San Francisco’s own hipster-fest opened the floodgates into Golden Gate Park for its third iteration of Outside Lands. Sparking traffic jams all over the Sunset and Richmond and lagging MUNI service to the park all morning, the festival’s crowds were just a symptom of a greater disease: a sick lineup.
This year touted a generationally united set of artists, bringing together youngsters in Toms and keffiyehs alongside grayer men with beer bellies covered by “Deadheads for Obama” shirts. And for Outside Lands veterans, some of the biggest draws (apart from the acts themselves) remained there: the killer food and the almost serene setting. While some festivals charge you $9 for a tiny “meal,” the same ballpark price around here got you a Maverick’s pulled pork sandwich or a cherry chicken sausage from Rosamunde’s, which locals will tell you is worth the trek across the park. And while a light rain during the later afternoon may have disgruntled some girls with high-maintenance hair, the chill was a welcome change from most sweat-stricken summer festivals.
And, as usual, the magic of the lush park within city blocks has never changed. Golden Gate Park, for all its eccentricities and lack of parking, continues to be a musical shelter in the City by the Bay for those looking forward to a great festival nearer to home. We can’t wait for Day Two.
A few recaps of Saturday’s highlights after the jump…
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 them 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 their 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 by 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.
In a city no stranger to earthquakes, Bassnectar probably shifted a few tectonic plates after his earth-shaking set on Saturday on the Sutro Stage. Returning home, Bassnectar, aka Lorin Ashton, overpowered eardrums and expectations in a year where Outside Lands was looking to boost its electronic appeal. The set was more than enough. Unleashing booming soundscapes and bass that could kill small children, Ashton was right at home, shaking his long hair while grooving in his Samba classics and camouflage pants to “Bass Head” and “Timestretch.” And in a brilliant marketing move–as seen earlier at Miike Snow’s Coachella set–Bassnectar released hundred of large black beach balls onto his crowd, which bounced around the festival grounds for the rest of the day.
Tokyo Police Club seem like a band caught in permanent adolescence. With nostalgic songs of growing up and a playful stage personality that screams awkward times and teenage hormones, the Canadian foursome always seem to maintain a sense of energy and giddiness that can entertain any crowd. Their set on the Twin Peaks Stage feature of mix of oldies and new songs, from their most recent album Champ. Opening with “Favourite Color,” the band began and ended by asking the crowd to give a helping hand, leading the audience on clap sequences that had everyone engaged. In all the set was a fitting segway into Cat Power and The Strokes, both of whom Dave Monks and Co. were obliged to open for.
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 a group energy and vamping for minutes, showcasing a real musical talent and synthesis that few bands today can claim. As band 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, if anything, knows 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 still managing to command the stage even while standing in a corner. 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, began last year by original Deadheads Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, gave aging hippies and drugged-out younguns 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.
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. Before the megastar microscope had cracked the band into glittering, but still below-grade solo acts. And before the band had gone into a tense two-year hiatus that seemed more and more like a permanent split as the months stretched on.
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 final chords of closer “Take It Or Leave It,” the band brought the old-school Strokes that the anxious fans were pressed in and dying to hear.
Perhaps echoing the band discord that has stalled the mythical fourth album, the set was clearly skewed to their earlier work, with half the songs coming off their 2001 debut and now-classic Is This It? The titular track “Is This It” brought the crowd to an expected frenzy, while Room on Fire’s Reptilia made the venue boil over with its intensity. 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.
“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. They 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.
Treeswingers’ Top Three
The Strokes- New York City Cops (download)
Cat Power – Sea of Love (download)
Bassnectar- Bass Head (download)
-Brian, Ellen, Marisa & Ryan
A version of this review appeared in The Stanford Daily on Aug. 19, 2010.