I’ve always thought that the undercard is what truly makes or breaks a festival. I mean, when you break it down, a festival lasts for about 33 hours total – noon to 11pm each day – and headliners, at most, only play about 6 hours out of that. That’s only 18%! So while the headliners may be the biggest draw to specific festivals, odds are that for the vast majority of the time, you’re seeing other bands. That being said, Panorama Fest, in its first ever year, went all in on its headliners. Though none of the three headliners were promoting new music – save for Kendrick, who put out Untitled Unmastered, his collection of demos back in March – it really felt that each day was one big lead up to the main acts, much more so than any festival I’ve ever attended.
And what a group of headliners they were. Arcade Fire may very well be the best band of this millennium, at least critically speaking. It’s only a matter of time before Saturday’s headliner, Kendrick Lamar, is commonly ranked as a top five rapper of all time (quite honestly, I already think he’s there). And Sunday’s headliner – LCD Soundsystem – probably the whole reason why Panorama was even created in the first place, is New York City personified in a band. This was their homecoming show; this is why they reunited. But before we fully delve into those three headlining sets, here’s a quick recap of what went down on Randall’s Island this past weekend.
This was Panorama’s first year and though it was organized by the same people who put on Coachella, it was very apparent from the get go that things wouldn’t go smoothly. I arrived to Randall’s Island a half hour before Broken Social Scene hit The Pavilion Stage, but didn’t get in until after they had finished their hour-long set. After trying to retrieve my pass at the entrance closest to the RFK Bridge, I was told to go back the way I came for a 10 minute walk to the other side of the fest. Turns out there were no signs and I got completely lost, wandering under freeway overpasses for close to a half hour until I finally found will call. And if that wasn’t frustrating enough, Major Lazer took the mainstage and I was trapped, forced to listen to one of my least favorite acts play an absolutely abhorrent set, filled with some of the worst pop hits of the decade.
My first act of the day was FKA Twigs, who put on a solid show, full of backup dancers, experimental percussion and interpretive dancing. But Tahliah Debrett Barnett’s silky brand of R&B works best late at night and it felt weird seeing her perform with the hot sun shining right behind her. As a result, her light show didn’t have the same oomph that it would have otherwise. That being said, FKA Twigs is one of the most forward-thinking pop stars at the moment and her live set shows it. From opener “Good to Love” to penultimate set closer “Two Weeks,” she showed why the entire music industry’s eyes must fully be focused on her at all times. The sky is the limit for her and with a couple new songs to boot, she’ll finally get that festival night slot soon enough.
Next was the reliably great Alabama Shakes, who after three Grammys for last year’s Sound & Color, were on a bit of a victory lap. Brittany Howard commands a stage better than almost anyone at this point. Her voice was on point as always and the band’s now trademark sound was perfect for the time slot as the sun set over Manhattan behind them. Somewhat predictably, the highlight was last year’s “Gimme All Your Love,” which featured a huge audience sing along. “This song means so much to me right now,” Howard explained before launching into Sound & Color’s lead single “Don’t Wanna Fight.”
Friday was one giant build up to Arcade Fire. It’s been three years since they’ve released anything (with the exception of the incredible Her score and a couple of b-sides last year) but the band felt as vital as ever. While there have been rumors that Win Butler & co. are gearing up for the release of their fifth record, the band played a greatest hits record, spanning the best songs over the course of their entire discography. It was impossible to be disappointed with their setlist, which featured singles like “Keep the Car Running” and “Afterlife” mixed in with “My Body is a Cage” (my favorite!) and “We Used to Wait.” Win Butler played angrily – probably due to Donald Trump’s RNC speech the night before – and to great effect, putting his all into every song, particularly “Afterlife,” which followed a tribute to David Bowie (whose backup vocals were included in the performance of “Reflektor.”) Directly following the set finale, “Wake Up,” the band, backed by New Oreleans’ legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band, walked into the middle of the crowd and covered Bowie tracks, mirroring their funeral march a few months prior. With Win screaming into a megaphone, the group covered “Rebel Rebel,” “Suffragette City,” and “Heroes,” while walking to the other side of the festival with most of the crowd following them. It’s been awhile since we’ve heard anything from Canada’s finest band, but fuck, I forgot how much I missed them.
Saturday was the hottest day of the year in New York, which meant that I drank about as much as my liver could take while hiding underneath a tent until I had the courage to brave the 95-plus heat. As a result, the first band I caught was Foals, who were as powerful as ever. Partly due to the heat or the fact that Panorama didn’t sell that many tickets to begin with, Yannis Philippakis & co. weren’t playing to the biggest crowd, but you’d never know it. Philippakis was running around the stage like a madman, screaming at the top of his lungs. It’s always nice to see “Spanish Sahara” live – a slow burning epic track that cracks my top 10 list of the decade so far. Foals are one of the few bands that are worth seeing every time they come through your city, so don’t miss them in the future.
Next up was Anderson .Paak, one of the most hyped acts at the fest. Playing to a huge crowd, which may have been because it was in a tent, .Paak played the majority of Malibu, his breakthrough record from this year. The audience ate up Dr. Dre’s newest co-sign, going nuts every time .Paak played drums. I may not be as sold on him as much as everyone else, but as one of the most hyped new artists this year, he seems destined for stardom. Look for him to get a nomination for Best New Artist at next year’s Grammys.
Saturday was absolutely the festival’s deepest day. Sub-headlining the main stage, Brooklyn legends The National, per usual, absolutely killed it. They’re another band that wasn’t promoting anything new, but unlike Arcade Fire, they broke out two new songs with predictably The National-esque titles – “The Day I Die” and “Can’t You Find the Way.” The former sounded like a louder version of “Graceless,” while the latter was a dark, slow burner with an epic crescendo towards the end. Say what you will about them, but it’s really hard to top the group’s closing triple-attack of “Fake Empire,” “Mr. November,” and “Terrible Love.”
But the next act – Sufjan Stevens – did manage to top that. With an incredibly high energy and neon filled set, this millennium’s favorite singer/songwriter absolutely killed it. Opening with a frenzied take on “Seven Swans,” Sufjan destroyed his banjo, seemingly recreating The Clash’s London Calling cover art. With many costume changes, he too played a greatest hits set, surprisingly focusing on 2010’s The Age of Adz, highlighted by a 25 minute performance of “Impossible Soul,” a song I honestly thought I’d never get to see live. He also recreated two tracks from last year’s excellent and downtempo Carrie & Lowell, reworking “All of Me Wants All of You” and “Should Have Known Better” into sped up, funky songs. Sufjan closed with “Chicago,” resulting in one of the more cathartic sing alongs of the weekend.
Once again – back to the headliners. Saturday’s main act was Kendrick Lamar, whom I believe to be without a doubt the best current rapper & every bit as good as the best of the 80’s and 90’s. The set was heavy on tracks from good kid mA.A.d city, all of which tended to get the best responses of the whole set. Backed by various political imagery, Kendrick once again made the case that set closer, “Alright,” is an anthem for a new civil rights movement. The audience screamed “we gon’ be alright!” for multiple minutes before he launched into it. It felt like I was a part of something much bigger, something more important than just a music festival. People have repeatedly said that Kendrick is gunning to be one of the best of all time. He’s already there.
Panorama was put on by the same people as Coachella and I blame them for bringing Indio’s desert weather to NYC. Sunday, just as hot as the first couple of days was almost unbearable, especially since the best acts of the day were all on the main stage. As a result, I got there late, electing to sit in front of my apartment’s A/C for as long as humanly possible.
The first act I caught was the best hip hop set of the festival. Kendrick Lamar may have been the best rapper at Panorama this year, but Run the Jewels were hip hop’s best performers. Run the Jewels 3 may be on the horizon, but instead of playing anything new (or unfortunately anything from Meow the Jewels), El-P and Killer Mike ran through the majority of RTJ2, one of the best releases of 2014. The crowd completely ate up tracks like “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” – I mean, it’s impossible not to enjoy screaming, “RUN BACKWARDS THROUGH A FIELD OF DICKS!” at the top of your voice – and “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” and midway through the set, local hero Despot was invited onstage. It was easily the highest energy set of the entire festival and both El-P and Killer Mike were in great spirits, constantly joking around about wearing shorts and pretty much everything else.
Next was Aussie pop star Sia. While I generally view her music as generic pop music, people are still talking about her Coachella set from this past April, so my interest was piqued. Unfortunately, I stopped caring almost immediately as I realized that the video accompanying the set was pretaped, meaning that what we were seeing onstage didn’t reflect what was being shown on the screens. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue, but in Sia’s case, it was, bringing up several important questions. 1) If the video wasn’t live, do we know if Sia was even singing? 2) Since we can’t see Sia’s face, how do we know it was even her onstage? Sure Maddie Ziegler was there, but since Kristen Wiig, Tig Notaro, and Paul Dano weren’t – they were all replaced onstage by others – do we really know if Sia even bothered to show up?
The entire festival felt like an opening slot for LCD Soundsystem. This was the band’s homecoming show, the reason why they got back together. And even with my extremely high expectations, James Murphy & co’s set lived up to the hype – and more. Opening with “Us V. Them” and going right to “Daft Punk is Playing at My House,” they had the crowd in the palm of their hands for the entirety of their two hour or so set. I’ve never danced harder, sang louder, or cheered more during any show I’ve ever been to – and I’ve been to a lot of shows in my time. Like everyone else in the crowd, I too was brushing away tears during “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” Over the entirety of their career, LCD Soundsystem personified New York City more so than almost any band ever. There’s a reason why you still can’t go to a bar in Brooklyn and not hear their music, even though it’s been six years since they’ve released an album. As a result, this city needed them to come back and they finally did, playing a legendary set that was perfect in almost every way.
It was impossible to leave Panorama without a smile on my face. My legs may have been sore and I felt like I was sleepwalking across the RFK Bridge one last time, but it was all worth it. While we’re not sure if the festival is returning next year, let’s hope it does… just about 15 degrees colder.
Broken Social Scene
Here We Go Magic
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
Run The Jewels
The Front Bottoms