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Live Review: Outside Lands Festival – Day Three

Posted by: Gabe Meline on Aug 28, 2008 | Comments (2)

Here we go: Day Three. If I can survive three-week camping trips, I can survive a three-day festival. I’m getting a little tired, and today is going to be full of the most frenzied running around of all three days, but it’s also going to be the most interesting. It’s full of lesser-knowns that for the most part I’ve never seen before, although obviously, I’d much prefer to see them in a dark club instead of a dry field.

This is the day that the festival conception of ‘showcase’ rather than ‘show’ is at its most maddening. I see a lot of bands I want to see, but I have to race my ass off to do so.

First up is the Mighty Underdogs, the latest Quannum supergroup with Gift of Gab from Blackalicious and Lateef from Latyrx. When the Latyrx album came out around the same time as the Black Star album, I remember participating in long discussions with friends about who was the greater MC of each collaboration. Mos Def or Talib Kweli? Lyrics Born or Lateef?

At the time, I voted vehemently for Kweli and Lateef. I liked their lyrics, but I’d be kidding if I didn’t say I also adored their sense of urgency—both rapped as if something really bad was going to happen, and soon, if we all didn’t do something quick. It was the late 1990s.

Lateef has kept his attraction basically intact after all these years. He’s still got that same urgent demeanor, if not more so. He’s purely at home on stage, to the extent that seeing him walk down the street would be unsettling, almost worrisome, and you’d want to prop a monitor on the sidewalk and hand him a mic just to put him in his natural element. His finest hour, still, is Latyrx, although his overlooked album Ambush isn’t much to shake a stick at, either. I’m always rooting for the guy.

Gift of Gab made the defining Quannum album, Nia, and for that alone he will always deserve respect—the lyrics, the conception, the fantasy, the arrangements are all pure brilliance on that record. Live, he’s often inclined to rev his vocal chords and scream his way to crescendo, a characteristic tendency which gets tiresome after the second or third go-round. These two things generally balance out to a level medium.

We catch the Mighty Underdogs’ last couple songs as they’re finishing their set, but from what I can gather, it’s basically a semi-interesting reworking of Blackalicious, for whom Lateef was a touring member for years. They’re still doing the “speak to me” thing (stale), and the songs are good enough to check out when the album drops but not enough to totally hop on the Miyata and jam down to the store to buy the day it comes out.

These one-time idols, how I wish they’d bounce back and hit the world with bullets again.

 

On our way over to the Lands End stage, we pass a girl in a bikini and shades, holding a homemade sign: “Got Fungi?”

On my left arm, if you look closely enough, you will be able to make out a scar, created by a relentless safety pin, spelling out the words “Pressure Drop.” This is etched into my arm for a very simple reason. To wit: I was obsessed with that song when I was 18. When you’re obsessed with a song at the age of 18, it’s only natural to pick up something sharp and carve the song into your arm for posterity.

It’s also natural, at the age of 18, to think that “Pressure Drop” is a song by the Clash.

I’ve heard numerous reports of Toots and the Maytals being a phenomenal live act, with Toots Hibbert in particular as an effortlessly gymnastic frontman. That’s heartening, considering how old Toots must be these days. All that matters to me is hearing “Pressure Drop.”

Toots hits the stage, jumps right in to the opening lines of “Pressure Drop,” and everything is great. The crowd goes nuts. Then, in a re-creation of Lupe Fiasco’s one-two the day before, he sets it up for his next biggest hit: “Reggay Got Soul.”

He’s not moving around with any kind of nimble abandon, but he’s happy and healthy-looking, and I’m glad that the guy who inspired me to drive a sharp object into my skin all those years ago in tribute is still doing okay. I’m doing okay, too, old friend.

 

K’naan is a Somalian-born poet and rapper who fled the “lake of blood” district of Mogadishu during the Somalian Civil War. He’s also delivered the most gripping hip-hop album this year, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, an autobiographical document of growing up in a warzone and clinging to Nas and Rakim CDs for escape. The record is hip-hop’s Graceland: djembe drums, group chants and slit gongs provide the addictively unique texture, while the beat to Dusty Foot‘s opening track, “Wash it Down,” is comprised entirely of feet stomping and sloshing through water. With the metaphor as water for life, the track concludes with the clever poke: “People need water like Kanye need Jesus.”

I’ve had The Dusty Foot Philosopher on a cassette, with Grip Grand’s Brokelore on Side B, in the car for the last three months. Grip Grand deserves an entirely separate review on how just completely fucking brilliant his album is; in short, Brokelore makes me feel totally fantastic and full of joy every single time I listen to it, which so far has been about 15 or 20 times and counting.

K’naan’s album is no less brilliant, but in a different fashion. I’m not always in the mood to listen to it, but when I am, it’s the greatest album in the world. You don’t know about weird looks from strangers until you’ve walked down the street singing about being stabbed by Satan on the day that you were born. Addictive.

Moreover, K’naan’s approach to songs is intensely poetic, a gripping sequence of metaphor and connectivity that enhances instead of diminishes the reality of his subject matter. With his vivid descriptions of life in Somalia; of being shot at by police; of seeing military tanks drive down the beach; of clinging to hope against all odds, he’s able to find the most effective, if not always the most direct, way of explaining his life thus far.

K’naan comes out on stage with a smile and a double thumbs-up for the dedicated fans who’ve staked out their front row positions, and goes into “Hoobaale,” a soft, undulating chant about waiting for disaster before implementing change. Next is an extended spoken-word poem, seemingly improvised, about coming to America from a tormented country and finding the famed open arms of lady liberty just as crippled. It’s the sort of powerful thing that dissipates into thin air as soon as it’s over, and I wish that I could have written it all down before it left.

“In the Beginning”—if you’re only gonna download one K’naan song, this is it—is amazing, inciting the crowd to put up their fists on the extended bridge and chant along. A newer song, about getting older and feeling stronger, comes next, with the audience providing the chorus. Then K’naan apologizes for his set needing to be cut so short, performs “Soobax,” and that’s it. Five songs.

Except that’s not it. There’s no hope of an encore, but there’s a buzz in the air that people can’t simply walk away from. A gathering of about 20 or 30 people cluster to the side of the stage, and after five minutes or so, K’naan comes out and personally talks to every one of them. Still flabbergasted by his performance, I have no choice but to pull out my notebook and ask for his autograph.

He writes two words. “Justice. K’naan.”

 

Last year, Justin Vernon went into a shed in rural Wisconsin, cleared his head, chopped some wood and recorded nine quiet songs under the name Bon Iver that have since turned just about every indie critic into a drooling, superlative-oozing pile of gush.

I still don’t get it.

 

Sharon Jones—who could have ever predicted that she would be playing a huge stage in front of thousands of people? I’ve been a fan for a long time, and I’ve still got some of her early 45s on Daptone. Dap-Dippin’ was an alright album, but it was 2005’s Naturally that really did the trick for me. Whereas Dap-Dippin’ is a lot of James Brown-inspired textbook funk, the songwriting on Naturally takes it over the top into greatness. For a time, it seemed as if the pinnacle of the underground funk revival, which started with Brainfreeze, had finally been achieved. Then Amy Winehouse came along, heisted Jones’ backup band, called her album Back to Black, for cryin’ out loud, and ran away with the prize.

While Winehouse rots in the tabloids and the UK tries to cough up more blue-eyed soul sensations while their iron is hot, Jones has been getting more attention, and that’s a great thing. While I think the songs on her latest album 100 Days, 100 Nights fall short of Naturally’s instant magnetism, it’s still an important example that newer is not always better, and that fancier recording technology doesn’t always mean a better-sounding record. Plus, Jones can sing the hell out of any song in the world.

The Dap-Kings come out and run through a couple instrumental numbers, including “Tighten Up.” Everyone’s waiting for Jones to hit the stage, and when she does it’s like an earthquake. She shimmies, struts, glides and hollers her way through “How Do I Let a Good Man Down.” She complains about her legs being shorter than Tina Turner’s. She calls out to people in the crowd like they’re all distant cousins. It’s amazing.

Jones then finds someone in the wings who says his name is Tuesday and starts schooling him in the art of getting down. Singing directly to him, she places his hands on her hips, gyrating in rhythm and instructing him to do the same. It’s fantastic theatre, and the band keeps a steady beat throughout it all.

 

The Cool Kids are a full-on guilty pleasure minus the guilt, a complete throwback to the earliest hip-hop records that I was into when I was twelve years old. I wrote about them back in January, when all they had were two great songs on their MySpace page, likening them to hip-hop’s midlife-crisis Porsche and predicting that they’d burn hot for a short while before fading away.

Time will tell what the future holds for the Cool Kids, but it’s not like they’re concerned about it at all. Fun is the name of their game, and they take turns making fun of each other, or themselves, by saying things like “My beatboxin’ ain’t very good, I gotta be honest.” But their beatboxing is good, and they’re on top of their shit, and they rule the Panhandle Stage.

The two songs I catch are “88” and “Black Mags.” They sound as great as they did eight months ago—better, in fact. I rescind my prognosis about their short shelf life, and hope that their one foot in the past will equal a brighter future for hip-hop in general.

 

Broken Social Scene, right from the get-go, is totally likable and awesome. There’s nine people on stage and I have no idea which is which until some guy in wrinkled clothes and a trilby hat starts talking about how San Francisco is his favorite city in California. Must be Kevin Drew, I think to myself, who is the sort of ersatz leader of this huge collective.

I haven’t seen Broken Social Scene before, but I love, love, love their records. I can’t remember the first song they play, because the second one, “KC Accidental,” renders all of my memory obliterated, and I scream “fuck yes” and close my eyes and I feel like I’m diving down into a sea of bliss. There’s so much activity on stage, and I try to drink it all in while I can.

“7/4 (Shorelines)” brings out Amy Millan from Stars on guest vocals. Emily Haines plays guitar on a lot of songs, and sings much better than Millan. There’s a guy who looks like Bigfoot, dressed all in white, on bass, and a guy who looks like Paul Bunyan on guitar. “Anthem for a Seventeen Year Old Girl” and a couple of new solo songs are all good. But it’s Kevin Drew, treating the enormous crowd like a regular old group of friends, who steals the show.

“Remember to vote!” he tells the crowd at one point. “Vote for Canada! Vote for every country!”

Near the end of the set, it almost seems like Drew is joking when he makes a special announcement. “Hey, Spiral Stairs is here, everybody! Spiral Stairs!” he says, but sure enough, Spiral Stairs from Pavement walks on stage and straps on a black guitar. I’m hoping for “Lover’s Spit”—longshot, I know—but even when the drumsticks click off the tempo, I realize what’s happening: the first song from Broken Social Scene, “Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day).” It’s a bonkers title, but man if it isn’t a goddamn great song.

So we get the gigantic, epic send-off for the band, and during the breakdown, Drew slips into full-on Springsteen mode. “For all the hurt in your life; for all the hurt you’ve caused in others’ lives; for all the love you feel and for all the love others feel for you. . . scream so your whole entire city can hear you, San Francisco!”

Incredible.

 

Wilco, who Kevin Drew refers to as “the greatest band in America,” comes on next. I’ve seen Wilco four times, and each time I’ve liked them less. Jeff Tweedy has seemed grouchier as time has gone on, which I could probably deal with if their new musical approach wasn’t so hackneyed.

The last time at the Fillmore, I figured it out. Whereas on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the band combined beauty and chaos fluidly and simultaneously, their newer material sequesters the two into awkwardly arranged factions. They’ll get a not-very-good breezy sunshiny pop song going for a while, and then they’ll let Nels Cline freak out in the middle, and then they go back to the not-very-good breezy sunshiny pop song.

Needless to say, I’m one of many who believe that Being There is their best record.

But Jeff Tweedy actually seems like he’s in good spirits, jogging around the stage a little bit during “Hummingbird” and joking with Nels Cline about how his maroon pants are held up by a safety pin. When someone yells “I love you!” he responds with the deadpan zinger, “We love you too, random guy in a massive crowd of people!”

“I am Trying to Break Your Heart” benefits from drastic new textures, and I take a walk through the crowd during “Jesus, Etc.”—just about everyone sings along to themselves, quietly. “California Stars,” unfortunately, comes a little too early before the nighttime, but lots of people look up at the California sky nonetheless.

Wilco once meant a lot to me, and I have to admit to feeling terrible about our falling out in recent years. I’m glad that they’re good tonight. It’s been a memorable weekend, and making amends with an old confidante is a nice way to wrap things up.

 

Photos by Gabe Meline – Lots More Photos After the Jump.

Live Review: Outside Lands Festival – Day Two

Posted by: Gabe Meline on Aug 27, 2008 | Comments (4)

I run into a friend of mine who is working, in some capacity or another, at the Crowdfire tent. Most of the photos I see on the screens around the park seem taken by the official Crowdfire photographers and not, as the concept goes, by fans who feel like wasting their time in front of a computer screen by uploading photos inside a big tent. I ask him what the Crowdfire tent is all about.

“It’s really hot in there,” he says simply, “and it smells like weed.”

 

Boots Riley, from the Coup, doesn’t seem to have any more of a handle on the Crowdfire idea either.

“I guess there’s this thing where you film a song on your. . . your phone, or something?” he says to the crowd. “And then you go and. . . upload it in that tent?” The genius of it is that he’s not phrasing his sentences in question form because he’s unclear on how the process works. It’s because he’s clearly asking why anyone would want to do such a stupid thing in the first place.

I interviewed Boots Riley in 2006, shortly after the Coup’s tour bus crashed one week into a nationwide tour. While the bus was sideways on the side of the freeway, everyone scrambled out just in time to watch the bus—and everything on it—become engulfed in flames. Riley was still audibly shaken by the experience, but his personal resolve was strong as ever.

“Different members of the band are like, ‘Well, you know, we survived for a reason.’ This and that. But I have always felt a reason for my life,” he told me, determinedly, “and I’ve searched to make a reason for my life when I didn’t know what it was.”

That’s exactly how Riley is on stage. He’s here for a reason, and he knows it, and he’s not about to let the audience forget that. Moving around the stage using every part of his body but his feet, in a green military shirt with “Revolution Rock” on the back, he even needs to ask for a longer mic cord at one point.

Riley and Silk-E command the live band through a solid set of mostly new songs. “Ride the Fence” goes into a barreling breakdown, and “The Shipment” has the musicians in full-on Band of Gypsys mode. “Ijuswannalayaroundalldayinbedwithyou” makes for a nice breather, and Silk-E delivers a solo song, “Do You Give Her What I Got,” showcasing her Aretha-like vocals.

It around this point that I notice that the foam covering on the speaker, two feet in front of my face, is flapping off of the cabinet with each heavy bass note. My ears are already shot from years of this, but a rare burst of responsibility sets in. Might be a good idea to move.

 

The last time I saw the Liars was at the Greek Theater in 2006. It was horrible. Just horrible. One of the most grating things I’ve ever sat through.

I have friends who swear by them, though, and I’m willing to give them another shot. They’re on the Panhandle Stage—the smallest stage at Outside Lands—and they’ve got a huge crowd. They seem less on heroin than they did two years ago, which is good.

The most unlikely trend in indie rock: the Second Drummer Playing Not Exactly In Rhythm.

“That song was called Alcatraz and There’s No Place Like Home!” says a smiling Angus Andrew. I’m not sure if it’s a continuation of the song title, but he also says something about it being a beautiful night, which, at three in the afternoon, is sort of strange.

I think about a Gang Gang Dance album that I used to have, and make my way to the Lupe Fiasco stage, which has already amassed a huge throng.

 

By rights, no one in a goddamned Dodgers cap should be allowed to stand in front of a San Francisco crowd and succeed in getting them hyped. But Lupe Fiasco’s guitarist does just that. Over and over. For ten minutes or so.

You know it’s a hip-hop show when nothing is happening on stage for way too long, there’s some guy telling you to make some noise even though you just did a few minutes ago, and the star doesn’t come out to the stage even remotely on time. Of all the hip-hop acts at Outside Lands, Lupe Fiasco is the only one who does this. I stand there, staring into space, wondering why I still put up with this kind of stuff.

I didn’t really understand the fascination with Lupe Fiasco when he put out Food & Liquor. Maybe it’s because back here in the Bay Area, we already had the Pack, who are of a much more sensible age group to be wearing neon and rapping about skateboards. The production is alright and all, and “Kick Push” is great, but really—“hip hop’s whiz kid”?

It was earlier this year when I was interviewing DJ Ignite for an article on Santa Rosa’s Latino hip hop scene that I changed my tune on Lupe Fiasco. “That song, ‘Hip Hop Saved My Life,’ that’s my favorite song right now,” he told me. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I sought it out and lo and behold, he’s right. It’s a great song.

Lupe Fiasco comes out late but makes quick amends by playing “Kick Push” and “Hip Hop Saved My Life” right off the bat. Dude is smooth as butter. Opening tours for Kanye West will do that to you, I guess. The crowd is in the palm of his hand, and I haven’t seen so many arms windshield-wipering in unison since the 1900s.

When he finishes his set, the P.A. speakers go back to playing the Grateful Dead.

 

“With all of the money and influence in Washington,” muses Nellie McKay on the Panhandle stage, “it’s a miracle we even have a pseudo-democracy left.”

Last night, we’d gotten the text message from Barack Obama announcing that Joe Biden would be his running mate. And this morning, we’d watched the speech in Springfield, cringing at each blunder by both Obama and Biden. Obama called Biden “the next President. . . the next Vice President of the United States of America!” while Biden kept blowing it, calling Obama “Barack America” and using the word “literally” way too many times.

I’ve been pretty headstrong during this election season. I don’t care how close the media wants to paint this election. There is no way that McCain can possibly win. Even disregarding his asinine policies, he’s still a wooden, blobby multimillionaire who abandoned his wife after she got in a car accident to have an affair and marry a pill-popping, thieving beer heiress. Fuck that guy. He’s a loser.

But watching the speech in Springfield, my faith started to lapse. Especially when I noticed the campaign sign: “Obama Biden.” From a psychological standpoint, it doesn’t look good if your brain factors in an “S,” an “N,” and an “La.” When Biden called this campaign “literally incredible,” I fell apart inside.

The Democratic Party’s biggest obstacle, in my opinion, is its own self-doubt. For some reason, Democrats can’t just come right out and declare themselves the inevitable winners, even though according to all logic, the results of the November election are a totally foregone conclusion. Instead, they have to look at polls and wring their hands and worry about what Hilary supporters are thinking and what black America is thinking and what people in church are thinking.

For all of his blunders, Biden seems to have that extra needed boost of confidence. He also seems like he might make a bad cop to Obama’s good cop when it comes to attacking McCain, which is such a sensible and easy thing to do. In fact, if we care at all about the future of the world, we should all be attacking McCain as often and as gleefully as we can.

I already reviewed Nellie McKay’s show in Petaluma just five days earlier, and you can read it here. But standing in the crowd, watching people fall in love with McKay for the first time, is like seeing it through their eyes. All the zingers that never fail bring a new set of smiles to my face, and her cover of “Vote for Mr. Rhythm” leads into the brightest spot of political hope of the day.

“A lot of people say McCain is too old,” she reports to the crowd. “But it’s not that McCain is too old. It’s that his policies are FUCKED UP.”

 

Next up is the Walkmen, who I’ve never seen before but who I’ve loved since their impeccable 2004 album, Bows + Arrows. This week, they’re at the top of the Pitchfork ‘Best New Music’ list, for what that’s worth—after all, every single record store has a used, discarded copy of Pitchfork’s #1 album of 2006, The Knife’s Silent Shout, which is a totally faceless pile of boredom that almost single-handedly destroyed Pitchfork’s reputation overnight.

The Walkmen’s new album is called You & Me, and after listening to it a few times, I’m not that into it. It’s wimpy, and too ruminative, and not in the good way that “No Christmas While I’m Talking” is ruminative. I made a tape of it for the car, and skipping over a few songs to conserve space on the 45-minute cassette wasn’t exactly a nail-biting decision to make.

But the Walkmen take the stage and right off the bat, the wimpiness works on me. I’m transfixed. They open with a slow song, just guitar and singing, and it’s an irresistible invitation into their world. When the next song comes in and the band fills out the sound, it’s like heaven. They’re the very definition of a unique aesthetic, playing the same vintage instruments as the Monkees—Vox bass, Gretsch drums—but sounding unlike any other band on Earth.

They play almost all songs from You & Me, and those same songs I’d previously dismissed are immeasurably better live. Hamilton Leithauser plays the perfect frontman, high-rise jeans and all, clutching a beer and crowing at the skies while each song gets stretched and bullied along. Also, in an amazing triumph of stage direction, each member of the band appears to be thinking about algebra, or Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, or the Spanish Civil War instead of about the fact that they’re playing music. Really—check the additional photos below.

At the end of the set, I’m thoroughly indulged. A screaming version of Bows + Arrows’ “Thinking of a Dream I Had” has me soaring on cloud nine, and I chalk it up as the top experience of the day.

 

Strolling along Speedway Meadow, I see a fistfight break out right next to me. Seriously, dudes are wailing on each other, trying to punch each others’ lights out. I’ve got this impulse, left over from high school, to break up fights, and it isn’t until I’ve helped push the one guy away from the other that I notice a Four Square court on the ground. They were fighting over a Four Square game. For reals.

When we walk across to Lindley Meadow, we notice that the organizers have thoughtfully widened the corral that was unmanageably bottlenecked the day before. It’s so uncrowded, in fact, that a trio of frat guys marches drunkenly down the path, arms around each other’s shoulders, singing “I Will Survive.” It must be weird to be known for a deadpan cover of a disco song.

Cake is playing, but they’re on the Sutro stage—a.k.a. The Inaccessible Stage—and we can’t see them at all behind the sound tent. They play “Frank Sinatra” and “Sheep Go to Heaven.” John McCrea’s monotone voice, which is so charming on record, is downright condescending in a live context and I can’t explain why.

“We’re Cake and we’re here to serve you!” he says. “This next song is from our very first album, which we’re re-releasing. We got it out of the steely claws of the record company and it’s ours again. Are claws steely? Some of them, I guess.”

They play “Rock ‘n Roll Lifestyle,” we get hungry, and the 100-page Outside Lands Festival booklet lets us know that they’re going “above and beyond the standard festival food.” This has resulted in food booths selling weird items like Three-Cheese and Figgy Jam sandwiches, but we see a hamburger stand and jump on it.

 

Tom Petty closes out the night. I like Tom Petty a lot, so this is a great thing, tainted only by the long and not very interesting story of our running around backstage trying to figure out why Tom Petty’s management will happily grant a photo pass to some no-name event website but not to an actual weekly newspaper with a large circulation throughout three counties in the Bay Area. Because of this, Tom Petty, you are represented in this review by this totally shitty photo. Hope you’re happy.

The show starts and it’s a steady steam train of Greatest Hits, which is just fine by me. “We got a lot of songs we’re gonna cram in before the curfew tonight!” Petty says. “We’ll play as many as we can!” And sure enough, they keep coming, one hit after another: “Listen to Her Heart,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Even the Losers,” “Free Fallin’,” “Last Dance with Mary Jane.”

People are flaming up joints. People are singing “Oh my, my, Oh hell yes.” People are twirling and dancing and doing what people do at Tom Petty concerts, and then people are hearing Tom Petty tell them that they have to take a five-minute break so the sound guys can replace a generator or something.

But it isn’t all for naught: “While we were back there, ” Petty says upon returning, “we ran into one of our favorite musicians in the world. Steve Winwood! So we asked him to come help us out on a couple songs. ”

So Steve straps on a guitar and sings “Can’t Find My Way Home” with the Heartbreakers, and then really tears the nonexistent roof off with “Gimme Some Lovin’.” It’s a song I’ve heard a million times, but I think, today, that I have heard the best version of “Gimme Some Lovin’” ever performed—Tom Petty and the band know that song like the backs of their Rickenbackers, and Winwood is on fire all the more because of it.

But when “Saving Grace” goes on and on into a long jam, I feel like maybe Petty was just kidding around by saying they’d try to cram as many songs as they could into their set. “Refugee” lasts forever, with the predictable last-song-before-the-encore guitar jam in full effect.

At this point, after a very long day, all I really want to hear is “Here Comes My Girl.” Instead, to my great shock, Tom Petty plays “Gloria.” As in, the song that every bar band in the world plays on any given night in any given city in the world. I’ve heard of Petty playing some great covers—Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” comes to mind—but “Gloria”?!

We bail. Tom Petty is still okay in my book. I’m glad I saw him. Ending the set with “American Girl” is probably the best thing he could have done, and we sing along as we wind our way back out onto 19th Avenue.

 

Photos by Elizabeth Seward – Lots More Photos After the Jump.

Live Review: Outside Lands Festival – Day One

Posted by: Gabe Meline on Aug 27, 2008 | Comments (3)

Even before entering the park, the publicity begins: “Hey, are you guys here to see Radiohead?” asks a too-cheerful girl in jeans and suede boots on the dirt path behind Lloyd Lake. “Do you want a free download card? Do you want to be photographed for their fan gallery?”

Then there’s the Crowdfire tent, brought to you by Windows, where festivalgoers are asked to upload their photos from the day to be projected onto digital screens around the festival grounds (“and while you’re at the pavilion,” says the 100-page festival program, to anyone who’s been asleep for the last ten years, “stop by the Windows Experience, to see how Windows brings your digital life together, from your PC to your phone to your living room!”). The whole idea feels overwhelmingly like a ruse for ticket-buyers to also do work and provide free web content, but it’s not nearly as insulting as the tent nearby, called the “Social” tent, “brought to you by Heineken.”

There’s a Visa Signature tent, a Dell Dome, a PG&E booth. Even at 5:30, the lines for the bathrooms are long and the lines for the ID Check are longer. Official-looking people are running all around. Black Mountain plays the Twin Peaks stage while hundreds of people wait in the Will Call lines. In one 30-second span, four golf carts pass by me. It’s not getting off to a very promising start.

Then Manu Chao plays, and I remember why we’re all here: because music is fucking awesome.

I’ve been stoked on Manu Chao since Clandestino, and although I knew he fronted the raucous world-punk band Mano Negra years ago, I’d always figured his performances these days would lean towards the blissful, kicked-back groove of tunes like “Welcome to Tijuana” or “Je Ne T’Aime Plus.” I prep Liz by telling her that his music is the unwatered-down version of all that Putumayo stuff that Starbucks plays.

When the show starts, I realize that I couldn’t be more wrong. Chao hits the stage with a fury, leaping all over the place in an “Africa Unite” T-shirt and throwing his fist in the air in time to the band. Did he hire these guys from the Dropkick Murphys?

It’s easy to see why Chao is a star the world over, and it’s thrilling to see a crowd of Americans, who’ve been jockeying for position for Radiohead, held as a captive audience and won over by his energy. He’s been at it for so many years that his blend of reggae, punk and world music is as natural as breathing, and his disregard for borders (anyone have one of his “No Work Visas” tour shirts from the Greek Theater?) and understandable disgust for George W. Bush make him a right-on dude in my book.

Chao is killing it, pogoing in unison with his band and firing up the crowd, when I hear the noise of something falling on the ground at my feet. I look, and it’s a 22 oz. can of Budweiser. Seconds later, another one comes flying over the fence and lands on the grass. Then four hands clutch the top of the fence, and while it buckles under the weight, the struggling faces of two hopefuls come into view. One guy makes it over by sliding head-first into the grass, and the other guy throws himself over in a sideways roll. By this point, a small group of onlookers has gathered, and they all applaud while the guys grab their cold ones and run off into the crowd.

Damn, I think. Those guys just saved themselves $170—and they got a standing ovation for it.

 

Lyrics Born has just made an album I don’t like all that much, but that’s fine—he’s a great performer that I’ve seen time and again, and he never disappoints. I was sold on Lyrics Born long ago, in 1999, during a Latyrx show at the Justice League on Divisadero. Lateef and Lyrics Born utterly devastated the room, and it helped that they had a guy from Arizona named Z-Trip as a guest DJ.

Not long afterwards, Quannum Spectrum came out, “I Changed My Mind” was a sleeper hit, and everything changed for Lyrics Born. He’s a soul singer now, albeit in a certain Bay Area fashion that’s inimitably his. And he’s still a great performer.

Backup singer Joyo Velarde worked the stage in a pink-striped jumpsuit and heels, throwing her hands back and forth while Lyrics Born elevated his live band to various climaxes. (Funny thing: last time I saw Joyo Velarde was at Max’s Opera Café on Van Ness, where she was working as a singing waitress.) They played all new stuff, but it was good to check in on the old dog again and see that he’s still teaching new tricks.

 

What’s there to say about Beck other than he’s fallen off a log into a stinky-ass pile of Scientology-ridden algae?

I guess there’s also this to say: he forces every photographer to sign special waivers allowing his management final say over photos to be used for publication. Actually, we don’t really have any idea what the waiver says. It could be an enlistment form into a deranged science-fiction cult, for all we know. But the upshot of it all is that we bring you this photo, from one of the digital screens, instead of a true-to-life, up-close photo.

Not that anyone can get anywhere near the stage. First of all, the corral between the Polo Fields and Lindley Meadow is jam-packed and moving at a snail’s pace. To make matters worse, a guy stands guard over the cluster of people, sitting on top of pallets full of bottled water.

Second of all, the stage sinks down into the landscape, meaning that if you’re not in the front 15 rows or so, you’re stuck behind the sound booth tent with no visibility. The sound itself isn’t much to write home about either, and Beck is playing drab new songs. I recall reading an interview with him, post-Odelay, where he articulately explained how he was compelled to write happy, uplifting music because he’d had such a brutal home life as a child. It made a big impression on me then, as did his music. When I saw him on the Sea Change tour in 2001, I was struck at how he flipped the equation; he was completely at home with depressing songs like “Paper Tiger,” and awkwardly going through the motions for “Where It’s At.”

But now, it seems the knee-jerk is working in a diagonal direction—the question isn’t ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ anymore. It’s as if he’s reacting to his charmed life in the spotlight by imposing bland music on his fans. We trek back through the narrow corral, moving at about ten feet per minute while others break through the fence and trample the foliage, cringing at each new song Beck starts. Oh well. Hope he snaps out of it someday.

 

Before Radiohead plays, the jumbotron comes alive with a shot of a girl straddling someone’s shoulders in the crowd. As soon as she realizes she’s onscreen for all to see, she immediately throws up the devil horns with both hands and sticks her tongue way out, down to her chin, in the universal sign of “I am a brain-dead idiot with no creative thought in my head whatsoever.”

I like Radiohead and all, but I’m confounded at the suggestion that they’re the world’s most popular band. It simply can’t be true. Their music is way too weird for the average person, like the devil-horn girl, to honestly enjoy. The crowd estimate tonight is 60,000, and of that, I’d wager to say that 20,000 truly love Radiohead. The rest are here because they feel, for some reason, like they should be. Maybe they’re afraid to be apathetic about Radiohead lest they appear unintelligent, or unsupportive of “art.”

I’m also aghast at the comparison that Radiohead is the next U2. My friend Kim puts it best: “They managed to get really big by not doing anything except for playing bigger places.” Which means: No giant lemons. No vacuous dance-club albums. No pompous charading. Just sticking to the guns, making the music that seemed most interesting at the time, and against all odds watching the world go crazy falling all over itself for it.

Before Radiohead comes on, I overhear two guys talking. One of them says to his friend, “I like Beck, but live, he’s not that good. But this, this is going to be great. It’s like my highlight of the year. And I love the weed smell. San Francisco’s so cool.”

During the first couple songs, a very drunk guy topples over the front barricade and into the photo pit. He’s out cold, just completely unconscious, crumpled on the ground. A public-relations girl working the festival runs over and motions security to join her, and they build a wall around the poor guy, making sure that no photographers can snap a photo of him.

There are glistening moments in Radiohead’s set where, for a brief passage or chorus, they still seem like that scrappy little band who sat down and made an mind-shattering album called OK Computer. The sense of discovery is still there; the feeling of urgency hasn’t been lost. It’s like watching David Murray, or Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, or Rakim.

Then, I look out across the field and wonder what in the hell is happening, and just how on Earth so many people can possibly be passionate about what is obviously a very weird orchestration of sound. I suppose this is a familiar sensation for people who’ve listened to Radiohead in their bedrooms alone for years and then go to see them for the first time, but outdoors in Golden Gate Park, it’s especially bizarre.

In fact, the defining moment of the band’s set is when I come out of an air-conditioned bathroom trailer, walk down the steps, and look up at the back of the concrete Polo Fields bleachers. There’s a beautiful old architectural arc pattern, reminiscent of a church cloister hallway, and Thom Yorke is wailing out the final stanzas of “Karma Police”—“For a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself. . .” Horse stables are to the left, and a big blue glow fills the sky to the right. It’s surreal, and I can’t explain why. But it fits in nicely with the fact that the last Polo game actually played on the Polo Fields here wasn’t by actual Polo players on horseback, but by a bunch of guys on Segways.

During “Airbag,” the sound goes out. It’s back on after 40 seconds or so, and it’s not really that much of a big deal, even though it’s all anyone is going to be talking about the next day. It goes out again a few songs later. I like it. It lends an air of unpredictability to the experience. Plus it forces Thom Yorke, looking like a decomposed rubber walrus, to actually address the crowd. “I don’t know what the fuck’s going on,” he says. A wasted guy next to me screams, “Me too! Me and Thom Yorke have so much in common!”

We walk around after a while, noticing the hordes of people who’ve scaled the Port-a-Potties to get a better view. For my money, Radiohead’s best album is The Bends, and luckily, they play two songs from it. During “Fake Plastic Trees,” I’m sitting, staring at the trees surrounding the Polo Fields. They’re lit up by huge, colored lights, and they look synthetic. It’s beautiful.

Set List:

15 Step
Reckoner
Airbag
There There
All I Need
Nude
Talk Show Host
National Anthem
The Gloaming
Videotape
Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
Idioteque
Karma Police
Jigsaw Falling Into Place
Just
Exit Music (For a Film)
Bodysnatchers

Pyramid Song
You And Whose Army
Paranoid Android
Fake Plastic Trees
Everything In Its Right Place

 

Photos by Elizabeth Seward – Lots More Photos After the Jump.

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