It seems like so very long ago that a tentative announcement was made about a festival happening in Golden Gate Park on the last weekend of August 2008. For a while, little was known about the so-called Outside Lands Festival, except that it would feature the likes of Radiohead and a whole lot of bands that weren’t Radiohead. From such humble beginnings did Outside Lands grow — but perhaps too quickly. The festival in its first form was too grandiose, too difficult to navigate, and attracted entirely too many people. I believe it was this line of thinking that brought about the subsequent changes to Outside Lands, transforming it from just another lineup-driven festival to an emblem of the music, food, and art of the Bay Area — a cultural nexus almost too deserving of such representation. Thus, the Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival became a two-day outing this year, focusing more on the “& Art” aspect of the event: 26 wineries, 33 restaurants, and 10 interactive installations accompanied 65 bands and DJs on the lineup.
Of course, when it comes to the bill, I agree it is altogether too easy to be blinded by a sensational festival lineup: this is the main reason we endure the annoyances of festivals and the primary selling point for tickets that few can afford. It is important to remember, however, that a “Music & Arts” festival such as this is composed of so much more than just the bands — the setting, the city, the art, the weather, and, of course, the lovely, shining people; all these are contributing factors that amount to the very livelihood of the festival experience. It was also these things (namely the latter) that shaped Outside Lands into a curious demographical crossover; a dichotomy of wine-sampling, gastronomically savvy older folks “getting down” alongside the pill-popping, sparkle-studded kids who probably hadn’t eaten anything all day.
If it sounds confusing, well, that’s because music is always a bit confusing nowadays, for all ages involved. Fortunately, festivals like Outside Lands are still around to show us in magnification the dizzying, frustrating, humbling beauty of the ever-changing relationship between people and their tunes. So, without further adieu, I present to you the highlights (and lowlights) of Outside Lands 2010.
Though he was handed a somewhat awkward time slot (between 4 and 5 p.m.), the first day of Outside Lands did not start until Lorin Ashton of Bassnectar said so. A San Franciscan by birth, Ashton’s all-encompassing formula of serrated dubstep has won the hearts and minds of local natives since he began experimenting with sub-bass frequencies and supermassive sampling in early 2000. The result is a form of music that you can quite literally feel when you experience it live — that is, until the sound cuts out, as it inexplicably did 20 minutes into Ashton’s Saturday evening set. The ensuing half hour was filled with frantic roadies rushing around on stage, starry-eyed candy kids fretting in the crowd, and a lot of people being unhappily reminded of this festival’s notorious penchant for suddenly killing their performers’ sound. At one point, Ashton came out with a megaphone and actually pleaded with the crowd, attempting to explain over the din of a dazed, music-less multitude that the power to the entire stage had died, and that there was nothing he could do but wait. Surprisingly, the vast majority of people devotedly hung around until the power was restored, and, even more surprisingly, Ashton recovered from such egregious circumstances with a killer comeback that featured his flagship remixes of Beastie Boys’ “So What’cha Want,” Massive Attack’s “Inertia Creeps,” and Metallica’s “Seek & Destroy” — though notably missing was his rework of “Where is My Mind.”
MY MORNING JACKET
My Morning Jacket’s set was a near-flawless demonstration of the band’s own homebrewed brand of Kentucky beardrock. As usual, all five members read each other’s signals and cues with a nearly telekinetic level of musicianship. For the course of the set, which consisted of a selection of songs evenly distributed across their last three albums, It Still Moves, Z, and Evil Urges, respectively, Patrick Hallahan’s drumming provided a solid foundation for the well-trimmed keyboard work of Bo Koster and Carl Broemel’s perfectly-timed guitar solos. Predictably, Jim James’s voice washed over the crowd in glorious waves, resounding clear across the entire field and nearly consuming the other stages’ acts. The bearded bard was not without flaws however — James’ seemingly indefatigable pipes faltered on the vocal solo for “Wordless Chorus,” and a botched rhythm on his acoustic guitar set the band back a few steps on “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2.” Yet, some how, this hardly seemed to demean his unassailable stature as a leader, nor did it diminish the sheer beauty of seeing him offer up “Wordless Chorus” to a sea of outstretched arms.
Maybe it was because they were following My Morning Jacket, maybe it was the new lineup change and the absence of Chris Ross and Myles Heskett, or perhaps it was because they were never really that amazing to begin with, but, in any case, Wolfmother’s performance at Outside Lands left something to be desired. Theirs was a paltry set, plagued by feedback, drunk lead singers, and epic instrumental breakdowns that never really went anywhere. To be fair, older tracks like “Woman” and “Dimension” — which we’ve all come to know by rote thanks to commercials, movie trailers, and Guitar Hero 2 — were a fun time, and the Aussies amassed a respectable crowd, though this may have been because the next closest performance was a 30-minute walk across the grounds. At one point, they lapsed into a cover of “Riders on the Storm” that quickly turned into “White Unicorn,” and a rendition of “Baba O’Riley” confusedly intermingled with another cover of “Teenage Wasteland.” During several breakdowns, the crowd imploringly tried clapping along, but, like the guys on stage, failed to make the connection.
Chromeo, on the other hand, had an effortlessly easy time conducting the claps, singalongs, and general gyrations of the crowd that amassed for their late afternoon set on Sunday. Perhaps the Arab/Jewish Canadian duo would have felt more at home alongside Pretty Lights, DJ Dan, and the other acts bringing the funk on day one, but, fortunately for those with day two tickets, Patrick Gemayel and David Macklovitch’s autotuned electrofunk is appropriate in any context. Surrounded by synthesizers, drum machines, and their signature ladykiller keyboard stands, Gemayel ably followed Macklovitch’s lead with irresistible talk box backup vocals and bass tapping, as his partner in crime had the crowd bouncing along with disco guitar work and genuine showmanship. Things really began to mount with “Needy Girl” and “Fancy Footwork,” and when they dropped “Night by Night,” a crowd outside the festival grounds toppled a section of the fence and poured into the cheering dancefloor, as if in affirmation of Chromeo’s despotic authority when it comes to starting danceparties just about anywhere. Hands down, Chromeo wins the award for best party-generating performance.
[For an added bonus, search “Chromeo rushing fence” on YouTube to find some excellent footage of the fence being toppled. And for even more fun, check out the ensuing arguments about ticketholder integrity in the comments section.]
KINGS OF LEON
Fortunately, when it comes to regaling the masses with well-timed Pixies tributes, Kings of Leon always have you covered. This year, the honor of closing out the festivities was given to the Followill family, whose set perfectly demonstrated that they are more than capable of such a feat. As the fog rolled in on the moonlit field, the Kings’ slow, purposeful rock provided just the right backdrop for a lover’s embrace, or maybe just a slowed down moment with a close friend. Black and white telescreens projected an extra-classy image of the boys as they ran through a clean, mistake-free set, mostly consisting of selections from their latest effort, Only by the Night, as well as four songs from their forthcoming studio release, Come Around Sundown. As always, they managed to accomplish a very full sound with limited instrumentals — culminating with a fireworks display on the closing “Black Thumbnail” as frontman Caleb Followill conducted the lilt of just about every voice in the crowd. A fitting end to a lovely weekend, indeed.