Yesterday was the start of the third annual Outside Lands Music Festival here in Golden Gate Park, basically my backyard these days after moving to the Lower Haight area (maybe not backyard, but close enough). With a quick bike ride over to the park shortly after noon, the festival was off to a good start for me. I caught some of The Whigs while I was getting my bike locked up at the free bike park area (thanks SF Bike!) then headed over to the media check-in line to get my pass. The line was long. In fact, almost nobody was waiting in line at will-call and almost nobody was at the walk-up ticket window, but there were like 40 people in the media line waiting to get in. Not a good sign for the festival if you ask me; I’m not sure how many tickets they sold, but it was clear that this was a stripped down festival with hardly as much interest as the previous two years had attracted. Maybe Furthur and Kings of Leon just won’t be enough to keep this one going? I hope that’s not the case, because I always have fun and yesterday was no exception. But they’re going to need to lay off the corporate attachment and go back to focusing on bringing top-tier acts that will rival the next Bonnaroo or Coachella, and this will really become the institution that it can be. Again, I had fun but the overall vibe of the event is one that makes it seem just a bit expendable.
It was clear the wookies were out in full force, too. I forget sometimes that entering a Phish show or approaching anything Grateful Dead related also means you’re going to be navigating through a bunch of crusties that don’t really have any plan other than just sitting outside a venue with a dog, maybe a girlfriend (if they’re lucky), and maybe some “miracles” to help them onto the next stop. It almost never pleases me to see this, and the more and more I go the less entertaining it becomes. So there was definitely a scene, which made it clear why all the cops were out in full force. Uniformed officers were chilling everywhere. Two medical tents were at the ready in the mainstage area. It seemed like a Dead show, or at least how I would have imagined it felt. The closest I’ve come is the Phil’s 70th Birthday Bash earlier this year, and I left thinking that this whole side of the scene was just not something I was going to easily relate to.
Thankfully, Outside Lands seems to cater to the most eclectic of tastes. Yesterday’s lineup was hugely eclectic and interesting enough for to keep me engaged all day, and it started once I got in and made my way from the bike area to the main Polo Fields. There, I caught the last few songs of Electric Six which seemed way too punked up for my tastes that early in the day. Once I strolled to the other end of the field and checked out some of the food options, I noticed that a lot of the art seemed to be similar to the art we witness while we were at Phish Festival 8 in Indio, CA last Halloween. Sure enough, the organizers of the festival tapped Russ Bennett to do a lot of the festival ground art and sculptures, and boy is it noticeable when roaming the grounds.
The middle of the Polo Field is now a super chill area with heady tree-like structures. Very cool. Onto the main stage, Sierra Leone Refugee Allstars allowed me and my crew to assemble and get a sense of what we wanted to see next, and the world music jams kept us nicely entertained (in the background) as we made our way over for a good spot at the Pretty Lights set across the field. We had to get there early.
But we noticed right away that there was no drumset on stage. I was really hoping to see the new version of Pretty Lights with Adam Deitch on drums, but alas we got the main man himself wrecking the live beats and samples. Our whole crew was grooving hard on this set and it was easily the best musical moment I had early in the day. It had me jazzed to see the rest of the awesomeness ahead, which meant we just turned around after Pretty Lights and headed back across the field to see some of Gogol Bordello. After a few songs and some chilling with my team, we did opt to get over to the other side of the field to see what was happening with the Levon Helm set. On our way, we caught the last notes of Pimps of Joytime and met up with every more friends floating back and forth between the stages. Through the wiindmills and off to the side stage hill area, we grabbed a good seat and treated ourselves to The Band classics like “Orphelia,” “The Weight,” etc. It was nice and I’m glad I got to see some of that set, but we all wanted to keep moving after that cool-off so we caught a few minutes of the Rebirth Brass Band on the Panhandle Solar Stage. Good stuff, but I knew My Morning Jacket was a good half-mile walk away and we needed to get some room up front to see the band’s dusting off of the old “festival” set mainstays that they have been doing for so many years. We walked past Bassnectar’s bouncin’ ball (and bass-heavy, duh!) set and eventually wished he would just “shut up, already” while we inched our way closer and closer for the My Morning Jacket set.
My Morning Jacket is a serious crew of professional musicians, and the way they’re able to keep their setlists flowing, rocking, swaying, and generally just being equally beautiful and powerful still never ceases to amaze me. Sure there are other bands that have some sonic comparisons to this band, but absolutely no one can match Jim James’ stage presence. One of my buddies was catching his first show, and he had never really seen anything like it. The towel over his head. The cape. “Highly Suspicious” in the same set as “Golden.” The electronic harpsichord thing on “Touch Me, Part 2.” Seriously. Not too many bands can match this or deliver it on a mainstage, midday at a music festival in the middle of Golden Gate Park. They did all that and more, playing over 90 minutes of blistering and beautiful rock to a rather unfamiliar set of fans in the crowd. I loved every second of it, and after that I was pretty sure nothing else was going to musically top it for me. They were the band I was really there to see yesterday.
After that, I floated past Wolfmother’s set and caught the last minute or so of the Beats Antique set, which was all good and fine but neither one really grabbed me. Again, I was floating high and had ears ringing from the My Morning Jacket rage fest and I was happily musically satiated. What a good feeling. So I finally made my way back over to Furthur and got to witness some of this from the VIP area thanks to my media pass (score!), an area filled with people that could have cared less that they were at a music festival. Probably the most uninterested crowd I’ve ever stood near. Maybe it didn’t help that the first ten minutes after the band took the stage seemed to feature nothing but a tuning and soundcheck and Bob Weir fiddling with his guitar tech. The band opened with a tune I was generally unfamiliar with (“Cassidy”) but quickly got to a song I had remembered from one of the only Dead bootlegs I had, “Loser.” I couldn’t believe how John Kadlecik, the guitarist serving in the Jerry Garcia position in the band, was actually that close of a visual and sonic rememberance of Jerry Garcia himself. This was the highlight for me, really sonically hearing what it could have been like to be hearing the Grateful Dead perform “Loser” in Golden Gate Park. I know it’s nothing close to the real thing, but based on Kadlecik’s unbelievable act of impersonation, this is about as close as it ever could be.
And Joe Russo is basically two drummers behind a one-man drum kit, and he really does keep the music on a rhythm and beat that allows you to follow it. I hate to say it, though — I’m really not sure if Phil and Bobby have anything else to offer besides the mystique and idea that they’re on stage. I knew it to be symbolic because of that reason, and perhaps nostalgic for some, but for me it was like watching two dinosaurs trying to wrestle with instruments that they simply can’t wield in the same strength and vivation that would really impress me. Yes, it does impress me that they’re still up there. But there comes a time to hang it up. That’s really what I left the show with, even hearing the notes of “Lady with a Fan” fill the air of the park with a hundred people outside the fences listening on over the sound of the power generators humming in the area. They did cover Pink Floyd, too.
I did catch a few minutes of The Strokes, too, but honestly not enough to get a full sense of what was going on. I was never huge on their catalog and I’m sure it ripped for the fans of their music, so for anyone that has more insight there, I’m all ears. I beat the crowd out and had a fantastic ride home through the panhandle, and I’m nicely rested and horribly sunburnt after a super successful day one at Outside Lands. I’ll see you in the beer line down there and can’t wait to catch Devil Makes Three, Phoenix, Garage a Trois and a little Kings of Leon action before I head home, catch my breathe, then head swiftly to the Boom Boom Room late-night with Worship My Organ (with Marco Benevento, Skerik, Stanton Moore, and Wil Blades). Should be effing incredible.