Opening day of Outside Lands 2013 kicked off on Friday with a main stage (Land’s End) set by Chicago rockers Smith Westerns as fans began to slowly swarm – and eventually pack – Golden Gate Park’s Polo Field. “This is our first Outside Lands,” said frontman Cullen Omori. “Thanks for watching and coming out early.”
The Polo Field and adjacent Hellman Hollow and Lindley Meadow, nestled firmly inside the park, all have deep ties to rock history and pop culture, stretching back decades before Outside Lands launched at the park in 2008. In 1967, the Human Be-In famously celebrated the burgeoning hippie scene in the nearby neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury and ushered in the Summer of Love. Subsequently, hallmark bands of that time – including, perhaps most notably, the Grateful Dead – performed a number of free concerts on those hallowed grounds. (The tradition of free music in the park continues to this day with the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and, in recent years, Michael Franti’s Power to the Peaceful.)
That history was honored on Friday when the National brought out the Grateful Dead’s own Bob Weir for a riveting version of their original “Terrible Love,” from 2010’s High Violet. Of course, anyone paying attention could have spotted the special guest appearance from a mile away – members of the National jammed with Weir at his TRI Studios last year for a special HeadCount benefit (“The Bridge Sessions”). More recently, the band’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner – both confessed Deadheads – have announced plans to curate an indie rock Grateful Dead tribute album.
“That was good, clean American fun,” Weir told Rolling Stone immediately after the performance. “God, I love this country.”
The National also relied on another local export – the Kronos Quartet – to provide string support to their set, adding a certain depth and color to their songs that isn’t always present in the live setting.
“The last time we played Outside Lands, we were humbled because we opened up for Tom Jones,” National frontman Matt Berninger told the audience, explaining that the sheer number of undergarments thrown at the stage was overwhelming, but that they were all intended for Jones and not the band. If he was trying to get the audience to strip for him, it didn’t work – although many people did, at least, sing along to songs from the National’s current release, Trouble Will Find Me, including lead track, “I Live in Salt.”
Due to a vaguely-explained, last-minute cancellation, D’Angelo’s stage-closing set on the Sutro Stage was replaced by Chic featuring Nile Rodgers. It may just have been the greatest curveball ever thrown at Outside Lands. Rodgers, who is experiencing a popular resurgence now, thanks to his current collaboration with Daft Punk, led the band through disco hits with an authority most other bands on Friday’s lineup could only wish for. Chic ripped through disco classics that Rodgers had his hand in, such as Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” Chic’s own “Dance Dance Dance” and of course, their signature hit: “Le Freak.” Bringing audience members on stage to throw down dance moves during the final number, Chic and Rodgers surely stole some thunder from the nearby electronic stages, as they managed to drop the beat and rock the party using all live instrumentation, without a single turntable or MacBook in sight. Chic are true pioneers of American dance music and they proved it for a modern audience.
But the biggest fireworks at Outside Lands’ opening ceremony – literally and figuratively – came with the day’s anchor act, the Beatles’ Paul McCartney. Some fans found the performance cathartic. Some cried. Others had wide smiles from start to finish. Nearly everyone understood the weight of Sir Paul tearing soulfully through Beatles and Wings numbers with the conviction of the person who wrote those songs – “Blackbird,” “Paperback Writer,” “Hey Jude,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Let It Be,” and so on and so forth – which, individually and collectively, helped shape our very idea of rock & roll.
“This is so cool,” McCartney told the audience. “I just have to take a minute to take it all in myself, okay?” He was talking about the act of performing music in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, but the Beatles have their own history with San Francisco, having performed their last full concert – ever – at the city’s Candlestick Park back in 1966.
McCartney has lost none of the charm that he had back then, entertaining the crowd with stories about Jimi Hendrix, dedicating songs to the loves of his life, and even bringing on stage two fans who held signs asking him to autograph their bodies so that they could get it tattooed. He obliged.
Of course, San Francisco being what it is, McCartney paused at one point to reflect on a long-standing local tradition at rock shows, which dates back to when the Grateful Dead performed for free in the same field: “It’s a strange smell I’m smelling,” he said coyly. “Something wonderful.”
McCartney was also the second act of the day to employ the local Kronos Quartet, using them to augment “Yesterday” in a rendition that moved virtually every single person in the field, including security guards and food vendors.
Fireworks erupted from behind the stage for “Live and Let Die” and again following McCartney’s final bow. Indeed, it seemed fitting. It was a particularly good start to a particularly good festival.
In addition to a solid lineup of musical talent, Outside Lands also brings together the Bay Area’s finest restaurants and food trucks, with curated areas including “Outside Lambs,” “Choco Lands,” and – new this year – “Cheese Lands.” There is also a sizable wine festival within the festival (“Wine Lands”) as well as a beer fest (“Beer Lands”), all of which create an immersive experience inside Golden Gate Park for the three days that the festival calls it home. Outside Lands continues on Saturday with headlining sets by Nine Inch Nails and Phoenix.