San Francisco is well-known for many things: the Wharf, salt from the Bay stinging your nostrils, a thriving psychedelic music scene, pastel-tinted houses on a hill. A rising force drawing record crowds, an astoundingly varied lineup and the fog-covered woods as an ethereal backdrop to it all, Outside Lands is becoming a festival on the summer circuit that will soon be reckoning with the likes of Bonnaroo and Sasquatch.
A slice of the massive Golden Gate Park provided the venue for Outside Lands. Cedars and pines lined the hike (sometimes quite steep) from stage to stage on dusty paths. The stages were set up in various nooks in the park, which would have been easily accessible were it not for the massive, continuous exodus of people flowing from every direction at any given moment. In the future, the festival will have no choice but to expand outward into more of the park, as the lines for food, drinks and entry into the park were never-ending. Friendly staff were everywhere to be seen in brightly colored yellow t-shirts, though, eager to answer any questions or guide lost festival-goers. Food stands and stages were relatively easy to locate after the first few hours, thanks to tall signs and maps plastered everywhere.
Arguably, Outside Lands could be a food festival in itself, featuring an overwhelming variety of Bay Area-restaurants showcasing their greatest hits. Prices ranged from steep to ridiculous, such as $8 for a cup of hot cocoa. Yet the variety and quality of the food choices were superb, with choices ranging from Malaysian chicken to Luella’s artichoke and ricotta sandwiches. The savory fried plantain and black bean burrito from The Little Chihuahua resulted in the weekend’s best find, although the thirty-minute wait at the Korean barbecue food truck proved well worth the effort for an exquisitely seasoned, piping hot rice platter, and Spicy Pie’s veggie slice was scrumptious as well.
The wine-tasting tent Wine Lands provided a woozy red-curtained break to the music, with stands featuring wines ranging from a vast assortment of California wineries, as well as booths from France and Portugal. The beer choices were varied, as well. Besides Heineken, folks at the Sierra Nevada tent crafted a special brew for Outside Lands, as well as a Pilsner, the Torpedo IPA and an excellent autumn ale for the event.
The night before the festival, I caught Icelandic indie-darlings Of Monsters and Men performing at a small outdoor stage at the California Academy of Science’s Nightlife event. Harmonizing vocals and infectious hooks had the crowd twinkling underneath the blanket of stars outside -- nothing extraordinary, but a fun show nonetheless.
You either love or hate Beck, but I happen to adore him. Dressed in the down-home attire of an electric cowboy with rounded glasses, a vaquero hat, denim shirt and leather jacket, he delivered a batch of songs set to please a spectrum of Beck fans. His set included the hits “E-pro” and “Loser,” bluesier numbers from Odelay, the slow-burning “Sunday Sun” and “The Golden Age” from Sea Change, and bouncy “Gamma Ray” and “Girl.” Not known to stick to particular agenda, Beck peppered in some reeling noise jams at the end of “Novacane” only to seamlessly sway into a bluesy rendition of “Where It’s At” -- with the keyboard solo from “Riders On The Storm” humming in the background. Additionally, Beck ripped through a cover of Dylan’s “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat” and later headliner Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush.” Sadly, no tracks from One Foot In The Grave and no more from Mellow Gold save for “Loser.” I just have to accept the fact that Beck’s early fuzzed-out brilliance and anti-folk weirdness are but a glorious glimmer in rock history.
Shortly after Beck, Andrew Bird’s old-world baroque set floored a beaming crowd at the Sutro stage. It’s clear that Bird’s mind functions in bars, chords and time signatures, as the multi-instrumentalist seamlessly shifted from violin to guitar to xylophone, wooing and whistling simultaneously through a dazzling set.
I was curious to see how Washed Out’s set would compare to their astounding debut Within and Without. Live, a full band provided gauzy instrumentals over beats, perfect for the sun’s descent over the park late on Friday afternoon. The minimalist light show oozing hues of magenta and blue fit well with their gossamer, ‘80s-inspired electronica as well.
Admittedly, I wish I could recount more of Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s set in detail -- but I was the one unabashedly tearing up in the corner of the press tent. Young’s timelessness burst from every single song as he and Crazy Horse shredded a blend of Americana, blues and even an unexpected, heartbreaking cover of “Greensleeves.” To say that I feel lucky to have seen the two perform together live is a vast understatement. Rock and roll is indeed here to stay.
Day two. I sprinted into the park just in time to catch the last two-thirds of Tame Impala’s too-short set at the main Polo Fields stage, right as they were bursting into dripping single “Apocalypse Dreams.” Kevin Parker’s harmonies are razor-sharp live, backed with heady psychedelic jams, warped loops and plenty of distortion. The band played a generous handful of tracks from their forthcoming album Lonerism, as well as a number from debut Innerspeaker. A track from their rare self-titled EP “Half Full Glass of Wine,” awed and inspired, morphing into surreal soundscapes.
Explosions in the Sky’s thundering tearjerkers and instrumental freakouts sounded solid, but the band’s sound is appreciated the most at a much smaller venue with better acoustics. The emotional value was a bit lost on the hoards of people milling about the park, as well.
With sweat-spitting garage and mosh pits abound, San Francisco’s Thee Oh Sees nabbed my pick for the absolute best performance at Outside Lands. Punk, melodic white noise and lo-fi instrumentals backed an energetic band on Saturday afternoon, resulting in an entire crowd moshing and holding up crowd-surfers by the ankles. They looked as though they were enjoying their hometown set just as much as the crowd -- at least evidenced by frontman John Dwyer’s facial expressions. The band’s crunching, lofi sound has me convinced Thee Oh Sees may probably be The Velvet Underground of our generation.
All stripes, leather and artfully messy hair abound, The Kills wrecked the main stage later on Saturday afternoon. With a gritty rock ‘n’ roll set, a sultry Allison Mosshart stalked across the stage, all-knowing. Her centerpiece role in The Dead Weather has made her incredibly adept at developing her vocals as a finely-tuned instrument, complemented by frontman Jamie Hince pounding away at the bass. I was pleasantly surprised at how cinematic their set was -- it reminded me of a grimier Portishead.
Sigur Rós’s evening set overwhelmed an entire crowd of introspective, receptive festivalgoers on Saturday night. The Icelandic band’s songs were almost pained, rising with fantastic roars and crashing down with an unadulterated influx of emotion, especially during Sæglópur. Jónsi sawed away at a guitar with a violin bow in one hand, screeching into the microphone with his twinkling, haunting vocals. Immensely moving is the only accurate way to describe the performance.
Unfortunately, I didn’t receive the memo about Jack White’s secret show in the secluded woods until much later on Sunday afternoon. Luckily, I snagged a spot near the front and center of the massive crowd for his headlining set at the mainstage. Requesting to play a country song, White and the band broke into an energetic “Hotel Yorba,” emphasizing that they are country boys at heart with a speciality in blues. Onstage, the band wore clean button-downs and black pants, backed by a black background, no-fuss lights and white curtains; yet for a band with a monochromatic aesthetic, the sounds materialized into blown-out technicolor. White’s set proved a testament to his musical prowess, ranging from his solo work to a selection of tracks from his musical projects. The set included The White Stripes’ acoustic jingle “We Are Going To Be Friends,” anthemic “Dead Leaves and The Dirty Ground,” The Dead Weather’s funkified “I Cut Like A Buffalo” and The Raconteurs’ bluesy number “Top Yourself.”
Songstress Regina Spektor’s voice resounds even lovelier in person than on record, if you can believe it. Jazzy piano backed her vocals, which sounded exceptional even from faraway -- not candy apple sweet, but with just the right amount of tartness to retain the memory of a lingering bite.
As the evening descended over Golden Gate Park and the delirious weekend unraveled on Sunday night, Stevie Wonder performed a scarily soulful set. With an elaborate stage performance including funky back-up dancers and horns, Stevie grooved onstage for two hours with bassy jams, to groovy covers of The Temptations’ “My Girl” and Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.”
Golden Gate Park set a stunning backdrop for three days of music and food -- although the festival is for the adventurous sort. Despite a substantial area of the park utilized for the festival, it still felt crowded walking along cedars in the thick of the woods. Maybe it’s because the festival oversold, but the crowds hinged on overwhelming constantly during the weekend -- so much so, that it sometimes wasn’t even worth trying to sprint from the far end of the park to another to catch it. Otherwise, the park itself was beautiful.
During the night, the eerie fog from San Francisco’s microclimate coated the tops of trees with an eerie fog -- which, to me, made the experience all the more ethereal. Like many at the festival, I didn’t expect to be cold in tights, a sweater, jacket and scarf, but the weather dropped down during the nighttime to about forty degrees. Nonetheless, cold weather is far better than the unbearable heat that can ruin a summer festival. After all, cold just meant huddling in crowds and hitting the wine tent more frequently.
Lengthy lines, overcrowding and chilliness didn’t detract from an unbelievable musical experience and weekend overall. It’s as though Outside Lands took my “must-see” list and created a music festival out of it in San francisco. The setting, central focus on local food and drink, and an exceptional array of artists have me sold -- I’ll be back next year. Count on it.