Photos by Emily Malan unless otherwise noted
Golden Gate Park – San Francisco, CA
Live Review: 8/10/12 to 8/12/12
Occasionally, the music at Outside Lands becomes secondary to other activities and entertainments. This is San Francisco, after all, where drug use and eccentric behavior are par for the course. Sometimes the experience can be ruined by other people, but more often than not, it’s always other people that make the experience. I remembered this only in the last couple of hours of the festival. No amount of second-hand smoke, bullish behavior, and cold weather could ruin what was to be a moving, redemptive final-day set by Stevie Wonder. What follows is a log of the often incomplete, sometimes unsatisfying, and always worthwhile experience of a summer music festival.
Day 1, August 10
1:45 pm – Arrival at box office. The line for media and sponsors is more than twice as long as the one for ticket-holders. Photographer Emily and I start to wonder whether the festival’s media relations gave out passes to just about anyone with a music blog. Later, a few people around us announce themselves as employees of Esurance, one of the sponsors of the event. Is this going to be like the Olympics, where members of corporate sponsors received more tickets than were made available to the public? From behind the fencing, we hear Tanlines playing “Real Life.”
2:20 pm – Finally walking on festival grounds and feeling a little disoriented, like I’ve just entered an amusement park and need to get my bearings. The aesthetic of Outside Lands might be described as old-timey carnival or theme park. There are areas sectioned off as “Beer Lands, “Wine Lands,” and “Choco Lands,” where you can imbibe fancy desserts and the region’s best pale ales and Pinots.
I feel like I’m in a video game where all of my whims and cravings can be satisfied by kiosks conveniently strewn across a small village. The Outsidelands iPhone app tracks my location by GPS, making this a less harrowing affair for the directionally impaired like me. It also provides real-time updates for schedule changes.
3:20 pm – Astonished by how much time has passed while exploring food options. A mobile pizzeria bakes made-to-order Neapolitan-style pizzas from what looks like an actual brick oven fitted into the back of a truck. There’s also bánh mì, pulled pork, fried green tomatoes, and fried chicken & waffles. For slow food acolytes, seasonal and locally grown fruit. Ended up settling for a buttery grilled cheese sandwich at the American Grilled Cheese truck.
4:15 pm – The Walkmen are rescheduled and performing late. Caught a little bit of the title track from their latest album Heaven before trekking out to the Land’s End stage for Beck.
4:30 pm – Beck sporting his fedora and sunglasses look. He runs through a selection of songs from Odelay, Guero, and Modern Guilt, among others. Beck hasn’t aged a bit both musically and physically, which in contrast makes me think of Neil Young and of how old he must be, which is admittedly a trite observation given his reputation.
Photo by Abe Ahn
6:15 pm – Brooklyn’s Antibalas play to a smaller crowd at the Panhandle stage in Hellman’s Hollow (toward east end of festival). The entire ensemble of musicians are absolute pros. One of the frontmen remark on how their music is fit for warmer climates, but during their set, I forget for a moment that the weather is frigid and the sky is a foggy, dull grey. For the duration of the set, I’m transported to summer in 1970s Lagos. Off their latest self-titled, they perform “Dirty Money,” a rousing indictment of contemporary society expressed in just so many words.
7:10 pm – Andrew Bird’s violin playing and intricate looping lend themselves to the acoustics of an old theatre like the Orpheum in LA, where I saw him perform a few years ago. Still, near the amphitheater-like terrain of Lindley Meadows, he performed all of his songs with aplomb. He even took a break from his harmonic whistling to perform bits from an “old-timey” songbook, which he described as potentially “heavy-handed” but thought would work well for the festival setting.
8:20 pm – Emily and I wait in line to get coffee to stay up for Neil Young, but in San Francisco, coffee isn’t something that pours prodigiously from a spigot. It’s brewed and served individually, so that everyone who pays $5 for coffee gets the perfect cup. The guy in front of us describes it as the most pretentious way to make coffee, but it wouldn’t be San Francisco if everything wasn’t somehow artisanal or bespoke. Tired of waiting, we grab some beer instead, which turns out to be a mistake because it only makes us even more lethargic for the headliner.
More than one older person has told me that I absolutely needed to see and listen to Neil Young perform. My earlier thoughts about his age is later only made worse by how so very old he actually looks, but that’s beside the point of his supposed greatness. With arthritic feet and waning energy, I decide to postpone my appreciation for Neil Young to a later time (and to the relative comfort and timelessness of his recordings).
Day 2, August 11
12:30 pm – Zola Jesus looks remarkably like actress Laura Dern, who played Dr. Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park. This absolutely banal observation should not in any way reflect on Zola Jesus, who has a great voice and stage presence. It only reveals that my mind occasionally drifts off into the silly and moronic. The fact that this is my only takeaway from the set only works to document my failures as a music journalist.
1:10 pm – Catching two brief comedy sets from the Nerdist Stand-Up Cluster at The Barbary, which from outside resembles a vaudeville tent. Local comic Caitlin Gill bares her thoughts on being unmarried in her thirties, with an extended monologue on the “gory” menstrual cycle of single womanhood. Next, another local comic Jesse Elias gets on stage in character, the awkward geek who avoids eye contact at all cost. He recounts a disturbing experience listening to an entire opera while on acid. His delivery may be a bit contrived, but his jokes can hit the right amount of funny, sad, and true: “When you see a homeless person living in a cardboard box, it probably means there’s an appliance somewhere living in a home.”
1:45 pm – Nopales tacos at El Huarache Loco, one of the local booths. Authentic Mexico City-style food from San Francisco. I’m not convinced the Bay Area has Mexican food comparable to the kind made 300 miles south, but these tacos are pretty good.
1:50 pm – One of the members of Tame Impala is wearing a KISS shirt, which makes sense not for the band’s sound, which is more sixties and psychedelic, but for the way the guitarists hold and play their instruments, like an empowered phallus. The testosterone expressed on stage is a little surprising given my impression of these Aussies as a band of effete hippies. Also, the lead singer sounds a lot less like John Lennon than he does in their recordings.
4:15 pm – Thought we could head over to see Alabama Shakes a couple of songs into their set. Big mistake. It looks like this band is set to fill stadiums. The meadows surrounding the Sutro stage are packed beyond measure. We are so far back that I can only hear very faintly a line or two from “On Your Way,” and even from where we’re standing, we’re shoulder-to-shoulder with other people.
4:30 pm – I saw Michael Kiwanuka’s CD at a Starbucks a few weeks ago and was cautiously optimistic. All the hyperbole I read of him about his sounding like Otis Redding and Bill Withers made me dubious, but I remained interested as long as he was more than just a handsomely packaged singer-songwriter for the easy-listening, coffee-house crowd. His performance doesn’t move me like his supposed musical progenitors do, but I’m willing to give him another try at a smaller, more intimate venue.
5:05 pm – Not sure if Grandaddy’s reformation was ever anxiously anticipated, but I can appreciate how they have always remained sonically and thematically close to home, the Bear Flag Republic. Their songs are about the loss of IRL experiences and technological alienation, which are fitting themes to ponder in a city like San Francisco, where millions of lives are mediated through iPhones, iPads, and other gadgets everyday. They play “A.M. 180″ from Under the Western Freeway, which always reminds me of the supermarket scene in 28 Days Later, one of my all-time favorite movie moments.
5:30 pm – Josh Tillman performs a solo acoustic set at the Free Yr Radio tent under his latest project, Father John Misty. Tillman is a bit taciturn in front of the KZSU radio DJ who drills him with a series of trite, obligatory questions. DJ: “What made you relocate to Los Angeles?” JT: “I wanted to be banal, superficial, materialistic, and vain.” DJ: “What was your writing process like?” JT: “Lots of pacing around and smoking cigarettes.” As an affront to corporate sponsor Toyota, which is promoting its hybrid cars and likely paying for his acoustic set, Tillman remarks on how it requires more fossil fuels to produce the tires for a hybrid vehicle than it does for a gas-powered one. He is also wearing a “Legalize LSD” shirt, which is probably more “edgy” cachet than Toyota was bargaining for.
The audience laughs, and the KZSU DJ, who is just a college student, lets out a nervous laugh as she looks toward her supervisor. The whole scene is absurd and silly, with a crowd of attendees hammering away at a jewelry-making station as Tillman sings about things that trouble his mind and soul. The Toyota tent may not have been the right setting for Tillman’s talking blues, but I enjoyed it immensely, awkward interview and all.
7:50 pm – Not sure if it’s the brutal crowds and cold winds getting to me, but I’m not enjoying Dr. Dog, who bore me in my irascible state. They also look like they’re really going for the early-aughts, blue-collar hipster look with their trucker hats and flannel.
8:30 pm – Sigur Ros’ set is at the opposite end of the festival from Metallica, whom I’ve chosen to ignore. The crowd thickens as it pushes and shoves its way to the front. The air is misty and cool, with a beautiful vista of Monterey pine and cypress trees surrounding the stage. Three projection screens face the left, right, and center of the band, so audience members standing from all directions can watch the gorgeous visuals accompanying their music. Although my surroundings are claustrophobic, I have a great view between two shoulders framing the stage, without a tall person in sight.
The night feels auspicious so far, but like the saying goes, hell is other people. As Sigur Ros begin to play, a gaggle of bros chatter away behind me. They don’t stop talking until a girl standing next to me turns around and reproaches them, whereupon the bros start calling the band “weak shit” as their cretinous, mouth-breathing faces mercifully leave the premises. For a solid 20 minutes, I watch and hear a stirring, epic performance of otherworldly post-rock before my line of sight is disturbed by the vacant, slithering face of a girl tripping out on mollies.
Every time I adjust my view, the girl shifts her slobbering face against her boyfriend’s shoulder, which she affectionately caresses like it was his throbbing, fulsome dick. Even the boyfriend seems slightly annoyed as he is trying his best to ignore her fuck-me advances and watch the goddamn show. My patience is exhausted, misanthropy triggered. I turn around and head to the exit, my memory of Sigur Ros sullied by the ugliness and cacophony of other people.
Day 3, August 12
12:00 pm – Back at The Barbary for a full set of comedy. Pete Holmes is recording a live show of his You Made It Weird podcast. I am only tangentially familiar with Holmes, since his podcast belongs to a network of other comedy podcasts I listen to and enjoy. My impression of him is that he talks over his guests and is emotionally needy. This early impression is only confirmed in the ensuing hour as he manages to derail his own show and subject the audience to an unpleasant hour of social faux pas and desperate reconciliation.
Holmes invites on to the stage his first guest, Eric Andre. The two of them together are full of high-speed energy and endless riffs on Andre’s father’s Haitian accent, violence/homophobia in Jamaica, and Morgan Freeman. They seem to be close friends and are actually pretty funny together. The next guest is Jackie Kashian, host of the comedy/pop culture podcast The Dork Forest. Holmes is unable to elicit much fruitful comedy or discussion with Kashian, who is drowned out by the anxious energy of Eric Andre and might have been better served by a host like Chris Hardwick of The Nerdist podcast.
The show then takes a sharp turn from average to unforgettable when Holmes brings on comedian/TV writer Jon Glaser and proceeds to offend him by bringing up a lucrative voice-acting gig which Holmes beat out Glaser to earn. Despite assurances that he isn’t envious or bitter, Glaser is irked that Holmes would bring up the gig, which apparently seems to be the only point of reference the two men share. Following this moment is the audience’s “Is he mad or is he faking it?” apprehension and Holmes’ ingratiating attempts to bridge things with Glaser.
The final guest, comedian/actor Brett Gelman, is supposedly a friend of Holmes, but his time on stage is repeatedly interrupted by attention-seeking non-sequiturs from Eric Andre, who, like part of a tag team duo of annoying comics, manages to irritate Gelman, who was in the middle of sharing an honest account of his lifelong OCD. In the end, Holmes and his guests patch things up in the jokey way that comics do, but leaving the tent, I feel a nervous ball of awkwardness and tension in my chest, like I’ve caught some awful, syphilitic emotional bug. The entire hour was funny, sure, but funny in the sense that I needed to laugh in order to expel and undo the knot of weird feelings brought on by Pete Holmes.
1:30 pm – fun. plays at the Land’s End stage. They are full of sing-along anthems and earnest power pop that reminds me of being a teenager in the suburbs.
2:50 pm – Brooklyn band Caveman get on stage as I meet up with my friend Z near the haystacks set up in Hellman Hollow. I drink a couple of beers and feel instant relief from the lingering anxiety of Pete Holmes’ show. Caveman might the next big thing, according to Z. Not sure about their music yet, but they’ve certainly got a look.
3:35 pm – Amadou & Mariam have come far since their breakout hit of 2008, “Sabali.” Great to see people embracing their songs, which, 10 years ago, might’ve been confined to the ghetto of “world music.” The couple are from Mali, which is currently besieged by civil war. They play to a packed audience at the Twin Peaks stage where Sigur Ros played the night before.
5:10 pm – Santigold has always felt to me like an effective mimic of other pop stars. Whether it’s the “third-world” bass sounds of M.I.A. or the sartorial sense of Janelle Monáe, there’s always something that feels a little borrowed in Santigold’s act. Nevertheless, she can dance, sing, and play on a big stage as much as any of her contemporaries, and most importantly, she has her own particular swagger and showmanship.
6:15 pm – I arrive near the Land’s End stage for the final few minutes of Jack White, who works the guitar like a machinist. The rhythmic and musical constraints which made the White Stripes sound like they did aren’t much present in this set, where White’s love for country and blues and his time spent in Memphis are readily apparent. He does, however, offer his fans a service by playing “Seven Nation Army,” after which the crowd goes crazy. I always pictured White as arrogant and aloof, but on stage, he looks grateful to both his band and his fans. After he ends his set and thanks the audience, he announces incredulously, “Up next… Stevie Wonder?!”
7:20 pm – So arrives the point of the festival that I had eagerly anticipated and flew out to see. Emily and some friends and I find a spot reasonably close to the stage, surrounded by friendly people who are nothing but affable, polite, and generous with their drinks and smokes. At the opposite side of the festival, people are about to get their ears popped by the nocturnal bass of Skrillex, which for me sounds as appealing as having a vasectomy on my ears.
On stage, three keyboards and a Baldwin piano portend the evening’s headliner, whose songs I grew up on through high school, where I had a choir teacher who had his students sing “Love’s in Need of Love Today” and instilled in me a deep appreciation for the blind tenor from Detroit. As soon as the man himself walks on stage and a zigzagging bass line gets the crowd dancing, I don’t care to dwell on or remember my misanthropic feelings from the night before. The man is love incarnate, his voice a salve for whatever hurt inflicted.
Interspersed with tributes to Michael Jackson (“The Way You Make Me Feel”) and John Lennon (“Imagine”), Stevie Wonder plays through much of his classics, including “Superstition” and “Isn’t She Lovely?” During one song about the beauty of child-rearing, he spurs on the men in the audience, “Fellas, I don’t hear you singing. Don’t be afraid to sing it,” after which he expresses his love for his seven children and their mothers (including his recently divorced spouse Kai Millard, with whom he has joint custody of two children).
When telling the audience “I love you,” Stevie Wonder sounds as sincere and kind as I have always imagined him to be through his music. He’s Cousin Steve, as he wants the audience to call him—for most of this audience, we’ll never be a “brother” or “sister,” but there’s sure as hell no reason we can’t be family.
I have to admit, ultimately, that despite my general misanthropy and surliness, my cold, unfeeling heart was moved by the night’s music, and by the end of the night, I teared up and felt like things could be better in the world. Did you ever think that love would be in need of love today?