Saturday August 14 was crisp, overcast and the start of the third annual Outside Lands Music and Art Festival, billed as a weekend of Music, Food, Wine and Art (note: copyright infringment). Cast primarily on the old polo field in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Outside Lands delivered as promised with a minimum of traditional festival logistical headaches, making for a very enjoyable weekend by the Bay. Organizers seem to have learned from criticisms levied in previous years when the event spanned three days, carried more bands and stages, and was generally considered crowded and frustrating. The 2010 edition divided the weekend by allocating more established bands with predictable followings to Saturday while Sunday generally featured up-and-coming bands, or bands that have only recently experienced notable success.
I arrived Saturday morning, duly impressed with Virgin American airlines. My Gracious Host (and local guide for the weekend) and I breezed through minimal lines as gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello rushed the stage. Gogol Bordello performed on the main stage against the backdrop of a giant slingshot loaded with the star from Che Guevara’s hat and captioned “Familia Undestructable.” The band members, each dressed like extras from Pirates of the Caribbean, took turns leaping to the front of the stage to belt politically charged lyrics ranging from sympathy for immigration to a recommendation to wear purple.
Gogol Bordello – “Start Wearing Purple”
Gogol Bordello lead vocal Eugene Hutz alternated between frenzied guitar strumming and taking belts from a bottle of wine while backed by violin (Sergey Ryabstev), accordion (Yuri Lemeshev) and others. The band’s earnest political fervor and songs with lyrics in English as well as “not English” connected with the mostly black-clad fan base who sang along with fists in the air to the surprise and irritation of many of the older subdued hippies who were already staking out territory by the main stage for Furthur (more on that later). Although Hutz proclaimed, in support of immigrants, “you’ll miss me when I’m gone,” it was clear that the Furthur fans were rather relieved when Gogol Bordello finished.
While Gogol Bordello musically lunges at fans to grab and shake them, Appalachian band My Morning Jacket (or MMJ) calmly draws its audiences in with psychedelic-tinged southern rock carried by frontman Jim James’ unearthly vocal range (impossible to sing along with) and burly, bushy-haired head banging. MMJ was surrounded on stage by animal talismans: a modest-sized plastic donkey, a short stuffed bear in a party hat, and an owl pictured on the bass drum (and drummer Patrick Hallahan had a figurine of Toad, from Mario Bros., by his side). MMJ hit its stride early with “Gideon” and the song’s hope (“religion should appeal to the hearts of the young”) pervaded the set. James likened the Polo Field to the “Field of Heaven” in Japan (where My Morning Jacket played in the 2005 Fuji Rock Festival) and routinely said, “God bless you, San Francisco.”
My Morning Jacket – “Gideon”
While staying on message, the band also delivered a tremendous hour-long set, including “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream,” “I’m Amazed” and “Highly Suspicious” (which James sang with his head covered by a blue towel) from their most recent album “Evil Urges.” The band then transitioned to some of their older, more jam-band style songs and, as it started to rain, began a bass and drum driven “Off the Record” that seemingly willed the rain to stop, before closing with an extended version of “One Big Holiday.”
My Morning Jacket – “Off The Record”
As with any festival, Outside Lands presented difficult choices. On Saturday, the tough choice pitted Furthur, the latest collaboration of Grateful Dead alums Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, against my former East Village neighbors The Strokes (seeing drummer Fabrizio Moretti walking a dog on 4th Ave. makes him my former neighbor). With Furthur, we would get to see Weir and Lesh close their summer tour in front of their home base of genuine San Francisco hippies; on the other hand, The Strokes have not, until this summer, played any shows since 2006 and might have a new album in the works. My Gracious Host was not so conflicted (she believes she should become Mrs. Julian Casablancas).
We happily packed in with our contemporaries (um, and younger) to conclude Saturday night with The Strokes. The band did not disappoint. In spite of their nearly four-year touring hiatus, the Strokes brought an enthusiasm that satisfied their fans’ anticipation. The band raced on stage to a looped opening clap-and-stomp from Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and jumped into “New York City Cops” and “The Modern Age.” They played against a backdrop of lights that, in unison, alternated between red, orange, green and blue until they changed entirely to evoke stars in the night sky for an intimate “Is This It.”
The Strokes – “Is This It?”
The set closed with a hard-driving rendition of “Last Night” and the encore included captivating video game visual samples from Pong, Pac Man, Tetris and Space Invaders during “Someday.”
The Strokes – “Last Night”
The Strokes ended the encore, perhaps fittingly, with “Take It Or Leave It,” one of the various comments throughout the set that suggested the Strokes are still on precarious footing. Earlier, Casablancas noted that “we’re still crazy after all these years” and, with a bit of skepticism in his voice, sang a few bars from the Grateful Dead’s “Touch of Gray” while noting that the Strokes were playing opposite Furthur. For her part, My Gracious Host is ready to go on tour as Mrs. Casablancas; however, despite her hopes, it seems likely that septuagenarians Lesh and Weir will be together longer.
Unlike Saturday, which featured bands with established followings, Sunday showcased relative newcomers on the verge of, or riding the crest of, popular success. The Sunday crowd was noticeably younger and larger, arrived earlier, and raced to the main stage, which hosted sets from Temper Trap, Phoenix and Kings of Leon.
The early afternoon set from Australian band Temper Trap started with rolling guitar riffs and complex percussion. The band unveiled some unnamed new material that featured sweeping guitar solos and falsetto vocals. From time to time, additional band members doubled-up on percussion and their youthful following (who I’m embarrassed to say were more familiar with Temper Trap than I) happily bopped along to “Down River.”
The Temper Trap – “Down River”
The short set closed with an enthusiasm that suggested Temper Trap will have much more to offer (including an October gig at Terminal 5).
The biggest disappointment of the weekend came from the travel delay that shortened Janelle Monae’s set to seven songs (in less than 45 minutes). In her brief set, however, the petite and frenetic former Outkast backup exploded with cuts from her new double album The ArchAndroid. Consistent with the two-movement concept album (following the first movement in her initial EP Metropolis: the Chase Suite), the set opened with Suite II Overture, an orchestral summary of the musical themes featured in the album. Monae and her two backup dancers entered together, cloaked in black robes befitting Emperor Palpatine and sprung into tracks “Dance or Die,” “Faster,” and “Locked Inside.” Monae took a short break from her high-energy dance-funk-pop and showed off her soulful range with “Smile” before she closed with “Cold War” and an extended, catchy “Tightrope” that got the audience dancing almost as happily as Monae.
Janelle Monae – “Cold War”
Time permitted a few minutes with Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes, a colorful collection of flower child performers who have inspired a cultish following of bouncy tie-dye-clad dreadlocked fans. In between the band’s cheerful songs about love and happiness, lead vocal Alex Ebert pleaded, “C’mon sun, shine!” before bursting into loose version of the duet “Home” (with romantic foil Jade Castrinos) that featured a re-worked dialog between Jade and Alexander based on their first trip to San Francisco in a borrowed car. The band closed with “Om Nashi Me” which repeats the mantra, “I will love you forever” which must certainly be affirming for Ebert to hear, when a field full of his followers sings along.
Even after extensive touring, it is clear that Phoenix is still reveling in its success. Lead vocal Thomas Mars seemed almost surprised that the audience complied when he chirped, “We are Phoenix from Paris, France. San Francisco, clap your hands.” For the most part, Phoenix in concert sounds a lot like Phoenix on my iPod, with the exception of “Rome” which sounded much crisper with live drums and the band added a short guitar solo at the end.
Phoenix – “Rome”
During just their second song, the danceable “Lasso,” Mars jumped off the main stage to perform on the ground by the front row of the crowd.
Phoenix – “Lasso”
Later, Mars gleefully climbed to the top of three stacked speakers where he perched and sang before closing with “1901” and then a reprise of “!901” which Mars sang from the middle of the crowd, before crowd-swimming back to the stage. He added, with sadness in his voice, “this is our last show in San Francisco for a long time.” If Phoenix is going to return, perhaps as a headlining act, it seems time to put touring on hold and make another album (yes, they have four but somehow had trouble filling their allotted hour).
Sunday closed with red smoke covering the main stage; as the smoke cleared, Kings of Leon began a solid ninety-minute rock show. The Kings of Leon have been a good story for a number of years (they are three brothers and their cousin, they supported U2 for part of the 2005 Vertigo tour, they drink and fight with each other and seem happy to do so publicly) but they have musically matured into a tight, full-sounding band hitting its musical peak. They just need to find more good songs to play. Kings of Leon opened with “Closer” and “Be Somebody” from most recent album “Only By The Night” but did not get the audience jumping until “Fans” (from “Because of the Times”) and later, a grinning Caleb Followill invited the audience to sing along for two ubiquitous (and inexplicable) hits, “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody” (it isn’t clear why drum and bass-heavy, growler “Crawl” from the same album takes a backseat).
Kings of Leon – “Fans”
Kings of Leon – “Crawl”
The Kings of Leon showed their best, however, with a searing cover of the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind, ” confirming the boys can play, and with the right material, they could be even better.
Kings of Leon – “Where is my Mind?” (Pixies Cover)
While music was the featured course throughout the weekend, Outside Lands excelled on the sidelines, with food stands from various local restaurants. There were far too many to try (although we gave it a shot), but highlights included jambalaya and bbq oysters from Anchor & Hope, chicken and beef skewers from Asqew Grill, Earthly Delights Cajun chicken, Primo Sparilla’s Argentine sausages, and a particular nod to appropriately named Philz Coffee. The Festival also hosted nearly thirty vineyards in a tent dedicated to wine tasting, which I’m sure was lovely, but unfortunately I never quite made it past the Newcastle booths. Maybe next year I’ll be able to bring along a wine guide. And Virgin American got me back to New York fifty (5-0) minutes early.
PJ Bezanson practices law in New York (by day and by night) but catches as many concerts as he can; most of them are closer than San Francisco. He believes in human frailty, free coffee refills and Achtung Baby.