August 23, 2010

Seeing the Bands at Outside Lands

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As a preface to my review of Outside Lands, I must tell you all a bit about my summer up until August 14th and 15th. The contrast between the two only enhances the positive feelings I gleaned from this awesome experience.

My first postgraduate summer was nothing out of the ordinary. I was back in my hometown, San Francisco, working, seeing friends and hanging out with my dog — the usual routine. Even without a distinctive difference, things clearly felt different. Since stepping off the plane in early June, my days continued to have a similar melancholy quality.

To top it off, my ever present “college is over” freak-out was only exacerbated by the cold. Yes, I know, San Francisco summers are notoriously frigid. We have all heard the famous Mark Twain quote about his coldest winter being a summer in the city by the bay. As a tried and true SF native, I had come to think of Mr. Twain as something of a sissy (clearly, he had never spent a winter in upstate New York). I think I owe good ol’ Mark an apology, though, because this summer has been dreadful. Fog and clouds and 50 degree weather can make anyone feel glum.

Therefore, the thought of two days of free music sounded like a welcome relief from the cold and dreary summer I had been having. Even though the location would be the same, I hoped the atmosphere would be a welcome change. Braving one of the coldest summers in the last several decades, I stuffed a down jacket into my backpack and began the mile walk from my front door to Golden Gate Park.

Outside Lands is a relatively new festival in San Francisco, only three years old this year. Not only does the festival showcase a wide range of musical acts, it also prides itself on providing some of the best food and wine San Francisco has to offer.

The result is a pretty bougie affair of mass consumption, where festival goers can purchase a gourmet hot dog next to fresh poke tuna and BBQ oysters. One spot in the 80-acre festival grounds is aptly named “Wine Lands,” in which there was a large cabernet colored tent filled with local wineries waiting to fill the glasses of legal drinkers (for a price).

I entered this cultural carnival with trepidation. I had no one to attend the festival with me the first day, so I knew I would be spending the next 12 hours alone. After getting my wristband, I headed straight to the Lands End Stage to watch People Under the Stairs. The grounds looked empty, and I easily secured myself a spot right at the front.

People Under the Stairs is an L.A. based hip hop group comprised of MCs The One and Double K. Several of their songs are featured over old funk and soul samples. The two rappers danced across the stage, rapping about drinking beer and hanging with Mr. Cooper. Even though the crowd was small, audience members enthusiastically sang along with the duo, expressing a clear connection with their lyrics about a hard partying life style.

My next assignment was to find the media tent. Tucked in a corner of the VIP section (aka the section for individuals who want to pay 3 times the entry rate into the venue for some free hors d’oeurves) was the tent designated for members of the press. Somehow, The Cornell Daily Sun qualified me as one of these very important people.

I walked into the white tent to find plush white seats with a killer view of the main stage, a woman waiting to pour me free beer from a Heineken keg, and a group of girls who told me when food from different vendors would be served. Oh yeah, and around the corner I had access to the bathroom vans with real running water. I thought I had died and went to festival heaven.

With a beer in hand, and a free water bottle stuffed into my backpack, I left the tent feeling refreshed. Next, I headed to the Panhandle Stage, a venue powered only by the sun. Framed by solar panels, I watched the relatively new band Dawes while sitting on a haystack set up about 50 feet from the stage.

The setting was appropriate, as Dawes has a country feel about them. Three out of the four band members were dressed in plaid, and all of them looked like the California boys that they were, but as they crooned about love and life, they sounded more akin to Texas based Okkervil River. The lead singer’s voice is rough, and the band works a little too hard on stage, but in time it is clear that they will produce a cohesive sound. In the end, the band was not attention grabbing, but enjoyable.

I spent the rest of the day catching beginnings and ends of various sets, including the Levon Helm Band, Bassnectar, My Morning Jacket and Cat Power.

The best of the day was clearly Levon and his gang. The seventy-year-old rock legend is the former lead singer and drummer of The Band. While his voice was severely affected by his battle with throat cancer in the early 1990s, the man can still play the drums like a god. Helm appeared pale and frail, but still put on a mighty performance. Swaying back and forth to “The Weight” amongst a sea of grown up hippies, I felt at ease.

The Levon Helm Band’s spot at the top only shined more brightly in comparison to the performances of My Morning Jacket and Cat Power. Both bands were bland, tired and uninterested in interacting with their audiences. It was disappointing on both counts.

Between shows, I stocked up on food and libations at several press friendly venues, and even managed to make some friends. The “summer” weather held up, sprinkling everyone with a large helping of mist. I was definitely glad to be packing my winter coat.

Ignoring my Cornell roots, I opted to go see The Strokes instead of Further for my last show of the day. Throughout the day, the festival had been filled with so many different types of individuals, but as these two very different bands took the stage, the once diverse crowd parted ways. Deadheads and older folk wandered to the Lands End Stage, while anyone born after 1980 headed over to the Twin Peaks Stage.

The crowd grew restless as dusk fell over the park. Prerecorded songs played over the speaker system, providing background music to a sea of fans pushing their way to the front of the stage. In the middle of a song, the stage went black, and a strong beat came over the loud speakers as the members of The Strokes sauntered onto the stage in their black leather jackets and large sunglasses. They looked like a caricature of rock music.

Their performance proved their authenticity. Even though the band had not been on tour for the last four years, they performed with the energy level of seasoned live artists. They paraded out their widely cherished hits, bringing the crowd back to their heyday of the early 2000s. The band’s first hits, including “Someday,” “Last Nite” and “Reptillia” were mixed in with the more recent “You Only Live Once.”

Standing next to me at the show was a father and son. The young boy looked about 5 years old, and wore a Strokes shirt. He spent the duration of the show on his father’s shoulders, with his hands stretched into the air as he sang along to the words and shook his head back and forth. Clearly past his bedtime, the boy fought off signs of sleep to watch his favorite band.

All rocked out, I got a ride home, and quickly fell asleep so I could do it all over the next day.

Day two was even more jam-packed than the first. From 2:25 onwards, there was a consistent lineup of shows I wanted to see. My day started in a wonderful fashion. I got to the press tent early, just in time to watch interviews take place with both Chromeo and Phoenix. Surrounded by two of my favorite bands, I knew that this would be a wonderful day.

The second day of the festival was already looking up, as I had friends to spend the day with. I shared my free beer with my entire crew, running in and out of the press tent with full cups. Cups in hand, we watched Temper Trap, Janelle Monae and Al Green, stopping from time to time to lie down under the giant copper statues erected in between two stages.

As the day went on, we were faced with a dilemma. Next in the lineup was Chromeo, which overlapped with Phoenix, which overlapped with Nas and Damien Marley. Our goal was to attempt to make all three shows.

After watching Chromeo’s interview for Rhapsody in the media tent, I was already in love with them. More specifically, I was in love with Dave 1 (I really want to be his “Needy Girl,” you know, without being needy). Dave is a tall, skinny, slightly awkward, musically inclined Canadian Jew. We are definitely meant for each other.

I waited with anticipation as a stagehand uncovered the band’s signature piano stands, comprised of women’s legs and bright red heels.

When they finally took the stage, P-Thugg and Dave 1 brought the house down. Some combination of the melodica, auto-tune, and Dave’s sweet voice (sigh), created one of the best dance parties I have ever seen. When it came time to leave to make sure we could catch the Phoenix set, I found myself unable to be torn away from Chromeo. The enthusiasm that the group brought to the stage was electric. I truly cannot wait to see them again.

Unfortunately, Phoenix did not bring that same thrilling quality to their performance. Our vantage point was less than desirable, as the stage was packed and we were stuck behind the soundboard. Despite this physical impediment, the live performance sounded distant. Thomas Mars’ vocals were weak when compared to his band. Amid rumors of an impending break up, their performance was less than reassuring.

The live rendition of “If I Ever Felt Better” was a clear example of the band’s faltering live performance. The chorus, usually sung by all four-band members, fell flat on the mics. Unfortunately, that resulted in everyone standing around me having to hear my rendition of the repeated chorus line. It was nice to hear some of my favorite songs live, but disheartening to know that one of my favorite bands could not bring their creativity and energy onto the main stage.

The final act of the day was Empire of the Sun. My choice to avoid the main stage for the second night in a row was intentional. There was no way I was going to see Kings of Leon, unless their set involved a large helping of stage diving birds. In the end, I clearly made the right choice.

Empire of the Sun played their first show in the United States at Lollapalooza, only two weeks before taking the stage at Outside Lands. Spearheaded by Luke Steele, their performance is theatrical, to say the least. Steele stood at a control stand of sorts, surrounded by keyboards on all sides, as he played his guitar. He donned a variety of metallic headdresses, as six female dancers wore different costumes and danced on either side of him. From pink robot hats to marlin fish masks, the dancers and lead singer acted out scenes in sync with the musical performance. In sum, it was the definition of trippy.

The band’s performance distracted the audience from the band’s less than choice sound quality. It also provided a memorable experience for everyone watching. Move over Lady Gaga, Empire of the Sun is here.

Danced out and exhausted, I carried myself to KFC and then a local bar, where I proceeded to fall asleep in my seat. The next day I woke up with sunburn, a cold and the sense that getting a press pass to Outside Lands just made my summer.

Original Author: Marisa Breall