Outside Lands | 08.14-08.15 | SF

Words by: Dennis Cook & Eric Podolsky | Susan J Weiand & Josh Miller

Outside Lands :: 08.14.10-08.15.10 :: Golden Gate Park :: San Francisco, CA

Furthur's John Kadlecik by Weiand
As the expression goes, third time's the charm. Outside Lands, the biggest Bay Area summer festival, had things dialed in for year three. By trimming two stages, moving the main entrance and generally reorganizing the geography into a long, straight line between stages and tents, OL '10 was more pleasant, less hectic and generally refined. Subtle changes throughout, including a better-informed staff and a never-ending dance tent, made for a fairly effortless, enjoyable atmosphere. With extensive wine offerings, Korean tacos and perhaps the finest coffee on earth, the Lands once again played to San Fran's unique sensibilities, which were also reflected in a lineup that tapped local royalty (Furthur), genre defying oddities (Gogol Bordello, Garage A Trois), hipster gold (The Strokes, Phoenix), and rave faves (Pretty Lights, Bassnectar).

Perhaps the best compliment one can give a festival is that it's thoughtfully assembled. An extra dash or three of care clearly went into the third installment of this growing summer fixture. There was less sound overlap between the stages than either previous year, and the programming moved closer to Bonnaroo's science-like knack for putting the right bands in the right order on each stage in a way that plays to a certain sensibility, thus cutting down on nomadic wandering between stages, which is admittedly a real hike inside Golden Gate Park, even with the reduced number of stages. Corporate shilling was still strong but Outside Lands is set up in a way that one can largely ignore it and enjoy the bucolic setting – as long as they've brought plenty of layers and clothing options to contend with SF's ever-changing weather, which offered flashes of sunshine Saturday, plenty of damp and largely moderate temps this year before really brightening up on Sunday.

What seemed like a keeper the first two years is now cemented as a pleasant fixture in one of the most singular (and challenging to master) settings for a music festival. Outside Lands is an ambitious yet easygoing affair, and thus a pretty fine fit for the quirky, outer fringe Bay Area. (Dennis Cook)

Saturday Highlights

1. My Morning Jacket :: 5:00-6:30 PM :: Lands End Stage

MMJ's Jim James by Weiand
With the simple, direct announcement, "Tonight, I want to celebrate with you," Jim James, omnichord in hand, struck up MMJ's unique incantation, a mixture of bare skin intimacy and giant size rock spectacle. It's a combination prone to blow up in lesser hands but MMJ has it sussed to perfection at this point, moving from eyelash flutter hush to sky climbing enormity with such skill and grace it leaves one a bit dizzy. Before "Golden," James talked about playing a forested, disco ball strewn fest in Japan called Field of Heaven and how being in Golden Gate Park felt like Field of Heaven 2 or Revenge of Field of Heaven. The magic of the moment and specialness of place are rarely lost on MMJ, who excel at bringing the immediate world into focus with their highly romantic yet curiously barbed POV. The beauty of our shared time in such lovely surroundings, especially with MMJ providing the soundtrack, was not lost on many. With the best rock rhythm section from the south since Bill Berry put his sticks away, a colossally compelling frontman (often stalking the stage in a little black cape!), GIANT guitar gusto and one of the finest catalogues in the past 20 years, My Morning Jacket seized hold of the park. As James sighed, "I've been waiting for this moment for so long," one felt a delightful shiver. The time between MMJ shows creates a lovely anticipation for the faithful, the next chapter devoutly wished for and appreciated with moist-eyed sincerity. One of the reoccurring themes in this band is it's not only okay but essential to feel whatcha feel, and this performance had no lack of emotion, intensity or unflinching honesty. (DC)

Take 2
This band's perfect blend of epic, crushing rock and Jim James' haunting, otherworldly falsetto never fails to deliver, especially on a big stage. Coming back after a big break from touring, one expected them to debut some new material, but their setlist was mostly identical to the 2008 tour (though they did debut a nifty new one called "Circuital"). No matter, they crushed every tune with reverb-laced majesty. Their huge, dreamy sound fit the gorgeous GG Park setting better than any band of the weekend, making them a perfect transition from afternoon into evening. (Eric Podolsky)

2. Wolfmother :: 6:30-7:20 PM :: Sutro Stage

Hands down, Andrew Stockdale and his band of Aussies stole the show on Saturday with the most consistently hard-rocking set of the day. Wolfmother made the most of their fifty-minute set, barraging the audience with song after song of feedback-laced, grungy, riff-laden rock and roll. Playing directly into the misty ocean breeze that descended on GG Park as the sun set, the band made the most of their short time slot by keeping their energy at a continuous peak of sonic mayhem. Ian Peres' crunchy Entwistle-like bass lines drove the band through their consistently great catalog, which included a short run through The Doors' "Riders of the Storm" and a superbly reckless take on The Who's "Baba O'Reilly." Top Notch. (EP)

Take 2
With the best cover choices of the day, Wolfmother offered an indication that they aren't competing with their contemporaries so much as rock's giants. It's what most young bands are aiming for but rarely boldly state outright like Stockdale and his new-ish four-piece lineup. What particularly impressed (and even surprised to a degree) is how well their originals stand up next to iconic radio staples like "Riders" and "Baba." Stockdale has a bloody great set of furnace hot pipes and a gift for mimicry (Morrison and Daltrey have rarely been aped so well), and the quartet interlocks and slams with unified muscle. At this set, Wolfmother could not be ignored as they grasped and thrust at the large crowd, rock's poking 'n' prodding essence kept vibrantly alive in a really enjoyable way. (DC)

3. Levon Helm Band :: 3:45-4:35 PM :: Twin Peaks Stage

Levon Helms by Weiand
"Thank you for all this loveliness," croaked Levon towards the end of his band's too brief, utterly satisfying set. Without question, what Levon and co. are doing is the closest thing to The Band that most of us that grew up after Winterland was shut down have experienced. The intertwining of American musics is complete and seemingly effortless with this huge band (10 people onstage by my count), and there's a touch more growl and attack than one might expect. Levon is not a young man and his age is sometimes apparent, though not when the wind catches his back and he strums a mandolin or drums in a way that makes the years disappear. With an ace band led by Larry Campbell, Helm is keeping the flame lit for one of the cornerstones of rock 'n' roll as we know it, and it was a gift to be in his company for a short spell. (DC)

Take 2
Even though Levon's voice was shot, his professional Americana band of veterans was a breath of fresh air in the middle of a day comprised of young, up-and-coming bands. His group's sound was defined by its huge four-piece horn section, which gave all those classic Band songs a huge, refreshing sound. Highlights included Levon's take on Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell," and a rousing NOLA two-step "All On A Mardi Gras Day" to close their too-short set. (EP)

4. The Whigs :: 12:00-12:40 PM :: Panhandle Solar Stage

With waves of befuzzed bass, air kicking guitar rattle and crisp, intense drums, The Whigs roared out of the gate, kicking off the day with nothing-held-back energy. They play in an almost archetypal fashion, looking and sounding just like a rock band should. There's scads of testicular fortitude but also numerous lyrics that recall Thom Yorke at his pithy, prickly best ("I don't need to kill anyone to prove I'm real," "Somebody better come and speed up your heart 'cause it's dying"). Swinging from cavernously thick, Sabbath-worthy crush (often with a downhill speed up near the end of tracks that was honestly exhilarating) to hooky pop to the softly psychedelic, The Whigs showed off their considerable chops and a songwriting acumen that thoroughly skunks most peers. Every track from this year's In The Dark was stronger live, and by set's end it was obvious that The Whigs have ALL rock's fundamentals down cold. (DC)

5. Dawes :: 1:25-2:05 PM :: Panhandle Solar Stage

Touring behind one of the strongest debuts in years, this Southern California band is rapidly shaping up to be one of today's finest, most striking bands, melding cherry influences like The Band, 70s California rock (Eagles, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt), and heaping measures of barroom gusto and stadium-eyeing moxie. Vocalist-songwriter-guitarist Taylor Goldsmith and his highly in-tune compatriots exude the crackling vibe of the E Street Band in their early club days. Dawes has the same hungry energy about them and the same ceaseless need to connect with every person in the audience, no matter how big or small. Dawes has the talent, tunes and tenacity to achieve great things, and they were fueled by infectious confidence and road hardened tunes in GG Park. Looking around at the sizeable number of people belting out the "oh, oh, oh's" on "Western Skyline" it was obvious I wasn't the only one really feeling this band and taking their music into their heart. Only expect the number of faithful followers to grow with this band. (DC)

6. Gogol Bordello :: 3:05-4:05 PM :: Lands End Stage

Gogol Fans by Weiand
In many ways, Gogol Bordello's MacGyver's stew of world musics just shouldn't work. Fiddles and electric guitars and accordions and menacing moustaches, oh my! Watching them beneath their standard banner of a hand holding a slingshot ready to launch a red star, it became clear at Outside Lands that it's a rugged, Clash-like undercurrent that stitches this crazy quilt together. They are a People's Band, marching forward towards truth and love and other big, honorable things, and maybe throwing a steel toe into the shins of aggressors and money hoarders along the way. Often yelling, there's actually a fair amount of substance inside their routine, where we're reminded that we've only got today to live and not waste on looking backwards at "good old days" that never were. Gogol is also as entertaining as watching a clown car unload onto a water slide. Their energy and sheer gusto for life is endearing and inspiring, and their music ain't half bad either. (DC)

Honorable Mention: Furthur

Never one to genuflect too deeply at the Grateful Dead altar, even in my 1984-90 peak mania, I'm still not totally convinced by Furthur. At Outside Lands, Bob's singing was better than usual, and the band played with patient insistence, but it still smacked of guys chasing something that's unattainable – i.e. raising the ghost of the Grateful Dead. I know these songs – well – and I know there are two guys from the Dead in their ranks but I can't put my finger on what makes Furthur their own band and that's what's off-putting for me. If one is likewise trying to raise that ghost then this might be the best séance on offer today. I think from my perspective I'll still go with Dark Star Orchestra, but this configuration of Dead veterans, Dead music aficionados and a drummer new to the whole thing are fine musicians all and it's certainly not an unpleasant way to spend one's time, especially if one adores this songbook. (DC)

Continue reading for Sunday Highlights...

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