Reviews

The 2011 Outside Lands Music Festival: San Francisco

With a wide variety of music coming from five different stages in one of the nation's most beautiful locations, the only problem was trying to catch as many bands as possible.

Outside Lands Music Festival

City: San Francisco
Venue: Golden Gate Park
Date: 2011-08-12

Concerts in Golden Gate Park served as one of the catalysts for the socio-cultural musical revolution that put the San Francisco scene on the map in the late 1960s, so it was only appropriate when the park finally received its own major festival in 2008. The fourth annual edition saw the festival progressing nicely, with previous logistical issues fine-tuned to near perfection.

2008's inaugural festival opened with a bang as Radiohead threw down a smashing Friday night headlining set to please the masses, but a sold out crowd plus what seemed like many more due to gate crashing led to ridiculous lines for food, beer and bathrooms. But those issues seem to be a thing of the past now, as there were no excessive lines for anything this year. With a wide variety of music coming from five different stages in one of the nation's most beautiful locations, the only problem was trying to catch as many bands as possible. Overlapping sets created frequent scheduling dilemmas for the roughly 60,000 music mavens that filled the park throughout the weekend. But this also meant that the festival could mean different things to different people, with a dazzling array of choices to mix and match.

Friday:

For many fans of Phish, Friday night's main stage headliner, the evening was the climactic conclusion of a triumphant west coast run that included The Gorge Ampitheater in Washington, the Hollywood Bowl and Harvey's Casino in Lake Tahoe. With Phish and Muse headlining on Friday and Saturday night, some may have felt like they were experiencing a flashback to the 2010 Austin City Limits Festival, where the two bands filled the same headlining slots. But it was a flashback of the best kind to see that heady experience transported from Austin's Zilker Park for an encore performance in The City by the Bay.

Friday was a typically cool and grey San Francisco summer day, though the weather would improve throughout the weekend with warm sunshine blessing the park on Saturday and Sunday. Lotus got things going on Friday afternoon with a high energy set of electronic-oriented jamrock on the Twin Peaks stage that had fans grooving out early on. But this is where the first of many scheduling conflicts popped up when it became necessary to leave Lotus early if you wanted to catch the beginning of the main stage set from The Original Meters.

The reunion of bassist George Porter, Jr., keyboardist Art Neville, guitarist Leo Nocentelli and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste was a must see for many, as the quartet drew a large crowd to hear the highly influential seminal funk sound that the band pioneered in the '60s and '70s. The band unfortunately seemed distracted by some technical difficulties at times, and the set was not quite the barnburner that they had delivered at their November 2000 reunion show at San Francisco's Warfield Theater. But tunes like “Fire on the Bayou” and “Africa” rocked the house with vintage authenticity and it was still a rare treat to see such music masters in action once again.

But another conflict soon arose if you wanted to catch 2011 buzz band Foster and the People, who went on a little later during the same time slot on the Sutro Stage in adjacent Lindley Meadow. You could have caught the end of their set if you raced there right after The Meters concluded, though many seemed to content to rest a bit while awaiting the main stage set from MGMT. The indie-rock stars wasted no time getting down to business, throwing down their zeitgeist mega-hit “Time to Pretend” as the second song in the set. The majestic ode to dreamy wish fulfillment was greeted with ecstatic cheers and was one of the day's top highlights.

Schedule conflict soon arose once again though as local friends strongly suggested checking out Orgone on the solar powered Panhandle stage. The most intimate of the festival's primary stages, the Panhandle stage area offered an escape from the mob scene of the main Lands End stage and a chance to check out rising talent in a much smaller setting. The Los Angeles funk-soul-afro beat band had a groovy sound going on with horns and extra percussion, providing a tasty late afternoon treat that seemed tailor made for an afternoon in Golden Gate Park.

Phish hit the Lands End stage at 6:30 pm and unlike ACL, where they played a single two-hour set, the band was scheduled to give their regular two-set performance here. The Vermont jam rock titans came out blazing early with a succession of fan favorites in “Wilson>Funky Bitch>The Moma Dance”. The dance party rarely waned, with “Tweezer” and “Mike's Song>I Am Hydrogen>Weekapaugh Groove” receiving extensive workouts. Covers of Frank Zappa's “Peaches en Regalia” and David Bowie's “Life on Mars” provided kind kick downs, as did the Velvet Underground's “Rock and Roll”, which opened the second set.

The new “Steam” was a great choice for a foggy night, with lighting Jedi Chris Kuroda delivering blasts of dry-ice smoke that completely engulfed guitarist Trey Anastasio at the end of each chorus. The pinnacle of the set may have been “2001”, the band's ultra-groovy cosmic funk instrumental jam on the Deodato version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra”. Phish fans usually don't want to hear a song repeated at two consecutive shows, but no one who had attended the previous show in Tahoe was complaining about hearing this one again. The show didn't really get into the deeper level of jamming that was taking place at The Gorge the previous weekend, although few would have expected as much in a festival setting. But Phish have long had a special relationship with the Bay Area, so seeing them rock out in Golden Gate Park was fulfilling to say the least.

It was only too bad that The Shins were scheduled at the same time, making it impossible for Phish fans to catch them too. A check of the ol' YouTube however, shows that The Shins drew an adoring crowd as well. But while Phish fans were getting their groove on, a zany number of Shins fans were standing there during early 21st century classic “New Slang” with their phones in the air to record the moment. Phish's Anastasio would probably have been tempted to say something like “Put down your iPhone thingies!” but such is the concert scene these days. The song sounded great as did “Phantom Limb”, with band chemistry seemingly unaffected by recent lineup changes.

 

Saturday:

There were some strong contenders in the early part of the day on Saturday, with The Greyboy Allstars scheduled for a set of their seminal acid jazz grooves and OK GO set to deliver their infectious indie pop rock. But if you stayed out late on Friday night celebrating how much fun had been had, it might take awhile to get going on Saturday with early afternoon sets becoming a casualty. The Arctic Monkeys drew large numbers to the main stage for their 4:45 pm set and gave the rock crowd all they could want. But if you were in a mellower mood, there was a great alternative with SIA at the Twin Peaks stage, where the adjacent hillside provided an opportunity for the weary to take a load off and enjoy more of an ambient afternoon set. The soothing voice of Australian singer Sia Furler over a down tempo piano-oriented sound was a perfect antidote for the weary. Couples could also get in some great snuggle time here, and festival programmers have to be commended for offering this option to those who still needed a little more down time after raging it late into the previous evening.

The Black Keys drew a massive throng to the main stage much like they did at ACL last year. Outside Lands veterans may have wistfully longed to see the Akron duo back on the Twin Peaks stage like they were in 2008. But Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have been blowing up, with a blues rock sound that clearly appeals to a wide variety of music lovers. Conflict arose again however as The Roots went on at the Twin Peaks stage in an overlapping time slot, electrifying the crowd with a mix of heady covers and hip-hop anthems. The covers included Black Sabbath's “War Pigs” and Guns 'N Roses' “Sweet Child of Mine”, with the band showing themselves off as one of the most diverse acts in the biz. The large crowd was way into it, and like The Black Keys, The Roots have also demonstrated themselves as a band with a wide appeal due to their diverse talents and influences.

The Warren Haynes Band hit the Sutro Stage at 7:25 pm and delivered one of the weekend's best sets. The man that Rolling Stone named as the 23rd best guitarist of all time is touring with a new project and album drawing on more of a rootsy soul rock sound than his blues rock powerhouse Government Mule. All the hippies and jamrock fans were on hand here for a fantastic set of new material, with Haynes and saxophonist Ron Holloway trading hot licks throughout. It's a great formula for Haynes and it will be interesting to see how long he keeps this unit together. The set concluded with a nod to his roots, as an encore of “Soulshine” (his contribution to The Allman Brothers Band catalogue) put a classic cap on the set.

By the time Haynes and crew were done, Muse had already hit the main stage and were rocking the assembled throng with a power few other bands can match these days. The Brit alt-prog-rock trio has broken through to international stardom with a unique blend of hard rock and symphonic pop majesty, blending influences such as Queen, Smashing Pumpkins, Metallica and more. The band's epic laser light show provides yet another level of grandeur for guitarist/singer/ringleader Matthew Bellamy and his mates. The talented Bellamy can just about do it all – he can melt your face on lead guitar, tickle the ivories on piano or keytar, sing anything from power ballads to metal and he's even picked up the rebounding Penny Lane (aka actress Kate Hudson) after the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson made the shameful mistake of cheating on her.

But one criticism that should be offered to Muse is that they played almost the exact same set list as they've been playing throughout the past couple years, including last year's gigs at ACL and Glastonbury. Bellamy would do well to consult with Phish's Trey Anastasio about how mixing up the set lists can help keep the shows fresh, especially for a band with plenty of material. Sticking around for the end of the set by the Warren Haynes Band meant missing Muse's “Uprising” opener, which was too bad as there's all too few bands at the arena rock level singing about taking the power back these days. But you knew you'd still be able to catch that epic “Knights of Cydonia” encore. Too much predictability is thy enemy of rock longevity Mr. Bellamy.

One ongoing logistical issue for Outside Lands attendees is getting out of the park at the end of the night, or not so much getting out of the park itself as catching transportation to the next destination. The big crowd exiting all at once can make it tough to catch a train or bus that isn't already jammed to capacity. But if you played your cards just right – by positioning yourself near the polo fields' exit tunnel by the main stage – you could catch the last note of that “Knights of Cydonia” encore and then make haste to catch the N-Judah train and get to the Haight-Ashbury district just in time for a late dinner. The key is to turn west toward the beach at Judah, not east, otherwise the train is already full and you're waiting who knows how long for one with room on it.

 

Sunday:

Sunday's early lineup seemed a bit soft, although one could speculate that it might have been by design since rest and recovery time were again paramount after rocking the park for two straight days. Some of the festival's best moments were still to come though, including a sensational 4:45 pm set on the main stage from Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Fogerty. The Berkeley, California native eschewed his solo catalogue for the most part, save for “Gunslinger”, an underrated gem from 2007's Revival. The bulk of the set was devoted to Fogerty's many classic rock hits including sparkling renditions of “Midnight Special”, “Down on the Corner”, “Bad Moon Rising”, “Lodi” and “Born on the Bayou”. With warm sunshine beaming down on the park, it was a little slice of rock and roll heaven. Fogerty also looked amazingly spry for his age, clearly having tapped into some sort of fountain of youth (the rock 'n' roll is known to have such effects after all.)

Staying until the end of Fogerty's set mean you could only catch the very end of the set from Wye Oak on the Panhandle stage as you headed back toward the Twin Peaks stage, but singer/guitarist Jenn Wasner's dynamic and bluesy vocals were easily something I wanted to hear more of. STS9 drew a big crowd to the Twin Peaks stage for their 6:15 pm set, where the jamtronica quintet threw down a raucous 60 minutes of instrumental music that featured some of the weekend's best dance party energy. The set list was a bit on the predictable side for some longtime fans, but you can't blame a band for wanting to feature their strongest material in front of a festival audience that's going to include a lot of potential new fans. Go-to staples like “Inspire Strikes Back” and “Economic Hit Man” both conjured an epic sonic grandeur with their monster grooves, but the band also delivered with two new songs from this year's recently released When the Dust Settles EP. The title track featured a majestic psychedelia over a heavy beat from ace drummer Zach Velmer, while “Scheme” offered a spacier yet still groovy sound. To witness the semi-local heroes make good with a big festival set in Golden Gate Park some 10 years after their first appearance at the venerable Fillmore Auditorium made for a great San Francisco moment.

It was only a shame that The Decemberists were on at the same time on the main stage – scheduled opposite STS9 once again – just like they were at ACL 2009. The final headlining slot was a conflict between Deadmau5 on the Twin Peaks stage and Arcade Fire on the Lands End stage. It seemed natural to give Deadmau5 a shot after having grooved out to STS9's electronic-oriented flavor, but there's a big drop off when you consider a live organic band versus a solo DJ. I saw Deadmau5 rock a festival set with some strong energy at ACL last year, and his light show is epic to say the least. But the music seemed to be stagnating in electronica repetitiveness here, and patience was short what with Arcade Fire at the other end of the park. Deadmau5 almost surely picked it up later on, but you have to be careful about any lag at a festival when other bands tempt just beyond.

Arcade Fire are easily one of the decade's biggest success stories. They were a small side stage band at the 2005 Vegoose Festival in Las Vegas, and now here they were concluding Outside Lands in front of a massive crowd. The band sounded tight and their melodic indie rock flavor offered another flavor to create headliner diversity next to the more guitar-driven sound from Phish and Muse.

Outside Lands feels like it has now fully evolved into the awesomeness that a Golden Gate Park festival should be. There are few places in the world that offer as fine a setting for a festival as this park and this city. So music lovers should definitely rank Outside Lands near the top of their must-see festival shortlists.

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