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At Four, Outside Lands Comes of Age

In its fourth year, the Outside Lands Festival, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, hit its stride—and became a San Francisco institution.

Musically speaking, Outside Lands isn’t really as coherent as other festivals centered on a particular genre of music or a particular scene. From its first iteration in 2008, it felt like a big corporate rockfest that just happened to be in San Francisco. There was no particular aesthetic to the music. In year one, it was clear that the model put forth by co-promoters Superfly (of Bonnaroo) and Another Planet Entertainment (a hometown offshoot of Bill Graham Presents) was to present as many different types of music as possible, in order to bring in as many different musical constituencies as possible so as to sell a lot of tickets and thereby establish the festival. Headliners in the first couple of years were Tom Petty, Radiohead, Dave Matthews, the Beastie Boys (who cancelled), Pearl Jam, Kings of Leon, and Furthur, all chosen for maximum draw.

But San Francisco has always been the real draw. This year, maybe because after four years, you finally pick up this city’s beat tendencies, Outside Lands really jelled as a San Francisco festival—truly at home alongside the free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. The music was as eclectic as ever—something for everyone, really, from a full, two-set Phish show Friday night, to closing dance sets by Girl Talk on Saturday and Deadmau5 on Sunday, to a mellow soul Sunday morning from Charles Bradley and the Menahan Street Band and Mavis Staples – and big-draw pop headliners Muse and indie darlings Arcade Fire. And quite a few alt-rock, alt-pop and indie rock bands mixed in. And that musical eclecticism is, itself, fairly representative of San Francisco.

But in the end, it was everything else that made Outside Lands 2011 feel like this city’s festival. For example, the vibe, especially on Friday, was Upper Haight hippie meets Lower Haight hipster. Plenty of twenty- and thirty-something in either tie dyes or animal headdresses—or both. Plenty of people in Burner-style costumes (like one guy with a mirror-balled batting helmet). More than ever this year, standard festival fare had been almost entirely replaced by many of this foodie city’s quirky eateries offering local (and often locally-sourced and organic) delights—sweet potato tater tots with falafel snow cones, upscale chicken and waffles, fine organic ice cream, gourmet cupcakes. It wasn’t cheap, but it was good. Then there was the returning Wine Lands, the tent that features local and regional wineries slinging their finest.

Even the merch booths, which often seem like generic travellers on the fest and carnival and county fair circuit, had been infiltrated by hip local emporia—and local poster artists including Lil Tuffy and John Howard banded together as the San Francisco Print Collective to sell fine silkscreened rock posters. S.F. art mag Juxtapoz sponsored an ongoing street art demonstration, with graffiti artists painting elaborate murals live on the Polo Field on long panels (that are probably now worth a fortune).

Most interestingly, the promoters opened up a wooded pass between stages as “McLaren Pass“—featuring a “food truck forest”, the “Choco-Lands” with booths selling sweets, and “The Mission“—a couple of burrito and taco stands. Beneath hanging skull lanterns, evil-looking clowns performed gypsy sideshows, playing music and doing tricks. At one edge of the forest, a couple of Burning Man-style structures—odd artistic shacks made with reclaimed materials—perched amid parachutes that sheltered a sofa or a Persian rug for sitting, or a rope swing that rang giant metal tubes like an oversized wind chime. It was Pranksterism, really—and maybe you could have been up in the forest at Ken Kesey’s place in La Honda.

The locavore, the hippie, the hipster, and the cool overwhelmed the corporate stuff—and that was a welcome … not a shift, but an upwelling, of actual San Francisco culture. This is truly a San Francisco festival now. And in hard times, it brought a lot of money into the city—those local eateries with booths had to be double-staffed for three straight 14-hour days (at least)—and with ten dollars probably the average for a meal item, many of them must have been bringing in at least $1000 an hour. This year, that will earn the promoters a lot of good will.

There was music, too. Too much to see it all, or anything near it all. But the bands were well-spaced and timed to avoid bleed and—largely—tough choices. If you timed it well, you could have, on Friday, caught Outkast rapper Big Boi’s set—then Eryka Badu’s, then returned to the main field for Phish’s second set.

Then, Big Boi never played—his DJ’s computer crashed, you see and he had no backup computer. So, bizarrely, the show did not go on. And that is why every rapper should carry a backup band. It doesn’t speak well to Big Boi’s versatility as a live performer—why not set up Badu’s band—or just her drummer and freestyle it? One would imagine he did not get paid.

Of course, even bands have their problems; earlier on the field, New Orleans funk pioneers the Original Meters were waylaid for what felt like twenty minutes by the failure of guitar hero Leo Nocentelli’s amp stack. In this case, it didn’t speak well for the versatility of the stage hands, who—rather than swapping the amp out for one that worked, and fixing it backstage—monkeyed around with the rig for an excruciating half hour (or so it felt) as drummer Zigaboo Modeliste, bassist George Porter, Jr., and organist Art Neville jammed freestyle. Big Boi could have learned a thing or two from these gracious old men.

When they did get going, their playing was loose—partly the grass field vibe, and partly because their build had been interrupted. But they sounded like the Meters. And most so when Nocentelli was back online.

But back to Big Boi: 40 minutes into a long, crowded wait, this intrepid typist bailed for Phish. As it turns out, BB came out and apologized and said something about how it was better to play no set than a half-assed set. And then comedian Dave Chapelle emerged, and reportedly told a few jokes at the expense of festival attendees. I’m sure that made the crowd happy. The whole mess somehow pushed Badu’s set back—so that you couldn’t catch a whiff of it during Phish’s break, after all. Which was too bad—word was that she killed.

Phish is tight in 2011. It was one to warm the heart of this old-school warrior, with plenty from the pre- Billy Breathes period. A loose, funky “Moma Dance”, a sharply-rendered take on Zappa’s “Peaches en Regalia”, smokin’ “Possum”, and “Tweezer“—cold, cold, cold, cold, cold in the west city fog. A deep-pocket “Mound,” and a drop into “Suzie Greenberg.” With the fest’s larger sound problems largely ironed out, the sound was killer, even halfway across the Polo Fields—and Phish took command of the field. It didn’t feel like part of a Phish show jammed awkwardly into a festival (like last year’s underwhelming Furthur set)—it felt like a Phish show (and the first inside San Francisco proper since the Fillmore show in 1998). A heavy “Axilla” led into the “Mike’s Song” > “I am Hydrogen” > “Weekapaug Groove” suite. And that was just the first set. Set two opened with the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll,” which slowed down into a space-jazz jam. On “Steam”, the fog machines hissed along with the band (what was this, a Prince record?). This was a driven, upbeat set—“Julius,” “Fluffhead“—classic Phish jam—a hooked-on-disco “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, and a hard-rockin’ “Chalkdust Torture”. The slower take on Bowie’s “Life on Mars?“—perhaps an allusion to the discovery this week of what NASA scientists believe are flows of saltwater on the red planet—felt like a bring-down mid-set.

Chris Kuroda’s lightshow was gorgeously complex – l.e.d. pinspots beaming rich, dark colors—burnt oranges, dark reds and blues—out into the crowd, or creating fire mandalas on three round scrims. Stunning.

Early on Saturday, local folk-psych outfit Vetiver played an electric set, sounding like the Allman Brothers at times, with a dual guitar, dual-keyboardist set-up. The Richmond District sound (the northwest part of San Francisco) seems to be characterized by feedback-laced Telecasters … surf guitars, for a beach neighborhood. Vetiver’s sound was punchy—a choppy, punchy western psych-pop. Their Grateful Dead selection, requisite for a gig in the park, was a fairly faithful “Don’t Ease Me In”.

Saturday night, the Black Keys held court on the big Polo Field, blazing through an hourlong set of blues crunch guitar assault over drums. The field was packed to the gills.

At the other end of the park, in Speedway Meadow, the Roots were jamming through cover after cover – paragraph-long quotes, really—“Sweet Child O’ Mine”, “Immigrant Song”, “Jungle Boogie“—more rock than funk, rapping as a means of connective tissue.

Compared to all that, Warren Haynes’ set with the Warren Haynes band felt subdued and very mellow. This is his take on the Jerry Garcia Band concept—with skroinky organ and guitar tones, and raspy saxophone to boot.

Britpop act Muse followed on the Polo Field, and the crowd came spilling for the Gary Glitter-like beat intro to their hit “Uprising”.

And back at the east end of the fest, bearded freak Girl Talk (Greg Gillis) presided over a thousands-strong dance party that packed that field. The mashup artist flounced at his control panel like a muppet Bjorn Borg, all in white, amid a stage packed with dancing festival goers. Girl Talk’s set was intriguing. At times, it felt like a high school dance, with girls in ponytails thrilling to “Thriller.” Then, when it got deep and trancelike and weird—and the bass boomed and shook the trees—it was transformational, danceformational. There, Gillis’ montage was at its best.

Another local act, the Fresh & Onlys, opened the day Sunday, with a noon set of psych-reverbed telecaster pop-punk … the Richmond Sound returns. They’d be at home in the old 924 Gilman/ Lookout! Records scene.

The weekend’s most pleasant surprise was Charles Bradley and the Monahan Street Band. Bradley, a James Brown disciple (and one-time Brown tribute act), laid down mellow Sunday morning soul. Zipped to the waist in a black sequined shirt with wings and scorpions and his own initials, Bradley sang his heart out—he’s a legitimate soul screamer. Neil Young would have loved his take on “Heart of Gold”. But Bradley sang his set along thematic lines, opining obliquely on poverty and racial oppression in America – “why is it so hard to get Ahead in America?” he sang on the admittedly autobiographical “Why Is It So Hard,” as a pair of red-tailed hawks circled up the thermals nearby. He stepped off the stage and worked the crowd, shaking every hand, hugging and kissing every lady he could. Then he crossed himself and blessed the crowd. Without you, he said, I would have let go. The audience had saved him in its embrace—and he was here not only to spread a message of love, but to express his gratitude.

Mavis Staples sang Staples Singers hits later on the field, and was joined by Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler for The Band’s “The Weight.”

Arcade Fire closed the festival down – and they were happy to do it. They are a big band—two drummers, two keyboard players, two guitars (including Butler) and a bassist—and then sometimes co-frontperson Régine Chassagne would come down to sing, or play some strange steampunk handcrank theremin-type wooden siren noisemaker, or the accordion. After an introductory film about the invasion of a small town by city kids, and then Cyrus from The Warriors (“Can you dig it?”), and finally the bandmembers on bicycles, riding through a Spielbergian housing development, the band members bounded onstage through a mocked-up theatre marquee. This is a feel-good band, recasting what in the 80s was called “alternative rock” (think the Cure or Smiths)—and was often morbidly depressing for effect—as an upbeat, band-camp-kids-gone-tribal call to joy. Suburban angst, perhaps, with violins and 80s haircuts, and a smiling gang of Canadians—and 20,000 singing along in a field while a flying V of ducks cuts overhead in silhouette at dusk.

The treat of the week for this writer was seeing ex-Creedence Clearwater Revival songsmith and frontman John Fogerty’s set. Fogerty is one of those veterans you might sort of forget about for a while, and then you see him and realize how much of your life his music means, how deep into your psyche those old Creedence songs reach. And, man, so many songs—up there with ZZ Top, Tom Petty, and The Guess Who in terms of recognizeable radio hits. In an aqua flannel shirt and black neckerchief, Fogerty worked the hometown crowd (“This song may be called ‘Born on the Bayou‘—but I was born right here!”) He had two guitarists behind him (with bass, drums, and keys)—but he played all his solos, unless he wanted someone to double them. And that sound was unmistakeable. Fogerty hit every high note, too—no small feat for an aging rocker. And man, rock and roll. The Creedence tunes pleased, and the newer Fogerty songs snorted and stomped. Fogerty and company played a faithful cover of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman“—which never fails to also invoke Van Halen. And then Fogerty reached for a blue Eddie Van Halen model Music Man guitar, and played an Eddie Van Halen solo—high on the neck hammer-on, you know the sound—to lead into the heavy swamp boogie-woogie of “Keep On Chooglin’”. Fogerty blew the harp, ran back and forth across the stage, exhorted the crowd. He was loving this—and he, too, thanked the crowd profusely, blessing them for singing along. Prevented for years by his former record company from playing his own songs—and even sued over “The Old Man is Down The Road” for sounding too much like himself—Fogerty was long known as a rightfully bitter, bitter man. That man was gone. And this man was loving playing those old songs, and loving breathing life into them anew.

Of course, ultimately, it was the bitter classic “Fortunate Son” that captured the spirit of 2011, this year of antitax revolt madness.

Some folks are born silver spoon in hand
Lord, don’t they help themselves
But when the taxman comes to the door,
Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale

Or, perhaps, of any American year.

Then, the whole weekend felt like a recipe for economic revival:

A festival in every town.

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