- Day 1
by Ze Pequeno
Entering Golden Gate Park on a sweltering Friday morning, one gets the sense Outside Lands is more a summer country fair than a music festival: Various vendors in tents, small attractions, carnival sideshows, advertisements for cars, food shops and mini-restaurants from the city of San Francisco that overprice their food by a few dollars. Being extensively surrounded by trees and dust only adds to that argument. It is only when bands of actual significance start to play on the main stages, strewn in odd positions throughout the center portion of the park, that one remembers the purpose.
Autolux had the dubious honor of opening the main stage, “Land's End,” on Friday afternoon. One would think that position would present a great opportunity for a band that seems on the precipice of a new release to hype up both the band and the album. But Autolux had several problems that ultimately killed their set, none of which was actually their fault. Of primary concern was the venue itself: Land's End is a vast open space, with the sound range extending a few miles. Autolux's shoegazey noise needs the exact opposite: The music is practically required to be heard in an enclosed space, particularly a small one. The only way it would be effective in an open setting is by bringing the volume to Lightning Bolt levels, something the live engineers refused to consider at such an early phase of the festival. Instead, the music was soft to the point that it faded into complete dissonance from 60 meters onward. It was difficult for anyone, let alone the audience, to effectively react to the music. Matters weren't helped by the fact that the set took place on an early Friday afternoon that didn't fall on a holiday weekend, which made for a particularly sparse crowd. Autolux played as best they could, but the circumstances did not give them a chance to really prove themselves as decent shoegazers.
Whereas Autolux's venue was an awful fit, Akron/Family (pictured) could not have been placed in a better venue. The second-tier “Sutro” stage in Lindley Meadow was in a little valley, but more importantly was surrounded by tree lines. This enclosed, forest-like field created the perfect setting for the psych-folkers to improvise from. And improvise they did: While performing some choice cuts from Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free, they started playing around with some of the tribal rhythms instilled in those particular tracks. It lit up the crowd very quickly, with dance circles forming near the front of the stage and people dancing about throughout the rest of the set. At one point, Seth Olinsky jokingly asked the crowd, “Are you awake yet?” Either way, the set had the right kind of energy to truly kickstart the festival.
Around 2 in the afternoon, the clouds and fog from the Pacific that are San Francisco trademarks starting rolling into the city. By the time Built To Spill got on Land's End, the clouds had ominously blocked out the sun. This was not to dampen their performance, which was solid overall, covering everything from Ancient Melodies of the Future to a few tracks off the upcoming There is No Enemy. But whereas their remarkable performance at Siren Festival a few weeks back was marked by an active and lively crowd (complete with a select few jumping the security barrier and joining the band on stage), the crowd here was interested yet passive. In response, it felt like Doug Martsch and crew were going through the motions, which made things kind of boring after a while. Perhaps, like Autolux, circumstances prevented Built To Spill from really shining as a live act, despite a later compliment by Silversun Pickups' Brian Aubert.
I talked to Meric Long of The Dodos recently on an unrelated matter, and the impression I got from him is, despite all the recent successes (the popularity of Visiter) and obstacles (the recent leaking of Time to Die), they have maintained an image of being altogether sincerely nice, self aware and confident at the same time, which is a rare in indie rock. That image suited them quite well during their set on the Sutro stage. They amplified the surge of energy coming from the Lindley Meadow, first with the aforementioned Akron/Family, and then with what seemed to be a typically explosive set from Los Campesinos! at the “Presidio” stage. It certainly helped that The Dodos are locals to the city, and thus had a very supportive crowd in front of them. They even had members of Akron/Family and The National watching from the side of the stage. Their stage presence was minimal, but they ruled the stage sound-wise, with Long's vocals and Keaton Snyder's vibraphone filling the space quite well. The crowd was very responsive, with some dancing involved, and requests for more coming out toward the end. While they were still in a gap between the recent digital and upcoming physical releases of Time to Die, the disparity was not felt at all in the crowd. All in all, they were one of the better acts of the afternoon.
As evening descended, a return to the Sutro stage brought me my first experience with The National. The crowd was vast, likely caused by the band's active liberalism in last year's election. The music careened between soft-handed and explosive, but it never felt like there was a complete loss of control in the band's movements. Still, it was very hard for me to truly grasp and analyse the band's overall performance with Matt Berringer's vocals getting in the way. While at times pulling off Springsteen-esque yelps, most of his singing is a drone-like croon that can be appealing at times, but felt grating in this case. It almost seemed like he was trying too hard to be sincere. Perhaps a future set will change my view, but they came off as a bit annoying.
Hitting up the other main stage, “Twin Peaks,” Q-Tip comes on stage after somewhat obvious shout-outs to Michael Jackson (dead for more than three weeks) and J Dilla (dead for more than three years). While the rapper's close association with Jay Dee makes it a given, it almost seems like this pseudo-worship of the late producer may be doing more harm than good overall. In any case, with nearly 25 years of rapping under his belt, he can still put on a decent show. His flow is methodical, his lyrics upbeat and thoughtful. He has an incredible backing band setting him up with quality beats. He often cuts them loose, letting them hit some incredible solos, but more importantly, he understands something Questlove has yet to grasp with The Roots: That a band is more than a cover for the frontman. His cuts from The Renaissance, plus his tribute to DJ AM (who had only been confirmed dead that day), left an overall solid impression.
When I first heard that Tom Jones was performing at Outside Lands, my initial impression was, “Tom Jones is still alive? … And he's still performing?” Given the singer's status within American culture, my thoughts were justified: With his style of singing and backing music so closely aligned with the period he was most popular in (i.e., the '60s and '70s), that the only reasonable ends would be to either slowly fade out of the spotlight or die off 10-15 years down the line. But there I was, witnessing several women (and men) clutching their underwear amongst a crowd of hundreds upon hundreds of people, waiting for one of the Welsh people's greatest contributions to pop music in the last century. As the sun reappeared, Tom took the stage. As if to spite people like me, the first lyrics he sang were “I'm alive!” He certainly was, and he could still sing like he did 40 years ago. His voice (and to a lesser extent, his body) has aged quite well, unlike other legends such as Robert Plant or Iggy Pop. He belted out a few classics and standards, all the while relishing the little things that marked his career: The thrown panties (and boxers), his overwhelming presence and a nuanced playfulness that still holds well. The corny charisma that is his signature stands above all else, but that is of little concern. He's gotten to the point that he's got it completely made, and he can do whatever he wants and not worry about his fans at all. And that made for a fun set.
As I left the park for the evening, I decided to take in 20 minutes of Thievery Corporation. I want those 20 minutes back. Everything that duo did reminded me of all the things that are wrong with mainstream electronica: A rotating cast of singers, use of obscure instruments (in this case, a sitar) for flavoring, a reliance on strangulating bass lines that make dancing uncomfortable, and because of those singers, a constant need for vocals. Even the stage was gaudy, using a double display that showed simple graphic design images and animations that a high schooler with about 12 hours on his hands could pull. When it wasn't dull, it was annoying. All the while, the duo hid behind the displays, trying to be the Wizard of Oz. I left as night fell on the city, and while much of the day had some satisfaction, I was left with this sour taste.
- Day 2
by Amber Waves
The physical layout of the Outside Lands Festival grounds was emblematic of the musical layout on Day 2. At one end of the park, you had your crop of crap: Jason Mraz, Black Eyed Peas and Dave Matthews Band, all performing on the Lands End Stage. No need to decide between half of Beck's show or half of Radiohead's show like last year; this year you could pretty much camp out in one area and see the bands you wanted to see. So if you like MTV and middle-aged white people, then the Polo Field was your spot on Saturday. My spot was at the opposite end of the park, on the Twin Peaks and Panhandle stages. Mastodon, Bat For Lashes, TV on the Radio, Deerhunter and The Mars Volta were all included in my itinerary for the day.
I didn't get to the park until after 2 p.m. on Saturday, exhausted from the previous day's abnormal heat wave and Pearl Jam's knock-‘em-dead closing set. Despite my lethargy, I decided to catch Mastodon, hoping the boys in black would prove stronger than my 7-dollar cup of iced coffee. And they definitely woke up Golden Gate Park, with a set that drew heavily from their latest album, Crack the Skye. Singer/guitarist Brent Hinds' face was scorched from the blazing sun, turning him into a red-faced metal god as he and his bandmates annihilated Speedway Meadow, prompting devil horns from hippies. There was even a mosh pit during “Quintessence.”
Trading one cosmos for another, I left Mastodon to catch Bat For Lashes. Everyone looked very sexy for the Brighton goddess, and I was excited for the dance party about to ensue. Natasha Khan walked on stage in purple leggings, and a long white t-shirt featuring a giant black cat. The Two Suns opener “Glass” thundered along into the ethereal dream-pop number “Sleep Alone,” and Khan didn't miss a beat nor a note. Even as she sat down at the keyboard for the slow builder, “Siren's Song,” the audience remained enraptured by her magnetic energy and allowed a few minutes of near-silence against the backdrop of Joshua trees and blue sky. Her lush vocals and gracious stage presence made the performance a highlight.
TV on the Radio soundchecked a bit before sliding into the moody “Love Dog” off Dear Science. It was a mellow wave of horns and mournful “oooh's” that gently rocked the audience into the evening lineup. But that soulful vibe was swallowed in the wall of sound that is “Wolf Like Me.” Lead singer Tunde Adebimpe traded crooning for screaming as the horns blared behind him. He struggled to keep up vocally, but soon began to lose his voice and the message with it. He came back on funkier numbers like “Golden Age,” and the crowd loved every minute of it. If everyone could dance like Adebimpe, the world would be a better place.
Bradford Cox soundchecked a portion of Neil Young's “On The Beach” before the rest of Deerhunter joined him onstage. They played the same set they always play (“Cryptograms,” “Nothing Ever Happened,” “Never Stops”), or maybe I've just seen them too many times. I went in search of food.
Despite my love for De-Loused in the Comatorium, I'm not a huge fan of The Mars Volta. There's a fine line between being brilliantly obtuse and dwelling in sonic masturbation. I've heard, however, they put on an awesome show so I decided to check it out. The crowd erupted as they walked out and launched into the guttural frenzy that is “Goliath.” Cedric Bixler-Zavala was like an acrobatic Robert Plant as he shimmied and performed handstands throughout the set. At one point, he grabbed the band's sign and destroyed the frame, perhaps not realizing the sign had slipped out. “Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)” was a schizophrenic pastiche of ambient psychedelia and prog-rock, and everyone, I mean everyone screamed, “EXOSKELETAL JUNCTION AT THE RAILROAD.” It was quite thrilling, actually. The sun went down, and TMV collapsed into a heavy version of “Eunuch Provocateur.” I wanted to stay for more, but Golden Gate Park is like Alaska at night, and I didn't have any more drugs.
- Day 3
by Ze Pequeno
San Francisco can get cold. Ninety percent of all people who enter this city, tourist or otherwise, fail to understand this. It's because the cold is an unexpected cold, for it occurs on random occasions, even in the summer. Like this day. The mist and clouds draped the sky, bringing about an unmistakable-yet-trademark chill that required a layer or two to keep comfortable. Despite this, the crowds were much larger and denser than on Friday, so the body heat accommodated on some occasions. Even the opener at the second main stage, “Twin Peaks,” Cage The Elephant, had a packed crowd of at least a thousand. It felt strange walking through the crowd just by going through the entrance next to the stage. At the very least, what brief moments I saw of Cage The Elephant show that they have a certain arena potential going for them. Give them time, and they'll fill the main stage eventually.
Aussie songstress Lenka made note of the weather at the Sutro stage; apparently she was glad the lights were warming her up. Her presence reflected that: A very cheery, glowing disposition to the crowd, right down to her sun dress. Her appearance and voice could lend comparisons to Lily Allen, but these comparisons weren't noted until well after the set. Perhaps it is because she comes across as more versatile and more mature. From playing a lullaby on a keyboard she hung over her shoulders like a guitar to blasting on a trumpet, all the while singing ever-so-earnestly, there was the sense that, though she only truly started her career a couple years ago, she's already reached a level where just being herself and just performing will gain her fans. And that helps her a lot here: She started out having the smallest crowd of the sets I had seen, but it grew very respectably. If she keeps her act just like this, she's bound to break through stateside in a big way.
Atmosphere, after being in this business for more than 15 years, didn't need to make as much a principled effort to get the packed crowd going at Twin Peaks stage. Slug knows how to get the crowd to move, and Ant's beats are as strung-out as ever. But it doesn't always make for an interesting show. While their set was more in support of the re-release of God Loves Ugly, the lack of a live band for cuts from recent release When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold among other albums left an unfulfilling taste. Still, going back to the bare minimum gives Slug a chance to go back what he does best as a rapper: Tell stories, and stay earnest in doing so. He cracks jokes between songs, painting himself as some average Joe who skipped mowing the lawn so he could rap at some park. He becomes goofy in a way that is relatable to the crowd, and that adds to his allure as a storyteller and a decent white rapper who doesn't spend his time in complete poetic lament. It is what makes Atmosphere solid live, even when Slug antes up the showmanship on stage.
Dear Matt and Kim,
Don't ever change your live act. Ever.
Why is it that when you put on a show, your performance is so alive? Now granted, many bands can bring a crowd to life, get them moving simply by punching the right notes at the right times, with flairs of showmanship to show they're having fun with the set, with the crowd. But they're having fun while playing a set. You, on the other hand, are playing a set while having fun. You stand on the smallest stage of the festival, one powered by solar panels at a very bad time, playing a short set. Yet, seeing you play, you could take on both main stages and still draw the massive crowds that you did today by just playing as you did.
Now why can't other bands be like that?
Whether it be you rapping to yourself during soundcheck while Slug was playing the straight man behind you, Matt, or you discussing how to avoid jewelry malfunctions while drumming, Kim, or both of you standing above your instruments, yelling at the sun to the get the fuck out of the clouds (and, for a fleeting moment, making it seem like the sun listened), I can't even describe what your act is. Maybe it's not an act at all. Maybe you were just being yourselves on a day-to-day basis, and you just happen to play music. If that's the case, then that gives me Hope.
Don't ever change, you two.
Modest Mouse opened up on the Land's End main stage with an odd piece, The Moon and Antarctica's “Gravity Rides Everything.” Yet the soft and dreamy piece immediately set the tone for what was to follow: A very safe set. For all the volatility that Isaac Brock and crew have been known to display at performances, for all their brashness, they were tame. They seemed, in the motions and the things they said, to be on autopilot, just letting things fall right into place. They rarely ventured into moments of style and flair. Even bombastic pieces such as “Dashboard” felt routine. But then, you sense some reasoning to it, in that they don't really need to do much right now. They've reached the high point of the career. They knew, even when they were announced, that tens of thousands of fans would crowd into the Polo Field. They could practically predict the paycheck. So they could play as they damn-well pleased, and could probably spend a few minutes lollygagging by downing some booze and eating cookies on stage. The crowd would still be satisfied, because they got to see Modest Mouse. It was neither a remarkable set, nor an awful one. They just went through the motions and were done. The closing song, “Paper Thin Walls,” proved fitting as a result: They couldn't be blamed for nothing anymore, so they did what they felt like doing.
When people talk of M.I.A., they always focus on her exotic beats, her lyrics concerning terrorism and the Third World, her “dark other” standing, her political positions and her history as a Tamil expat. Most tend to forget the one thing that made her be talked about in the first place: That she is an artist, first and foremost. Her live set at Land's End clearly should have reminded people of that. With screens projecting her various media pieces dating as far back as her first exhibitions in London, the self-designed bright patchwork that was her costume, and the various dance routines, understanding that most (if not all) of this was done by M.I.A. herself gives some appreciation to the vast capabilities of this artist. Even when it seems like she's disrupting her art by having hundreds of blowhorns thrown toward the audience, she is still creating art by fucking around with the concept of audience participation. Sonically, her set was solid, but it was made better by the renderings that M.I.A. implemented into it. So, even with so much change, such as having a child, scoring multiple accolades and getting engaged to a booze heir, one should remember that at the end of the day, M.I.A. is an artist.
Band of Horses was the closing act of the Sutro stage. While being a band that fit the stage as well as its opener Akron/Family, Band of Horses seemed like they were in a bad spot: Timed in such a manner so that when they were done, the crowd could reach Land's End in enough time for the grand finale. Their Southern style reached the crowd, but the response was negligible. Only when they started playing a few standards did the crowd, many young and old, begin to rile up. Even then, a palpable sense of impatience filled the crowd. Still, playing songs off Cease to Begin, as well as a few they were toying around with for an upcoming album, Band Of Horses left a solid, gritty feel. It was a feel that most could go home with.
I decided to only briefly watch festival closer Tenacious D, in hopes they would pay an early and effective tribute to the band they replaced, The Beastie Boys. And they eventually did pay tribute, through covers of “Intergalactic” and “Sabotage” (though my hopes for a sincere tribute seemed lost). As per Jack Black and Kyle Gass, they played as per their “repertoire,” which began with a few skits revolving around Jack's birthday on Friday. And that's when I realized I couldn't analyze them too well. They are a comedy act that just happens to play music.
And to me, that was enough.
[Photos: Ze Pequeno]