Outside Lands 2010
“Will you go to prom with me, San Fran-muthagrubbin’cisco?”

Since its messy birth in 2008, San Francisco’s Outside Lands has suffered from a kind of festival identity crisis. It’s not the neon headbands and flaxen-haired dancing youth of Treasure Island, nor is it the battling desert epicness of Coachella. And it’s no Bonnaroo. So who are you, Outside Lands?

You made nice with your Radiohead-and-Beck-headlining debut in 2008, then went oddly mainstream with Dave Matthews Band and Black Eyed Peas, and this year, you’ve got Kings of Leon and Further? Say wha? Yeah, you’ve got more toilets, a better layout, more transportation to and from (the completely inconvenient) Golden Gate Park, and maybe better food and wine than any other festival in the world, but all of the eucalyptus trees, roaming bison, and Korean tacos in the world can’t carry a music festival; you need an exciting lineup!

Where were the bands I was supposed to just happen upon and leave with my face on the floor? Where were the reasons to ignore the ache in my feet and extreme body odor? For whom is this random smattering of hippie jams, slim soul music, very few indie acts, and what the promoters love to call “world music” meant for? Who the fuck wants to see Kings of Leon? Sure, there were a few hits, but it mostly seemed like OL just couldn’t afford to put on a festival this year, so they cut it down from three days to two days and offered a better culinary menu than artist lineup.

I feel like I’m complaining too much. I should say there were some beautiful moments, especially when Sunday’s sun brightened faces. Everyone was real nice, the drugs were good, and did I mention the food? Some acts reminded me of how awesome Outside Lands can be and some did not. Here’s hoping the promoters learn from this year’s not-so-positive reception and schedule bands next year who don’t get shit on by pigeons.

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GOOD DECISIONS

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Gogol Bordello

An orgy of sound, color, and pumping fists, Gogol Bordello is a true festival band. Outside Lands nailed this act, scheduling them before the fog rolled in, late afternoon on Saturday. They played the main Lands End stage and brought a massiveness to GG Park that reminded me of Bonnaroo. A combination of cabaret theatricality, Vincent Gallo-good looks, and heavy-handed lyrics reflecting the NYC immigrant diasporic experience, lead singer Eugene Hütz is a live wire onstage. “Start Wearing Purple” had more white people dancing and cheering than any other act that weekend. The Roma Punk consciousness was in full swing with “Break The Spell,” a snarly anthem for pissed-off gypsies. Sure, the music is monotonous, and I’d probably never pay to see Gogol Bordello on their own, but they were fun, and it was the first moment I felt like I was at a festival. Obviously, weather played a big part in their set, because the sun will always put San Francisco in a good mood, and the bombastic energy warmed our blood.

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The Strokes

I was really excited to see The Strokes. Is This It and Room On Fire defined my high school and early undergraduate years, as they did for so many kids. Despite the missteps, solo careers, and absence from the music scene, I had high hopes for their night set on the Twin Peaks stage. And they delivered, sort of.

Sound: The problem with Golden Gate Park at night is weather. The wind distorts the sound if you’re standing more than a hundred feet from the stage; it feels like you’re listening with warped headphones. The crisp sound of jagged guitars is lost, and the garage appeal of the band becomes muted, soft. The crowd was gigantic, therefore no hopes of moving up, therefore cold and not having the thrill of knowing every note. They did, however, play an awesome setlist comprised mostly of obvious tracks: “New York City Cops” opened the set and charged into “Modern Age,” then “Hard to Explain.” They know what people want to hear, but this leaves some of us wondering, What’s this “album in the works” and why aren’t they trying out some new shit?

Look: Their stage-set was my favorite thing about the entire festival. It looked like a hallway on the Starship Enterprise, if the architect had been Stanley Kubrick. The harsh whites, reds, and blacks reflected off the eucalyptus trees, and it felt like we were dancing in a video game. They really should have had side-stage video screens, because we needed to see the band. Shrouded in colored shadows, they matched the beats with the lights, and the synchronization contrasted with the sexy messiness of Julian Casablancas.

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The Devil Makes Three

Never thought I’d “need” to hear bluegrass at a music festival, but I totally did on Sunday afternoon when I stumpled upon the trio from Santa Cruz. Comprised of two guitars and one upright bass, The Devil Makes Three worked hard to produce a raucous, slightly stripped ragtime sound. Up close, they didn’t disappoint with energy and band dynamic. Bass player Lucia Turino grinned a lot. I had no idea they’d be so tight and deliver one of the best shows of the festival. Considering San Francisco’s affinity for backporch music (see Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival), I should’ve expected something great. And they were. Songs like “The Bullet” were infectious enough to kick up feet, but the lyrics told stories of rural desperation, biblical hopes, and drinking yourself to death. I thought, “Ominous knee-slapping.” “Tow” featured an amazing guitar line by Copper McBean who stole the show from lead singer and banjo player Pete Bernhard. But it wasn’t a competition, just three amazing musicians representing an era found only in the city’s red-lit saloons.

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Drunk Julian

You are both charming and annoying. Your hot mess appeal still works wonders on boy and girl hearts, but you could try harder to remember the words. You’ve sung these songs a million times, but your fans had to pick up the slack when you slurred through “Under Control.” And it seemed like the alcohol slowed you down or something, maybe coke it up next time? You’re best when manic, not lazy, and seeing your veins pop is a big deal for some of us. Maybe I was too sober, I don’t know. I thought you sounded great when you could manage the lyrics, and I guess the sloppiness worked because fans loved it when you asked, “Will you go to prom with me, San Fran-muthagrubbin’cisco?”

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Janelle Monáe

Not a whole lotta ladies at this festival, but that could be said about any festival without the name “Lilith.” Needless to say, Janelle Monáe’s set was highly anticipated by me, my friends, and the other 5,000 (??) fans waiting for Monáe to show up at the Sutro stage, 20 minutes after her set was supposed to start. Something technical, whatever. Finally, three hooded figures walked out to “Dance or Die” and swayed with the music, their backs toward the audience. Halfway through the song, the singer unhooded and turned around to an ecstatic audience as she spat, “Now I’m not saying it’s better to bailar/ You can pull the trigger or you can build you an ark.” She looked sharp as hell, wearing a tight pseudo-tuxedo with shoulders so puffy she could’ve carried fine china. Besides Gogol Bordello, no other artist was as intense and alive as Monáe, as she jerked and jumped and moonwalked across the stage. Her cover of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” was lush, sexy, and just fucking painful. She gets compared a lot to Sharon Jones, but I’d put money on Monáe’s voice any day — it’s monstrously operatic and defies pigeonholding. Her sound stopped folks walking and eating, and they stared, dangle-forked, at this pastiche of space funk, Broadway, and pop music. Her sleek androgyny and queer style is totally San Francisco and more interesting to watch than, say, Lady Gaga and her titties n’ fishnets spectacle at Lollapalooza. Monáe is an artist who can complicate her look and her music, and she does it on the tightrope.

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Chromeo

You know you want to. Dance, that is. Or makeout. Or storm a fence. Synths and killer bass lines are a marriage made in 80s funk with Chromeo, the quintessential festival band. Day or night, but preferably night, Chromeo get everyone dancing in ways that are incredibly genuine and free, and it’s a great nighclub alternative to Further’s crowd of noodly deadheads. Playing a Fancy Footwork-heavy setlist and a couple of tracks from She’s In Control, Chromeo was the perfect soundtrack for the warm Sunday afternoon. They looked like they were having fun, smiling in black sunglasses, and unleashing so much energy that the fence behind us collapsed during “You’re so gangsta” as kids without tickets rushed in. We cheered; fat dudes in yellow security shirts chased the fence-jumpers (but to no avail); and the youth triumphed. I hope I never get too old to listen to Chromeo. They bring a dorky passion into my life that is energizing and sweet, just like watching my boyfriend dance.

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Bathroom Break/Food/Play a game of Magic The Gathering

These are the bands I watched from either the bathroom line, the organic s’mores line, or whilst sitting down with a pack of Magic cards and a cigarette.

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Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

Pseudo-bohemian BIG IDEAS: Truth, Love, Setting Ourselves Free, and Hot and Heavy Pumpkin Pie. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros sing songs from the 60s on their album, Up From Below, and their earnest, bonfire melodies are recycled sentiments echoed by the freaks and panhandlers roaming down Haight Street. Frontman Alex Ebert, former Ima Robert lead singer, found solace from addiction in the form of Edward Sharpe, a bearded and white-robed messianic hipster, who, like, feels things in a very, like, deep way, and wants to share his message with the world : “We want to feel ya/ We don’t mean to kill ya/ We come back to heal ya.” Well, okay then. Despite the lack of authenticity or difference between a yogi and a songwriter, I sometimes like Edward Sharpe. I mean, there’s something to be said for the easy joy hand-clapping brings, and there was plenty of hand-clapping to be had at the Twin Peaks stage. Title track “Up From Below” had Ebert shaking like an epileptic Gumby and singer Jade Castrinos bouncing with a tambourine. “Carries On” was a lethargic treatise on how to love and touch each other, with sporadic bursts of pounding drums and cheers. I, along with probably a thousand others, patiently waited to hear “Home,” the crowd-pleaser. And they brought it out towards the end of the set, letting the audience sing most of the words. Ebert and Castrinos got cute together and mumbled sweet nothings, and everyone galloped with the music.

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Langhorne Slim

Extremely okay.

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Phoenix

I haven’t seen Phoenix live. I like them, but I can never rationalize paying what they charge for what seems to me just a decent dance party and little else. My group split up because I felt obligated to see how big and ridiculous they’ve become, and no one else really cared. Phoenix played as the sun shone over the hill of dirt separating the two concert fields. It was a beautiful moment, climbing into the dusty light and hearing “Fences” echo in the distance, bodies warm and lethargic. But once we stood in the crowd and watched the band, the mood dissipated, leaving us with a muffled sound. Their live songs sound like recorded songs, and they had too little energy to successfully follow Chromeo. We decided to get organic s’mores and find the other half of our group, who were busy being hungry baby birds to a woman feeding them crumbled hash brownies.

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THE NEGLECTED

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Vieux Farka Touré

He played the World Cup, and his dad was Ali Farka Touré, so yeah, Outside Lands did right by scheduling one of Africa’s most renowned contemporary artist. They also put him on the smallest fucking stage. Seriously? Ali Farka Touré’s album with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu, pretty much changed my life, and I’ve followed his son’s career with interest, so I was excited. He took the stage maybe 10 minutes late, looked bored and maybe pissed off, but still played a great set. The signature desert guitar sound moved the crowd and pierced the air with a groovy wine. Bass player Mamadou Sidibe was the most charismatic and on-point musician, but didn’t detract from Vieux’s heavy rock presence.

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Empire of the Sun

I am a fool who left early and missed Empire of the Sun. Apparently, they killed.

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THE REGULARS

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My Morning Jacket

Probably the most interesting and frustrating show of the festival was My Morning Jacket. I love them, I love Jim James, and I have been fortunate enough to experience some really great performances: Bonnaroo’s 2008 late-night set in the pouring rain; a tiny theatre in South Carolina that resembled some kind of Fred Flinstone porn cave; a sold-out show at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre, etc. No matter your opinion of the band (over-produced sell-outs vs. musical geniuses), their live shows are epic. From the grain silos of Kentucky comes a sound of funk, rock, folk, and space travel. They work harder onstage than any band I’ve ever seen, and despite my aversion to all things “jam band,” I love the intense focus devoted to transcending a song beyond the 10-minute mark into a beautiful beast of creation.

But something was too tight this time. Forsaking the long howls and off-the cuff jams that will give you goosebumps for a more structured and sleek hard rock sound, MMJ played an unexpectedly straight-laced show. Granted, they only had 90 minutes to play, but everything felt too packaged. The allure of seeing MMJ live is to witness the wizardry and genius behind reinventing recorded songs, and they do this consistently. Saturday was different, and I can’t quite put my finger on it, other than to say I had no moments of elation. I was maybe two rows from the stage, and surrounded by folks camping out for Further, so that could’ve been part of the problem, too. And Coked-Out-Craig decided to jump in front of me and terrorize female fans. Every band member was as energetic as always, but James’ performance felt overly self-assured and perhaps a bit too… showy? The “rock god” personae created a distance between me and the band I’ve never felt before, and I was easily distracted by this. Speculation aside, MMJ still put on one of the best shows of the weekend, and they played the usual, opening with “Tonight I Want To Celebrate With You,” “Gideon,” “Off The Record,” “Steam Engine,” (which I considered to be the highlight of the set; James’ voice soared and trembled oh so nicely), “Golden,” “Mahgeetah,” “One Big Holiday,” and the rest of the regulars. Grow out the hair and record a new album, guys.

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Cat Power

I’ve seen Cat Power a lot. I’m proud of her for sobering the fuck up, but something feels forced these days. Maybe it’s because she hasn’t released any original material since 2004’s The Greatest. Maybe it’s because she toured forever in support of her second covers album, Jukebox. Maybe it’s because she’s happy? Whatever it is, her set lost its luster at Outside Lands, and I felt bored. Again, bad wind, bad sound, reports of Cat Power mouthing I’m Sorrys to front-row audience members, and just off of her sexy game. She did open with “Good Woman,” which still stabs hearts, and the backing band got loud and jammy with her cover of “Lord, Help the Poor & Needy.” She could use a dose of heavier rock when playing festivals; most people were talking, eating, sleeping during her soft numbers. The silence of a theatre is conducive to her best material, but when you’re carrying outdoor crowds into the cold sunset, you need to warm them up. I was too far back to see her jump into the photo pit and sing on the ground, but I imagine it was a bright moment in an otherwise dull set.

[Photos: Michael Chasco]