The folks at Goldenvoice, the company most famous for promoting Coachella, were probably looking forward to a reprieve from the three digit temperatures their flagship festival often endures in the Southern California desert when they were organizing their New York City festival, some months ago. Instead, they, and festival-goers like myself, would have to persevere through three days of record-setting highs on Randall’s Island this past weekend; the shiny paragon of LCD Soundsystem’s big New York reunion show looming over us all.
Panorama was a pleasant endurance test. For many of the well-to-do in attendance, it was likely akin to a particularly rigorous spin class they went to earlier in the week to squeeze into whatever festival swag they purchased to show off at such a bloggable and grammable affair (I swear I saw one of the Jenners in VIP during Kendrick’s set.) It was, at times, a trying experience for me. I don’t really find music festivals too enjoyable for all of the reasons you’d expect from a curmudgeonly music blogger, but I decided to check my snark at the gate and go into the experience with an open mind, ready to enjoy music from some big names I genuinely enjoy.
My patience was tried right from the get-go, as badge check-in was severely understaffed. I waited on line for over a hour to pick up my press credentials, so I can only imagine what the sad sacks in GA had to put up with. The delay caused me to miss a chunk of Broken Social Scene’s set, which was pretty disappointing as I had been looking forward to seeing them for the first time since a free set they played in a Toronto park back in 2008. I yelled a loud explicative as I heard them launch into “KC Accidental” from a distance, and immediately regretted electing to forego the hoopla of trying to secure a ticket to their Music Hall of Williamsburg set from earlier in the week. All was forgotten as I reached the front of the tented Pavilion stage for three quarters of an hour of tracks drawing heavily from You Forgot It In People.
Day one’s delayed entry proved to be the only snag the whole weekend. Hats off to the Goldenvoice folks, as the entire festival ran very smoothly and efficiently. Every band I saw was exactly on time, and the sets were arranged with people’s preferences in mind. There were no significant conflicts, at least for me. Like most festivals, the performances were spread across three stages with some slight overlap. If you wanted, you could go the whole festival without any downtime. Of course, with temperatures in the high 90s with humidity percentages to match, the occasional break was necessary.
I mainly sought reprieve in the VIP compound, which didn’t really seem to have any real benefit over similarly shaded grounds accessible to those with GA tickets, save for higher-end, air-conditioned bathrooms. This was admittedly a huge coup for those willing to plunk down a few hundred more dollars for their pass, especially given the scorched-earth conditions. Otherwise, drinks were just as outrageously priced ($16 for Jameson whiskey drinks!) and there weren’t any freebees to speak of, unless you wanted to whore out your social media profile for mass-marketed artisanal juice. The food vendors in the VIP were on point (shout out to the tacos from The Black Ant + Temerario, in particular), but the selection was limited to just a few stands, with greater diversity available on the main grounds.
The real benefit to the Panorama VIP were the gated off pens that allowed for easy access to prime viewing spots for every performance, though in many instances, it was pretty easy to get a good spot up close on the GA side, where the crowd was a hell of a lot more fun; particularly during raucous sets from the likes of Flatbush Zombies (who were the best act all weekend, for my money) and Run The Jewels.
I don’t know if Panorama was undersold, or just reasonably capped, but having been to Governor’s Ball a few times on the on island, I can say that Panorama felt pretty sparsely attended most of the time. It was most noticeable on Friday night, which I sort of expected, but the crowd was pretty thing during the day before the bigger acts started to get going on the weekend too. Some of it probably had to do with people saying “fuck it” because of the heat. I’d guess that the marketing and sales teams just aren’t there yet in year one, or, perhaps the market is a little too saturated with the aforementioned Governor’s Ball and its new sister fest, Full Moon slated for the fall.
Whatever the cause, on a personal matter, this made the weekend all the more bearable. You never had to wait long for anything, be it free water from the hydrating stations, a nine dollar Bud Lite, Roberta’s Pizza, bathrooms – nothing. The grounds were easily navigable, and each evening’s mass exodus over the RFK wasn’t even too bad.
As far as headliners go, I thought Arcade Fire were a bit underwhelming. I had actually never seen them before, so I was pretty amped going in, riding that energy through their opening salvo of Suburbs standouts including “Ready to Start” and “Sprawl II.” The middle of the set leaned heavily on Reflektor, a record I kind of hate, so that kind of took me out of it, along with the heat finally starting to get to me. I started to pick up steam when they surged back with “Intervention,” “No Cars Go” and the “Neighborhood” suite, but left wanting more tracks from Neon Bible and their earlier EP work. I’m sure most in attendance who have a more favorable view of Reflektor, and were better hydrated were probably more than satisfied than I was by the set.
After the main set ended, Arcade Fire played a few David Bowie covers as a tribute to the fallen visionary, joined by NOLA OGs Preservation Hall Jazz Band on the festival grounds, surrounded by enthusiastic hangers-on.
Kendrick Lamar, as I had predicted, was far and away the best headliner this year. Dude is just a star. What a performer. He just knows how to play to a crowd and seems genuinely thrilled to be up there. Against a shifting background of video loops of significant and controversial figures from the past half decade of black America, Kendrick fired off hit after hit. “Swimming Pools,” “Institutionalized,” “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Money Trees,” “King Kunta.” He even did a couple of ScHoolboy Q tracks, though his fellow TDE stablemate failed to show despite giving a half-baked performance of his own the night before. He kept teasing his fans from “day one” with deep cuts, but that just went back to good kid, m.A.A.d. city save for an encore rendition of “A.D.H.D.” from Section 8.0. That’s okay, it wasn’t the time or place for anything obscure.
LCD Soundsystem were great as well, and if I were a huge fan of theirs like everyone in New York City seems to be, I’d have probably lost my goddamn mind. Regardless of how you feel about the whole break-up and make-up controversy, and the ensuring decision for a BIG IMPORTANT INDIE NEW YORK CITY BAND to reunite for a big, corporately sponsored festival run, there’s no denying that they are a live tour de force. Quite honestly, James Murphy and his compatriots are tailor made for the big stage, and time has only given their punk-MIDI anthems more gravitas and mystique. While I certainly don’t agree with the bro behind me who said that “LCD are kinda like our Led Zeppelin,” they definitely punch with all of the same weight as a band like New Order or Depeche Mode.
As great as the headliners were, I had more fun watching the undercard. One band that really felt at home on the big stage were Flatbush Zombies. I came into Panorama a lukewarm fan of theirs (though I do always rip “Al Bundy” during my DJ sets) but I was completely taken aback by how incredible they were on the main stage.
It doesn’t hurt that they brought out Beast Coast don Joey Bad$$ for a rendition of “Devastated,” but he was really just icing on the cake. Meechy Darko, Zombie Juice and Erick “The Architect” Eliot were the best thing going all weekend, Joey or no Joey. Their sheer will successfully incited a lethargic, overheated festival crowd to mosh along to their psychedelic punk rap. Any band that has festival security shitting their pants like the Zombies did, is okay by me. Eventually the rent-a-cops threw up their hands, allowing the controlled violence to ensue and the weed smoke permeate, as Darko and Juice hopped into the crowd to join the melee. I’ll definitely be spinning 3001 all week.
I also thought FKA Twigs’ and Sia’s performances were remarkable, and more akin to performance art or modern ballet. I really dig what FKA Twigs does. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a fan, but I think she is on the cutting edge of what a pop star could be, putting say… Grimes to shame, and I walked away from her set with an intense appreciation of her distinct artistry.
I’ve never been too interested or invested in Sia (or any big pop stars for the matter), but I was taken in by the spectacle of her performance alongside dancers Paul Dano and Maddie Ziegler. As someone who frequents shows in decrepit shitholes, poorly ventilated DIY venues and dives, performances this polished, with big-budget music video grade production values live-streamed to the crowd, were almost a kind of refreshing change of pace.
Some bands seemed a little out of place on a big festival stage. White Lung, in particular, didn’t seem too thrilled to be playing to about 75 people for an “afternoon matinee practice session,” as singer Mish Way put it. Despite the minimal turn-out early Sunday afternoon, the Vancouver punks labored through with the same tenacity and break-neck speed they always do, mostly with tracks from their poppy new record Paradise.
In a similar vein, it was surreal seeing Kathleen Hanna’s Julie Ruin play the Pavilion stage at Panorama where few knew who she was, and announce that she wished the world “was more like the audience at this festival.” They played a good set, but I almost felt bad for her, especially when her fiery feminist banter was met with a tepid response from an apathetic crowd.
All in all, it was a pretty enjoyable, if not completely exhausting weekend. There were no deep, inner realizations or intellectual takeaways I could use for a thinkpiece; just good, clean fun. It was about as solid of a festival experience as one could expect, but I think I’ll leave next year’s Panaorama to our resident festival queen, Megan Venzin.
Photos by Leigh Reilly except where specified elsewhere.