Panorama Festival returned to New York’s Randall’s Island, Friday-Sunday, July 27th-29th, and there were high points – and definite low points. But all in all, it was a strong weekend.
One must begin with the cancellation of the first day, just before 5:00 PM. There was a flash flood warning for low-lying Randall’s island, and definite thunder on the horizon (and in the iPhone Weather app). This meant canning Friday performances by The Weeknd, Father John Misty, Migos, Jhené Aiko, The War On Drugs, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dua Lipa and more.
It also meant for a really slow bus ride to the island, only to turn around and face another slow ride back on the shuttle to 125th Street subway stop. It seemed that traffic was snarled not just by rush hour but also by all the ride-share cars dropping people & picking them up, all using the same one road in & out (not to mention construction all over Randall’s Island). But at least the buses have USB ports now.
Moreover, it was clear skies and easy rides the next two days, even if the festival grounds were definitely muddy in spots.
Panorama ’18 really started on Saturday. The festival itself was divided into two main stages, Panorama and The Pavilion, plus DJs at The Point, Bud Light Dive Bar Sessions, and lots of art installations. The festival grounds seemed smaller this year, which made it easier to bounce from one stage to the other (and it was especially important to have less muddy ground to have to trek over), though they were still far apart enough for the sets to slightly overlap.
Opening the Panorama Stage that day was Cloves, somewhat maudlin rock that was a little tough to go over at 4:00 PM. However, they also played later at the Bud Light Dive Bar Sessions, which were great intimate performances, practically standing next to the band (and was able to reschedule Friday’s Olivia Noelle, the only Friday artist of the whole festival rescheduled). And the Dive Bar set up had its own dry platform, with seats & stools, and, of course, Bud Light (so not ‘dry’ in that sense…).
If you didn’t want to go for the fancy cocktails from Deep Eddy Vodka, Capri Sun-like drink pouches from Bai, or whatever those drinks in carved out pineapples were, Bud Light was there for you. Though at ten dollars for a tall boy, not as cheap as it usually is, but this was a festival. And there were neat four-packs, including plastic pack & ice (though one needed to be accompanied to purchase, as there was a two-drink maximum per purchase). And the Dive Bar also had a machine for buying a mammoth 25 oz. beer (and you didn’t have to tip – one of the staff manning it joked that its best feature was the lack of human interaction).
Meanwhile at The Pavilion was Sigrid, a big, enjoyable pop star packed into a tiny package. After her on the Panorama Stage was PVRIS, grand rock emotion – and that made with Cloves a three-peat of female-fronted acts (with more to come). Music festivals have been called out in recent years for not having enough women on the bill, and Panorama certainly stepped up in 2018.
Not stepping up was Lil Wayne. He was scheduled for 6:05 PM at the main Panorama Stage, and his gear was there, but just before 6:30 PM the jumbo screen displayed the announcement that “Due to weather conditions, Lil Wayne’s flight has been delayed and he is unable to perform tonight.” Of course this elicited great boos, and widespread assumption that there was more to this than just weather (especially on the sunny day). So, like with the much-delayed Tha Carter V, we’ll just have to wait some more for Lil Wayne.
That latest cancellation set a lot of folks over to the Bud Light Dive Bar for City of the Sun, who had strong acoustic energy. That’s not easy at the small space, like with the prior Lo Moon, whose moody music didn’t quite fit hot midday.
And certainly sweating at The Pavilion was the divine St. Vincent, a.k.a. Annie Clark. She’s grown hugely over the past decade (QRO knew her before she was big – QRO interview in 2007), changing styles and outfits album-to-album and more, almost like David Bowie (though not quite to that extent, because no one matches Ziggy Stardust/The Thin White Duke). For her latest, MASSEDUCTION (QRO review), Clark’s already done solo pop-art concept and stripped down piano, but now she’s embraced the record’s electronica. Her outfit was like something out of Aeon Flux, with keyboardist, drummer, and roadies wearing Beatle wigs and full-face blank masks like The Question. There was also a big Jumbotron behind her, with videos to accompany the songs.
Clark’s set naturally focused on MASSEDUCTION and other more recent material (so no Marry Me – QRO review). She and her able band have honed them by this point, yet there was raw rock energy to the Panorama performance. Sometimes St. Vincent can craft herself & her work to over-preciseness, taking away from her spontaneity and charm, but that wasn’t the case this time. One only had to see her smeared lipstick and sweat on the big screens. For her final number, Clark “[got] comfortable,” took off her guitar & sleeves, finally left her mike stand, and came to the lip of the stage for natural closer “New York” (including referencing some Astor Place places like Veselka that were rejected for the song, because they didn’t rhyme).
Another leading lady with a strong album was up next, SZA at Panorama Stage. Last year’s Ctrl was one of the top records of last year (QRO’s Top Albums of 2017), and her set at Panorama drew entirely from it. She and her own able band were alive, and SZA showed off her performance chops, engaging with the engaged crowd, showcasing the incredible number of hits on Ctrl.
“Are you ready for GuWap?!?” Gucci Mane hype-man DJ Champ built up the crowd to close out The Pavilion that day. Of course, his power cut off, and returned, and of course Gucci came on almost twenty minutes after his start time. But there was exhilaration from the crowd, almost relieved after all the other difficulties so far at Panorama.
“Here For Janet” read a couple of women’s shirts, and you could definitely see who was at Panorama for the one-and-only Janet Jackson. It’s not a given that the star, who dates back to the eighties (seventies, if you count The Jacksons), would be a big festival headliner (indeed, she was to headline the cancelled-for-poor-ticket-sales-and-#MeTooed-founder FYF Fest). But her influence is all over today’s music, from Beyoncé on down (including SZA and St. Vincent). That not only gave her power, but also meant that she fit in with the line-up, despite having been around a lot longer than anyone else on the bill that day.
Yes, there were elements that were clear throwbacks, like her dancers (there was even a dance-off) and footage of old music videos, but she also had contemporary references like a snippet from Kendrick Lamar’s “Poetic Justice”. There were serious moments, such as playing here rare anti-racism piece “The Skin Game (Part 1)”, and a tribute to her brother Michael in clips from the video of their “Scream” collaboration. It was the full Janet Jackson experience. Play. Some Janet. Jackson!
Like Saturday, Sunday had beautiful weather, with less humidity, and the muddy ground had dried out more. But of course there was another cancellation: Greta Van Fleet’s drummer was too injured to perform. Maybe those attendees with [Greta Van] Fleet t-shirts would hit up Fleet [Foxes]?
Instead, at The Pavilion was Chicano Batman and then Rex Orange County. Chicano Batman had a lot of energy up there, more than one would expect for their smooth sound (or at three in the afternoon). Rex Orange County is a fast rising and charming emotional singer/songwriter, but it was still mostly just he up there on the big stage. Yet he engaged well, such as stopping mid-song to call for a medic for a fan, then resumed once it was taken care of. There was a lot of young love for him, with a sweet, big close of “Happiness”.
There was more youth over at the Bud Light Dive Bar Sessions with Loote, who said that this was the first festival they’d ever played (the singer/keyboardist also had his first on-stage a drink – a Bud Light, of course…). And it was nice to see a pop band where the guy is the emotional keyboardist, and the lady the guitarist, rather than the usual set up the other way around. Later on there was Sur and Fly by Midnight, some sexy electro-pop and dancing fans, going into the crowd.
Less able to connect with the crowd was Mount Kimbie at The Pavilion. They had distinctly catchy electronica, but kind of seemed to hide behind all of their gear, which particularly doesn’t work on a big stage in daylight.
If you want a lesson on how to run a stage, see David Byrne. The famed Talking Head came out with a solo record this year, American Utopia (QRO review), and a finely crafted live show. In the lead-up to the start of the set, it was just a brain on the Panorama Stage to the sounds of birds tweeting, with white bead curtain backdrop. Byrne came out solo and presented that brain to the crowd for opener “Here”, then was joined by mobile band for “Lazy”, and even mobile drummers following for Talking Heads’ “I Zimbra”. The band’s dancing was on point, maybe as good as Janet or SZA’s – and they were doing it all while playing instruments!
Of course the biggest crowd-pleasers were old Talking Heads songs like “Burning Down the House” and Byrne stumbling around the stage for “Once In a Lifetime” (a-la on famed concert movie Stop Making Sense, though this time his suit fit better). Byrne also wisely didn’t follow either with a new solo song, which would undoubtedly have been a let down, but instead other pieces: first his collaboration with Fatboy Slim, “Toe Jam” (referencing the funny NSFW video), and closing his set with Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout”, which called out victims of violence from Freddie Gray to Emmett Till – and a lot of less well-known names. David Byrne has been an art-rock icon for so long that he threatens to be overrated, but he was all that and more at Panorama.
Also often threatening to be overrated is Fleet Foxes – or at least they were some years ago, when they broke out. But the alt-folk outfit did their thing at The Pavilion, even if it was still basic backwoods alt-folk.
While should always be dark when The xx plays, the sunset for their set at Panorama Stage worked. And while their music is still largely to be listened to alone in the dark, the band have become more extroverted than they used to be – success will do that to you. Singer/bassist Oliver Sim said that this was the final stop on their 136-show world tour, noting the importance of New York City to the band, from their first show to first sessions for last year’s I See You (QRO review). He also dedicated “Fiction” to his fellow LGBTQ. It was notable how respectful the crowd was of the group, quiet at the otherwise loud festival, with moments of real silence for the softest songs such as “I Dare You”.
Over at The Pavilion was ODESZA. The duo has grown significantly from just glorified DJs, and took the chance to show it at Panorama. More than once they would bring out multiple walking drummers (even more than David Byrne) for giant rhythm performances. Meanwhile, the power went out at the actual DJ tent, The Point.
Closing Panorama ’18 on the main stage were The Killers. It’s still kind of surprising that the glossiest band of the early ‘00s rock revival are festival headliners, but they do know how to have a big production. And if they’ve never matched debut Hot Fuss, they still play it live. And drummer Ronnie Vannucci is still their best member, never taking himself too seriously, even as singer Brandon Flowers bounces around on stage like the Vegas showman that he is.
At one point, Flowers pointed to a young fan at the very front of the large crowd, Brendan from Florida, who had a sign asking “President Vannucci” if he could play drums. Flowers invited him up for “For Reasons Unknown”, with Vannucci ceding the drum seat and picking up a guitar. Yes, it was pre-planned (they’ve done it at other shows), but still was a nice moment.
The Killers mixed from their entire catalogue, Hot Fuss to last year’s Wonderful Wonderful (QRO review), and while the tracks might be too big and shiny on record, live with the band’s festival-headlining production (including giant lit-up Vegas-style signs and even lasers), they were certainly effective. And, of course, they ended with the iconic “Mr. Brightside”.
There are those who have said that this festival was cursed, that this was the last Panorama, etc. And while there were certainly pitfalls, there were also some real peaks, making for a hell of a weekend.
-words: Ted Chase
-photos: Derek Klevitz, plus āryā Collective & Ron Loud (courtesy of Panorama)