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Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival – Part Two: Three Fields, Six Stages - Numerous Choices

(23 Aug 2008: Golden Gate Park — San Francisco, CA)

Day Two – Saturday


Saturday’s main stage lineup was the strongest of the weekend, with Galactic’s Crescent City Soul Krewe followed by Steve Winwood, Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals, and headliners Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. This meant that you could conceivably enjoy a full day of music from one spot, and a number of fans seemed content to do exactly that, staking out space with blankets and relaxing in between sets rather than running around all over.


Oakland hip-hoppers The Coup warmed things up in the Polo Fields with a charged set at the smaller Avenues stage toward the back, drawing a sizable early day crowd. Even those who didn’t care to trek back and forth to Lindley or Speedway Meadow could still catch some extra action at this strategically placed stage. Frontman Boots Riley riled the crowd up with some Leftist venom toward the powers that be, and the music and beats matched the energy.


The lengthy moniker for Galactic’s Crescent City Soul Krewe posse indicated the additions of vocalist Cyrille Neville and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band to the proceedings, which made for a truly festive, extra authentic dose of New Orleans-style funk rock and jazzy soul. Virtuoso drummer Stanton Moore powered the music as usual, but bassist Robert Mercurio and guitarist Jeff Raines are on top of their game as well, clearly enjoying the festival action. The New Orleans band has made San Francisco its second home over the past decade, so the energetic grooves and party vibes were further powered by the memories of epic shows past. The band had the crowd grooving with one hot jam after another and there was no doubt they were one of the most talented bands on the bill.


Rock legend Steve Winwood hit the main stage just 20 minutes after Galactic and picked up right where they left off with “I’m a Man”, a classic rock gem that was hot and funky. Winwood’s hour-long set was one of the festival’s pleasant surprises. He left his poppier ‘80s hits on the shelf and focused on material from his psychedelic heyday in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, as well as some strong new material based in that classic vibe. “Dear Mr. Fantasy” capped off the set with a huge jam where Winwood showed he’s more than just a keyboardist, delivering a blistering guitar solo with singing Fender tone.


There was a 40-minute break at the main stage now, but the majority of fans seemed content to rest and take a load off. But over on the Avenues stage, Donovan Frankenreiter offered up a melodically rocking and funky set that belied his reputation as a gentle singer/songwriter.


Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals hit the main stage at 5:50 p.m. for a 70-minute set that would threaten to blow the roof off if there was one. The band opens up with “Better Way”, one of the great rock anthems for a better world and the band’s powerful sound engulfs Outside Lands. “Glory and Consequence” continues to energize the crowd, as Harper electrifies on slide guitar. The difference between Harper solo acoustic and Harper with the Innocent Criminals is like night and day. It’s toward the end of the set when “Diamonds on the Inside” highlights the connection Harper has with his fans, when what seems like a majority of females present passionately sing along. Harper put an exclamation point on the set with an electrifying “Black Rain”, a politically charged funk rocker that recalls James Brown’s “The Big Payback” as Harper emotes about government failures with Hurricane Katrina and the inevitability of revolution.


With almost an hour before Tom Petty is due to close out the evening, some depart to see Cake, while many make way for Speedway Meadow where Primus is already rocking the Twin Peaks stage. Bassist Les Claypool is a longtime local favorite and Primus doesn’t play many gigs these days, so there’s a large crowd gathered to see the influential power trio do their thing. Two large inflatable astronauts adorn the stage, implying a cosmic affair. Claypool kicks in a spacey intro to “John the Fisherman”, leading to a big jam that gets the crowd bouncing. “My Name is Mud” does the same, but it’s “Jerry was a Race Car Driver” that really blows the masses away. Claypool lays down some ridiculously awesome alt-funk slapping that gets the crowd surging and the band maintains the energy throughout a super power funk jam. The set is without doubt one of the top treats of the weekend.


Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers close out Saturday’s lineup with a two-hour set that’s jam packed with sing-along hits. It’s not quite as crowded as it was for Radiohead, but the size and enthusiasm of the crowd are testament to Petty’s lengthy career. “I Won’t Back Down” strikes an early chord, while “Free Fallin’” inspires the first mass sing along. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” does the same, as it seems no one had any problems obtaining beer or wine tonight. “End of the Line”, from Petty’s tenure with the Traveling Wilburys, is a delightful treat and it seems the set will be one highlight after another.


Steve Winwood returns to join the band for “Can’t Find My Way Home” and “Gimme Some Lovin’”, with both classics revving up the crowd. Guitarist Mike Campbell is the hidden weapon of the Heartbreakers, delivering a number of stinging solos to power jams that make the Heartbreakers more than just a hit machine. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” features a psychedelic workout with Campbell leading the band in a big jam, with Petty feeding off the energy. An encore segment of “Runnin’ Down a Dream”, “Gloria”, and “American Girl” ends the show with a bang and sends the faithful home happy. While they’re not the genre-defying band that Radiohead is, Petty & the Heartbreakers demonstrate an undeniable ability of their own to appeal to a wide cross-section of music fans.


Day 3 – Sunday


With another 1 p.m. start, the weekend is now becoming an endurance test. But the sun is out and the temperature is warming, so Sunday takes on a more traditional summer festival vibe than the previous two days of fog and cool temperatures. Jackie Greene kicks off the main stage action with a 45-minute set highlighting his blues-y, Americana rock tunes. Fans are dancing and enthusiastic but Greene, who has been touring as part of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s band for the past year, receives his biggest cheers for a resounding rendition of the Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie”.


It’s still early and much of the crowd seems to be in a lazy Sunday mode. While Saturday was the big day for main stage action, Sunday seems designed for the jam rock fans known to populate San Francisco to spend the day in Lindley Meadow. It’s here that one can catch the Mother Hips, Drive-By Truckers, Grace Potter, Widespread Panic, and Phish’s Mike Gordon all on Lindley’s two stages.


Nicole Atkins & the Sea offer up an early afternoon set at Lindley’s Presidio stage and a number of fans take it in from the adjacent hillside. The band’s “noir-pop” sound fits well in the time slot, with an ethereal moody sound interspersed with some bursts of harder rock, emphasized by Atkins commanding voice.


The Mother Hips, longtime Northern California favorites, hit Lindley’s Sutro stage for a rousing 45-minute set of good time, California rock and psychedelic jamming. The band has been on a major resurgence since the release of 2007’s Kiss the Crystal Flake, which renewed their career after something of a hiatus. Guitarists/vocalists Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono rock the sunny Sunday with a purpose, while bassist Paul Hoaglin and drummer John Hofer form a tight rhythm section. Hoaglin drives many of the jams with his dynamic low end, alternating between a warm sounding Rickenbacker and an even brighter 12-string bass that never fails to impress. The all-too-short but sweet set is brought to a rousing conclusion with a romp through Flake’s “Time-Sick Son of a Grizzly Bear”, leaving the crowd wanting more.


Bon Iver follows on the Presidio stage with a moody set presumably influenced by his winter spent holed up in a Wisconsin hunting cabin (as detailed in the festival’s official almanac that is distributed to fans). Nevertheless, the set is punctuated with some occasional energetic bursts that cause listeners to pay closer attention. Much of the assembled crowd take in the set from a seated position on the hillside, a last chance to rest before getting into the meat of the schedule.


Drive-By Truckers take the Sutro stage around 4 p.m., and by now the crowd has grown considerably. The hard rocking southern roots quintet from Georgia toured with the Black Crowes two years ago and their sound puts an even harder guitar-driven edge on the influence of bands like the Crowes and Allman Brothers. The set is loud and raucous, kicking the Sunday afternoon party back into gear after the lull following the Mother Hips’ set.


There’s no rest for the wicked now as Grace Potter & the Nocturnals hit the Presidio stage for a blues-y and jamming set that draws many onlookers, though many are still content to take it in from the hillside. With her striking beauty and charismatic vocals that recall voices from Janis Joplin to Stevie Nicks and Sheryl Crow, Potter provides a commanding stage presence. In between tunes she says she hopes everyone is feeling “San Fran-tastic.” With the sun shining and Potter belting out her melodic blues, the answer is affirmative.


“Stop the Bus” is the showstopper as Potter and the band build up a mid-tempo number into a big rocker with a deep jam that delves into some Neil Young & Crazy Horse territory. Potter rocks out on guitar too as the band delivers the biggest jam of the set before triumphantly returning to the chorus, receiving a huge cheer from the crowd. Potter later tantalizes on the new “Sugar”, singing “I’ve got a pot of coffee, I need some cream, pour your sugar on me!” The band also delivers a ‘60s flashback with a great cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black”, pumping up the chorus and rocking the meadow once more. This gal is definitely going places.


For those who feel Jack Johnson as festival closer on the main stage to be an anti-climactic proposition, the next time slot provided a counterpoint. Georgia jam rock kings Widespread Panic take the Sutro stage at 5:40 for a scheduled 90-minute set and proceed to burn the house down. As festival vets who have headlined Bonnaroo and Vegoose, the men of Widespread Panic hold back nothing. Bassist Dave Schools and keyboardist John Hermann lay down one thick groove after another, while lead guitarist Jimmy Herring shreds with blazing intensity and precision throughout the set, wowing the masses with his unbelievable chops.


Vocalist/rhythm guitarist John Bell shines on the new “Up All Night”, a soulful anthem from the band’s recent Free Somehow release, that strikes a major chord with fans weary from three days of partying, heightened further when Hermann delivers a fantastic piano solo. Halfway through the set, fans have another decision as to whether to stay or depart for Speedway to see Wilco, or to the main stage to check out some of Rodrigo y Gabriela. But for most of the crowd, Panic are way too smoking to leave—this is without doubt one of the hottest sets of the weekend. Fiddler Ann Marie Calhoun joins the band on the new “Her Dance Needs No Body” and sticks around for another sweet jam on “Surprise Valley”, where she and Herring dual in melodic delight. The band shows no signs of letting up as their scheduled end time comes and goes.


That brings up another quandary for some, as Phish bassist Mike Gordon is due to take the Presidio stage with his new band, touring behind his rocking new The Green Sparrow album. Gordon’s presence here at Outside Lands is an appropriate symbolic reminder that it was Phish who started the modern festival boom with their end-of-summer tour weekend blowouts at de-commissioned Air Force bases from 1996-98 that drew 60-70,000 fans each just to see Phish. This was followed by 80,000 for the biggest millennium party on the planet, when the band rang in 2000 by playing a marathon set from midnight until sunrise in the Everglades. The success of these gatherings led to the first Bonnaroo in 2002, and the presence of a Phish member on the bill has almost become a requisite factor for such festivals.


Scheduled for only a 45-minute set, Gordon and his crew get right down to business, with high-energy jams on three new songs. Gordon really digs in on “Andelmans’ Yard” and “Traveled Too Far”, with his dynamic bass playing powering both the dance grooves and the exploratory jams. The band brings the all-too-brief set to a deliciously psychedelic conclusion with the Beatles’ “She Said She Said”, much to the delight of the gathered. But when it’s over, no one present wants to leave. Jack Johnson is on the main stage but no one seems to care. The crowd stays, hooting and hollering, pleading for more. Gordon and band then return (perhaps after being informed that Widespread Panic had gone nearly a half-hour over their allotted time) and delight the crowd once more with Phish’s “Meat”. The slow funky groove pleases the crowd while also winding things down and Gordon receives a hero’s farewell when the band exits.


For those who spent the day in Lindley Meadow, the festival is essentially over. But most still wander back to the Polo Fields to check out the last hour of the festival’s closing set from Jack Johnson. The singer/surfer/songwriter may seem like an anti-climactic closer to the jam crowd, but he’s drawn a huge throng to the main Lands End stage. It’s the ladies and the couples who seem to most enjoy Johnson’s laid-back grooves, while others amble about or just sit and take a load off. Still a big festival seems like it should have a big ending, and Outside Lands falls short on this note. But with modern American rock ‘n’ roll having received one if its biggest boosts from the “San Francisco Sound” of the late ‘60s, it’s fitting that San Francisco now has a major festival to call its own.

Greg M. Schwartz has covered music and pop culture for PopMatters since 2006. He focuses on events coverage with a preference for guitar-driven rock 'n' roll, but has eclectic tastes for the golden age of sound that is the 21st century music scene. He has a soft spot for music with a socially conscious flavor and is also an award-winning investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @gms111, where he's always looking for tips on new bands or under the radar news items.


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21 Sep 2008
Considering that modern American rock ‘n’ roll received one if its biggest boosts thanks to the “San Francisco Sound” of the late ‘60s, it’s fitting that the city now has a major festival to call its own.
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