Ah, the things you don’t get from other festivals. Hearing people on the shuttle bus talk about the night before and how much they drank. About the game of Scrabble that lasted until 2:30am and the crackhead sleeping in the hall. About how they’d love to move but their rent is low. “I’ll only move if I can buy a house, or get married,” says a woman pushing 40, “and neither is going to happen very soon.” She’s good looking. More talking. About how nice the shuttles are. “Grizzly Bear’s pretty cool,” says someone, to his girlfriend. “They’re like a mix of… of Yo La Tengo, and the Walkmen, and the Flaming Lips.” Amazing how his frame of reference encompasses today’s lineup.
I have written about the Treasure Island Festival time and time and time and time and time and time again. By now, it is a good friend and a bottle of pills: comforting, scenic and dependable, with enough variety and excitement for me to keep singing its praises. Word has obviously caught on, because this year’s festival, with a somewhat weak lineup, was the best attended yet. Both days were sold out.
Contrary to what you might overhear on the shuttle to the island, Grizzly Bear doesn’t sound anything like Yo La Tengo, the Walkmen or the Flaming Lips. Their new album, Veckatimest—the first time I heard it, I couldn’t believe I was enjoying it. (I regularly root for the “rock” contingent of “indie rock,” not the increasingly visible four-part harmony infiltration of indie rock.) There’s a prodding, experimental aspect to their compositions that I can’t let go of. “Two Weeks” may have been the summer hit, but give me long, intricate songs like “Fine for Now,” whose lyrics are a bunch of vague bullshit but whose music is sheer beauty.
They opened with
the Talking Heads’ “Warning Sign” “Cheerleader,” and played a brief set heavy on Veckatimest material, replicating almost exactly the precise tone and instrumentation of the album. Singer Ed Droste attempted to have some personality between songs, and failed, but their songs gave off a polished classicism that hid their complexity. What the hell were they doing playing so early, at 4pm?
One more reason to like Grizzly Bear: their website—and Droste’s Twitter feed—mentions whenever possible the options for buying tickets to the band’s shows without a shitty service charge. Also, my friend Kerri points out that Veckatimest is an anagram for Meat Vest? Ick! Luckily, their heads didn’t explode in the middle of “Two Weeks.”
I spoke too soon when I said something about Bob Mould lulling nostalgia hounds to sleep. Assuming Mould would play songs from his recent solo albums, I headed to the bathrooms, only to be pulled back by “The Act We Act,” the first song from Sugar’s Copper Blue. In fact, Mould represented Copper Blue hardcore. “A Good Idea,” “Changes,” “Hoover Dam”—was this for real?
It was a genuine stroke of luck. Mould’s regular bassist couldn’t make the show, so at the last minute he called up David Barbe, the bassist for Sugar, and throughout the set many, many nights in 1994 came rushing back to me. Yes! It was nostalgia! But of the entirely unexpected variety. Oh, sure, Husker Du fans got “Makes No Sense at All,” “In a Free World,” “Something I Learned Today”—but who’d’a thunk Mould would rock the Sugar songs so hard? It was like Prince playing a show of all shit from Graffiti Bridge.
I’ve never gotten into their Eastern European brass tip, but Beirut makes me glad for one reason and one reason only—because of their unlikely success, the independent San Francisco distributor Revolver is able to take more chances getting good, otherwise unheard music into stores. The plight of an independent distributor is a lonely one, and Revolver over the years has seen a ton of exclusive deals with labels and artists who decide they can do better with R.E.D. or Caroline and jump ship, leaving their early supporter in the dirt. When I see “Exclusively Distributed by Revolver USA” on the back of a hugely selling album like Gulag Orkestar, I am heartened for the DiCristina Stair Builders.
The Walkmen have the East Coast written all over them; they fuckin’ rule. What was decided at their first band practice? “Look, you guys, we’re gonna get vintage instruments and play them like nobody else played them. You, Hamilton, you gotta good voice, you’re the singer. Okay? But we gotta look tough. Or bored. Somewhere between tough or bored. Then we gonna write the best songs you ever heard.”
Bows and Arrows is a bonafide gem, and at the Outside Lands festival last year, even newer songs like “The New Year” floored me. I hope that they don’t turn into the Guadalcanal Diary of their day, i.e. a band with a fresh semi-retroish take on current trends who fades into Rockin’ Road Trip obscurity. More songs like “Thinking of a Dream I Had” ought to do the trick.
I ran into Hamilton Leithauser afterward; he told me the horn players—who were tight as hell—learned their parts five minutes before going on stage. Funny thing, going on tour and having to hire pickup musicians in each town.
The greatest psychedelic guitar work recorded in 1997 (not related to Jason Pierce) belongs to Yo La Tengo and the outro to the song “We’re an American Band” from I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. I have listened to this particular guitar solo more times than I care to remember, and I still haven’t fully figured it out—meaning that I haven’t tried to PLAY the thing, merely to comprehend it. Is there a ghost of an angry debutante inside the guitar? Did they bring an octopus in the studio to flail upon the strings? Can you keep feedback alive on an iron lung?
During Yo La Tengo’s second song, Ira Kaplan re-creates that same mayhem five feet from my face and I still can’t make heads or tails of it. I do know that what he did to his guitar didn’t constitute the accepted definition of “playing.” He sometimes put his fingers on the strings, just like he sometimes let it swing away from his body entirely to let the angry debutante do her thing. Maximized control in chaos environments. Rhythm section calm and holding. Snapped back together like elastic. Amazing.
The Flaming Lips have put out a new album, Embryonic, that reminds me of the Nobel Peace Prize—it’s getting a lot of acclaim simply for not being At War With the Mystics. If it could be chopped down to an EP, it would be perfect, but better yet is that it has shaken up the band’s live show, which though visually incredible has stayed pretty routine for about five years. I’ve seen them three times, and I swore that if Wayne Coyne smashed blood on his head and made a puppet nun sing “Happy Birthday” into a fisheye-lens camera yet again, I would scream.
As soon as the Decemberists finished, Coyne spent a good deal of time onstage helping his roadies set up their ever-more elaborate set. Then the music began. After walking atop the crowd in a plastic space bubble, shooting confetti from blaster guns, blowing fog around the stage, flinging ribbons to and fro and leading his band in “Race for the Prize,” Coyne settled into a friendly rapport with the San Francisco crowd, talking about the band’s first show at the I-Beam and how San Francisco had always felt like a second home. “Thank you for being the home of the freaks,” he said.
The band played a standard mix of “hits,” with new tracks like “Convinced of the Hex” sounding the most invigorated, but it was an obscure song called “Enthusiasm for Life Defeats Existential Fear” that reminded me most of the Flaming Lips’ magic. Musically settled squarely between soothing and weird, the song’s title alone could serve as the band’s mission statement, and it carried us across the Bay Bridge and back into the real world.
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.