Reviews

Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival – Part One: Full House

Greg M. Schwartz

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.

Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival

Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival – Part One: Full House

City: San Francisco, CA
Venue: Golden Gate Park
Date: 2008-08-22

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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