Outside Lands | 08.22.08 - 08.24.08 | SF

Words by: Dennis Cook, Kayceman & Ari Bendersky
Images by: Susan J. Weiand, Dave Vann, Michael Weintrob, Heather Barlin, & Jeff Kravitz

Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival
08.22.08 – 08.24.08 :: Golden Gate Park :: San Francisco, CA

Outside Lands 2008 by Michael Weintrob
Outside of New York's Central Park, there may not be a more world famous outdoor public space in America than S.F.'s Golden Gate Park. Ground zero for the Summer of Love and all things stereotypically '60s Frisco, Golden Gate Park, like the rest of the city, is a wild sprawl, full of unexpected hollows, weird obstructions and twisting pathways. Unlike many more planned out places, San Francisco is organic, rising up in fits and spurts, each street an incongruous trail of multicultural/multi-era variety, a 40-year-old family pasta joint next to an '80s Chinese laundry next to a brand new cell phone hut run by Hungarians. Spend time on a Muni train or wandering the architectural wonderland downtown and you'll hear, in just a few blocks, a blur of languages – French, Spanish, Hebrew, Russian, Hindi, Portuguese, Italian, Farsi and, of course, English are all commonplace.

Fittingly, the inaugural Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival possessed many of the city's polyglot charms, throwing out a highly varied mix of options limited only by the constraints of time and distance – both of which weighed heavily on one's experience. Given the physical vastness of the park, the tight set times (40 minutes was the average) and sixty-five acts on six stages to choose from, one inevitably made some choices based on practicality over personal tastes. As much one may have wanted to dive into the Afro-Latin-Jamaican stew of say Manu Chao on the main Lands End Stage, they likely let the idea slide if they were at the opposite end of the site watching The Black Keys on the Twin Peaks Stage and knew a 15-20 minute walk, at a good clip and hopefully with little resistance from the sizeable crowd, awaited them. That said, we at JamBase built up our calf muscles this past weekend to give you the lowdown on a festival with all the makings of an annual keeper.

FRIDAY, 08.22.08

Howlin Rain - Outside Lands by Dave Vann
Unquestionably the single biggest attendance of the three-day fest due to, well, arguably the biggest rock band on the planet headlining (and if one ever doubts S.F.'s hipster radar they need only have seen the range of toddlers to tattooed 20-somethings to full blown geriatrics lurching towards the main stage for Radiohead to know it cuts across all generations here), the opening day revealed some of the logistical kinks to be worked out (more on that later) but came out swinging, musically speaking.

Howlin Rain - 5:00-5:30 - Panhandle Stage

When Ethan Miller screamed, "Lord, have mercy on my soul!" it sent a chill stronger than the rising ocean breeze up our spines. As kick-off acts for a fest go, the Rain is a good one, even when hampered by a too-brief 30-minute slot. Super charged by cosmic organ, courtesy of Joel Robinow on a borrowed full-size B-3, the band offered up soul rock peppered with bright flecks, ragged hope amidst a sometimes funereal rush full of sun bleached bones and hamstrung promises. Like the MC5, Howlin Rain is rough but thoughtful, hellbent for leather and technical as jazz musicians (when they wanna be). The brevity of their performance only reinforced its open-handed slap, a nifty, stinging blow that set one in motion for the rest of the night. (DC)

Cold War Kids - 5:25-6:10 - Sutro Stage

Cold War Kids - Outside Lands by Dave Vann
Shuffling into the festival grounds on Friday afternoon one could sense the electricity and hear the music long before seeing a stage. Walking through the eucalyptus and soaring cypress groves winding into Golden Gate Park it was a beautiful entrance propelled by the booming, full-bodied sound in the distance. After getting our tickets (which proved remarkably easy when we arrived around 5:00) it was Southern California's Cold War Kids who would be the first band of the fest for yours truly. Arriving in time to hear one of the band's strongest numbers, "Hang Me Out To Dry," there was already a very large crowd packing into the area and actually even seeing the performers on stage was quite difficult. Sight lines aside, the tent revival, hand-clap, gospel-baked set closing rocker "Saint John" was enough to spark a few fans into heavy dancing and proved a strong finish for a band that is certainly on the rise. (Kayce)

Black Mountain - 5:30-6:10 - Twin Peaks Stage

Far more beguiling live than their studio efforts (which have their own quasi-nostalgic charms), Black Mountain proffered trippy, dirty rock with a high vocal soar and chest thumping low end. There's an undeniable Zeppelin feel to a number of elements but give 'em credit for actually nailing Zep's heaven storming ways. And in concert they slathered on a really seductive musk, something animal and nostril flaring, full of keyboard spice and the elongated groan of muscled up '70s art rock. Black Mountain have the density and hunka chunka mojo of some long lost classic rock group, some weird formation of ex-members of Fairport Convention, Amon Düül, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Family, all under the tough fingered influence of Hawkwind. In terms of atmosphere, unexpected musical turns and overall mood, Black Mountain's nicely heavy set wanted for nothing. (DC)

The Felice Brothers - 6:10-6:40 - Presidio Stage

The Felice Brothers - Outside Lands by Susan J. Weiand
After this set, I'd question anyone's musical instincts if they didn't take to The Felice Brothers, who went some distance beyond "good natured" into "raucously inviting." The intimacy of their studio work is more heartbreakingly present live, an immediate, emotional jab that hits your heart and loosens happy and sad tears. No shit, people, these boys played their mutt style - a grand stewpot of roots rock, ragtime, folk and country elements – with such passion and abandon that it reminded one of their own humanity and the fragility and beauty of those around them. It's was also a foot stampin' good time, a chance to pour whiskey in your whiskey while the accordion danced and the drummer jumped from behind his kit to lead us in sooty gospel chants. Stirring both resounding quiet ("Mercy") and freshly off-the-hinges chaos ("Frankie's Gun"), The Felices made the most of their brief stage time, and left more than a few new fans in their trail dust. (DC)

Manu Chao - 6:15-7:15 - Lands End Stage

It was upon leaving the Cold War Kids to head over to the main stage for Manu Chao that the sheer number of people in the grounds started to sink in. Trying to get from the Sutro Stage to Lands End was almost impossible. The path between these two stages just wasn't big enough and it wound up making more sense to either hop the fence and trek through the woods or walk the roughly half mile to a completely different entrance on the other side of the grounds to avoid the cluster fuck. As trying as it was getting from Cold War Kids to Manu Chao, one could only wonder the horrors awaiting the crowds packed in for the superstar tandem of Beck followed by Radiohead (which went down on the same two stages slightly later). This transition from the overflowing Beck scene (which caused me to miss almost his entire set) into Radiohead proved to be perhaps the single biggest problem Outside Lands would face all weekend. However, one's efforts were rewarded if they ventured through the mass of bodies to see the French-born, Latin rock hero Manu Chao. This cat isn't just leading a band, he's leading a movement. His passionate cries of freedom (sung in Spanish, English and French) were met with screaming fans of every color that knew every word and were not afraid to dance. Moving from straight forward reggae to Clash-influenced punk to hip-hop and searing guitar solos, Chao's band was impeccable. Not to be overlooked in this ensemble, the full horn section punctuated the percussion with exclamation points, while the bass player seemed capable of a sixth-gear overdrive that sent the jumping crowd into hysterics. As good as Manu Chao was, it was starting to be very apparent that getting situated for Radiohead was going to be an issue and it was time to go gather the troops and get a spot for Thom Yorke's twisted eyeball show. (Kayce)

The Black Keys - 6:50-7:50 - Twin Peaks Stage

Manu Chao - Outside Lands by Jeff Kravitz
This is bloody sexy music. This thought hit me as I watched giggling young thangs peel away layers as Dan Auerbach (vocals, guitar) and Patrick Carney (drums) dragged their black snake moan into the big city, giving it hairy, white boy anxiety and straight-leg denim kick. Considerably less subtle than their albums, the live Keys rolled with the he-man boogie of Rick Derringer and Pat Travers. It's like steam heat filtered directly to one's nether regions, the lasciviousness of Buddy Guy harnessed into post-modern laments built around loose notions like "strange times" or a "psychotic girl." As enjoyable as they were, one couldn't avoid the growing disparity between the sonic advances of their recent Attack & Release and the concert experience. As successful as they are as a duo, the practicalities of performance mean a slight dumbing down of their growing sophistication. If ever a band cried out for a keyboardist who could also pinch-hit on bass, second guitar, tambourine, etc. it's The Black Keys. While they never sounded less than full, it was hard not to imagine what might be if they broke out of their existing format. (DC)

Radiohead - 8:00-9:55 - Lands End Stage

The crowd was overwhelming. They were coming from all sides and all angles - climbing trees, scaling hills and squishing into any tiny free space. Even just actually getting into the main stage area at the wrong time proved a huge obstacle for many, and this was only compounded when roughly 5,000 people crashed the gates and darted into the sea of people. Radiohead is arguably the biggest band on the planet and they had the honor of being the first act to ever play a night show in Golden Gate Park. The resulting mass of people made for an even more intense scenario than perhaps anticipated. Although I've heard mixed grumblings from plenty of very reliable music aficionados, I was flat-out blown away. Perhaps it's because this is the only Radiohead show of the tour I was able to see (so by default clearly one of the top couple shows I'll see all year), maybe it was the thick, humid air that made every sound stick in place, or maybe I'm just completely under their control and unable to get off my knees and stop bowing to the throne, but I'm still trying to fully comprehend the weight of their performance and the mind-cracking vision of this band.

Radiohead - Outside Lands by Kravitz
Starting off with the glitched-out stutter-beat, deep bass and smooth guitar melody of "15 Steps," they followed with "Reckoner," another song off their 2007 release, In Rainbows. Unfortunately it was during the third song, "Airbag" where things got hairy. A big track off 1997's OK Computer, this is a fan favorite for sure and it physically stung when the sound cut out partway through. Unaware of exactly what was going on (because their stage monitors were clearly still working), the band kept playing as the crowd stood open-mouthed wondering if this was somehow part of their gig. The sound crashed back on about thirty-seconds later and although it was a major hiccup, we were back on track...until the fifth song, "All I Need." When the power cut for about a minute people really started to freak out and I saw more than one person literally having a hard time drawing breath. Admittedly, this was a difficult start to the show, but it was endearing to see how well Yorke and the band handled the situation, laughing it off with some dry British humor: "Okay, who spilled their beer in the plug" (or something to that effect). And while it was a rocky entrance, the band played thirteen more songs (22 in total) and ripped a hole through any third eye that happened to be open.

Time and again, I was shocked by how heavy it was. And it didn't matter if it was loud or soft, fast or slow, every move was massive and heavier than hell. This is dark, strange music that often dwells in the same scary part of town The Mars Volta hang out in. Tracks like "National Anthem," "Idioteque," "Paranoid Android" and "Just" were huge, experimental slabs of electronic-colored rock that could easily sneak up and pop you in the mouth if you weren't paying attention. These guitar-heavy, fist-pumping moments were balanced with the somewhat rare "Talk Show Host," the haunting "Exit Music (for a film)," a delicate "Karma Police," a gut-wrenching "Fake Plastic Trees" and a beautiful, soaring "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi," which truly felt as if it was taking place under water.

It was remarkable how the band was able to make a giant field with 50-70,000 people feel intimate, but somehow they pulled it off. Each song was saturated with emotion and dripping with possibility. When it was meant to evoke fear or pain, it did. When the mood shifted to desolate isolation, you felt it, and when it was time to rejoice and swing us back to this time and place, they did so with ease. Radiohead holds tension in the air and manipulates moods unlike any other act out there. This is difficult, super psychedelic, often uncomfortable and abrasive music that is complimented with one of the greatest visual components to ever tour. The lights themselves are incredible, but its those huge, crystal clear, creepy, voyeuristic, live-feed screens placed at weird, often disturbing camera angles (like the one close up on Yorke's eye), that really set them apart and lend a bit more insight into just how weird these blokes are. Each song is given its own identity, completely broken down and assigned its own colors, patterns, screen footage and feel. This is by far the most impressive visual representation of sound I've ever seen, and it's part of what makes Radiohead so bloody special.

During the five-song encore that concluded the two hour show, we were treated to a particularly special moment when Yorke broke out of performer mode and cracked up laughing while sitting at the piano for "You & Whose Army?" It was a rare, intimate look at one of the most captivating frontmen of our generation, and it was hard to not feel closer to him because of this human crack in his larger-than-life persona. With the sound issues and the simple nature of playing a festival as opposed to a regular gig on tour where you have all day to set up, etc, there was no way this was going to be the "best Radiohead show ever," but by the time "Everything In Its Right Place" stopped twitching through the speakers it was clear why Radiohead is simply the best band in the universe right now. (Kayce)

Radiohead - Outside Lands by Jeff Kravitz
Continue reading for Saturday coverage of Outside Lands...

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