I’ll get to the bands, but the first thing anyone noticed, surely, is the freak scene outside the gates of Outside Lands. It’s what you’d envision concerts in the park to be like back when concerts in the park were free. In the short walk between parking my bike (thanks, SF Bike Coalition) and the main entry, I was offered $2 beers from a stack of 12-packs piled on a skateboard, $1 pot cookies from a brown grocery bag, yelled at by a woman for no reason who shouted “KEEP LAUGHING! THIS STAND-UP COMEDY ACT AIN’T FREE!,” warned to get out of the way while security caught and escorted out an unsucessful gate-crasher, watched in amazement at a sprinting, successful gate-crasher, and had to tell a guy no, but thanks, I’d rather you not super-soak my arm.
Then it’s over the hill and into the festival, with corporate booths (“Free Rolling Stone T-Shirts!”; no takers), even more corporate tents (the “Chase Freedom Lounge,” yeah right, like anyone thinks a credit card gives you freedom) and no free water except from the lovely people staffing the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic’s Rock Med table. I’ll say it until the day I die: All festivals should have a free drinking fountain. At least a garden hose, man.
The night before, I’d DJed this really ridiculously epic wedding reception at the Union Hotel in Occidental, and the exact feeling that festivals aim to provide—Everyone United Through Music!™—was undeniable in a tiny little redwood-lined ballroom. It was fun, but honestly, I don’t know that Everyone United Through Music!™ is such a desirable goal, because the more people united in their excitement over a band, the greater the chances of that band being pretty lame and middle-of-the-road. On a semi-related note, there’s no way around the fact that this year’s Outside Lands lineup is the weakest yet.
Mayer Hawthorne killed it. I’ve got a weariness of the oversaturated retro-soul train perennially chugging out of the same station for the last ten years, but there’s no denying Hawthorne’s enthusiasm. The crowd was in the palm of his hands—he stopped, held up one finger, they cheered; he shook the hell out of his tambourine, they cheered; he got everyone to imitate rain with their fingers, they cheered. Impeccably dressed in a custom suit, Hawthorne had a great band with vintage analog gear, synchronized backup dancers and three-part backing harmonies.
“I love records, I’m a vinyl junkie,” Hawthorne said at one point. “Y’all got one of the best record stores in the universe here—Amoeba.” He’s right! He then related a funny story about being mistaken by an autograph seeker, in the aisles at Amoeba, for Michael Bublé. Who knows if the story was really true, but you can kind of see the resemblance.
The Devil Makes Three are great, and always have been great, and it’s nice to see them finally selling out shows and getting props. Theirs is an instructional story for bands on taking the very slow, hardworking path, which is also a story about taking the very broke, no-money-havin’ path. I’d heard from a friend who saw their packed show at the Independent a couple nights before that they’d gotten “loose” and “noodley,” which actually sounded cool, but at Outside Lands no loose noodles answered the roll-call.
They opened with “For Good Again,” a sardonic story about communal living and starting a band, and there are some lines in that song which define the Devil Makes Three for me: “Everybody who’s anybody, in my opinion,” sings Pete Bernhard, “at one time lived in somebody’s hallway.” Lines like that are comfort food for punkhouse graduates, and even though I technically never lived in a hallway, I thought about my days living in the laundry room, or the attic, or the garage, or the closet, or the unfinished frame house, and felt a little better about myself. Thanks, Pete.
Then I saw a man with his shirt wide open. He had two bellybuttons. No kidding.
So like I said, there’s a lot of corporate tents at Outside Lands. In these tents, there’s DJs, or free wi-fi, or short performances in intimate settings by bands who are playing the larger stages. The only thing is that to get into these tents, you have to own a certain kind of credit card, or “like” a stupid brand on Facebook, or sign up for spam email, or utter a cringe-worthy phrase like “Let’s go to ‘Inspire’ by Heineken.” (Also, what the hell were those plastic stove knob things that Chase was handing out? Does anyone know? For real. I saw them all over the ground 20 feet after the dude was handing them out. No one knew what they were. Total sense this made = 0.)
That said, KUSF is a kickass radio station. Their Outside Lands tent was open to everyone, free of irritating marketing, and when I walked by the Budos Band was rocking a tiny stage. The bassist played his bass in this ridiculous upside-down fashion, and the bari sax player looked possessed at times. A little bit Mulatu, a little bit Fela, all Daptone, really tight grooves, and a nice surprise on the way to Janelle Monáe. It was great!
(Note to KUSF: I just wanna say that by NOT making me sign up for anything to chill in your tent, you have earned my loyalty and respect. See how it works in the 21st Century? There’s no jobs out there because no companies are making any money, so companies pump up their marketing team until everyone’s so nauseatingly sick from the onslaught of marketing that only a complete lack of marketing achieves the desired result of the public subconscious reacting positively to your brand, but I digress. The Budos Band is cool as shit and KUSF is wonderful.)
Janelle Monáe wins the showmanship prize of the year based on her Outside Lands set alone, and to think she does it night after night after night is unreal. Even her soundman was rocking out—like, hard—and he’s someone who watches this happen every night, over and over. Janelle Monáe! Whose brain works as fast as hers? Whose body works fast enough to receive lightning-fast impulses from said brain? Who can sing, rap dance in just one show? (Kangol, Mr. Sophisticata, but I digress yet again.)
Monáe was fifteen minutes late due to a late flight, a fact that no one’s going to remember because her set ruled. She took to the stage in a black hooded cape, sang the hell out of her songs, danced up a tornado and laid forth a watertight case for stardom. When “Tightrope” first hit, I couldn’t shake Monáe’s very formal, clean presentation. There was something eerily obedient in her manner, as if her talent had been refined and polished beyond normal human behavior. But contrary to the unwritten code of alleged musical “purity,” talent doesn’t have to sloppy to be authentic, and trained singers can also be great singers. Seeing Monáe live reinforces these concepts.
I had been staring at the stage, covered in instrument cables, wondering if Monáe might accidentally step on one and slip while dancing. Alas, she’s got this problem solved by putting a special dance riser in front of the drums, which also meant that people way in the back could see Monáe’s dizzying footwork. She turned in a memorable set, to say the least, including Chaplin’s “Smile,” probably the greatest song about depression ever written. When she ended with “Tightrope,” I walked around the crowd and came upon a dude who was doing backflips and smoking a joint at the same time. Amazing.
Al Green was on his game.
I last saw Al Green in Sonoma, turning in a smooth, by-the-numbers show for middle-aged wine drinkers. It was great, but man, it was so refreshing to see the guy in front of thousands of kids in tight jeans and neon Ray-Bans. Especially when there’s a lot of retro-soul acts here today—Janelle Monáe, Mayer Hawthorne, the Budos Band—it’s nice to have Al Green arrive to show them how it’s done.
In a routine that’s familiar by now, he took the stage, throwing out dozens of roses and repeatedly saying “I love you.” It may be routine, but when Green does it, it doesn’t feel like schtick. He implored the crowd to sing along. He shouted out California. He wished for stairs leading down into the crowd and made fun of the “paparazzi” in the photo pit. He genuinely wanted to make a connection with people. I’d say he succeeded.
There are things you forgive Al Green. Taking a swig of Gatorade partway through the second verse of “Let’s Stay Together” is one of them. (The chorus, which everyone knows by heart and sings loudly, would be a much more appropriate spot to take a break.) Performing snippets of “I Can’t Help Myself,” “Bring It on Home to Me” and “My Girl” instead of his own songs is another. Why? Because his history, which is weighty in itself, is matched by his current-day pipes and patter. Wailing gospel high notes, hip-bumping to the downbeat, blowing kisses to the ladies—just owning it.
Afterwards, from the direction of Speedway Meadow, we saw a swarm of bodies who for some reason chose to watch Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes instead of Al Green, and I usually don’t pity people for following their internal compass, but man.
Garage a Trois. Last song. “1969” by the Stooges. The vibraphone player, Mike Dillon, reached over for a mic and bumped some percussion, which toppled to the floor. A sound guy approached, like he was going to reprimand the guy. Dillon saw him coming and executed a flying, head-first leap over the vibes, crashing to the ground and knocking over more stuff. He got up and dry-humped Skerik, the saxophone player. Then he kicked Skerik in the head. Noticing the mic had come unplugged, he threw it up in the air and into the crowd. It was nuts.
When the song was over, the soundmen looked relieved.
Once upon a time there was a band called Chromeo. The best moment of Chromeo’s set came when a ton of people outside the festival banded together on JFK drive and crashed through the fence. A cheer emitted from the crowd when dozens of people made it in without paying. (Watch the video here.) If you lived through the 1980s you’ve heard Chromeo before. The end.
Painfully apparent when Phoenix kicked off with “Lizstomania” was that Thomas Mars was singing along to a doubled backing track. Ouch! Except everyone was going so nuts they probably didn’t notice. The coolly detached Mars hopped into the crowd, whipping people into even further of a frenzy. I wonder what the poll results would be if each fan at the gates was asked if Phoenix should be headlining instead of Kings of Leon.
Nas: Yankees hat. Damian Marley: Dreads down to the floor. Hype man: Waving a Lion of Judah flag. Backing band: Solid. Backup singer: Wearing a Bob Marley T-Shirt. Work it, baby!
Damian Marley shouted something about legal marijuana, and the field went nuts. I missed it, but according to the East Bay Express, Nas at one point called Africa a “country.”
“I’m lookin’ out in this crowd,” declared Mike Ness, in that oh-so-Mike-Ness way (see: Live at the Roxy), “and I’m seein’ some scary lookin’ criminals… If any of you out there are considering a life of crime, I seriously discourage it!” Sure thing, Mike.
Zen moments come at unexpected times. Social Distortion playing “Ring of Fire” was one of them. Why did it move me? What about it was special that wasn’t, the dozens of other times I’ve heard it? I can’t say. Especially when Mike Ness gave it this strange introduction about Johnny Cash: “This was written by one of my heroes! He’s not a hero because he had great hair or wore all black, but because there was a time in this country where people thought good white music could exist without black music! I tell ya, without this guy we’d all be sittin’ on the front porch blowing into a jug tryin’ to make a tune!”
I’d never seen Social Distortion. When I was 13 and didn’t know anything about music I’d go to the Wherehouse in the mall and look at the cassette tapes, selecting my purchase based entirely on the names of the bands. This is how I wound up with Killer Klowns From Outer Space by the Dickies, Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death by the Dead Kennedys, and Prison Bound by Social Distortion. I thought Social Distortion was a raw name, and was kind of bummed when I got home to find it was basically country music instead of thrash.
Kings of Leon were up next, but so was RVIVR across town at Thee Parkside. I guarantee you that a thousand birds could shit on RVIVR’s heads and they’d keep playing. You can’t say the same for Kings of Leon, so I hopped on my bike and rode back to my car at Ocean Beach. I love this part of Golden Gate Park. It’s downhill all the way, past the buffalo and the casting pools and the archery field, and out on the Great Highway the sun and the fog and the water made a beautiful canvas behind that huge wooden windmill.