With so many major music festivals pulling from the same small pool of bands these days, festivals have become less about the lineup and more about the experience itself – the geographic location, physical features and special installations that, hopefully, make each one unique. Or, at least, worthy. To this end, Outside Lands has an unfair home court advantage – its permanent residence in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park rests on the same hallowed grounds where the very cradle of American rock music first started rocking back and forth in the 1960s.
“The whole San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury scene was very influential in everything that I do, even before I got involved with any of the guys from the Grateful Dead,” guitarist Warren Haynes (Gov’t Mule, Allman Bros.) told Rolling Stone shortly before taking the stage with his new solo band on Saturday. But the Bay Area and its surrounding territories have become known for more than just bell bottom blues, electric shuffles and spaced-out jams. San Francisco is a mecca for foodies as much as music buffs and, of course, many of the world’s finest wines are squeezed from grapes grown just outside the city limits. And so Outside Lands has become the Bay Area in a bottle – the food court has transformed into a satellite operation for many of the area’s finest restaurants and, by Sunday, comments about the fried mac and cheese fingers from Andalu were as commonly overheard as those about any actual bands, per se. The festival also hosts Wine Lands, a wine-tasting village along the main promenade that easily had a crowd the size of any other given side-stage at any given moment. Fans here discussed reds and whites with the same aplomb of bloggers discussing their choice between Little Dragon versus Wye Oak (who, unfortunately, shared a competing time slot on Sunday afternoon).
Taking all the fun of Bonnaroo and delivering it, literally, to the front door of Haight-Ashbury, where the wild things once roamed, the unified spirit of those original San Francisco bands was very much alive and in the air, everywhere, throughout the weekend. Local heat-seekers the tUnE-YarDs and Stone Foxes both played to, what they claimed, were their largest crowds to date. After their set, Stone Foxes’ Spence Koehler told Rolling Stone that when Outside Lands first launched in 2008, he bought tickets and came as a fan. “Every year the dream has been that one day we’ll get to play Outside Lands,” he said. “And this year, it finally came true.”
Meanwhile, classic rocker John Fogerty mostly kept to mega-hits from his Creedence Clearwater Revival days. And while many, if not most, in the audience recognized those tunes from car rides with their parents, Fogerty couldn’t hold back his enthusiasm. “It’s great to be in my hometown, playing some of my homemade songs,” he said, before launching into radio-perfect versions of “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?,” “Proud Mary,” and “Fortunate Son.”
The sale of single-day tickets ensured that Friday’s vibe crossed streams with Phish tour. Throngs of Phish kids visited the park to watch their band jam as if they really are the rightful heirs to the Grateful Dead’s throne – something even the locals had to consider. Phish put on their festival face, showcasing their compositional epics (“Fluffhead”), power hitters (“Chalkdust Torture”) and deep-end explorations (“Tweezer”). They also offered Golden Gate Park their own guided tour of rock history, playfully covering clever selections from David Bowie (“Life on Mars?”), the Velvet Underground (“Rock & Roll”), Frank Zappa (“Peaches en Regalia”) and Ween (“Roses Are Free”).
On Saturday night, British rockers Muse proved once again that they can anchor a stadium-sized festival in the States and pull it off in a way that’s every bit as grandiose as their lyrics claim they can. Performing nearly the entire Side A from their most recent release, 2009’s The Resistance, Muse also sprinkled older hits such as “Supermassive Black Hole” with improvisational moments of guitar rock glory, riffing on everyone from AC/DC to Nirvana. When ring leader Matt Bellamy started teasing the traditional classic “House of the Rising Sun” on guitar, the entire audience sang along. It was unplanned and perfect. But Muse had a lot of these spontaneous moments, and it was during these times when the band truly touched some kind of greatness. Of course, the laser beams helped, too.
Sunday night’s grand finale set from Arcade Fire came with its own fireworks, as the band sang about life in the suburbs from the heart of one of the nation’s largest city parks. The show was filled with all the usual anthems from the band’s esteemed trilogy, while frontman Win Butler repeatedly confirmed his love affair for the Bay, admitting that “this is one of those times where we have to pinch ourselves, because we actually get paid to go to San Francisco and play a show.” Butler also seemed thrilled with Outside Lands itself – “I spent a lot of the day out in the field and went to all the food vendors,” he said. “There’s just such a great vibe out there.”
Earlier in the afternoon, Butler assisted Mavis Staples on harmony during her daytime set for a cover of the Band‘s “The Weight.” Butler relayed that Staples – who famously sang “I’ll Take You There” with the Staple Singers – told fans, “We’ve been taking you there for 60 years – just take us there for one second. We’re only as good a band as you are.”
This symbiotic band-fan relationship was out front throughout the weekend and it was the blurring of this line, in particular, that really gave the festival a different vibe than many of its contemporaries. Bands became fans, fans joined bands and, at one point, even the mayor showed up to voice his approval.
Yes, this was the year that Outside Lands finally became the festival it always promised to be — which is to say, one of the greats.