I love San Francisco. I love Ocean Beach, and I love biking through Golden Gate Park past the eucalyptus and bison, and I love getting closer and closer to tour buses, road barricades and the sound of distant bands warbling in the wind. I love dropping my bike off with the San Francisco Bike Coalition, and I actually kinda love running from stage to stage to see as many bands as I possibly can before riding back to the beach.
It didn’t used to be this way. I hated festivals. Too many bands, not enough time, way too much marketing, and the worst offense of all—no free water. All of these symptoms are present at the Outside Lands festival, and yet what can I say? I love Golden Gate Park, and love is blind.
The Outside Lands festival returned this year to a flurry of neighborhood complaints about noise and fan complaints about lineup, and the first thing we notice is that there’s way fewer fans and way more people shoving handbills in our faces than last year. Other than that, and the near-universally recognized weakness of this year’s headliners, the Outside Lands festival is pretty much the same as last year—with batting cages.
Right before Built to Spill goes on, a girl, about 19, asks me if I’ve ever seen them before. “Yeah, about 12 or 13 times!” I tell her. “I’ve never heard them,” she says, “but my friend told me they’re like Band of Horses. Are they like Band of Horses?”
I admittedly am biased when it comes to Built to Spill, and I feel bad that they’ve been given the unprestigious 2:30pm time slot on a Friday. What’s it like being a hugely influential band, only to have the younger generation care more about your stylistic debtors? The old way of thinking was to raise a bitter ruckus and let as many people as possible know that you haven’t been given your due.
The new way of thinking is that through either Zen or humility, Built to Spill are unfazed at their spot both on the festival schedule and in the tight-jeans handbook. They play “The Plan,” “Else,” “Car,” “You Were Right,” “Big Dipper”—perfect songs that don’t sound old. They play a new song from their upcoming album, with lyrics about Canada and locks on the door, and it sounds just as fresh. Guitarist Jim Roth breaks a string and changes it himself mid-song. Doug Martsch chirps his simple “Thanks.”
Afterwards, a fan is overheard saying, “Dude, Built to Spill and Vicodin… soooo good.”
The Dodos recorded an album recently and said fuck it, let’s just stream it online for everyone to hear. In this day and age, that isn’t shattering news, but in light of Visiter and its huge success, it’s admirably surprising that their record label was cool with essentially giving the anticipated follow-up away for free.
Even more surprising, for me, is that live, the Dodos are imbued with the full-on spirit of thrust. Their records have their mellow moments, but the noise made by just Meric’s acoustic guitar and Logan’s drums on stage is baffling. They have a guy playing vibes. Everyone sings along to “Fools.” Their San Francisco friends are out and about, but no one’s razzing them ‘cause they’re ruling it.
The best thing to do in San Francisco when there’s a lull in the day is to ride down to Amoeba to score some records by Dinah Washington, Jeru the Damaja, Dirty Projectors, Larry Young, Sunn o))). Hit up the liquor store on Stanyan and pound an entire 32 oz. Gatorade on the sidewalk. It’s hot, man. Bad day to wear black jeans.
Q-Tip takes the stage with a full band—guitar, bass, drums, DJ, and a wacky dude with star earrings and dyed red hair who plays Fender Rhodes, saxophone and keytar. I loved Q-Tip’s album from last year, The Renaissance, and he comes out to its lead-off track.
Q-Tip, of course, is commanding the stage; he’s one of the most charismatic hip-hop performers in history. He breathes in rhythm like the Meters, he throws his head back and howls like James Brown, and, in a brief tribute to Michael Jackson, hammers falsetto after falsetto. His band follows his every cue, hitting the floor and cutting the volume at the right times, rising with each scream.
People sometimes ask me who my all-time favorite rapper is. I won’t choose just one, but if all of the hip hop records in the world disappeared tomorrow, I might be placated if the albums made by A Tribe Called Quest were spared. So it’s exciting when Q-Tip hits the first verse of “Oh My God,” and when he flips the beat on “Sucka Nigga,” and when he closes out “Find a Way” with a full-on talk box solo by the wacky keyboard player. When he beatboxes the Brady Bunch theme song into “Bonita Applebum,” the crowd loses their minds.
“Turn off your phones, your iPhones, your Blackberries!” he shouts during an extended jam on “Electric Relaxation.” “We feelin’ the music right here!” The energy level keeps rising and rising. “Check the Rhime” follows, then “Scenario,” and every Tribe Called Quest fan in San Francisco is losing their mind.
And then, oh shit, it happens.
Phife and Q-Tip on the same stage performing “Award Tour” at Outside Lands may just be the highlight of the entire festival, for me and a handful of others. My only question: Why in the world didn’t Q-Tip bring him out on Tribe songs sooner, especially for the back-and-forth of “Check the Rhime”? Phife’s voice may not be in the best form, but any rapper who evidently carries a microphone around in his pocket is obviously ready to go on a moment’s notice.
Q-Tip acknowledges the history of the moment, says, “I don’t know when you’re ever gonna see that again,” and lets the crowd trickle away to “Life is Better.”
To answer your question, no, nobody threw panties at Tom Jones—at least not for the first few songs. I’m stumped. I remember hearing about Tom Jones issuing a statement about ten years ago asking people to stop throwing panties at him, but no one took it seriously. What’s the deal?
Jones sings “I’m Alive,” “Give a Little Love,” and “Green, Green Grass of Home.” During the fourth song, “If I Only Knew,” a lone red pair of panties flies through the air and alights near Jones’ feet. He ignores it. 40 seconds later, another pair of panties arcs toward the stage. Then another, and another, and another. By the end of the song, it’s just a crazy hailstorm of panties falling on Tom Jones, and I sort of feel sorry for him but I gotta admit, it’s also funny as hell.
He does “Hard to Handle,” “Mama Told Me Not to Come” and “Delilah,” and saves “It’s Not Unusual” for the end, when most of the curious and ironic onlookers have bailed to catch a painfully boring band called Pearl Jam.
I hope that eventually, someone will chronicle a history of the walk-on music that bands use to take the stage. Fans of Morrissey seem especially devoted to this, as are fans of Depeche Mode, who even released their pre-concert mix on a CD for their fans. Tom Waits played old blues 78s through tinny cone speakers on his last tour; Springsteen plays “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” when he’s at a baseball stadium; classical recordings of great bombast are popular. Like so many other ephemeral pieces of the concert experience, walk-on music is something that’s forgotten halfway through the first song—and yet for a brief minute, after the lights go dim, it unites the entire crowd in an innervating herald.
Pearl Jam’s walk-on music is “Metamorphosis 2,” by Philip Glass. There’s some other songs that happen between that and our walking back to our bikes, and Eddie Vedder seems like a nice guy and all, telling the crowd to “keep track of each other and make sure that no one goes down,” but you know. It’s Pearl Jam: The Sound of the ’90s. They are completely and hopelessly dated. Sorry, grunge fans.
More photos after the jump.
Backstage on Sunday, in the late afternoon, Jack White shows up and waltzes through the cluster of bands, fans, and hangers-on. It feels a little bit like the royal family making a grand entrance, and for all the “it” bands chilling back here—Vampire Weekend, Fleet Foxes, Okkervil River—White goes straight to Jason Pierce, from Spiritualized. They spend a good 10 minutes or so together, and everyone watching is wondering what in the world they’re talking about before White disappears with the rest of his band mates to the backstage tent.
Okkervil River saunters out with confidence and poise, and then immediately realizes that they’re not in tune. Whoops. A few seconds go by, the bass player lifts a total Merle Haggard & the Strangers intro, and with “Singer Songwriter,” we’re off and running. You heard that song, man? I tell you, it’s the most scathing thing since “Idiot Wind.”
The Stage Names—not into it at first. Four listens went by. Then it grew on me. I read the lyrics, and it grew on me even more. After seeing them live, I’m a dyed in the wool fan. Singer Will Sheff is a natural with the crowd, mentioning after a break on “Pop Lie” to change his guitar strap: “A lot of the sets here at this festival are very professional. We hope you appreciate the difference.”
“Lost Coastlines” is the big hit from Okkervil River’s new record The Stand Ins, and when bassist Patrick Pestorius comes in with his baritone lines, there’s an audible “Whoo!” from the crowd. Sheff ambles over and tickles Pestorius’ beard while he’s singing, then pulls the microphone from its stand and serenades the crowd up close.
“Our Life is not a Movie or Maybe” gives way to “Unless it’s Kicks”—just like on the album, bro!—and shit gets heavy. Sheff is really working the crowd: “It’s a beautiful day, we’re on an island, there’s water on all sides, there’s birds flying through the trees, and I want you to put your hands together! All the way back to the Ferris Wheel!” He ends the set by knocking the mic stand into the photo pit and leading the band in a pummeling outro. I’d say they left their mark.
There used to be this band called Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Then there was this other band called My Morning Jacket. Now there is a band called Fleet Foxes.
Warming up with Dylan’s “Sara,” Robin Pecknold jokingly chides mother nature for its interference. “I’m hearing a low rumble,” he says. “Is that the wind? Can you turn the wind down?”
“Sun Giant” starts the set, a long acapella about living life in the summer and spring and the sun and the seeds and the clouds. The four-part harmonies are perfect, just absolutely dead-on. “White Winter Hymnal” conjures snow, strawberries, the summertime. The wind keeps blowing from the bay and rumbling into the microphones. It can’t be turned down.
“The Dodos are playing today!” says Pecknold, enthusiastically. “I think they’re… uh, I could really blackmail them. But I won’t.”
Okonokos is the third greatest live album ever recorded.
The last time I saw Spiritualized, in 1997, right after Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space came out, the band was buried in fog and lights. I didn’t understand the concept of noise as bliss, nor did I see any reason to intentionally obscure what would otherwise be a great song in mountains of effects, layers of wrong notes and a shit-ton of feedback. I distinctly remember thinking that they weren’t very good.
I usually vehemently argue that musical impressions are a matter of opinion, and I always give other people a lot of leeway for personal taste. But I think in this case, it comes down to actual facts. In 1997, I was dead wrong.
There haven’t been too many chances to see Spiritualized since, and after Jason Pierce’s near-death experience from bilateral pneumonia three years ago, I’m surprised that I get to see them at all. But lo, here they are, on stage and starting their set with “Amazing Grace,” which evolves, naturally, into a shower of feedback and noise.
You know how sometimes songs can give you a brief endorphin rush of absolute happiness? There’s moments in certain songs—bridges of Operation Ivy songs, choruses of People Under The Stairs songs, solos from Charles Mingus songs—that I can always count on to do that to me for a few seconds. But when Spiritualized plays “Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space,” that feeling lasts constantly, throughout the entire song, for a whole four minutes.
Afterwards, backstage, I actually run into Pierce. There’s a million things I’d love to ask him, but I keep it short. “It’s a nice little festival here,” he tells me. “I could watch San Francisco across the water from the stage. I only wish we could have played longer.” I second that emotion, but while it lasted, it was heaven. Here’s the set list:
You Lie You Cheat
Shine a Light
Soul on Fire
Walking With Jesus
Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space
Death Take Your Fiddle
Lay Back in the Sun
The Dodos are great and I missed them. Luckily, for your viewing pleasure, Liz didn’t. Here’s what they look like. Go, Dodos!
Sarah Palin, compulsive liar, on ABC with Charlie Gibson: “Let me speak specifically about a credential that I do bring to this table, Charlie, and that’s with the energy independence that I’ve been working on for these years as the governor of this state that produces nearly 20 percent of the U.S. domestic supply of energy.”
Vampire Weekend, “Oxford Comma”: “Why would you lie about how much coal you have / Why would you lie about something dumb like that?”
The last time I saw Vampire Weekend—the very same week their record came out, to overwhelming praise—they were utterly fantastic. They were also sort of timid, and bewildered at the sudden attention thrust in their direction, and yet it didn’t seem at all like more attention would be a problem for them. I knew even then that I was watching a great young band on the cusp of stardom.
More attention arrived. And arrived. And arrived. Hype usually puts me off, but in the case of Vampire Weekend it’s well-deserved. Their album is going down in history as one of the best debuts ever, and though I don’t listen to it three times a day like I did in that first week, it keeps delivering with each intermittent listen.
On stage, Vampire Weekend are naturals, veritable veterans. The songs aren’t as stiff as they were back in January, and amazingly the band doesn’t seem bored of playing them. Poor guys have been on tour so constantly that they only play one new song, but it’s a good new song, at least.
How crazy are people about Vampire Weekend? This crazy. Crazy enough, too, to shout the loudest and most high-pitched screams at them of the whole weekend. Ezra Koenig thanks the crowd profusely, and mentions that the festival has “a very 1963 Dharma Bums kind of feel.” Boy, I hope their next album is good.
The former bass player for Tegan and Sara tells me that while he was in the band, he was instructed by their manager to play the exact same simple bass lines from the album every night. “We don’t want the girls to get confused,” he was told. “Also, don’t move around on stage. At all. Stay in one place. You can’t upstage Tegan or Sara.”
So he soldiered on for a while, staying in exactly the same place, playing the exact same precise simple boring bass lines until one day he realized, holy hell, what in the world am I doing with my life?
He quit a few months into a two-year tour. They dropped him off on the freeway. In solidarity, I want to hate Tegan and Sara, but their first few songs on Sunday night actually sound pretty great.
It doesn’t last. They start talking about The Lost Boys, and how I’ve probably never seen it, and about premature ejaculation, and The Lost Boys, and that part at the carnival with the saxophone player, and about playing in San Diego, and The Lost Boys, and how I probably don’t know what they’re talking about, and oh sweet Christ it just goes on and on. Blah, blah, blah.
Coincidentally, the songs go downhill. They play “Walking With a Ghost,” but Jack White doesn’t come out and sing like everyone hopes he will. They end their set with their current, uh, “hit,” “Back in Your Head.”
At one point, I notice the replacement bass player break the rules by sneaking a few steps forward during a song, then taking a few steps back. Busted!
I met Alison and Jamie in 2001, when they were first playing together, in a small flat in Brixton. We hung out every night downstairs with Sean and Ben, probably the funniest two guys in all of London. One day Alison and I spent hours together around London, going to museums, dinner and a movie. She was rad, but after staying in London for a week, I still didn’t know anything about the music she and Jamie were working on. Nobody did.
Seven years and three albums later, The Kills are a household name in England and a force to be reckoned with live. They take the festival hostage to a thundering, thick-as-hell version of “U.R.A Fever,” and damn, it’s like a guitar-driven cobra slithering through the tall grass of your mind, of your legs, of your guts. I can’t explain what they’re like on stage. Explosive? Unpredictable? Maybe they don’t even give a shit? Maybe who cares?
I’d heard the Kills records, but records don’t do the Kills justice at all. Go see them live. If possible, go see them after a few too many drinks. Hey Jamie, you get your passport back you lost the night before?
Until Robert Plant relents and Led Zeppelin finally embarks on a full-fledged reunion tour, The Raconteurs are the closest anyone’s going to come to seeing dirty, gnarly, lemon-down-your-leg rock ‘n roll in the world today.
In 2005, I covered a White Stripes show, stating that Jack White needed to find a band. “He’s an enigmatic character, a possessed performer and a great songwriter with an emotive voice, but even he himself has admitted that the White Stripes could run out of steam someday,” I said. “That day may be soon.”
I’ve always thought that the White Stripes peddled too much in the hipster ideal of potential greatness. By limiting himself to playing only with a drummer, and one of below-average ability, Jack White constantly held himself hostage to possibility and possibility alone. And yes, there’s a beauty in what could’ve been, but there’s a greater triumph in what actually is.
In the Raconteurs’ set on Sunday night, during “Blue Veins,” that triumph arrives. White hovers over the organ delivering a tortured, wailing plea, and the band is right on. It’s a haunting, captivating, and truly special moment, and instead of being White Strip-ily quaint, it’s almost scary in its depth.
We take the shuttle back to the city. It’s been a good weekend.
(Photos by Elizabeth Seward)