Navigating Outside Lands
Photos by John Margaretten
Music returned to Golden Gate Park this past weekend in the form of the third annual Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival. In the tradition of the “Be-ins” of old, the venue was the Polo Grounds, way out at the Western end of the Park. This area was once referred to as the “outside lands” of San Francisco, where dune grass and a vast expanse of rippling sand was all that prevailed. But the outside lands were tamed and planted and landscaped more than a century ago and the great green expanse of Golden Gate Park is now the perfect setting for a weekend of top-notch music, arts, food and wine. And this being San Francisco, put all those ingredients together and you’re going to draw a crowd. This year the crowd was estimated at more than 80,000 over the course of two days.
In a nod to economic realities, the producers of Outside Lands trimmed down the festival lineup from three days to two, but they certainly did not cut any corners. As its full name implies, this is not just a concert, but a happening. Borrowing from the successful model of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Outside Lands lures you in with a full slate of cultural and culinary offerings. But whereas Jazz Fest offers local New Orleans favorites like Crawfish Monica and Fried Gator Po’ Boys, to be washed down with a cold Miller Lite, Outside Lands offers a distinctly Northern California take on festival fare. With more than 30 local food vendors with artisanal offerings ranging from Hog Island Oysters and Rosamunde’s locally-made sausages, to New Ganges Samosas and wood-fired flatbreads from Full-of-life Flatbread, there was something for everyone. And if beer wasn’t the ideal pairing for a Korean beef short rib and kimchee taco from local favorite Namu, the festival’s expanded Wine Lands area this year hosted more than 25 top-flight wineries, including Ridge, Robert Sinskey, Peay and Unti, from which to choose your favorite varietal.
I arrived on Saturday just after 1:00 PM and headed straight for the main stage at the far end of the Polo Grounds just in time to post up in front for the Sierra Leone Refugee Allstars. Having heard quite a bit about them and their harrowing and inspirational tale of displacement, refugee camp living and finally deliverance in the form of international musical success, I was excited to see them in person, and they did not disappoint. Dressed in matching blue, purple, green and orange kente cloth outfits, the eight members of the band launched into a shimmering West African “highlife” groove that immediately had the crowd dancing and smiling as the huge video screens at the side of the stage showed close-ups of some of the fancy footwork that the Allstars youngest member, Black Nature, is famous for. From there, the eight-man band settled into a solid reggae groove, with the Allstars playing a deep roots style reminiscent of Culture or the Abyssinians, but with an added layer of unmistakably African musical idioms and poly-rhythms. The music was decidedly upbeat, but there is an undertone of pain and suffering to some of the songs the likes of which few other international recording artists could ever replicate. Before launching into one particularly poignant song about the horrors of slavery, lead vocalist Reuben Koroma stepped up to the mic and allowed that, “Our music entertains, but it also educates. Here’s some education.” After an exemplary 50 minute set that both entertained and educated, the band left the stage to huge cheers from a truly appreciative crowd.
Lingering to look around at the Polo fields as the crowd steadily grew in anticipation of the upcoming set from Gogol Bordello, I was taken with the beauty of the setting, encircled by huge stands of fragrant eucalyptus and jagged Monterey Cyprus. When nighttime fell and the lighting wizards conjured up their visual arts, I recalled from each if the first two years of the festival, those trees would make for a particularly spectacular backdrop.
This year the festival promoters trimmed back on the number of side stages, keeping all of the proceedings along the main central axis, instead of off through the woods in Lindley Meadows. This, along with a number of other strategic improvements in flow and traffic control, made getting from one stage to another fairly easy. Yes it took up to 15 minutes to get from the Lands End stage to the Twin Peaks stage at opposing ends of the festival grounds, but there was plenty to see, hear, eat and drink along the way, which made the trip easy to bear.
After a leisurely pause in the musical action, Gogol Bordello descended on the Lands End Stage in all their raging gypsy-punk glory. A nine-piece outfit, with accordion, fiddle, and a decidedly Eastern European accent, these guys sound like the most rocking klezmer band you’ve ever heard, all hopped up on bad Eastern European speed. Lead vocalist and Ukrainian-born head-gypsy, Eugene Hutz, stood out front, his drooping auburn mustache and scraggly hair mostly obscuring his facial features. Towards the end of their high-energy set, he danced shirtless, sweaty and exhorting the crowd while the band played a relentless gypsy bounce behind him. Gogol filled the slot that Manu Chau occupied last year at Outside Lands – international, polyglot, urging the audience to extend their arms skyward, stretch their legs and jump to the music, a unifying voice screaming out a challenge to powers that be.
Having seen him the night before at The Independent on Divisidero Street (one of the many outstanding nighttime shows put on by Another Planet during Outside Lands), I was more than a little excited to get on over to see Levon Helm Band at the Twin Peaks stage. The Band is my all-time favorite, so I was a little anxious to see if Levon’s band would be able to live up to his work with Richard, Rick, Robbie and Garth. But as Friday night’s show made clear, I had nothing to worry about. We arrived at the side of the stage as the band was cranking into a bluesy, bayou version of “Deep Elem Blues” with a full horn section standing on risers behind the rest of the band providing a swampy Basin St. flavor to the proceedings. Levon came out from behind his kit to sing and play mandolin on Deep Elem in what I perceived as a nod to San Francisco’s own Jerry Garcia, who passed away almost exactly 15 years ago. Next was a haunting version of Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell,” with Levon back behind his kit, trading verses with guitarist side-man extraordinaire, Larry Campbell. Levon’s voice was primal and grinding, literally singing through scar tissue. Throughout the show Levon — when he wasn’t singing of pain and sorrow — sported an ear-to-ear grin as his daughter Amy, just a kick-drum away, smiled back while playing mandolin and contributing outstanding backing vocals. After Blind Willie McTell, the band broke into a raucous version of Fats Domino’s “All on a Mardi Gras Day,” which featured the five-piece horn section stepping down off their risers and parading in a second line around the stage. Once the horn players found their spots again and the cheering died down, Levon and the Band launched into their iconic and traditional set closer, “The Weight,” with Helm, Campbell, pianist Brian Mitchell, Amy Helms and the lovely and talented Teresa Williams all taking turns on vocals. Although I arrived too late to catch set opener “Ophelia,” and the hauntingly beautiful “Long Black Veil,” off of The Band’s seminal Music from the Big Pink, I was treated to an excellent, if abbreviated set on Saturday. As we walked away from the Twin Peaks stage smiling, my only half-regret was that I hadn’t tried to muscle my way to the front to have shot at catching one of the drum sticks that Levon magnanimously tossed into the crowd at the end of the show.
Headed back towards the Western end of the festival grounds we stopped for a quick listen to Rebirth Brass Band, who continued the New Orleans theme started by Levon. Rebirth was playing their excellent version of The Stones “It’s All Over Now;” and although I love Rebirth, I’d seen them numerous times down at Jazz Fest and in the little clubs where they thrive, so dancing on through the crowd without lingering didn’t feel too wrong.
Feeling a little peckish after all the dancing and we’d done, my wife and I stopped for a delicious rib eye Philly cheesesteak from Earthly Delights and a bowl of Farmer Brown’s gourmet Mac n’ Cheese. Just some light fare, I joked, to get us through the rest of the afternoon and on through the night. We finished eating at one of the many picnic tables located throughout the festival grounds just in time to get up front for one of the days main attractions, My Morning Jacket, playing on the Lands End stage.
The crowd had doubled in size since we left for the other end, and we had just settled into our spots when MMJ frontman Jim James walked on from the wings with the crowd exploding in an enthusiastic welcome. The band was apparently also feeling the love, as they immediately kicked into, “Tonite I Want to Celebrate with You,” wasting no time in feeding off and building upon the crowd’s energy. Over the course of the next four songs, I counted James picking up and playing no less than 5 guitars (a red Gretsch, a black and sunburst Gibson ES, a ‘Flying V,’ an acoustic, and the bizarre Suzuki Omnichord 200 that he played on his lap while sitting down, then got up and twirled over his head). Over the course of their 90 minute set, the hirsute boys from Louisville played a masterful set of old and new, including all of my personal favorites, “Gideon,” “Magheeta,” “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream,” “I’m Amazed,” and “Off the Record.” James stalked the stage in a cape-like garment, sometimes with a towel over his head, playing his various guitars with a flourish and breaking out the ‘Flying V’ for rocking Neil Young-style romps, his voice alternating between a soulful baritone and an otherworldly falsetto. Tom Blankenship on bass and Patrick Hallahan on drums formed a solid rocking foundation for extended improvisational jams between guitarist Carl Broemel, James and Keyboardist Bo Koster. And when the band walked off the stage to ecstatic cheers from the appreciative crowd after a sixteen-song set, people were slapping each other five and wondering what could possibly top that. These guys are incredible and they definitely gained a lot of new fans through their performance at Outside Lands.
After recovering our wits, a group of us plopped down on the grass in between the Sutro stage where Wolfmother — the Australian Led Zeppelin, as they were described to me — was raucously wailing away, and the now empty Lands End stage. We looked up and found ourselves sitting under a canopy of metal flowers (I believe they were dandelions) that reminded me of the industrial/organic art work that decorated the grounds at Phish’s Festival 8 in Indio, CA, last Halloween. And upon further inquiry, I was told that the artist responsible, Russ Bennnet out of Waitsfield, VT, was indeed the same. Apparently he’s been doing fellow Vermonters Phish’s festival art for years. Scattered throughout the festival grounds these towering metalwork trees, flowers and other flights of fancy provided a very cool visual signature for Outside Lands, in perfect keeping with its parkland surroundings.
But soon we noticed large numbers of the tie died and dreadlocked streaming past us towards the main stage and we knew it was time to take up our positions again for the Saturday night headliners, Furthur. Full disclosure: I saw my first of many Dead shows more than 20 years ago and am decidedly in the Garcia camp, so going to see Furthur, The Dead, Phil & Friends or any other permutation thereof has always represented something of a quandary for me. On the one hand, I am delighted to be hearing those same old songs again, and celebrating with the same old group of friends; while on the other, I can’t stand to hear Jerry songs done by anyone other than the Fat Man himself. But the recent inclusion and now tighter integration of former DSO guitarist and Jerry doppelganger, John Kadlecik into the band, has helped me become more accepting of this current iteration. Joining Kadlecik and original Grateful Dead members Phil Lesh on bass and guitarist Bob Weir (with his trademark pink Stratocaster), were Jeff Chimenti on Keys, Joe Russo on drums, Jeff Pehrson on vocals, and Sunshine Becker (nee Garcia) on backing vocals.
The band came out to a local heroes welcome and launched into an improv jam that saw Bobby sitting on the sidelines huddling with his guitar tech trying to figure out why he was not in the mix. But after a few minutes Bobby was finally there and the band was off and running with the Weir-Barlow classic, “Cassidy.” After “Cassidy,” it was Kadlecik’s turn to do his thing, so the band slowed up and got into a low-down dirty groove for one of my favorite first set Jerry tunes, “Loser.” It had been a gripe of mine the first two times I saw Furthur play with Kadlecik that they hadn’t given him a long enough leash or featured him in the song mix early or often enough. But with this song choice and as the evening wore on, it was clear that John is now a full-fledged, featured member of the band. After a great “Loser” that built to a stormy crescendo during Kadlecik’s lead before the final verse, Bobby took back over and led the band through “Let it Grow,” including the extended jam in the middle that stretched the song out to almost 10 minutes. Just as the cheering for “Let it Grow” was starting to die down, a familiar but seemingly out of place recorded soundscape started coming out of the speakers. Was that the ticking and chiming of clocks?? Wait a second… “TIME?!” Sure enough, with the light of day starting to fade and the light show kicking into high gear, Furthur drummer Joe Russo (of the acclaimed organ and drums duo Benevento-Russo) started working over his tom-toms, playing the iconic intro to Pink Floyd’s “Time”. Apparently, Furthur has played it a few times in the past, but for me and most of those in the crowd, this was a major breakout. Phil and “new guy” Jeff Pehrson, traded off on vocals with Sunshine singing the high female backing parts and Kadlecik replicating the familiar David Gilmour lines faithfully, but then opening up into a more free-form, Dead-like jam towards the end. At this point some in our group, either put off by the Floyd cover or not totally invested in Furthur to begin with, left to see N.Y. indie-darlings The Strokes on the Twin Peaks stage. I was interested to check them out, but not interested enough to leave while Kadlecik did his most impassioned singing on, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” and certainly not when the band broke into, “Fire on the Mountain,” with John playing beautiful runs on his blond maple Carvin, reminiscent of Jerry’s famous 70’s “Wolf” guitar.
The rest of the set was basically a Grateful Dead second set “best of”: The Other One>The Eleven>Jam>Terrapin (including both the familiar “Lady w/ a Fan” section AND the intricate and seldom seen “Terrapin Flyer” extension). At some point mid-set, I turned around to look at the blissed-out crowd and to appreciate those lights I mentioned earlier, and noticed that the lighting guys were actually projecting twirling mandalas onto the thick fog that hung above the crowd. In addition to those lights that seemed to hang magically above us, the lights projected onto the surrounding trees danced and spun in red, blues, and white, highlighting the fractal-like patterns of the swaying cypress and eucalyptus. The band finished with Lesh singing “Unbroken Chain,” followed by a beautiful “Morning Dew,” and finally a crowd-pleasing “I know You Rider.”
Then it was time to go home. With a collective sigh of satisfaction, our group made its way off of the polo field, through the park and eventually home. It had been a brilliant first day and there was much more to come on Sunday.