At Saturday's opening of the Outside Lands fest in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, fans witnessed a collision of styles and generations, from Cat Power, My Morning Jacket and Tokyo Police Club to the old-school Americana of the Levon Helm Band, all leading up to ex-members of the Grateful Dead jamming deep into the cosmos on one big stage while the Stokes issued sharp, twitchy blasts of modern rock on another. Originally launched as a three-day event in 2008, Outside Lands was down to just two days this year, but distinguished itself from most festivals with a tasteful mingling of music and unique Bay Area cuisine. Tasting booths from local wineries with names like Foggy Bridge and the Hobo Wine Co. sat under one tent, and available snacks included Korean steak tacos wrapped in seaweed, barbequed oysters, organic ice cream and vegan crepes.
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"You ready for some Grateful Dead action after this?" asked singer Julian Casablancas early in the Stokes set, referring to Furthur, the band led by the Dead's Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, already in progress at the eastern edge of the polo field. The uncertain response suggested fans were staying put — just as others were for Furthur. The Strokes sounded exceptionally muscular in the park's expansive setting. Fabrizio Moretti contributed heavy beats to "Vision of Division" and "Reptilia," as Casablancas eased his vocals from deadpan to excited and back again. "This is It" slowly built to a sing-along as Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi created an intricate overlap of guitars. "I remember playing these songs in front of four people," Casablancas said, looking out on the tens of thousands of fans. "It's really surreal." Even, apparently, after all the year's of the band's success.
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For Furthur, it was the venue that seemed significant: The park is, of course, the site of so many Dead concerts and counter-culture gatherings, from the first Human Be-In back in 1967. The original Grateful Dead last performed there in 1991. On Saturday, first-generation hippies mingled on the lawn with younger fans, as Furthur unfurled their lengthy blues-folk-rock jams. Weir stood at center-stage, playing both sharp and languid lead guitar. He helmed a 17-minute take on the Dead's "Cassidy," as well as a nine-minute version of Pink Floyd's "Time," starting off reasonably faithful to the original, before stretching into spaced-out territory of quite a different kind. As a cool, misty breeze blew across the field, fans joined Lesh in singing, "Home, home again, I like to be there when I can."
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Late Saturday afternoon on the eastern Twin Peaks stage, Cat Power offered torch songs and cautionary tales, alternating wisps of hope and darkness. Singer Chan Marshall wandered the big stage in a black hoodie and jeans, immersed in the echoing guitar and a shuffling beats from her three-piece band. Marshall has perfected the art of turning obscure cover tunes into standards, and making the standards her own. Her band gave a Stonesy bottleneck twang to her own "Silver Stallion," then took a spooky pass at the Rolling Stones' "Sway," virtually unrecognizable with its brooding rhythm and her distracted wail. Marshall soon jumped into the photo pit to sing a few songs, including her understated but joyful take on "Sea of Love," to the front rows pressed against the barricades.
Before that, My Morning Jacket delivered a full 90-minute set of modern Americana, stretching from uncomplicated folk to sudden guitar solos that recalled Crazy Horse. "I'm Amazed" was rooted in the same muscular, soulful folk-rock once perfected by the Band. "Gideon" began as forlorn folk, sung by Jim James with his eyes shut tight, but was then interrupted by explosive bursts of rock as the group gathered around drummer Patrick Hallahan for stretched out instrumental breaks. For "Golden," James plucked a cascading folk melody on his acoustic guitar, with flashes of pedal steel from Carl Broemel. The band also shifted gears for the deep funk of "Highly Suspicious," sung by James in an aching falsetto with a towel draped over his face, closing with spasms of gut-punch rock.
The 11-person Levon Helm Band (including a four-piece horn section) delivered their own, more traditional Americana with great warmth and skill. Band drummer Helm kept the beat while singing the Band's "Ophelia" with a hearty rasp, and then leaned into his kit during a soaring "The Shape I'm In."
As for the younger outfits, Wolfmother offered slabs of noise, rock and electric blues, including the churning, flailing riffs from their signature 2005 tune "Woman," while Tokyo Police Club presented the driving melodic jangle to "Breakneck Speed" with a playful rasp and urgency.
That afternoon, singer Eugene Hutz of the gypsy-punk troupe Gogol Bordello offered a useful take on the day, slashing at an acoustic guitar and shouting the lyrics to "Ultimate": "There was never any good old days / They are today, they are tomorrow!"
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