Monday, August 31, 2009

Outside Lands recap

Recapping a solid three days of live music without just running over the itinerary isn't easy, so I thought I'd just string together some snippets and anecdotes from throughout the festival - in no particular order and without even attempting to cover it all. A three-day music festival is hectic and exhausting no matter how you approach it, so I try to pare down the wish list, not rush from stage to stage to stage to see every single band I'm interested in, and let the festing vibe guide whatever other decisions need to be made along the way. Without further ado, I present Outside Lands 2009:

• Freaktown and I had an ongoing discussion throughout the festival about who might be the best guitarist there, an interesting question because of how many different musical styles were represented across the stages. We started the debate Friday afternoon while watching Built to Spill, and wondering how Doug Martsch would stack up against all other Outside Lands guitarists. We certainly didn't see everybody during the festival, but we settled on a three-way tie of Martsch, Mike McCready and Tom Morello.

• First impressions. I had a fantastic streak Friday of being impressed beyond expectations by some of the bands I know only partially, passingly or not at all. I'd only heard one album apiece by Built to Spill, Silversun Pickups and the National, and they all kicked ass. In their own ways, each band has a great big, authoritative sound, perfect for a festival setting. I'll definitely be listening to each band a great deal more in the near future.

• The San Francisco crowd is absolutely one you won't find anywhere else. While the vast majority of the crowd was well within the spectrum that ranges from normal folks to edgy hipsters, there were easily thousands of people who'd be called a freak most anywhere else on Earth. A distinct portion of the crowd seemed to be treating Outside Lands as a warm-up for Burning Man. There was a circus tent, but it wasn't always easy to identify who had just come from a performance or was just expressing themselves for the day. If there's a better city to people watch, please let me know.

• Over/Under. I know it's just the nature of who gets booked on the main stage vs. who gets booked on the side stages, and that my tastes certainly aren't the norm, but the crowd size from act to act seemed to have no relation to my general understanding of how popular a particular band is. For just one example, I thought The Avett Brothers, who put on a tremendous set that's only making me more excited to hear the upcoming I And Love And You, would've been playing before a much larger crowd. And while they were excellent as well, I thought the odd-couple-supergroup Street Sweeper Social Club (Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine and Boots Riley of The Coup) wouldn't have found nearly so many fans.

Photo by Jay Blakesberg

• It was a close call, but the more I thought about it the surer I got that Pearl Jam put on the festival's best set. I hadn't seen the band since 1998, and haven't paid more than just a tiny bit of attention to the band's last three albums, but Pearl Jam has clearly spent the last decade progressing as a live band. Their set was dynamite - 26 songs, representing just about every phase of the band's career, and a shredding version of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" to close out the night. By opening with "Why Go" and "Animal," Pearl Jam set the tone for a celebratory, back-catalog rich set. I sang along plenty, and "The Fixer" fit in so well with the older tunes that my anticipation for their new record multiplied by about 1,000. "Elderly Woman...," "In My Tree," "Given to Fly," "Corduroy," "Black" ... I think they played every favorite of mine but "Yellow Ledbetter."

• One-off collaborations I missed: Q-Tip bringing Pfife onstage at the end of his set; Jenny Lewis joining Conor Oberst for Rilo Kiley's "Portions for Foxes;" and pedal steel virtuose Robert Randolph joining Dave Matthews Band for "Stairway to Heaven." Where the hell was I?

• Best moment of the festival: Sitting cross-legged on the slope Sunday - the day our crew was the biggest - tired and reflecting on the whole weekend while Band of Horses played "No One's Gonna Love You" and "The Funeral" back to back. Having seen them three times already, I had Band of Horses a bit lower on the priority list, but damn I'm glad we caught most of the set anyway. Toss in a glorious cover of Gram Parsons' "A Song For You" and I think Band of Horses ran away with Sunday's best set.

• We had our best luck in terms of getting excellent positions for bands on the Sutro Stage. My experiences for The National, Tom Jones, Dengue Fever, Os Mutantes, The Avett Brothers and Band of Horses were all enhanced by having an excellent spot. We were even closer to the Presidio Stage for Blind Pilot and Calexico, but only caught short bits of those sets (I'll be catching Blind Pilot in a tiny club within a couple months and having seen Calexico numerous times already, I opted for Modest Mouse in that time slot).

• Plenty of strange things happened. A squirrel attacked Freaktown. I thought a friend of ours found us out of the blue, but it turned out to be just a very good impersonator. The weather was vastly different day to day, turning "cold and hellicoptery" at one point. A pixie drafted us for the walk down into the Polo Grounds - all of a sudden she was at our side, almost like a walking hitchhiker, in full conversation mode - and disappeared just as suddenly.

• The food was excellent. I already forget where they're from, but the tater tots at Outside Lands were the best I've ever had. And probably the best potato food I've ever had. Maybe even the best food I've ever had. Amazing.

• Band coverage: Unless you approach the festival like the professional photographers do - making a constant circuit of every stage, catching three songs before moving on again - you're going to miss at least two thirds of all the bands at a festival. There's no way around that. Use whatever criteria feels natural, but don't second guess your choices. I wrote off the Twin Peaks stage almost entirely, in the process missing out on Ween, the Dead Weather, Atmosphere, Q-Tip and the Mars Volta. But I didn't miss out on any band I really, really wanted to see. And that's how you succeed in a festival.

• The Outside Lands iPhone App was a groundbreaking and exceedingly useful bit of technology. I didn't look at a paper schedule once during three days. The app has a full map and schedule, complete with band bios and outgoing links to listen to the bands or buy music at the iTunes store. And the app let you set up your own schedule, adding and subtracting bands along the way, as well as plugged in the twitter feed from Outside Lands mascot "Ranger Dave." I think that every festival will copy this app for next year, but Outside Lands did it first, and they pretty much perfected it on the first try.

• The aforementioned Ranger Dave can't keep his commitments. I spent about an hour Wednesday trying to track down this mysterious mascot. Offering free tickets for hugs, Ranger Dave tweeted his location at the Golden Gate Park music concourse. I was there within 27 minutes, but there was no Ranger Dave. What an asswipe.

Well, that's certainly enough for now. A bit of rest, then it's time for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. It's held in the same place, but can't be any more different.

Pearl Jam - The Fixer (YouTube)
Band of Horses - No One's Gonna Love You
Avett Brothers - Laundry Room (YouTube)
TV on the Radio - Golden Age (YouTube)

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