Senior Contributor Dave Tobias took in the Outside Lands Music Festival this weekend in San Francisco. Read on for his thoughts on the fest.
Outside Lands music festival attached itself to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco this weekend, and as both a blessing and curse, I live a half block away from the entrance. I’ve attended Bonnaroo many times before, so I understand all of the simultaneously fantastic and disastrous elements that come along with living a half mile from the main stage. However, throwing a festival in an urban locale has its limitations, as the music every evening had a strict 10pm curfew. It also has its luxuries, as I was able to come home every evening, cook a meal, and shower. Novel concept, I know.
For those unfamiliar with San Francisco, and particularly the area of Golden Gate Park where the festival takes place, it’s cold. I don’t mean frigid, February-ice-storm-in-Cincinnati-cold. Rather, a brisk chill runs through the air as temperatures hover in the mid-50s with a sheet of fog coating the landscape. Wearing a jacket was a welcome respite from my past festival experiences of 100+ temperatures and the stale smell of two-day old sunscreen.
The sets were a little shorter than other festivals, with 2 hour blocks reserved only for headliners. Even Jack White and Foo Fighters, arguably the most noteworthy modern acts on the lineup, each only had a little over an hour to rock the audience (side note: each of those acts did just that). There are four stages, paired in sets of two at opposite ends of the designated area of the park. There was very little sound bleed from the main stage to the second stage, and none to the other two stages when acts were playing, which made for more authentic listening experiences. Apparently, this was a lesson AC/Superfly, the curators of the festival, learned from past years’ stage placements.
Logistically, the festival was relatively smooth. I only heard a few complaints here and there, mostly from people that were too stupid (or stoned) to realize that you couldn’t bring liquids into the stadium grounds. Lines at the entrance were relatively short and moved a quick clip. There was a little overcrowding at a few of the stages for a few buzzed acts, but that’s neither here nor there in a large festival environment. Overall, it was a very pleasant environment to listen to live music. And thus…
Friday was a solid day of music from start to finish. I would argue the most consistent from beginning to end, I caught or some of nine different acts. I started the day with media darling Sharon Van Etten. Her material had a little trouble translating to the festival environment, mainly due to its mid-tempo rhythms. But I loved it anyway, and so did the sparse crowd at her stage. Her band is exceptionally skillful at weaving the music around her vocals, which are undoubtedly the star of the show. I jetted over to check out the third and fourth stages, mainly in an effort to see the layout of the festival, and walked into a rather large crowd at Tanlines. Their electronic bounciness is the perfect fit for the San Francisco scene, and they were a pleasant surprise given that I had never heard them before.
I landed at the Media Tent next to grab a water and caught part of Two Gallants’ set in the process. They sounded like a formulaic mix of Led Zeppelin and The Black Keys, which is not to say they were bad. In fact, they were just the opposite. I’m always blown away when a two-member band can fill the Main Stage with such loud sound, but they did. Then it was off to see Reggie Watts, who I was more intrigued with than anything else. His beats were excellent and his unique blend of beatboxing, comedy, and raw talent was impressive. Youtube his Conan performances and extend it out for a full festival set of complete improvisation.
I wanted to stay around and catch the start of The Walkmen, but they were 25 minutes late and I knew I didn’t want to miss Beck. I’ve seen both acts before, but Beck is such a unique performer that I knew I didn’t want to miss his set. He didn’t disappoint. He played all of the hits and then some, and did so flawlessly. The crowd was the largest of the weekend. Of Monsters and Men were next, and while fun, they sounded like a forced mix of Arcade Fire and Mumford and Sons, if that’s possible. They have been buzzed about quite a bit, but I have to say that I’m not quite sure what the hype was all about.
Foo Fighters were the surprise act of Friday. I didn’t know what to expect from them, as they’ve been around seemingly forever and I had never caught a performance. I’ve seen things on TV and what not, but honestly, their energy and the crowd’s enthusiasm, especially in the pit, was infectious. A homerun in my opinion. I rounded out Friday with a comedy set from David Cross (hilarious) and headlining performance from Neil Young and Crazy Horse (solid). All in all, I left exceptionally satisfied on Friday evening.
Saturday was hands down the weakest day for me. The first act I was interested in didn’t begin playing until almost 4pm. After a fast-paced Friday, it was nice to take a short break on Saturday and enjoy the relaxation. I caught the beginning of Portugal. The Man and left uninspired. That was not the case for Alabama Shakes, who had the largest second stage crowd of the weekend. They’ve been riding a wave of critical praise for their soulful blend of the blues, and don’t expect anything bad from me. Their lead singer, Brittany Howard, had the crowd eating out of the palm of her hand. It was unbelievable to see a performer so young command such presence, but she owned it. Hands down. I saw part of Explosions in the Sky, and then headed over to catch Big Boi. He played every amazing Outkast song within a span of 40 minutes, and the crowd couldn’t have been happier.
Passion Pit was next, and with all of the recent happenings with the band, I was intrigued to see how the set would turn out. All told, it was a pretty standard effort from a band with a lot of room to grow. They’re young, and they’ll figure it out, but Saturday was not their day. The sound was off and their set relied a little too heavily on new material instead of playing the hits that everyone had grown accustomed to over the last few years.
Metallica. Really, Metallica? I slept through their set four years ago at Bonnaroo in an effort to prep for the late-night run with My Morning Jacket, and I feel like they were punishing me for every minute of that on Saturday night. All told though, I have to say that the band is a group of talented showmen, and they put on a performance that the crowd loved. Not my cup of tea, but I left Saturday evening knowing why they are still headlining festivals in 2012.
Sunday was a fantastic day to close out the festival. My two favorite acts of the weekend closed Sunday, but I started the day with fun. They rode a Super Bowl commercial and Glee cover all the way to opening the Main Stage a major festival. Surprisingly, they didn’t disappoint either. They reminded me of Queen, with less guitars. Franz Ferdinand came next, and they were sub-standard to be honest. “Take Me Out” was the highlight, as evidenced by the fact that the crowd perked up at its opening chords. Other than that, there really wasn’t a stand-out moment. Regina Spektor was adorable, but honestly, I was just waiting for Jack White to hit the stage. I was curious to see the new iteration of White’s on stage persona, and how that might mesh with his past material. He didn’t disappoint, with an hour and ten minutes of kick-ass rock music, and a backing band that stood up to him musically. Clearly White is the star, but I was impressed with how the all-male back band carried the tunes and even challenged him at times. Closing with “Seven Nation Army” was a brilliant move, even if the crowd chanted as if we were at a college football game.
And closing out the festival for me was Stevie Wonder, a bucket-list artist that you have to see to believe. The 62-year-old looked and sounded phenomenal, even getting up to dance with his backing dancers. He commanded the stage and the audience, and absolutely destroyed a two hour set, playing every song you know and then some. He was happy, fun, and energetic, and that rubbed off on the crowd. It was the perfect way to close down the festival.
– Dave Tobias
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