More than a cookie-cutter American rock festival, Outside Lands takes advantage of its setting in Golden Gate Park by pointedly celebrating all that is the Bay Area. It’s a strategy that really makes the event, now in its fifth year, stand apart from any other festival in its class. Two of the three headliners at this year’s Outside Lands live a short distance from San Francisco (Neil Young, Metallica) while most of the food, wine, beer and art exhibitors were locally sourced. And the festival grounds itself is historic for being the site of a series of free shows in the Sixties that helped launch the first wave of San Francisco bands into international acclaim.
“The setting is great,” the Walkmen’s Walt Martin told Rolling Stone after his set. “I like how the stage we played on is tucked into a little valley.”
His bandmate, Hamilton Leithauser, chimed in: “Yeah, there’s a lot of history here.”
On Friday, Beck performed a series of hits that included several cuts from 2002’s Sea Change, one of which – “Lost Cause” – he dedicated to Adam “MCA” Yauch, who passed away earlier this year. “The first time I ever played in this field was because of him, back in 1997,” Beck explained. “I believe the Foo Fighters were here too, if memory serves me.”
Fittingly, the Foo Fighters took the main stage immediately following Beck, with frontman Dave Grohl running out to the soundboard to get momentarily closer to the tens of thousands of fans in back. “I don’t have a lot of time to talk,” he told the crowd. “We’ve got a short time to play and a lot of fucking songs . . . but I’m going to be honest – the faster we get done, the quicker I get to see Neil fucking Young.”
By the time Young did take the stage, with his band Crazy Horse, the infamous San Francisco fog had enveloped the main field, creating an eerie backdrop for what turned out to be a spooky feedback jam-packed session. The first song alone, “Love and Only Love,” stretched past the 17-minute mark with multiple jams between verses. Midway through the set, Young played a couple of songs straightforward solo on his acoustic – “The Needle and the Damage Done” and “Twisted Road” – before getting his ya ya’s out, back on the electric, including a wild improvisational romp through “Fucking Up.”
Young may not have performed any actual songs from his latest album, Americana, but the point of his set was not to promote product so much as to play music of the moment, in the moment, like so many great bands have done in Golden Gate Park before. Snubbing convention and even punking the audience, Young introduced one number by saying he wrote it that very morning and that it “sounds like another, but I can’t remember which one it is.” He then launched into “Cinnamon Girl” from 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.
On Saturday, a reunited Grandaddy spawned bro hugs throughout a sea of hipsters on the Sutro Stage. “This whole reunion thing actually started because of Outside Lands,” frontman Jason Lytle told Rolling Stone before his set. “That was the initial offer that we got. After we said OK, all of these other promoters and other people heard about it . . . and that’s where the whole idea of doing this reunion came from and having it be as long as it is, which is about a month. But also, the idea was to take it one step at a time. Let’s do this, let’s see if we’re stoked about it, and let’s just see if it’s fun again and then go from there.” The band came onstage to the theme song from the television show “Welcome Back, Kotter.” Lytle told the crowd, “I lost a lot of sleep wondering how this was going to go, and it seems to be going fine.”
Metallica’s headlining set on Saturday featured lots of the band’s classic material (“Master of Puppets,” “Ride the Lightning,” “Creeping Death”) paired with a fair amount of pyro and endless shout-outs to San Francisco. “We’re very grateful to be playing in the backyard of the greatest city,” said frontman James Hetfield. He also noted that a friend of his who lives a good distance from the park told him earlier that he could hear the band soundcheck all the way from his house. “So we’re not only playing for you,” said Hetfield. “We’re playing for all of the Bay Area.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise on Saturday came when Norah Jones invited Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir onstage to help perform her cover of the Dead’s “It Must Have Been the Roses.” Guitarist Jason Abraham Roberts told Rolling Stone beforehand that “everybody in Norah’s band are just huge Deadheads” and that, in fact, they’ve been performing the song every night.
Sunday’s surprise came packaged in the form of Jack White, who initially thrilled fans by parking his mobile Third Man Records truck in the woods next to a food truck village and a dessert oasis entitled Chocolate Lands. Around 3 p.m. White and his all-female band emerged from a van to perform a guerilla-style pop-up concert. Tom Morello watched from alongside the Third Man Records truck, then stepped in for his own performance. Later Sunday afternoon, White switched gears and brought out his all-male band for his set on the main stage.
Earlier Sunday, during Morello’s set on the Sutro Stage, he caused his typical frenzy when he invited the entire audience up on the stage. Enough people took him up on the offer to make even him a little nervous about the stage’s stability. “We want to make the newspapers for the right reasons, not the stage collapsing,” he said. But he then told security to let them up: “There doesn’t need to be a security check. These are my people.” Morello then placed one person in charge of filming for YouTube while everyone else was encouraged to put away their smartphones and live in the moment. He also offered journalists free advice for a headline: “It Started With a ‘One-Man Revolution’ and It Ended With a ‘Worldwide Rebel Song.'”
Skrillex, Justice and Big Gigantic provided the electronic dance beats for Outside Lands, bringing in a noticeably different audience across the field. Big Gigantic’s Dominic Lalli saw it all as one big continuum. “There’s a super diverse lineup here,” he told Rolling Stone. “A lot of very different stuff, stylistically. And amazing bands. That’s one very exciting thing about being here – lots of great music to see. And we’ve seen a bunch already.”
Sunday night’s festival-closing set by Stevie Wonder brought an understated if funky end to this year’s Outside Lands with covers of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” the Beatles’ “She Loves You” and his own classics, “Superstition” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” It was a gentle landing after three days of musical flight.