had vinyl reissues in recent years as well.

Michael Fremer, who monitors the LP world on his Web site, Analogplanet.com, said: “None of these companies are pressing records to feel good. They’re doing it because they think they can sell.”

About a dozen pressing plants have sprouted up in the United States, along with the few that survived from the first vinyl era, and they say business is so brisk that they are working to capacity. Thomas Bernich, who started Brooklyn Phono in 2000, says his company makes about 440,000 LPs a year, but a giant like Rainbo Records, in Canoga Park, Calif., turns out 6 million to 7.2 million, said Steve Sheldon, its general manager.

One plant, Quality Record Pressings, in Salina, Kan., opened in 2011 after its owner, Chad Kassem, grew impatient with delays at a larger plant where his own line of blues reissues was being pressed. His company, which runs four presses — acquired used, but modified to run more efficiently — now makes LPs for all the majors, and lists Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Nirvana reissues among its recent projects. He is currently pressing 900,000 vinyl discs a year.

“We’ve always had more work than we could do,” Mr. Kassem said. “When we had one press, we had enough orders for two. When we had two, we had enough orders for four. We never spent a dollar on advertising, but we’ve been busy from the day we opened.”

There is a limit to how much the vinyl business can expand right now. When it seemed inevitable that CDs would supplant LPs, the companies that made vinyl presses shifted to making other kinds of machinery. The last new press was built in 1982, so relatively recent start-ups like Quality and Brooklyn Phono searched out used presses (the going rate is about $25,000) and reconditioned them. Most plants have deals with local machine shops to make replacement parts.

Some pressing plants have looked into commissioning or building new presses but have found the cost prohibitive — as much as $500,000, said Eric Astor of Furnace MFG in Fairfax, Va. “Since my partner also owns a CD/DVD plant,” Mr. Astor said in an e-mail, “we’ve been testing using the methods used in disc manufacturing to make a new breed of vinyl record, but that R&D is slow going and not looking promising.”

How are LPs selling? That is a matter of dispute. David Bakula, Nielsen SoundScan’s senior vice president of client development and insights, said that his company tracked 4.6 million domestic LP sales last year, an 18 percent increase over 2011, but still only 1.4 percent of the total market, made up mostly of digital downloads (which are increasing) and CDs (for which sales are declining). This year, Mr. Bakula said, vinyl sales are on track to reach about 5.5 million.

But manufacturers, specialist retailers and critics argue that SoundScan’s figures represent only a fraction of actual sales, perhaps as little, Mr. Kassem and Mr. Astor said, as 10 to 15 percent. They say that about 25 million vinyl discs were pressed in the United States last year, and many more in Europe and Asia, including some destined for the American market.

Mr. Bakula countered that manufacturers are speaking of the number of discs made; SoundScan tracks how many were sold. But the manufacturers argue that LPs, unlike CDs, are a one-way sale: labels do not accept returns of unsold copies. Therefore labels and retailers are careful to order only what they think they can sell. Moreover, LP jackets do not consistently carry bar codes — Mr. Kassem, for one, leaves them off his discs because, he said, “they’re ugly” — and therefore cannot be scanned at the cash register. And many shops that sell LPs are independents that do not report to SoundScan, although Mr. Bakula said his company weights its figures to account for that.

There are other measures of the health of the field, including figures from ancillary businesses. Heinz Lichtenegger, whose Vienna-based Audio Tuning company produces the highly regarded Pro-Ject turntable, said in an e-mail that his company sells 8,000 turntables a month. And Mr. Fremer has sold 16,000 copies of a DVD, “21st Century Vinyl,” that shows users how to set up several turntable models.

Vinyl retailers are thriving as well. Mr. Kassem of Quality Record Pressings also runs Acoustic Sounds, which sells LPs as well as turntables and accessories, including cleaning machines and protective sleeves. Music Direct, a Chicago company that owns Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, a storied audiophile label, has a similarly broad stock, including a selection of turntables that ranges from the $249 Music Hall USB-1 to the $25,000 Avid Acutus. Josh Bizar, the company’s director of sales and marketing, said that Music Direct sold 500,000 LPs and “thousands of turntables” last year.

And the buyers, Mr. Bizar said, are by no means boomer nostalgists.

“When you look at the sales for a group like Daft Punk,” he said, “you’re seeing young kids collecting records like we did when we were young.”

“We never expected the vinyl resurgence to become as crazy as it is,” he said. “But it’s come full circle. We get kids calling us up and telling us why they listen to vinyl, and when we ask them why they don’t listen to CDs, they say, ‘CDs? My dad listens to CDs — why would I do that?’ ”

Why Music Makes Our Brain Sing

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Image: Baptiste Alchourroun

This essay was written by Robert J. Zatorre and Valorie N. Salimpoor.  Robert Zatorre is a postdoctoral neuroscientist at the Baycrest Health Sciences’ Rotman Research Institute in Toronto.  Valorie N. Salimpoor is a postdoctoral neuroscientist at the Baycrest Health Sciences’ Rotman Research Institute in Toronto.  The essay was published by The New York Times,  June 7, 2013

By Robert J. Zatorre and Valorie N. Salimpoor

MUSIC is not tangible. You can’t eat it, drink it or mate with it. It doesn’t protect against the rain, wind or cold. It doesn’t vanquish predators or mend broken bones. And yet humans have always prized music — or well beyond prized, loved it.

In the modern age we spend great sums of money to attend concerts, download music files, play instruments and listen to our favorite artists whether we’re in a subway or salon. But even in Paleolithic times, people invested significant time and effort to create music, as the discovery of flutes carved from animal bones would suggest.

So why does this thingless “thing” — at its core, a mere sequence of sounds — hold such potentially enormous intrinsic value?

The quick and easy explanation is that music brings a unique pleasure to humans. Of course, that still leaves the question of why. But for that, neuroscience is starting to provide some answers.

More than a decade ago, our research team used brain imaging to show that music that people described as highly emotional engaged the reward system deep in their brains — activating subcortical nuclei known to be important in reward, motivation and emotion. Subsequently we found that listening to what might be called “peak emotional moments” in music — that moment when you feel a “chill” of pleasure to a musical passage — causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, an essential signaling molecule in the brain.

When pleasurable music is heard, dopamine is released in the striatum — an ancient part of the brain found in other vertebrates as well — which is known to respond to naturally rewarding stimuli like food and sex and which is artificially targeted by drugs like cocaine and amphetamine.

But what may be most interesting here is when this neurotransmitter is released: not only when the music rises to a peak emotional moment, but also several seconds before, during what we might call the anticipation phase.

The idea that reward is partly related to anticipation (or the prediction of a desired outcome) has a long history in neuroscience. Making good predictions about the outcome of one’s actions would seem to be essential in the context of survival, after all. And dopamine neurons, both in humans and other animals, play a role in recording which of our predictions turn out to be correct.

To dig deeper into how music engages the brain’s reward system, we designed a study to mimic online music purchasing. Our goal was to determine what goes on in the brain when someone hears a new piece of music and decides he likes it enough to buy it.

We used music-recommendation programs to customize the selections to our listeners’ preferences, which turned out to be indie and electronic music, matching Montreal’s hip music scene. And we found that neural activity within the striatum — the reward-related structure — was directly proportional to the amount of money people were willing to spend.

But more interesting still was the cross talk between this structure and the auditory cortex, which also increased for songs that were ultimately purchased compared with those that were not.

Why the auditory cortex? Some 50 years ago, Wilder Penfield, the famed neurosurgeon and the founder of the Montreal Neurological Institute, reported that when neurosurgical patients received electrical stimulation to the auditory cortex while they were awake, they would sometimes report hearing music. Dr. Penfield’s observations, along with those of many others, suggest that musical information is likely to be represented in these brain regions.

The auditory cortex is also active when we imagine a tune: think of the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — your cortex is abuzz! This ability allows us not only to experience music even when it’s physically absent, but also to invent new compositions and to reimagine how a piece might sound with a different tempo or instrumentation.

We also know that these areas of the brain encode the abstract relationships between sounds — for instance, the particular sound pattern that makes a major chord major, regardless of the key or instrument. Other studies show distinctive neural responses from similar regions when there is an unexpected break in a repetitive pattern of sounds, or in a chord progression. This is akin to what happens if you hear someone play a wrong note — easily noticeable even in an unfamiliar piece of music.

These cortical circuits allow us to make predictions about coming events on the basis of past events. They are thought to accumulate musical information over our lifetime, creating templates of the statistical regularities that are present in the music of our culture and enabling us to understand the music we hear in relation to our stored mental representations of the music we’ve heard.

So each act of listening to music may be thought of as both recapitulating the past and predicting the future. When we listen to music, these brain networks actively create expectations based on our stored knowledge.

Composers and performers intuitively understand this: they manipulate these prediction mechanisms to give us what we want — or to surprise us, perhaps even with something better.

In the cross talk between our cortical systems, which analyze patterns and yield expectations, and our ancient reward and motivational systems, may lie the answer to the question: does a particular piece of music move us?

When that answer is yes, there is little — in those moments of listening, at least — that we value more.