Outside Lands: Hit out of the (Golden Gate) Park

Aug. 19, 2010, 11:00 a.m.

The recyclable wine glasses have all been picked up and the steel fences have been removed. So ends San Francisco’s third annual Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival. Last weekend, the city’s iconic Golden Gate Park was flooded with young and old music lovers drawn to the eclectic lineup of feel-good Further, mainstream Kings of Leon, electronic Basshunter and media darlings Phoenix.

The condensed fest had fans trekking from Speedway Meadow to the Polo Field and back through both Saturday and Sunday, although the mileage was alleviated by the wine and local food booths lining the human channel. Festival-goers were able to enjoy Maverick’s famed pulled-pork sandwiches and Rosamunde’s to-die-for cherry chicken sausages as they danced and nodded along to a consistently solid music lineup.

As crowds flooded out of the park Sunday night, MUNI lines were packed like a mosh pit and cars hit stop-and-go in every direction, but all transports were carrying satisfied music fans. Outside Lands proved it didn’t need an isolated venue to put on a good party, but could bring food, wine and mucho music into the heart of the city for a weekend that many can’t wait to repeat.


It’s never easy to have a festival set slated to start before 1 p.m., but Freelance Whales rallied to the cause. Despite most of their spectators taking it easy, sitting in couples and groups on the grass, the Whales went ahead and gave the crowd the best afternoon-chill music they could have, rocking out when necessary and dialing it back with equal ease. “Ghosting” opened the set with unique instrumentation — a guitar played with a bow — that continued into the band’s signature banjo, which, rather than being traditionally plucked, was strummed with vigor. Although the band’s use of keyboards and synths sometimes makes it sound like a souped-up Owl City, the Whales proved that an early set is no guarantee of a fail-whale as they plowed through hits like “Generator ^ First Floor” and “Kilojoules” without missing a beat.

After an oddball set from Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, the gypsy punk outfit Gogol Bordello force-fed some life into the zombie herd crowded about the Lands End stage. From New York City’s Lower East Side in name and Eastern Europe by heart, the band’s relentless pace and “screw-the-man” aesthetic had the still-dazed crowd unwittingly fist-pumping to put the Jersey Shore to shame. Through the afternoon, Gogol Bordello relied on recurring bouts of chanted “hey”s set to frenetic instrumentation and layered, if a little warbled, vocals. They were led by the grungy magnetism and Ron Burgundy mustache of lead singer Eugene Hütz, whose jerky spasms had him doing the running man, spinning around on one leg and performing a textbook tooshie wiggle all in sequence. It may be the first and last time accordions, Spanish beatboxing and mosh pits coexist peacefully.

As soon as the jamming began, it was obvious why My Morning Jacket was the act immediately preceding Furthur on the Lands End stage. Halfway through “Gideon,” the shaggy-haired band showed their real talents: simply playing their instruments, building off group energy and vamping for minutes, showcasing a real musical talent and synthesis that few bands today can claim. As leader Jim James, with fluffy beard, fluffier hair and long navy jacket, rocked down the house through numbers like “Golden,” “I’m Amazed” and “Smoking from Shooting,” even those who were unfamiliar with the band could see their dedication to the music, even as audiences had to slip on their…evening jackets as it began raining halfway through the set. “They are imitators,” James crooned in “Wordless Chorus,” and other bands are and should be. My Morning Jacket showed how real musicians command a stage.

Chan Marshall knows, if anything, how to give one hell of a show. As Cat Power onstage, she bounces between guttural feline growls and sweet songs, between a vein-popping facial expression and the cutest smile. Saturday was no exception, and after years of unpredictable concerts, it’s true that Cat Power is back on her game. She takes the best aspect of a live show — the chance to morph songs, to examine new approaches to old works — to full tilt, opening with “Good Woman” and moving into a brief intro of Jackson Browne’s classic “These Days” and somehow ending up doing “Song to Bobby” before you could even catch your breath. Shielding the mic and muffling her voice to great effect on songs like Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain,” Cat Power made it clear that whether the song’s a cover of a classic or one of her originals, the song and its performance is nothing but her own. Dressed in a black hoodie and jeans with a no-nonsense ponytail, she put all the other hipstered-out acts to shame by looking more like a roadie than a headlining artist. And just to cement her down-to-earth approach, she descended into the photo pit and chilled with us mere mortals while singing “Sea of Love.” No frills necessary for a great show if you’re as good as Cat Power.

The modern day Grateful Dead Furthur, begun last year by original Deadheads Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, gave aging hippies and drugged-out youngins a reason to stick around Saturday night with a self-indulgent two-and-a-half hour set. The music was admittedly targeted to another era, but their technical talent and assured delivery could still be appreciated by the non-Flower Power generation. As tie-dye clad 50-year-olds swayed barefoot on the lawn and air-guitared through 12-minute jam sessions, it was obvious that Furthur didn’t disappoint.

Outside Lands: Hit out of the (Golden Gate) Park
Julian Casablancas of The Strokes was unafraid to rock the sunglasses on Saturday night. (Courtesy of Brian Valdizno)

Hand in pocket, sunglasses on (note: it was a night show) and joking between songs, Julian Casablancas took the stage in Golden Gate Park as if it was 2002 — as if The Strokes were still coolly jaded rather than exhaustedly jaded, and before the megastar microscope had cracked the band into glittering, but still below-grade, solo acts. On Speedway Meadow Saturday night, the band just worked. Simply and effortlessly, The Strokes recaptured what made them The Strokes: tight rhythms by drummer Fabrizio Moretti, interlaced guitars of Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr. and the famed croon of Casablancas. From opening “NYC Cops” to the frenzied chords of hit “Reptilia,” the band brought the old-school Strokes that the anxious fans were pressed in and dying to hear.

“Sometimes we play these songs and I remember playing them in front of four people. It’s pretty surreal,” Casablancas said during the four-song encore. He may have slurred it drunkenly, but the sentiment was sweet nonetheless. Although Nikolai Fraiture’s bass drowned out the guitars throughout the hour-long set, devoted fans still sang and bounced along to the favorites — which happened to be practically every song on the docket. The Strokes went out appropriately with “Take It Or Leave It,” with the members smiling along as they brought the enraptured audience into a decade time warp. You can take it or leave it.


Philly-based Amos Lee inaugurated the Lands End main stage on Sunday, and was more than ready to defend his early time-slot with a little humor. “Good morning, San Francisco,” he said. “Thanks for getting out of bed to see us!” And after crowds swayed a little but didn’t quite perk up to his satisfaction, Lee cajoled, “San Francisco, y’all are supposed to be dancing and shit.” Dancing, indeed — and Lee’s gritty blues and chatty antics certainly got crowds amused after a few songs like “Keep it Loose, Keep It Tight” and “Supply and Demand.” He brought out one of his backup singers in a white zoot suit and had the audience greet him as “Angel,” then proceeded to sing Shai’s “If I Ever Fall In Love Again” to old-school cheers. After Angel rhapsodized for a bit about the Hot Dog of Love (best line: “got me some mustard / girl, you’re as sweet as custard”), Amos got back into his groove and wrapped up the set. If there’s ever been a reason to come early to a festival, it’s to see the more laid-back, interactive early day sets — not to mention the fact that thin crowds make it easy to get up close.

The Temper Trap, hailing from Melbourne, Australia, ratcheted up the epic levels of Sunday with a high-energy, pulsating set. Singer Dougy Mandagi, with a voice that soared at an impossible falsetto through the afternoon, led the sonic crescendo that is their 2009 debut album “Conditions,” jumping onto the drums for “Resurrection” and “Science to Fear.” But it was long-locked bassist Jonathon Aherne who stole the show with his intense body-rolling bass moves through the sing-along perfection of closer “Sweet Disposition.”

There was no volcano to blame for the late arrival of indie-R&B singer Janelle Monáe, who shuffled onto the Sutro stage 25 minutes late due to a delayed flight. Maybe marched would be the more appropriate term, as the famously coiffed star entered the stage Monty Python monk-style, in full black cloak and hood and accompanied by two similarly-clad back up dancers. Sadly for the expectant crowd, her normally theatrical live performance suffered from the rushed entry: her expressive voice was overtaken by the keyboard and guitars through opener “Dance or Die” and jitterbugging “Faster,” while the backup dancers seemed confused as to when they should join her. The sound problems were fixed just in time, however, for the brutal dance-hit “Cold War” and the funky closer “Tightrope.” Gliding across half the stage on one foot and blinded by the bouffant that couldn’t handle her raucous energy, Monáe gave a taste of what her live show could have been.

It was a tale of two festivals for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. Last October, who would have remembered that peacenik group of ragtag musicians that took the stage on a blustery fall day on Treasure Island? But even then, people saw something special. Level whatever criticism you’d like at their character or their antics, but behind it all there is musical skill from the tooting of horns to the string arrangements to the vocal love between Alex Ebert and Jade Castrinos. And while they were virtual unknowns for their first festival in the Bay, the second time around they were festival must-sees. The crowd was packed at the Twin Peaks stage and a massive contingent stood behind the festival gates to listen to the crazed musicianship that defines E. Sharpe and his band of loonies. Their rise just shows the power of a packed tour circuit, and for now this is the end of the line for the band. They’re heading home, home, home.

Outside Lands: Hit out of the (Golden Gate) Park
Al Green serenades the crowd at the third annual Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival. (Courtesy of Brian Valdizno)

When soul/gospel/everything legend Al Green busted out on stage, you knew he meant business: three-piece suit, gold-tipped sunglasses and a bouquet of roses as he wooed the ladies with his romance anthem “Let’s Get Married.” The perennial performer, now 64, had the energy of a 20-year-old as he tossed flowers to the crowd, vamped and sang falsetto all while jumping about and chuckling at the crowd. Backed up on vocals by his three daughters (who all sang with incredible style and added an adorable family feel) and a full brass band, Green ran through favorites like “Stay With Me (By The Sea)” and covers  like “Pretty Woman,” all while calling out, “I love you, California!” After a particularly funky rendition of the classic “My Girl,” he summed up what was surely on everyone’s mind in the audience, boldly declaring, “Aw, shit. I’m a bad motherfucker.” Al Green, despite taking the stage hours before artists a third his age, proved that groove never, never, never goes out of style.

Outside Lands: Hit out of the (Golden Gate) Park
Chromeo's Dave 1 surveys the dancing crowd during their Sunday afternoon set. (Courtesy of Brian Valdizno)

Although Al Green ignited a fun-filled groove across the Polo Field , Montreal’s Chromeo — made up of Dave 1 (David Macklovitch) and P-Thugg (Patrick Gemayel) — indisputably launched the largest dance-pit of the festival with their lighthearted and sexually-charged light show. The electrofunk duo sang and cowbelled their way through the set, with P-Thugg often filling the space between songs with riffs through his vocoder, calling out “California” and “Chromeo” and jumping up octaves impossible to do with just his voice. While P-Thugg sported army digs, Dave 1 sang and scatted onstage in a sharp suited ensemble, sans tie — to keep it casual, of course. But Chromeo were all business, flipping through their best hits and keeping the party bumping with “Tenderoni,” “Bonafied Lovin’” and “Fancy Footwork.” A few crowd-surfers managed to make it to the front, only to be carted away by security, who were less successful of stemming the tide of gate-crashers during the iridescent and sharp beats of “Night by Night.” Chromeo put the emphasis on the “romeo” in their name, reminding us why we are lovers for their beats.

Kings of Leon, given their closing night set and big-name status, faced the big problem that can plague headliners: with such expectations and big crowds, it’s hard to create an intimate feel with the audience. Weeks after July’s Pigeongate, the Kings were back onstage Sunday night and did their best to overturn the limitations of a big set by playing old favorites and new songs. Although they predictably hit current radio favorites like “Use Somebody” and “Sex on Fire,” singer Caleb Followill also announced they were going to share a few new gems and they did, including “Southbound,” a song whose country-inspired twang and simple harmonies pay tribute to their Nashville roots. Kings also reeled back in time with a well handled cover of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” as well as selections from their earlier albums like “The Bucket” and “Milk.” “Arizona” turned into a stretched-out jam session, with crowds waving their hands back and forth in slow hypnosis — quite a sight over the huge polo fields of Golden Gate Park. Closing up with “Black Thumbnail,” the Kings put the final bang on the show with fireworks, in case you hadn’t already realized that they’d killed. The Kings keep on reigning.

A version of this review appeared at Treeswingers.com on Sunday, Aug. 15, and Monday, Aug. 16.

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