For the second annual Panorama Festival, the Randalls Island-based three-day musical festival brought to us by the Coachella promoters Goldenvoice, the results were remarkably positive and propulsive all weekend. Sticking with the areas that made last year’s Panorama such a success for concert goers (excellent space management, minimal set over-lap, wide-spread appeal with artist selection), this sophomore year was just as enjoyable and well thought-out as last year’s, and may have even presented some wiser decisions regarding scheduling.
Friday was clearly the day that was aimed at younger audiences, with most of the acts being booked were of the contemporary variety (i.e. Frank Ocean, Solange, Tyler the Creator, Isaiah Rashad), and this resulted in that day being the most overcrowded. It was a shock compared to last year, when all three days were comparatively mild with Governor’s Ball (the other high-profile Randall’s Island based music festival), but this year found me waiting just north of half-an-hour to get past the entry gates onto the festival grounds this year. It made sense, as during the summer, youths would have little better to do than to come out early to a music festival featuring a whole slew of their favorite artists, but it was a bit disappointing for those that appreciated the convenience of light crowding from last year’s inaugural weekend.
Still, upon entering the fairgrounds, it became immediately resonant that Panorama remains the ideal way to hold a concert in New York City. Light on advertising from major corporations, Panorama respectfully held tents open for local businesses (including venerable Brooklyn-based vinyl shop and music venue, Rough Trade) as well as tents supplied by the artists themselves. Fans of Nine Inch Nails (an act that wasn’t playing till Sunday) were probably most grateful that their merchandising tent featured virtually no line and also hosted reasonably priced items, a god send compared to the conditions on some of the other artist vendors. Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator both carried booths with massive lines, and considerably overpriced items (the button-up shirts at Tyler’s booth, which aren’t available online, cost a whopping $120). Still, it’s a sanctity to consider that Goldenvoice is willing to let artists put up their own merch tents, as merchandise sales are one of the only avenues in this day and age that sends revenue to the artist directly.
As for the artists themselves, it was a fully satisfying first day that only got more impressive as it went on, even if there was an unexpected shut-down. At The Parlour, a tented stage that had been reserved almost exclusively for DJs last year, the event took an unexpected turn with rapper Isaiah Rashad. A venerable signee to TDE Entertainment (the same label that Kendrick Lamar is signed to), Rashad gave a particularly ferocious performance, but it was apparently something that the Parlour’s floor wasn’t expecting, and it ended up caving it. It caused management to shut down the tent for the rest of the evening, cancelling all subsequent artists set to perform there, but they came up with a quick and efficient way to take care of the problem and have The Parlour ready for Saturday and Sunday: taking away the floor entirely.
The subsequent acts throughout the day were all enjoyable, with highlights including Future Islands, Spoon and Solange, even if they didn’t break too much from their regular template. Surprisingly, Tyler, the Creator actually gave a fairly tender performance, coming off the release of his critically acclaimed fourth album Flower Boy, which found the profligate rapper shedding his hostile exterior to expose a more conflicted and endearing persona. A rather great lead up to the closing act of the night, which would be none other than Tyler’s longtime friend Frank Ocean.
The singer, known for his highly emotiional songs, enigmatic lifestyle and perfectionist approach came on stage in perhaps the least pretentious way possible, with the most highlightable things about his appearance being that he was wearing a pair of head phones, and white t-shirt with the words “Why be racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic when you could just be quiet?” From there he would go on to a wide variety of songs from his two celebrated albums (2012’s Channel Orange, and last year’s Blonde) with a sense of serenity alongside a casual attachment to b-boy culture. Plus, he enlisted some top-tier talent to help with the set, including guitarist Alex G, and wunderkind filmmaker Spike Jonze, who sublimely ran the Jumbotron cameras. There are few concerts I’ve been too that I would call watershed moments for my history as a music appreciator, but I feel that Frank Ocean’s set would be included without hesitation.
The next day had a decidedly more relaxed demeanor to it. Hosting a more sub-par headliner for the day (face it, Tame Impala may be huge in a lot of respects, but their brand just isn’t as elite as what Goldenvoice usually books to close out a night), the crowd size was noticeably smaller than Fridays, but for a concert goer like me that craves being up front, it was a day to cherish. Most of the acts (such as Pinegrove and Noname) played to tight-knits of people, but the day’s first main attraction came with rapper Vince Staples.
The 24-year old west coast emcee has had a prolific presence in music lately, releasing an EP or album every year since 2014, and he’s grown from being a respected underground rapper to being one of the genre’s most viable contributors for crossover appeal. Having just released his latest LP Big Fish Theory, a record that further enhances his knack for bringing hardcore gangsta rap lyrics to otherwise conflicting genres (i.e. experimental pop, house, Detroit techno), Vince came to the festival’s main stage with a diverse crowd and full attention towards his craft. Coming on stage by himself (lacking usual hip-hop mandates such as a DJ or an entourage), Vince came to the stage lurking in a menacing crouch coming around the stage like a lion about to consume its prey. Vince kept up the energy for the whole hour he was on stage, not once missing a bar or a lyric. Often talking about his sober lifestyle in interviews, this became ever more apparent after witnessing him give such an effortless performance.
After the sheer energy of taking part in Vince Staples audience, it came with great regard to find that the subsequent acts were of a more melodic quality. The veteran Scottish smooth-singers, Belle and Sebastian, played the Pavilion with a healthy mix of their renowned classic songs as well as their more dance-able recent work. The true joy of the evening though (eclipsing even Tame Impala’s set) came from electronic artist Nicolas Jaar. The Chilean-American musician has often been likened to Aphex Twin for his unpredictable time signatures and beat writings, but while that older artist resided on texture bombast, Jaar’s work is more encased in mood and atmosphere. Playing at The Parlour, the interior setting really helped his music which was all-consuming. It was honestly difficult to think of anything else during Nicolas Jaar’s set, as his music came closer to anything else that weekend to giving me a euphoria.
Sunday ultimately proved to be the strongest day, and admittedly much of this is due to the setlist relying on an older audience. With the two headliners of the evening being two veteran groups from the 90s, hip-hop luminaries A Tribe Called Quest alongside Trent Reznor’s industrial monolith Nine Inch Nails, Goldenvoice clearly recognized that the two bands deserved some particularly relatable openers. Wisely, they chose a lot of acts that could rightfully be considered throwbacks.
One of the wisest decisions for the day was booking Canadian post-punk band Preoccupations (previously known as Viet-Cong), whose sci-fi-esque aesthetic and lyrics concerning technological paranoia definitely communicated with the Nine Inch Nails demographic. Doing their set in the Pavillion tent also proved to be an efficient decision, with lead vocalist Matt Flegel even explaining during their set that they are “a nighttime band”. The band’s set featured mostly material for that last self-titled release, and captalizing on the domed interior of their setlist their music was as intoxicating as it was heavy. Having self-titled their sound “labyrinthine post-punk”, Preoccupations are one of the strongest cases for rock music being art in this contemporary landscape.
Afterwards, those that were willing to step out into the glistening heat again would be rewarded by Angel Olsen’s set at the Pavilion. The beautiful singer-songwriter, more acclaimed than ever since the release of last year’s critic’s darling My Woman, provided listeners her signature blend of folk-meets-indie rock, which was a nice diversion from the more electronic and hard-edged acts that carried the rest of the day. Speaking of which, those who desired a heavier sound could skip back to The Pavilion afterwards to catch Cloud Nothings, a band that’s nothing if not a call-back to 90s rock alternatives. Impeccably loud and energetic, the Cleveland quartet rivalved Preoccupations and Nine Inch Nails for being the loudest act of the weekend, but they proved a good energy boost right before the night’s two main acts arrived.
A Tribe Called Quest immediately paid homage to their departed member, Phife Dawg, displaying an angelic picture of the late rapper on the back screen. The group’s two surviving rappers, Q-Tip and Jarobi, continued to reference him throughout the set, and respectfully chose not to recite his verses, opting instead to have them played off record over the loud-speakers. It was a tear-jerking set giving the band’s legacy, and their recent statement that this would be their last New York show, but the group certainly gave it their all despite their advanced age, and it was certainly a performance to savor. Closing their show out with Trump diss “We the People”, was a particularly resonant choice as well, and certainly earmarked a performance that was one to savor.
Lastly, the show came to a thrilling finale with its last main stage performance. Nine Inch Nails came to the stage in a very elusive manner with a heavy smog surrounding the group. The band didn’t reveal themselves till they began the performance, starting out with Branches/Bones from last year’s EP release Not the Actual Events. As cathartic and aggressive as any other track Reznor’s produced, it proved to be a good opener for the band, who would spend the next hour-and-a-half bringing the festival goers to their knees. Playing a whole host of tracks from the band’s nearly 30-year history, Reznor and co. didn’t hold back, and may have even surprised the crowd with a few hidden favorites. The inclusion of “The Great Destroyer” from the 2007 album Year Zero, was particularly appreciated, as not only has it revealed itself to be one of Reznor’s best compositions, but its lyrics concerning societal collapse are disturbingly prescient. Also featuring masterworks like “Reptile” and “Something I Can Never”, Reznor truly demonstrated how important his brand has been for rock music over the last few decades, and his cover of David Bowie’s “I Can’t Give Everything Away” proved to be the most mournful inclusion of the evening (even eclipsing Tribe’s valued nods to Phife Dawg). Finishing with “Hurt” (a mainstay for Nine Inch Nails performances since the release of The Downward Spiral in 1994), the song still found itself gestating new meaning with the accompanying video art. Amidst Reznor’s cathartic lyrics and images of destruction, it was clear that this 23-year-old song can now be seen as an allegory for what’s happened to our country, but with even the most dismal songs of Reznor’s oeuvre, the audience participation and gravity of the music cast more than just a ray of hope.
So thus ended another stellar festival weekend for 2017. Goldenvoice really showed they know how to make use of the wide open space on Randall’s Island, and even showed that they learnt from some mild mistakes they made last year. For example, by relocating the interactive installation area The Lab from being midway between The Pavillion and The Main Stage they were able to prevent heavy traffic and gridlocking from happening between the two outdoor stages. Masterfully organized, and improved from last year in some key areas, Panorama Fest has become the premiere music festival for New York City in just two years, and it will be intriguing to see how it evolves over the next few years.
Top Ten Acts for Panorama 2017
1. Nine Inch Nails
2. Frank Ocean
3. Nicolas Jaar
4. Vince Staples
6. A Tribe Called Quest
8. Tyler, the Creator
9. Future Islands