Outside Lands Festival 2011: 18 Things Seen & Heard
Now in its fourth year, San Francisco's Outside Lands festival serves the dual purpose of providing vibrant Bay Area city with a response to Indio's white-hot Coachella, and giving the city an annual Golden Gate Park event recalling the bygone Summer of Love days. This weekend's festivities (Aug. 12-14) featured headliners Arcade Fire, Muse and Phish, as well as a variety of local and international acts, and also offered local food, wine and uniquely San Franciscan vistas recalling the city's Haight-Ashbury heyday. Here's a rundown of 18 essential take-aways from San Francisco's boho extravaganza.
1. The Sunday headliner of any weekend festival is usually The Main Event, and Arcade Fire obliged the crowd with a tightly choreographed set in support of "The Suburbs." Opening to clips from, amongst other things, the "Can You Dig It?" scene from cult flick "The Warriors," the band ripped through a set heavily leaning on their most recent, Grammy-winning record. Win Butler, a burly yet nerdy Canadian-by-way-of-Texas-by-way-of-Phillips-Exeter, held the crowd in thrall with a free-flowing set of anthems tracing vague lineage to the Talking Heads and circa 1980s Springsteen.
Video: Arcade Fire, "We Used to Wait"
Video: Win Butler & Mavis Staples Cover The Band's "The Weight"
2. English rockers Muse, Saturday headliners, are nothing if not technically proficient curators. While their original tunes essentially update the mid '90s school of pentatonic crunch with a proggy backbone, the band's best moments come from their kaleidoscopic interstitial jams. Late in the set, Muse suddenly reeled off a perfect rendition of Nirvana's "Negative Creep" to an audience that largely didn't get the reference but still loved the performance. And although it's a huge cliche, politically-minded frontman Matt Bellamy's Hendrix-inspired iteration on "The Star-Spangled Banner" rang with the same pain and cynicism of the past rocker's Woodstock wails.
Video: Muse, "Star-Spangled Banner" Meets "Hysteria" at Outside Lands
3. Big Boi was a notable no-show on Friday. He was on the scene (despite a recent drug arrest in Miami), but his management blamed his non-performance on "technical issues." Comedian Dave Chappelle instead took the stage for a time, tempering an angry mob expecting a performance from the Outkast MC. Chappelle's noble effort was met with mixed success.
4. If Phish fanatics looked like they'd been camping out all night, some actually did: out-of-town youths were spotted in the park Thursday, drawn in by the promise of work-for-tickets deals. Some got their prized Phish ticket; others, travelling cross-country for the opportunity, found themselves out of luck.
Video: Phish, "Life On Mars?"
5. When did The Shins become a Shins cover band? Frontman James Mercer's blunted tenor rang like he was still celebrating New Years 2002, but the band's Friday evening run-through of their former hits seemed especially stilted. While everyone still tremulously awaits a new Shins release, I suspect that the band's past water-cooler cachet, when "Oh, Inverted World" raced through P2P networks and college dorms, might lie behind them.
Video: The Shins, "Sleeping Lessons"
6. While the Decemberists' music doesn't exactly encourage moshing culture, some fans were moved to engage in on-the-shoulders roughhousing during the band's jangly set. The camel fights that ensued were captured by the organizers' cameras and played out on the main stage's Jumbotrons, providing the ad-hoc pugilists each with their own fifteen seconds of fame.
7. Festival organizers smartly utilize terrain at the festival, with obvious sonic benefits: hills, stages situated in gullies, and the park's famous windswept trees dampen any rogue sound that threatens to bleed between competing performances. Linearly arrayed, the four stage locations sometimes force fans to wade upstream against, for example, Phish runoff on their way to check out Best Coast. However, the weekend's foot traffic mostly flowed smoothly throughout the weekend.
8. The best performance of Friday belonged to Mick Jones' Big Audio Dynamite. It's surprising, as the former Clash guitarist's act has never put on a particularly laudatory live show. At this, the last of their reunion dates fourteen years after the band's first break-up, Jones marshaled band through a spirited set of classics, including "E=MC^2" and onetime chart-topper "Rush."
Video: Big Audio Dynamite, "E=MC2"
9. Pittsburgh's Girl Talk pretty much caught all the stragglers from Muse's oppressively heavy set. Gregg Gillis' rat-ta-tat-tat set of pop culture audio samples approximates the modern practice of constantly retweeting relevant snippets of broadcasted culture into a tightly wound, rolling Greatest Hits show. You've got to wonder what goes on in his head: "Wanna listen to 'Living on a Prayer'… with a dance beat?! Okay, howsabout Kelly Clarkson's 'Since U Been Gone'?"
10. A variety of local eateries hawked their wares throughout the weekend. The culinary belle of the ball? Definitely Namu's Korean taco, a concoction of short ribs or chicken thighs and special sauce wrapped in a seaweed "tortilla." In a Saturday interview, Namu chef Dennis Lee called the dish a "f*ck you" to the run-of-the-mill taco culture currently dominating American late-night dining.
11. Local acts like Sonny & the Sunsets and the Fresh & Onlys showcased San Francisco's newest batch of throwback garage rock revivalism. The bands' lackadaisical sets produced a welcome respite for fans' tired legs (most sat for the Sunsets' set). The shows also cast main-stagers the Black Keys, with their harder-edged and bluesier performance, as comparatively stilted and put-on.
12. The Barbary tent played host to a variety of sideshow acts during the weekend, and the selected performers perfectly recalled the hole-in-the-wall clubs of the seedy early 20th century San Francisco district for which the tent was named. In addition to stand-up-comedy -- including two outstanding sets by Paul F. Tompkins -- magicians, carnival performers and variety acts also performed, with comedian Gallagher headlining the tent opposite Arcade Fire on Sunday.
13. While orchestrating a sing-along to close their set, OK Go jokingly criticized its audience, remarking, "This went so much better in Portland!" This struck a chord with the crowd, as it's obvious the cool kids in SF compare their cachet to that of the Oregonian city that many believe is currently the coolest in the nation. OK Go frontman Damian Kulash further stoked the fires by comparing SF crowds to Los Angelinos, which even the most geographically apathetic of San Franciscans generally bristle at.
Video: OK Go, "Get Over It"
14. Dear world: Please feel sorry for west San Francisco. The twinned Richmond and Sunset districts -- 10-odd square miles of Henry Doelger homes and brilliant, undiscovered ethnic cuisine -- that flank Golden Gate Park annually get their infrastructure rocked by Outside Lands, with buses and Muni trains clogged for hours, parking nonexistent, and clueless festival-goers wandering the avenues post-show every night.
15. Outside Lands treated festival-goers to a survey of sustainable living with the Eco Lands section, offering a farmer's market with fresh produce, the solar-powered Panhandle stage, a "Prius Playground," and compostable food and beverage containers throughout the show. Environmentally conscious fans had a blast generating electricity on the carbon-neutral teeter-totter, while event staff walked around serving up organic treats like yellow watermelon.
16. The Wine Lands section featured a variety of oenological delights this weekend, highlighting local labels from the nearby wine regions like Napa and Sonoma counties. The prices didn't favor the customer -- $1 for a tasting glass, $2 for a sample, $8 for a full pour -- but obliging customers mobbed the tent throughout the weekend.
17. Cognitive dissonance, thy name is "My Sharona" emanating from an Intel-branded DJ tent while Phish covers the Velvet Underground on the neighboring Land's End stage.
18. Although he works on a laptop and MIDI keyboard, beat-head Eskmo (real name: Brendan Angelides) is known to insert analog chaos into his set: the San Franciscan is known to sing over his beats (albeit with a great deal of vocal effects), ands "We Got More" featured Angelides banging on a frying pan in time with his languid beats and squelchy synthesizers. San Francisco's answer to L.A.'s Low End Theory scene (which includes Flying Lotus and the Gaslamp Killer), Angelides played tracks from his self-titled 2010 Ninja Tune debut and treated curious festival-goers to an unexpected delight of a performance.