An on-the-ground report from NorCal’s biggest concert of the summer.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
One rather happy woman pulled down her friend’s top and proceeded to explore her pal’s areola for a photo. A strange man wearing batting gloves and a big look of concern– and carrying a small cigarette on his lip and a tiny guitar in his arms– pleaded for help extricating himself from his guitar strap. One couple gaily bobbed between shows with big grins, him with a pink feather boa (and a surprisingly filled bikini top) on his chest, her with nothing more than marijuana-leaf stickers on hers.
These moments offered evidence that on at least one wavelength– the elusive “funky freak-out factor”– last weekend’s Outside Lands met the requirements to qualify as a major music festival. Fortunately for concertgoers, there were ample additional indicators that the show lived up to its hype as the biggest music experience in Northern California all summer– while some logistical wrinkles added both texture and stress.
Arguably the most important category on audiophile scorecards: The sort of sets that galvanize an audience together in one place and time forever. Check that box– as in “I was there for Radiohead’s show at Golden Gate.” The supremely anticipated appearance Friday night– made historic by virtue of it being the first after-dark set ever at the expansive grounds– wowed a crowd the size of Seaside and Monterey combined. As that crowd pushed forward in impossible-to-budge bunches that formed as far as a quarter mile from the stage (average number of people touching you at any given moment: seven) Radiohead performed flawlessly on new numbers like the majestic “Nude,” while older tracks like the slow-building “Exit Music (For a Film)” featured slightly different arrangements. During the latter, Thom Yorke did most of the song solo on acoustic guitar before the band joined him for a final blast of sound.
The stage design was itself a mesmerizing work of art, with beams of blue and pink light transforming stalactite-like strands hanging from the ceiling into Arctic icicles and streaks that resembled falling stars. On each side of the platform, huge screens streamed split-screen close-ups of the bandmembers performing from unconventional angles, all in sync with song flow.
RADIOHEAD WOWED A CROWD THE SIZE OF SEASIDE AND MONTEREY COMBINED.
But the Radiohead set also included one of the festival’s biggest gaffes, which added additional surreality to an already drug-friendly atmosphere. During the pinnacles of both “Airbag” and “All I Need,” the band’s sound suddenly disappeared, leaving a bewildered crowd. The first time, Yorke joked that maybe someone had accidentally dropped a beer in a plug of the group’s massive sound system. Come the second sound burp, Radiohead’s frontman wasn’t feeling so freewheeling, commenting that he didn’t know what the hell was going on.
The three-day show also scored with other key elements: namely, diversity, discoveries and seemingly spontaneous collaborations savvy fans come to expect when this many groups find their way to the same festival (while it wasn’t a Bonaroo-ish 157, some 65 groups did appear).
On the diversity front, before Radiohead sniffed the stage, Spain’s Manu Chao defied any genre definition in leaping and arm-pumping his way through a set that flowed through four languages. The DynamiTes channeled James Brown-quality funk and the Black Keys revisited the juke joint blues-rock sludge that has made them one of the most respected blues-rock revivalists out there today. By the time Jack Johnson closed the show Sunday, everyone from Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco (“Where all my ladies at?”) to eclectic metal group Primus (“We’re dusting off some songs”) took to one of six stages.
And while still-young Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals underwhelmed, Tom Petty delivered mightily while audience members wondered if he was 69 years old (he’s 57).
Revelatory sightings included psych-metal band Black Mountain, super-aggressive art-rock group Liars, and the rollicking rock duo Two Gallants from S.F.
On the collaborative cusp, Steve Winwood joined Petty to perform Winwood songs like Traffic’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” and the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’,” and New Orleans funk band Galactic interwove abilities with Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Cyril Neville.
Meeting a critical criteria for successful contemporary festivals, a whiff of revolution was in the air– strong enough to overpower the full-bodied bouquets coming from the Wine Haven and the aromas from the oyster bar. Manu Chao was his usual international-social-justice-rallying self on Friday. After a stirring Saturday set that closed with the refrain, “Laugh, love, smoke and drink liquor/ that’s how to help the revolution come quicker,” the Coup’s Boots Riley announced: “If you really want change, it’s more than a vote– you could vote me in and it wouldn’t change anything. You gotta make a change. You gotta force your leaders to make a change.”
Donavon Frankenreiter shared his own ideals on the same stage later that day: “I like trees… but not because I’m a f*****g hippie. As humans get old and wither, they start to appreciate how tall trees can get– and how small humans can get.”
A different bit of revolution broke out in a bottleneck between the expansive Polo Grounds and the relatively small Sutro Stage where Beck was playing his set on Friday. When the passage wasn’t wide enough to channel the sea of fans moving back and forth, some fans simply turned around; others, however, decided to pull down sections of the fence around the stage to take on an obstacle course’s worth of challenges– from sliding down a steep sandy incline to hopping over picnic tables. One unlucky Beck fan aroused a swarm of bees and sustained seven stings.
While this snafu didn’t unravel into catastrophe– see Woodstock 1999 and the 1969 Altamont Speedway Free Festival– the show wasn’t without other nagging missteps. Lines to get wristbands to drink topped 225 people on Friday; buying beer and soju cocktails required another queue altogether. And just getting to the ID line to get a wristband to wait in line for a $7 beer was a Herculean undertaking– those not lucky enough to live next to the park faced a wealth of full trains and a vacuum of available cabs to get across town.
Of course, some might argue that’s it’s not a proper music-experience-en-masse without that sort of large-scale struggle. They might be right.
There’s less debate over the veracity of promoter Greg Perloff’s reaction to the turnout, which eclipsed 130,000 over three days. As the San Francisco Chronicle put it, he was “absolutely ecstatic.” Same could be said for the girl licking her best pal’s chest.