Yes, San Francisco is cold. Very cold. The Outside Lands Festival celebrated its fifth year with a triumphantly ass-freezing weekend of mist, fog and music. California dreaming, on such a winter's day: This is August, right? No matter – Outside Lands is how every music festival should be, with one of the happiest, friendliest, most hassle-free crowds imaginable. No celebrity cameos, no VIP riffraff, just music freaks getting coated in Golden Gate Park dust and braving the arctic winds. Cheery vibes were everywhere, from Metallica ("San Francisco, your boys in Metallica are here to entertaaaiiiin you!") to Stevie Wonder, who closed Sunday night by thanking all the bands who played and adding, "Congratulations on your careers. Peace."
The chilly weather merely added to the communal spirit: When Wonder began "Master Blaster" with the line "It's hotter than July," it reminded everyone to put on another layer. (The blankets at the merch booth sold out within hours, so I had to bundle up in a truly appalling array of hippie scarves. Hope there are no photos.) There was more music than anyone could soak up in three days – I hoped to catch Skrillex, but that would have meant walking out on Stevie Wonder singing "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing," which would have been like trying to eject my kidneys through my left nostril. These are just a few of the highest highlights.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse
The revitalized Horse headlined the opening night, beating up on classics like "Powderfinger." But it was the awesome new songs that got everyone buzzing – these feel like the heftiest tunes Young's done since his mid-Nineties run of Sleeps With Angels, Mirror Ball and Broken Arrow. He announced, "Time for some meditation," then roared through the 20-minute guitar-elegy-for-the-Sixties stomp "Walk Like a Giant," complete with a whistling chorus and a mega-bizarre power-chord feedback outro, which winnowed the audience down to the diehards. Neil was in feisty spirits, asking us, "How many of you were conceived in a Ramada Inn?" For the big finale, he romped through "Mr. Soul" and "Roll Another Number," playing around with the Woodstock verse and adding the line, "Jimi Hendrix, I'll see you next time I pass this way."
"Are you having a good weekend?" James Hetfield asked. "We're here to ruin it." The hometown heroes did a massive Saturday-night set, packed with early garage-days-revisited oldies for the local longtime fans. These guys know how to take over a festival. They opened with their primal Eighties thrash anthem "Hit The Lights" and went into a barrage of songs from Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets, while setting off Towering Inferno levels of pyro and fireworks. "You like that song?" Hetfield asked after "Fade to Black." "Should we play it again?" They didn't, but considering Justin Bieber's recent revelation that "Fade To Black" is his jam, it was gracious of them to bust that one out at all.
The great man did not disappoint, to say the least. He entered wearing a keytar, sang one verse of a Marvin Gaye song, endorsed Obama, endorsed God, paid tribute to Michael Jackson and John Lennon, then got down to business and led beatific sing-alongs on a couple dozen or so of the best songs ever written, i.e., his. It was two hours of joy spasms, from "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" to "Superstition" to damn-right-he-went-there "I Just Called to Say I Love You." He came back for an encore, ordered his band to vamp in E-minor, and explained, "I don't know the words, but I feel like singing this one." Then he did the Beatles' "She Loves You" (he was right – he didn't know any of the lyrics besides "yeah, yeah, yeah," and he didn't need any) plus the Temptations' "My Girl." Now that's a legend.
Outside Lands is the rare festival where you can eat like a king, from gourmet food trucks to the guy selling baggies of "medicated Chex mix." The showstopper has to be Andalu's crispy mac-and-cheese wedges. It's impossible to walk through the crowd with a plate of these, because drunk girls keep coming up to eat off your plate. They can't resist. It's like they're drawn into its salty vortex.
Considering that the Foos released their greatest song ever just last year, "Walk," Dave Grohl and crew were primed to dominate. Somehow, up on the video screen, drummer Taylor Hawkins glowered just like Peter Dinklage, to the point where you'd expect him to drop the sticks and slap Joffrey. During "Everlong" (which is now merely their second-greatest song) I noticed an extremely short, extremely high young lady grinding right behind me. "I've been air-humping you for the past 10 minutes!" she said. "Thanks!" Oh, Dave Grohl – is there no limit to your mysterious power to bewitch women's minds?
Easily identifiable a half-mile away by his blue suspenders, Mr. White brought the all-male half of his band, setting them loose on songs from all over his catalog. Some took off ("I Cut Like a Buffalo"), some fell apart ("Hotel Yorba"), and "Seven Nation Army" got totally savage. But the highlight was just Jack The Revelator alone, strumming his acoustic guitar, doing "We're Going to Be Friends."
They do basically everything you could ever want a live band to do, except be Stevie Wonder. The Scottish mod-guitar dance-whores have kept quiet the past couple of years, making a modest return in an early-afternoon time slot, so I tried to to keep my expectations low. But they blew the park away – this is still the band that brings out the craziest in crazy girls. Their peak-after-peak set had stellar new tunes like "Scarlet Blue," alongside gems like "Michael," "Ulysses" and "Outsiders." They also did a touching tribute to the late Donna Summer, with a jam on "I Feel Love." That sentiment goes without saying – for a florid romantic obsessive like Alex Kapranos, singing "I feel love" is like Morrissey singing "I feel awkwardness" or Rick Ross declaring "I feel a certain confidence in my lifestyle choices."
They easily could have played the main stage, but even over the hills and far away, in Lindley Meadow, the Shakes pulled the most absurdly overpacked swarm of the weekend. Too many people squeezed in to hear them, yet there wasn't any pushing or shoving – Brittany Howard's mighty-love soul pipes echoed off the trees and chilled everyone out.
The Icelandic space-rockers are one of my favorite live bands ever, but I've never seen them with a crowd this rowdy, and it definitely enhanced the fun. Sometimes you'll get an uptight Sigur Rós audience where people are shooshing during the quiet parts. (Other bands have mosh pits – this one has shoosh pits.) That was not a problem tonight, as people kept whooping, puking or making out. There was even a guy spread-eagled on the grass who yelled, "Sigur motherfucking Rós!" More Chex mix, sir?
He did a set of crowd-pleasing hits, even if some of them clearly pleased everybody in the crowd except Beck. There was something funny about the way he couldn't wait to get "Loser" over with, treating the song like a dumb tattoo he got in 1994 that people give him quarters to show. What better way to do justice to the song's angst? But he jammed out on "Black Tambourine," "Hotwax" and "Where It's At," the latter aided by the keyboardist throwing in bits of "Rhiannon" and "Riders on the Storm." Beck gave a shout-out to Adam Yauch, recalling the 1990s Tibetan Freedom concerts: "The first time I played this field was because of him." And maybe there was also a tribute to late Frogs drummer Dennis Flemion in "Where It's At," with its Frogs-sampling hook, "That was a good drum break!"
Thee Oh Sees
I've always loved these surf/noise thrash hellions, but I'd only seen them play in sleazy rock bars after dark, so I didn't think they'd be able to duplicate the effect outdoors on broad daylight. Wrong, wrong, wrong, because their demonic lobster-rocking grooves were utterly festival-perfect. One of the weekend's friskiest audiences for sure.
Girls with fake mustaches
This fashion statement won the Is This A Thing Now? Award – quite a few ladies were rocking fake mustaches, the old-school 1890s kind that look all waxed and curly at the ends. Some were artfully applied, others just scribbled on with a Sharpie. I gotta confess, this look is a new one on me, and so I ask you, wise readers: Is This A Thing Now?
Dr. Flotsam's Hell Brew Review
On a side stage, in a corner of the woods, it was an old-time medicine show featuring the kind of roots music that normally isn't my cup of twang, except it offered great bands like the Dustbowl Revival, whose Americana swing was so fun I went back to see them again the next day, and the Brothers Comatose, who did a banjo-driven hoedown on the Stones' "Dead Flowers."
The dudes with the jump rope
The most impressive how-to-meet-girls ploy of the festival: two sloppy-looking dudes stood out on the Polo Field twirling a jump rope, making it inevitable that drunk girl after drunk girl would run over to jump for a while. A neat trick. Unfortunately, it got ugly when other sloppy-looking dudes stumbled over to test their rope-jumping skills; I couldn't bring myself to watch the gory denouement.
San Francisco public transit
According to persistent rumors, San Francisco has a public transportation system. It also has a pro hockey team, and I wouldn't bet on them either.
The long goodbye
The whole weekend was full of highlights: Die Antwoord getting freaky, Regina Spektor getting cheeky, Big Boi doing "We Will Rock You," MSTRKRFT bringing that beat back. But what can you say about a festival where one of the most fun moments happens during that final trudge to the exits? At the end of any festival, this ritual is torture, as everyone gets crammed together like sardines. But someone in the crowd started singing "Build Me Up, Buttercup" and before long there were hundreds of strangers joining in. Then everyone sang "Bohemian Rhapsody," skipping the second verse to get to the galileos. There are few concert experiences as surreal as getting stuck in a concrete tunnel under a bridge in Golden Gate Park, cheek by jowl with hordes of people dividing into bismillah and let-me-go factions with no static at all. What a strange and beautiful moment. Only at Outside Lands.