[21 September 2008]
The inaugural Outside Lands Festival was a longtime coming. Local promoters had wished to put on such an affair for some time, but the city of San Francisco resisted hosting such an extended event in the public sanctity of Golden Gate Park. But mired in a budget shortfall, the City finally relented due to the millions of dollars that promoters promised to deliver into the local economy.
This breakthrough for music fans could thereby be looked upon as the silver lining in the dark cloud of the national, state, and local economies. For those who like to feel that rock ‘n’ roll can still help save the planet, the concept of the rock festival as an economic generator is an enticing one. Get a bunch of great bands, put them in a beautiful park, and presto, millions of dollars into the local city coffers.
So it was that Golden Gate Park’s Polo Fields, Speedway Meadow, and Lindley Meadow were fenced off for a three-day extravaganza billed as being on par with such other renowned festivals as Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Vegoose, Coachella, etc. Dubbed as Outside Lands in honor of the original term for the undeveloped western area of town, the organizers sought to bring a local flavor in a variety of ways. The festival was set to feature local food, wines, art, and a roster claiming 25 percent of the acts as from the Bay Area.
Some cried foul about ticket prices, although they were in the same general range as other large festivals. But after word filtered out that the sale of three-day passes were soft, single day tickets soon became available. This led to an eventual sell-out for Friday’s opening night with Radiohead as headliners, meaning that the debut evening of the festival would have to deal with a reported 60,000 fans. Some have speculated that there were far more. The main question in the minds of many was whether you can take the type of big festival that usually takes place in a more isolated area and plop it down in San Francisco without creating a logistical nightmare.
Day One – Friday
It’s not that crowded when English reggae stalwarts Steel Pulse start off the main stage action in the Polo Fields at 5 p.m. with a riff on “The Star Spangled Banner”, an appropriate way to kick off such an all-American event. But a weekend of tough choices is immediately in effect. Over in Speedway Meadow, the Bay Area’s own Howlin Rain are also going on at 5 p.m. on the Panhandle stage. It’s a fair distance to make the 10-15 minute walk, but the windmill gateway structure that leads to the meadow calls out with the scenic allure of similar installations at Bonnaroo and other large festivals.
By far the smallest of the festival’s six stages, the solar-powered Panhandle stage emphasizes the festival’s effort to be eco-conscious, as well as providing a taste of the intimacy one might find at smaller events, such as the High Sierra Music Festival. Howlin Rain takes advantage by throwing down an energetic, half-hour set of psychedelic, classic rock based tunes. Guitarist/vocalist Ethan Miller belts out the songs with a reckless abandon and gritty vocal style recalling Kiss drummer Peter Criss’ soulful singing on classic tunes such as “Black Diamond”. It’s easy to see why the band will soon be opening some dates for the Black Crowes.
The Panhandle stage is surrounded by informational booths for a variety of intriguing non-profit organizations, but with zero time in between sets, music junkies eager to get their fill and see as many bands as possible will find it challenging to find a spare moment to visit them. Next up is a choice between rising psychedelic hard rockers Black Mountain or indie-rock buzz band the Cold War Kids. The biggest flaw of the festival is too many such difficult choices throughout the weekend.
The Cold War Kids draw a large throng to the Sutro stage in Lindley Meadow, exposing a flaw in the set-up as the stage is set low on a grade such that you can’t even see the band from a distance. The band’s set seems to go over well, though, featuring a number of new tunes from their forthcoming album. But when their set ends, everyone has the same idea of heading back to the main stage in the Polo Fields to see Manu Chao. Push literally leads to shove, as the festival designers have made a major miscalculation regarding the narrow corridor that connects Lindley Meadow with the Polo Fields.
A disturbingly claustrophobic bottleneck quickly occurs. The situation develops beyond a typical cattle call, developing into a nightmarish mass of people crushed together trying to push through. Fans thankfully keep their cool in the difficult situation, and organizers are lucky no one is hurt. Some fans quickly declare they will not be attempting to return to Lindley Meadow on this night, while others reason they will simply have to leave Beck’s upcoming set early to get back for Radiohead. The boondoggle later leads to a justifiable revolt by fans who tear down some fencing to create alternate pathways
The claustrophobic paranoia quickly fades though as the liberating sounds of Manu Chao pulsate from the main stage. The crowd has grown quite large by now and Chao’s band rocks the throng with his genre-blending Latin alternative sound and politically conscious vibe. Many of the tunes mix reggae and ska, but with blazing guitar solos and a horn section that energizes the tunes further. But fans soon have another tough decision to make roughly halfway through the hour-long set—stay here, or go to check out either Beck in Lindley Meadow or the Black Keys in Speedway Meadow.
It’s during this time that one can’t help but start to notice obscenely long lines developing to purchase beer, wine, food or to use the bathrooms. The I.D. check lines are beyond ridiculous as it soon becomes apparent that selling 60,000 tickets is well beyond a comfortable capacity for the available amenities. But those who venture into the CrowdFire tent at the back of the Polo Fields make a key discovery—a separate little bar where you can practically walk right up and be immediately served! The tent offers a chill zone with cushy couches and video screens where one can upload photos and/or text messages which are said to be remixed through various multimedia presentations throughout the weekend. Opportunities to observe any of this interactive-media outside the tent seem few, but the bar is a vital oasis on such a night.
The Black Keys deliver a huge sound for a mere guitar and drums duo and their powerful blues rock draws a good sized crowd at the Twin Peaks stage. The Akron, Ohio pair has often been compared with the White Stripes, though many find the Black Keys even more dynamic. Guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney conjure a Zeppish vibe that has even won over Robert Plant. Auerbach really rips it up here and Carney impresses with his manic drumming, but with only ten minutes between the end of their set and the beginning of Radiohead, a number of fans decide it’s necessary to depart a bit early.
The beer situation is summed up right before the headliners come on when a fan moving in the direction of the main stage with a freshly procured beer is offered $10 for the beverage. “No way, dude!” he says mid-stride without missing a step, knowing that going back to obtain another would lead to missing the start of Radiohead.
As Radiohead’s 8 p.m. start time approaches, it becomes apparent that the past few hours have been mere prelude for most. There might be no other band in popular music today that can appeal to as wide a cross-section of fans as the British prog-rockers. Their diverse sound and dynamic performances touch on so many genres – shoegaze indie rock, alternative hard rock, avant-garde art rock, electronic and electro-acoustic, spacey psychedelia, and even jam rock. If there is any one band that could conceivably be considered the sum total of rock history here at the dawn of the 21st century, it would probably have to be Radiohead.
A sense of urgency pervades as the lights go down for the first night show in Golden Gate Park history. Much of the crowd is already in position, but many are still trying to get back from seeing Beck or the Black Keys. The crowd is mesmerized early on by both the music and the sensational light and video show. “Airbag” is particularly compelling until the sound cuts out for about a minute. The band doesn’t seem to notice as they play on, but the crowd is beside itself. Later it would cut out again for a similar duration. Could it be the moisture from the cool fog that’s been rolling in? No one knows. The crowd roars when the sound returns at a climactic moment, making it sound like the cheer fits right in.
The band’s older classic material is of course well received, but what really stands out is the strength of the newer material from 2007’s In Rainbows. “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” entrances the crowd, as singer Thom Yorke and his mates blend an arty, laid back vibe with an up-tempo melodic groove. No one else can mix soft with hard the way that Radiohead does, and the band’s ability to be so many things to so many people is truly amazing. Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart is on the scene, with the San Francisco Chronicle later reporting he found it odd that the reverential crowd doesn’t dance.
It is indeed rather strange how many of Radiohead’s fans can remain immobile during their more dynamic songs, but there were some exceptions. The crowd pleasing “Karma Police” is a tour de force with Yorke conjuring a John Lennon vocal vibe. Another stellar new song, “Jigsaw Falling into Place”, follows. The unique song mixes a spacey contemplative vibe along with a groovy bass line and up-tempo beat that you could dance to if you weren’t a shoegazer. Yorke and guitarist Johnny Greenwood seem to get most of the credit for Radiohead, but the rhythm section of bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway demonstrate themselves to be simply sensational. The mesmerizing set is brought to a conclusion with “Bodysnatchers”, the big rocker from In Rainbows. The tune rocks the masses with an undeniable energy, definitely causing some dancing here and there. The song’s spacey bridge again emphasizes the band’s ability to move back and forth between styles.
A five song encore of older tunes sends most of the crowd home happy, though a number of fans are moved to post comments at the Chronicle’s site the next day that are extremely critical of the headaches from the overcrowding and obscene lines for bathrooms and beers. Others express frustration at the difficulty in getting home, finding it quite a challenge to grab a bus or train that isn’t already packed. The overcrowding also made cell phone use impossible for most, making it tough to find friends.
More than one poster even proclaimed they would not return, even though they had purchased a three-day ticket. These folks should have conducted some research, for they would have learned that Saturday and Sunday had sold roughly half as many tickets. With the crowd numbers reduced, the problems that plague the Outside Lands on Friday night thankfully evaporate. This enables a much more harmonious time the next two days.
Check back tomorrow as PopMatters’ Greg Schwartz continues his coverage of the Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival.