Outside Lands @ Golden Gate Park, Friday, 8/9/13
I’ve never seen or experienced a mass of people as collectively happy as this weekend’s 6th annual Outside Lands Festival. At this point, Another Planet has the festival so dialed, it’s a veritable playground for adults: gorgeous scenery, beautiful weather (well?), unmatched people watching, world class food, day drinking, and the best collection of musicians of any of the major festivals… surpassing even Coachella (yes, I said it).
Arriving at the festival, bright and early via Fell Street, and passing the legendary Haight and Ashbury on the way to the Park, the fog had settled in for a classic anti-summer day in the City.
Chicago’s The Smith Westerns began their set at 12:50 — sunrise by rock ‘n’ roll standards and bid the crowd “good morning”. They put on a solid show showcasing songs from their three excellent records; moving from minimal indie rock to big 70’s glam influenced tracks. Lead singer Cullen Omori summed up the festival experience perfectly, “Festivals are for discovering new music, sharing it with your friends, and having fun”. Amen.
Heeding Omori’s words, I set out to discover new music in Rhye and The Men, two bands I’d heard great things about. They ended up being two of the more enjoyable sets of the weekend, and I became instant fan of both. The excitement of seeing a band live before knowing their music and instantly liking them can be akin to love at first sight. The infatuation, the disbelief, and knowing that life will be better now that you’re aware of its existence.
Heavy drizzle started during Rhye’s set. It was literally a “quiet storm”, mixing perfectly with their smooth R&B groove. They started with “Open”, and the entire Sutro area was slow dancing together. It was a soulful, sexy vibe.
In a stark contrast, The Men, by way of Brooklyn, were there not to make you swoon, but to kick your ass. “I Saw Her Face”, from their latest album New Moon was the best hard-rocking song of the whole weekend, evoking Neil Young. They absolutely embody classic American rock from the 70’s. A full-blown mosh pit put broke out. Having the requisite NY attitude, Bassist Ben Greenburg spouted, “If you need me, I’ll be in New York” and “Tell the Red Hot Chili Peppers ‘Hi’ for us”. Snarky and funny.
With an album like Pythons to work from, the job was made considerably easier for Surfer Blood. They had plenty of room to roam on the Land’s End, and the crowd came out early. John Paul Pitts laid to rest any doubt that the band could transition to the big stage, and their welcome blast of a set was a perfect table-setter for the remainder of the day.
Put in the spotlight of preceding Sir Paul McCartney, The National responded to the pressure with their usual grace. Opening on low boil with “Fake Empire”, they essayed a set that showed all their facets of their subtle, tightly wound indie rock. The more the set progressed, it became apparent that The National is the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove as the collective emotional weight of the songs finally reached the tipping point, with Matt Berninger going into the audience during “Mr November”. Pretty common occurrence for the band live, but for festival goers new to the band, or those familiar only with their records, the man in the natty suit plunging into the crowd must have been quite a shock. Lest stage antics overwhelm the business at hand, the big news sonically was the guest addition of the legendary Kronos Quartet to provide strings and gravitas for half the set. All told, a triumphant performance in a tricky spot-hopefully The National made a lot of new friends.
Paul McCartney lived up to his headlining status, setting a bar for the weekend that few could touch. Like Stevie Wonder last year, the question was how does one boil down 50 years of being a human jukebox into one set? Instead of playing to strict festival standards of a cavalcade of hits, McCartney led his crack touring band through a tour of his back pages with choices both expected and confounding, maintaining recent form by throwing enough bones to the hardcore by performing several Beatles songs that were never played live by the original quartet, including “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” and “Lovely Rita Meter Maid”, both from the seminal Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He covered all the bases from the Hendrix coda tacked onto his own “Let Me Roll It” to an amusing Hendrix/Clapton anecdote, and threw in a touching ukelele version of “Something” as a tribute to the late George Harrison. His stage patter charmed throughout, revealing “Blackbird” as a nod to the fight for civil rights, and personalized the set with a lilting take on “San Francisco Bay Blues”. As it went forward, it was apparent that McCartney was in for the whole ride, with the 71-year old finishing the proceedings minutes shy of the three hour mark. “Live And Let Die” with a pyro display: check. Immense sing along to “Hey Jude”: check. What would be the conclusion and high water mark of any other performer’s night, let alone career, was merely the end of the regular set.
The enormity of the set could be summed up in the second and final encore, and woe be to those who took flight early. McCartney started simply, accompanied by a string quartet, performing “Yesterday”, (merely one of the most covered songs of all-time), before being rejoined by his band for a blistering version of “Helter Skelter”, (in which the boys in there downtime Invented Heavy Metal). As if daring himself to top it, he moved over to keyboards and dropped right into the inimitable opening of “Golden Slumbers” from Abbey Road, with the band picking up the gauntlet and driving through the whole medley, including the trading of numerous pithy guitar solos, ending, of course, with the final piece: “The End”. It was a living, breathing history lesson on Friday night, and immediately became the outlier when discussing the festival the rest of the weekend.