The first day of Octfest, the festival curated by Pitchfork and designed to pair all of the beers one can imagine with incredible bands and music, saw musicians like NAO, Jeff Tweedy and Vince Staples deliver performances that were unforgettable and flooded with meaning.
Laetitia Tamko, who also goes by her stage name Vagabon, began her set just as the rain began to pick up. Her deep, mature vocals were absolutely fitting to the energy and setting and with the added layers of big drums and guitar she played a set that was both reserved and vivacious. She was soft spoken when she talked and expressed her gratitude for everyone coming to listen to her. Tamko’s voice fizzled out of the speakers over the crowd as she sang “Cold Apartment.” She mumbled her way through the lyrics while playing guitar and created a moody atmosphere that lingered through the crowd. “100 Years” was a loud and fast song that ended almost as soon as it began, but didn’t leave the listener feeling incomplete. While the instrumentals were lively, Tamako’s lyrics were the opposite and explored feelings of rejection and were bursting with melancholy.
The area in front of the Skyline stage was desolate as everyone got their refills of ales and IPAs. Preoccupations (formerly Viet Cong) walked out and the crowd slowly made their way to the performance, until the first note struck, jolted everyone and compelled them to focus on the band. The energy from Preoccupations differed greatly from Vagabon’s set. It was noisy and fast. They opened with “Decompose,” a song filled with repetitive drums and experimental, distorted electric mandolins and keyboards. All of the instruments molded together and formed one giant unrefined and wonderful sound that boomed through the field. Lead singer Matt Flegel’s voice sounds as if Bobcat Goldthwait and Louis Armstrong combined their voices to create Flegel’s unmistakable, snarly vocals. Their energy turned inward until it imploded with the song “Solace,” and listeners danced spilling their beer onto the rain-drenched grass.
Chicago rapper Saba played the Island stage and gave a performance that was unexpectedly emotional. The set started with “Busy/Sirens,” a song filled with distorted, auto-tuned vocals and clever lyrics that spilled clearly and easily out of Saba. He largely played from CARE FOR ME and “Broken Girls” encouraged the crowd to sing back “girls” to him. He closed his eyes as he sang “We know it ain’t premature but temporary / Releasin’ you’re Issa Rae insecure” and sank deeper into himself before opening his eyes again to sing “I’m in love with broken girls.” Halfway through his set, he stopped and made sure to dedicate his performance to his friend Mac Miller and sincerely expressed his sadness. He went on to play “World in my Hands” from Bucket List Project and “Logout,” the song he sang with Chance the Rapper.
One of the most exciting performances of the day came when the British singer NAO performed. Her songs were filled with some of the greatest funk riffs, electronica and R&B. Her first song “Happy” was brimming with wonky funk beats and enthusiastic dance moves from NAO. “Get to Know Ya” from For All We Know explores the beginning stages of falling in love and uses passionate imagery when she sings “Like a fire you’re burning me up / Take cover cause we’re gonna float up to this feeling of a higher place.” Much like her lyrics, NAO’s performances are all consuming. She throws everything into her set and the listener can’t help but vibe with her and throw themselves into her world. She sang a new song “Make it Out Alive” and stared down the crowd as she held a giant balloon in one hand before releasing it into the ether. She closed with “Bad Blood” where she channeled the likes of Erykah Badu, Hope Sandoval and Esperanza Spalding all paired with incredible instrumental textures that added a complex, fathomless depth to the music.
An extremely mellow, but unforgettable set was played by Jeff Tweedy at the Island stage. There was no band, just Tweedy and his guitar and nothing else was necessary. Lyrically, there is nobody like him and as soon he played the first song “Bombs Above,” he had the audience transfixed. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” a temperamental Wilco song, was modified with Tweedy’s acoustic version where he injected his unmistakable vocals with the wit and self-deprecation that only Tweedy possesses. His dry sense of humor when he asks “What beer goes best with Zoloft?” immediately made him charming and the crowd couldn’t help but laugh and sing-along, albeit quietly out of respect for the musician and so that they can still hear the music. He asked the audience to sing with him on his new song “Noah’s Flood (Let’s Go Rain Again)” where the repetition of “Let’s go rain / Let’s go rain again” sounds much happier than what the intention is. On “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” listeners got a taste of Tweedy’s guitar skills and made his guitar sound more like an electric than the folky acoustic one he was playing. For his last song, he switched out his acoustic guitar for another acoustic guitar and played the Uncle Tupelo song “Acuff-Rose.”
The evening ended with a vibrant performance from Vince Staples, one of Long Beach’s greatest exports. Smoke poured out from the stage and Staples emerged from it singing “Get the Fuck Off My Dick.” If there was an anthem for hating everything, this song would be it. His angry but honest lyrics, “I ain’t takin no more calls, might think about callin’ it quits / Press is tryin’ to block my blessings, no more talking to Vince” paired with phallic imagery and Ludacris made it an unforgettable opening. The song “Big Fish” boomed out from the speakers and the crowd jumped when Staples told them to as he strutted around the stage. “Little Bit of This” with its vibrating bass and catchy choruses traveled out from the stage and shook the ground and everyone standing on it. He played “Opps” from Black Panther and the robotic voice reciting “You’re dead to me” and the images of police brutality turned the performance into something profound and political. Looking beyond all of the smoke machines and dancing crowds, Staples’ lyrics are always about very real, complex ideas and struggles. He rejects certain aspects of being a famous musician and instead performs in an authentic way and it is most apparent with his lyrics and the way in which he is able to connect with the audience. When he sang “Prima Donna” and continually asked, “Is it real?” it begins to take on a new meaning. It suddenly becomes an introspective song and even though it’s layered under beats and synthesizers, one comes to understand that there is something deeper within it.
After a day filled with endless beer tastings and music spanning multiple genres, no listener left Governors Island feeling unfulfilled.
Photo Credit: Raymond Flotat