Outside Lands | 08.22.08 - 08.24.08 | SF

SATURDAY, 08.23.08

Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet - 1:00-1:40 - Sutro Stage

Fleck & Washburn - The Sparrow Quartet by Weiand
The Sparrow Quartet cut a fine picture, all nattily dressed, lined up in a neat row of chairs, hands full of antique-looking wood, wire and steel. And then they play and give your insides a lil' flutter. At least that's how things went at the Quartet's day opening set at the Sutro Stage in Lindley Meadow, which played host to some of the biggest non-main stage acts. Washburn's unique, sweet 'n' sour voice began with the lure, "Everywhere I go/ I look for you/ Do you look for me?" As their pace increased song to song, accompanied by the unmistakable cannabis specter that meandered in the park all weekend, one felt swept up by their new acoustic music, as daring in its way as the Punch Brothers, simply another inspired commingling of seemingly disparate elements – Chinese folk and Kentucky bluegrass, New Orleans small group jazz and atmospheric indie rock – likely to widen the scope of what everyone considers fair game for a string band. What's so stunning about the Sparrow Quartet is how pleasurable their music is despite being so musically rigorous. Layers and sympathetic vibrations replaced the usual soloist mindset, and as the notes swung around the globe, these four made it look easy. (DC)

Goapele - 1:00-1:40 - Twin Peaks Stage

Everest - Outside Lands by Dave Vann
Knowing less than nothing about this young nu-soul upstart (other than the hype that describes her as such), I wandered into Goapele's pretty haze and kinda dug it. Think a more sativa-minded Mary J. Blige with less New Jack Swing and more dub accents. "Happy birthday to all the Leos out there. I'm a Cancer," chirped Goapele (pronunciation unknown – Go-Apple? Go-ah-pell-y? Gooop-el?). An astrology nod wasn't her only connection to the 1970's since her set included a cover of James Brown's "Cold Sweat" (complete with "give the drummer some" solo) and "Don't Be Shy," which had the ring of a Norman "You Are My Starship" Connors electric slow jam. Looking a bit like the daughter of Bow Wow Wow's Annabella Lwin in a lovely summer dress, Goapele offered quality uplift, comfort soul bolstered by positivity infused pronouncements like, "This is for anybody working for their dreams, working their ass off, making money or not, this is for you." (DC)

Everest - 1:40-2:10 - Presidio Stage

These Los Angeles rockers have all the fundamentals in place. Even hearing their stuff for the first time, as I did at this set, it's apparent that they're dead good musicians who know how to write songs. As basic as that may seem, it's actually rare for new bands to comprehend what constitutes a full, engaging song. That said, Everest piled on interesting shifts in mood and tempo, and a fierce sense of dynamics that kept your ear glued to them, never quite sure when the whispering would end and a grumbling cry emerge. One hears all the good things in '70s FM rock in them, from the pleasant duel of acoustic and electric guitars to the vaguely confessional lyrics, which often dealt with dreams, letdowns or the other things that haunt us in great and awful ways; you know, the real shit we all wrestle with and need songs to help us survive. Everest played a bunch of fine ones in this mode ("Rebels In The Roses" had a particularly beautiful shimmer), capable of strummy bedsit stuff and gigantic Neil Young-ish warble, including a hellaciously satisfying feedback fueled number near set's end that warned us, "Don't make promises you can't keep." I can sincerely promise I'll be listening for where this band goes next. Great first impression, lads. (DC)

Devendra Banhart - 2:15-3:00 - Sutro Stage

Devendra Banhart - Outside Lands by Weiand
Dev and his Spiritual Bonerz settled upon us like lazy smoke, gathering into a soft reggae shuffle cut by razor sharp guitars and skyward moans. Presence the boy has, and he's backed by one of the more interesting rock ensembles going, including members of Vetiver and Priestbird and all dudes interested in messing with sound, bending the edges of things, seeing what they can see within a tune. What this afternoon performance showed is how well they serve Banhart's songs while still doing all their poking around. In fact, as fine as this band was last year, it was apparent how much more they inhabit the tunes from Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, which comprised the majority of the setlist. There's a bit more muscle on things now. Their bellies jiggle a bit longer on the funny parts and they're more comfortable laughing at things whilst they rawk, very much the descendants of The Faces. Wouldn't be at all surprised to see them set up a bar on stage one tour like Rod, Ronnie and Ron once did. Highlight was a delightful reading of "Shabop Shalom" followed by an inspired cover of Mungo Jerry's "In The Summertime," done without irony and thus infinitely pleasing in the flower powered setting. Even closer "Long Haired Child," though still rushed a little, as it has been for a couple years, hummed with purpose.(DC)

Liars - 2:55-3:30 - Panhandle Stage

Galactic with Dirty Dozen Brass Band by Weiand
What a glorious mess, all buzz and slash and flailing limbs! The vocals bite at you, and keep on snapping until they loose a hunk. Why then stand in their path? Well, it's bloody exciting. I only know their music in the live setting, unsure how such a beast would sound caged inside a permanent record. In person, they chop at you with very loud guitars, bouncing you around with massive drums and muscle relaxing dub accents, wooing one's inner demons and literally calling out for the Devil in what could be tribal music from Mars. Or inner space. Or Jung's tomb. Or maybe just a dark, rhythmic imagination. Best just to let them work you duppy style. (DC)

Galactic's Crescent City Soul Krewe - 2:50-3:50 - Lands End Stage

The once jittery funk new lions have settled/grown into a proper revue. There's less urge for flash and speed and many more deep grooves along the lines of primo Isaac Hayes and Sly Stone, a group sound capable of both instrumental and vocal strength. Their ability to relax into the cut rather than bum rushing it, which in fairness they sometimes did in the past, made for a contiguously flowing afternoon concert that brought forth sunshine that the sky refused to offer until Sunday. A special mention for Ben Ellman, who may be the best pocket funk saxophonist since Gary Bartz was bustin' licks with the Ntu Troop (the crate diggers will know what I'm talking about), and Stanton Moore, who looked like he might bust free of his skin during a drum solo that was equal parts percussion clinic and Carl Palmer's vision of a second line shuffle. It's a strong cocktail made by the merger of many potent flavors but tied together by a float of strangeness on top, an herbal accent with a monster kick hiding within pretty well known genre territory. Their music isn't groundbreaking but they've figured out how to accent unique facets that make their own version of it stand out. (DC)

M. Ward - 3:40-4:30 - Sutro Stage

Nellie McKay - Outside Lands by Dave Vann
One fundamentally great song followed another; yet each was soaked in atmosphere, weather for his landscapes, which continually hummed with the original feelings/inspirations behind them. Ward wrestles with mortality and time ("If life is so short, why is the night so long?") and comes out with tunes that help us march into the valley of the shadow of death, announcing, "God, it's great to be alive/ Takes the skin right off my hide/ To think I'll have to give it all up someday." His is a subtle cult, deeply connected with his work but perhaps less anxious to share our discovery with others than we should be. M. Ward is such a treat, such a close-to-the-breast confidante that one reflexively clings to him. But, clearly he's caught a fair number of us based on the number of folks belting out his pithy wisdom bursts, and one felt somewhat less alone in the world looking around during "Requiem" to find others singing, "He put his trust in a higher power/ He held his power like a holy grail/ He summoned all of his faith in the lifting/ It suffered all of his faith in the fail." Each number was well arranged, different enough to be interesting but still comfortingly familiar. Lovely set. (DC)

Nellie McKay - 4:20-5:00 - Panhandle Stage

Only caught the last two songs of McKay's set but feel confident in saying she's slightly mad. That's not a dig when the artist comes across like Randy Newman with a touch of mercury poisoning. Swooping from childlike whimpers to throaty, womanly growls and outwards to undead gurgles on "Do The Zombie," McKay is what the phrase "singular talent" was created to describe. Dipping into show tunes, Billy Joel, Laura Nyro, Tom Waits and myriad other piano sitters for inspiration, she's forged her own voice in a field that usually produces soft rock fluff, lounge clichés or overwrought Elton John-isms. Referencing, just in the few minutes I hung around, Joe Biden, Anton LaVey, Bob Dylan and Ralph Nader, there's few boundaries in her crazed sway, and it's always a ball to brush up against such charged particles. (DC)

Steve Winwood - 4:10-5:10 - Lands End Stage

Steve Winwood - Outside Lands by Dave Vann
Today's Winwood is a smoother creature than Traffic yet not as smooth as his Back In The High Life '80s phase. He seemed supremely comfortable plying his peculiar brand of rock-fusion, a poppy thing complicated by jazz time signatures, Brazilian percussion and odd folk figures. That it goes down so easy is a wonder, and perhaps it's just that time has softened the strangeness of his hybrid into something almost mainstream. He and his crack band are still too skilled to really live on commercial radio but they fake the lowest common denominator well enough to fool folks. Much of Winwood's recent work has a positively charged direction, and even a downright gloomy gem like "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" bounced like Clapton's revamped "Layla," the pleasure for the musicians in a neat tune if not the original's dark themes. Beyond specifics, it was a joy to watch Winwood strain and shake with sheer enjoyment at making music. That alone was worth planting yourself for a spell to enjoy a real veteran at work. (DC)

Café Tacuba - 5:05-5:55 - Twin Peaks Stage

Greeted by softly crazed whistling, I wandered into what quickly sounded like a Mexican wedding band that had swallowed Devo. Formed in 1989, these exponents of rock en Español are one of the hottest acts in the non-English speaking world. In San Fran, they played to a healthy though less than soccer stadium sized audience but the sheer gusto and showmanship of their set remained giant sized, perfect for filling up the outdoors and tickling the gray clouds hovering overhead. Lead singer-guitarist Rubén Isaac Albarrán Ortega sported long, braided pigtails and a white leather outfit that would win prizes at Oakland's Player's Ball, and the chicas up front swooned (yes, literally swooned) a few times as he emerged from his layers and eventually invited a pack of them to join the quartet on stage and "shake their bones." Their mamas would have been suitably proud/embarrassed depending on their particular sensibilities.

Café Tacuba served up party punch spiked with curious electrolytes, spilling it around with a child's glee. It's not that they aren't incredibly tight (they are) but it was obvious they dig wildness, unpredictability and unusual accents. Their sound ranged from Midnite Vultures period Beck to border radio oom-pah-pah (with melodica standing in for accordion). Just when you thought you had them pegged they'd toss out a pure Beach Boys vocal digression or tough electric guitar rant that washed down some of their more icky '90s Latin rock touches (occasionally syrupy keys, cerveza swinging slogans, overly romantic passages). The crushing rhythm section and generally hyperactive imagination behind their tunes almost always bypassed the less successful elements, and as performers they ranked with the very best at this festival. I wouldn't make too many predictions about what their next move will sound like, and if there's a bigger compliment than that I don't know it. (DC)

Regina Spektor - 5:15-6:05 - Sutro Stage

Regina Spektor - Outside Lands by Michael Weintrob
Starting her set with an a cappella reading of "Ain't No Cover," Russian born, Bronx bred Regina Spektor kept a strong crowd focused on her eclectic songs. Spektor's quirky, piano-based, folk-rock-ethnic-pop could have been a difficult sell at a festival, but her knock-out piano abilities and star-quality stage presence kept the advanced San Francisco music fans glued to her every move. While the ideal setting for Spektor would likely be a dark jazz club with velvet drapes, she was impressive in the fog-covered open meadow of gorgeous Golden Gate Park. (Kayce)

The Walkmen - 5:55-6:35 - Panhandle Stage

Drawn over by the surge of press behind this band's new release, You & Me, what I found was some pretty mopey music with incredibly overwrought lead vocals. That's not such a bad thing, and I bet The Walkmen would have made a dandy American addition to the Factory Records roster if they'd been born 20 years sooner. Full of neat, circling electric guitars and a singer with an accent from some other place than the NYC they actually come from, The Walkmen played intense, very personal music that the journal writing crowd seemed to REALLY dig. I liked the post-modern, Wall of Voodoo-esque Western shuffle they interjected into a couple tunes, and I'm willing to say my lack of familiarity with their work outside of a pretty keen, if remarkably faithful, redux of John Lennon & Harry Nilsson's 1974 album, Pussy Cats, could account for my lack of connection with their well played if overly emotional set. (DC)

Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals - 5:50-7:00 - Lands End Stage

Ben Harper - Outside Lands by Weiand
As if setting up the stage for the Democratic National Convention, which kicked off two days after this set, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals hit the Lands End stage and got things off right with "Better Way." This song has become a favorite of fans and a staple of BHIC live sets with its battle cry to change the world - just like Barack Obama is hoping to do. And, as with so many other sets from this hugely popular touring band, this quick ten song gig showcased some of the band's best material, including the iconic "Ground On Down," which put Harper on the map nearly 15 years ago. I've seen them play in small venues like Chicago's Metro, where during Harper's solo acoustic set you could hear a pin drop. These days, you're hard-pressed to get them in such an intimate setting, but the band does its best to bring the audience close in. No matter how big he gets, Harper always takes a moment to look out into the crowd as they scream back at him. The set at Outside Lands was no different. He's a man of the people, maybe not as humble as he was in the early years, but still appreciative nonetheless. And during songs like "Fight Outta You" and "Diamonds on the Inside," BHIC turned up the heat. They covered Bill Withers' "Use Me," which they have come to adopt as a song of their own, working the slow-burning tempo, throwing down the soul and kicking up the funk. They didn't close out the night - they prepped the field for Tom Petty. And despite the chill from the misty fog, people danced up a storm and kept each other hot – something Harper's music has no problem doing every time he plays. (AB)

Two Gallants - 6:05-6:45 - Presidio Stage

Les Claypool - Primus by Michael Weintrob
The sepia folk duo days are behind this band. This is a tough rock 'n' roll animal today, armed with song talons that burrow deep. Beginning with a stunning read of "Seems Like Home To Me," the emotional level was set high from the start. Singer-guitarist Adam Stephens sang, in a voice like a deep gash that never fully heals, "You could set me free/ You could ease my load." The weight of personal responsibility and the lingering after-effects of our choices float heavily in the Gallants' songs, and the sad, ringing guitars and tough rock drums of Tyson Vogel produce a combination that's stirring, even unsettling at times. The term "folk rock" is bandied about a lot, but Two Gallants offered us a fine example of the sub-genre's best traits on Saturday, the drifter ruminations of Woody Guthrie and lesser known minstrels beefed up by pounding floor toms and prickly electricity. With each turn, Two Gallants matures, refining their vision in ways that make what was already vibrant resonate even deeper. (DC)

Primus - 6:40-7:50 - Twin Peaks Stage

Darting to the other side of the grounds to check out Primus, I found Claypool had gathered a huge crowd at the Twin Peaks Stage. The mass of people certainly wasn't surprising considering the rare nature (only four shows in the last two years) of a Primus gig, especially in Claypool's home stomping grounds, but the intensity of the fans - while the sun was still in the sky mind you - was still a pleasant surprise. Watching guitarist Larry LaLonde and drummer Tim Alexander work with Claypool it was clear why the jam band crowd has flocked to Les (albeit many through his post-Primus work). These guys are incredible musicians, technically proficient but daring and into long-ass weirdo jams. As Claypool's nasally, out-there vocals bounced next to his heavily-manipulated bass tones, it was a particularly bizarre, ten-minute "Harold Of the Rocks" featuring an inspired, Hendrix-esque guitar workout from LaLonde, the always enjoyable "Frizzle Fry" and a dark "My Name Is Mud" that fueled the crowd, inciting mosh pits up front during Primus' last show until who knows when. (Kayce)

Cake - 6:50-7:50 - Sutro Stage

Cake by Dave Vann
Powered by some ancient radiation and nigh possessed with delivering a fine time, Cake showed themselves to be festival gold. Grooving to a rhythm that makes one think of Keith Moon drumming on top of a unicycle, they drank in their very warm reception and reflected that heat back to a crowd that knew most of the words to every song. That's not too surprising given how much of this material they've been playing for years, and it may be time to write a new batch just to keep from becoming a nostalgia act. But, that said, they made every selection count and have honed their audience manipulation skills to Flaming Lips levels. That their version of "pop" is smart and quirky yet has made inroads on the airwaves is a testament to their innate catchiness, and it's nice to see a band so aware of how lucky they are. "Greetings, we are Cake, and we're here to serve you, not the other way around. We're so glad to be here," said leader-singer-gonzo conductor John McCrea, who celebrated getting Cake's first album, Motorcade of Generosity (1994) out of the "steely claws" of their old record label by playing swinging indie oldie "Rock 'n' Roll Lifesytle." McCrea led us in multiple sing-alongs, enthusing, "Beautiful voices getting louder and more powerful. Beautiful guitars. Ahh..." Obviously in love with his own thang, it's easy to join him when the music is this baldly enjoyable, this eager to please, this flecked with craziness and righteous cynicism. And no set could be bad that includes a rollicking jog through "Sheep Go To Heaven," which provided a potential festival motto; "As soon as you're born you start dying/ So you might as well have a good time." Cheers to that! (DC)

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - 7:55-9:55 - Lands End Stage

Tom Petty with Steve Winwood by Heather Barlin
Closing down the second day of the festival, Tom Petty's set was a much different scene than the madness for Radiohead. Considerably smaller in numbers, older, packing more weed and less of the hard stuff, this group was relaxed. But, Petty's fans were still passionate and the legend delivered the goods like he always does. Track after track was a golden radio hit, reminding everyone what a powerful tunesmith Petty is. "You Wreck Me," "Free Falling," "Refugee," the brilliant "Last Dance with Mary Jane" and even the old Traveling Wilburys tune "End of the Line" were all performed in triumphant sing-along fashion. Unfortunately, the sound was still cutting out, and even forced an impromptu five-minute set break by Petty. But the class act that he is, Petty returned with "one of our favorite musicians in the world," namely Steve Winwood. Having already played his own impressive set on the same stage a few hours earlier, Winwood was loose the moment he stepped up with guitar in hand for a very nice reading of "Can't Find My Way Home." Following the expressive Blind Faith staple, Winwood jumped behind the keys for his Spencer Davis Group hit, "Gimme Some Lovin'." Both tracks were exceptional and featured extended jams by almost every band member. It was a nice touch to see Winwood go from guitar to piano but still maintain the same high-level interaction with Petty and the Heartbreakers, weaving in, out and above the fold with grace and confidence. Watching two of rock's most royal elder statesmen square off and trade licks, staring with wide smiles and big eyes at each other, it was one of those special moments you try to lock in your memory. (Kayce)

Tom Petty - Outside Lands by Susan J. Weiand
Continue reading for Sunday coverage of Outside Lands...

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