Sunday, September 9, 2012

Outside Lands 2012 Review

Outside Lands :: 08.10.12 – 08.12.12 :: Golden Gate Park :: San Francisco, CA

Now in its fifth year, Outside Lands makes for a truly unique festival experience in an age where mega-sized music events of all types clutter the landscape. Tucked away in the depths of the blustery, eucalyptus-filled fields of Golden Gate Park, Outside Lands carries with it a distinctly Bay Area vibe that sets it apart in both its lineup and its hassle-free, forward-thinking setup. The festival adds something new every year, and this year an entirely new zone of premium food vendors (spit-roasted lamb!) and a mini-stage were tucked away in the tree-lined hills, bringing the gourmet to everyone that bothered to make the hike up there.

But enough about the food. This year's lineup again leaned heavily on bands with Bay Area roots, which worked for the most part (having Neil Young headline over the Foo Fighters may have been a mistake, though). For the most part, the days flowed smoothly, but the utter size of the grounds and the massive amount of people present (this was the festival's first sell-out) brought on exhaustion earlier than expected. By Sunday, we learned to pace ourselves, and opted to completely forgo the Twin Peaks stage, which was probably a half mile away from the main Lands End stage. Regardless of all the short, overlapping sets, the day flew by, and plenty of fantastic music was enjoyed by all. The only real bummer was the weather, which was freezing and foggy all weekend for the first time ever (the sun came out at least a little bit in previous years). No matter, the throngs still got down hard. Armed with a good pair of hiking boots, a concert schedule, and many layers of clothing, we set out to conquer Outside Lands, and I think we succeeded.

Friday Highlights
  1. Andrew Bird :: 6:55-8:05 :: Sutro Stage
Performing opposite to the Foo Fighters over at the main stage, Andrew Bird's set at the intimate Sutro stage was the feel-good set of the day. His light-hearted, swinging orchestral sound was just what the doctor ordered, and made the relatively small stage and field even more intimate. Bird is a true virtuoso – his tunefulness on songs like “Fake Conversations” is exquisite and pure. Taking sweet, soaring violin solos, he can switch between classical and fiddle-hill music on a dime. The man is also a master whistler, executing bird calls during songs to a perfect effect. His music has the soulful, uplifting charm of early Van Morrison at his best, and we came away from it with a warm glow that carried into the night.
  1. Reggie Watts :: 2:35-3:25 :: Sutro Stage
I had heard about this guy before, but seeing him first hand made me a full-on convert. Watts' stand-up/acapella set blew everyone away with its boundless, free-thought creativity and hilarious riffs on whatever was at the top of his mind. First and foremost, the guy is a supremely talented musician – he has a voice like Bobby McFerrin, and employs a looper to craft full songs out of thin air. The man is a master at riffing on anything – he can follow any tangent (musical and/or comedic) that pops into his head further than you would ever imagine, to a side-splitting effect. Basically, you have to experience his inspired, truly in-the-moment show to really get a sense of what the guy is all about, as he can pretty much do whatever he wants musically – and has a killer wit to match.
  1. Beck :: 4:30-5:40 :: Lands End Stage
Beck's loose, bluesy band delivered all the hits you would expect, plus some surprises. Keeping true to his grunge roots, Beck filled the massive field with deadpan grooves like “Hotwax” and “Devil's Haircut,” though much of the set had a melancholy vibe, thanks to a bunch of songs from Sea Change (one of which was dedicated to Adam Yauch), and a cover of Neil Young's “After the Gold Rush.” The one-two closer of “Where It's At” and “E-Pro” ended things on a high note, though.

Honorable Mention: Neil Young & Crazy Horse :: 8:10-9:55 :: Lands End Stage

Right from the first song's 17-minute feedback jam, it was clear that Neil Young didn't give a flying fuck about what all the kiddies expected from his set. Those who stuck with it were ultimately rewarded, but the band of grumpy old men practically cleared the field of all but the die-hards with nearly 20 minutes of aimless, crushing feedback out of “Walk Like A Giant.” The entire festival was polarized by Neil's dinosaur rock show, for better or for worse.

Saturday Highlights
  1. Alabama Shakes :: 3:50-4:40 :: Sutro Stage
This was probably the most crowded the hills of the Sutro Stage got all weekend. Luckily, we got there early, and had a prime spot to witness Brittany Howard lead her band through a raunchy, spectacularly soulful set that built from a quiet hush to a rowdy, soaring peak. Howard has got pipes like Etta James, and can whip a crowd into a gospel rave-up frenzy with both her voice and her exceptional guitar playing on fantastic tunes like “Heartbreaker” and “Be Mine.” She got plenty of sympathetic accompaniment from the band, who closed the set with a Chuck Berry-like rocker. By the end, we were amazed to see that the massive crowd extended to the very back of the field.
  1. Metallica :: 7:55-9:55 :: Lands End Stage
These guys sure know how to put on a spectacle. Complete with a two-tiered stage, massive LED screens, and enough pyro and fireworks to singe your eyebrows from 50 feet away, Metallica brought a barrage of a hometown show that satisfied even the most critical diehards. Their balls-out stadium metal was as precise as it gets, with old chestnuts like “Master of Puppets,” “Ride the Lightning” and the instrumental “Orion”(!!) getting a good shredding – this was pure gold to the real fans, and an eye-opening, overwhelming experience for the newbies. Songs like “To Hell and Back” were a relentless, polyrhythmic attack on the senses, and when the fireballs lit up the absolutely packed field, it was surreal.
  1. Norah Jones :: 6:40-7:50 :: Sutro Stage
Norah Jones' mellow set amongst the hills and trees of Sutro stage boogied a lot harder than probably anyone expected. Complimented by tasteful, sympathetic accompaniment by guitarist Jason Roberts and band, her pure voice took us though gorgeous songs like “Come Away with Me” and “She's 22.” The surprise of the set came near the end though, when Bob Weir came out of nowhere to help play the Dead's “It Must Have Been The Roses,” with Norah singing lead.

Sunday Highlights
  1. Stevie Wonder :: 7:20-9:30 :: Lands End Stage
There couldn't have been a better closer for a festival than Stevie Wonder. Because it's impossible not to love Stevie, it's easy to forgive him when he starts preaching about God and Obama, but all his preaching aside, Stevie delivered a loose, joyful set of his happiest songs which was started when he walked on stage playing keytar to “How Sweet It Is.” Stevie is always in a chatty mood, and makes his spirituality well-known, which adds an extra loving vibe to his performance. He also has no problem playing as many covers as he pleases, and goes with whatever comes to the top of his head, expecting his poor band to follow his whims as he went out on a limb. This carefree, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants attitude worked in this setting, as hit after hit piled up. Highlights included “Master Blaster (Jammin'),” a cover of MJ's “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and “As,” which was peaked out in a huge dance party groove. A truly joyful experience.
  1. Franz Ferdinand :: 2:40-3:35 :: Lands End Stage
These guys were the surprise of the day for me – their rockin' percussive funk-punk sound got the afternoon going right. Pulsing dance-rock songs like “Burn This City” satisfied with their grungy guitars and new-wavy club bass lines. An unexpected cover of Donna Summer's electro-disco “I Feel Love” worked very well, and Alex Kapranos and company really made it their own when they mashed it with their similar-sounding original “Can't Stop Feeling.” The sheer size and difficult maneuverability of the crowds at the huge Lands End stage made it difficult to really get into the moment, but the band ultimately filled the space well and got people dancing.
  1. Jack White :: 5:25-6:35 :: Lands Ends Stage
After a secret acoustic show up in the woods that I regret missing, Jack White delivered a ginormous Lands End stage set with plenty of grease to spare. His dirty guitar tone is unmistakable, and his solos ripped every time – songs like “Dirty Leaves” packed quite a wallop. His band was a rowdy version of 60's Stax-era R&B backing bands, and included a violin and pedal steel taboot, which made the set sound very Rolling-Thunder-esque in its soaring, majestic power. The electric mayhem continued with “Hotel Yorba” and “Like A Buffalo,” in which Jack cranked a dirty guitar solo that lit up the field. All in all, it was a raunchy set of satisfying rock n' roll.

 Check out Reggie Watts' mind-blowing set - the entire audience was simultaneously in awe of his musical abilities and in stitches from his hilarious ad-libs:

The Alabama Shakes delivered a soul-revue show-stopper on Saturday, which included this awesome take on "Be Mine:"

Closing the festival, Stevie delivered a cover-heavy, joyful set, which included this delightful Michael Jackson cover: