Features | Festivals

Outside Lands 2008

By Andre Perry | 14 October 2008

:: Photos courtesy sfoutsidelands.com

This year’s Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival, in segments:

On the way to the press tent, I consider asking the Walkmen for an interview, but the moment is fleeting. I realize that I’ve left my voice recorder at my buddy’s house. The Walkmen played in Los Angeles last night and apparently had to be here by 10 in the morning to begin interviews. There they are, standing and answering questions to some guy holding a video camera. I walk by again, about forty minutes later, and the band is still standing around, but there’s a different guy with a camera asking questions. There is some pleasure, no doubt, in playing the same songs, re-capturing the rush on a daily basis, but to answer the same questions, over and over, is there any truth in that?—coming to another famously smug region to replay context-less moments over and over; I’d rather have none of that. If I can help it. I watch the Walkmen sink further into the interview circus: the journalists, the cameras, the microphones, the whole machine of it all, like an outdated model that somehow never becomes defunct.

If what you were going for was a summer festival devoid of sunshine, full of cold air and dense, wet fog, then you have succeeded, intentionally or not, in dreaming up something entirely progressive. The fog, she’s everywhere, heaving down on us, scooping up and ladling out chills around our ears with perpetual breeze, indiscriminate. A festival in San Francisco in the dead cold of the summer in the least sunny part of the city: it’s crazy, it’s genius, it’s awful, it’s seductive.

On a small stage Liars get nasty with their hits and there are these beautiful trees behind them—nothing quite like the thick greens of Golden Gate Park—the wind is blowing, the Liars’ hair is up in arms with itself, but they are dancing and cavorting, inciting us to action. A few people are freaking out in the crowd. That’s really the best way to stay warm in this winter festival that’s happening in August. I kind of wish it was snowing. Now that would really be something. No beer, just hot cocoa. Reindeer. How much would it cost to make it snow?

No, that would be a terrible waste of energy and this festival is proudly green. Which makes me wonder why the organizers give everybody who comes here a thick glossy book filled with features on all of the bands and a zillion useless ads. All we need are schedules and maps, not the 2,000 word essay on Radiohead, not a shithead polemic on a band that we already know everything about when it comes to festivals. Gloves would have been more practical than a book; it’s too cold to double-fist these beers with bare hands. I roll the sleeves of my hoodie around the edges of my beer cup and drink away. The soundman tells Liars they only have one song left. They smile into their microphones and announce, “OK, we just got one more so now we’re gonna play our entire first album.”

Fuck the line—I piss behind the port-o-potties because it’s quicker and that way I can see a lot of hipsters’ dicks, possibly genderless when touching the air. My own fog-fearing pointer reflects.

Does San Francisco really need another music festival? Noise Pop already collects all of the indie royalty, bands like the Mountain Goats, Sleater-Kinney, and Television. With venues spread across town, forcing a healthy use of public transportation and the occasional cab, Noise Pop really does try to speak to the cultural geography of San Francisco and its various music scenes. One minute you’re crushed in the dense thrall of the Mission, cars, crack-heads, and cool rockers all around, and the next you’re swinging down to Bimbo’s for the bridge and tunnel swank of North Beach. Then there’s the Treasure Island Festival, which is compact and relentlessly hip, capturing the hottest bands and DJ kids in one place. It comes off fresh and exhilarating but ultimately accessible, like a mini-Coachella. What about Golden Gate Park, why not take over that little chunk of land? Kick out the bums, the degenerates, and earth sciences school field trips for a few days and gentrify that moist little nub of green into a big roaring beast.

At Outside Lands, they’ve named different parts of the festival grounds after different areas of the city, like the Panhandle and the Presidio, but they don’t seem to represent any particular notion of San Francisco’s history and culture. It’s just a lot of park attached to a lot more park. But hey, Radiohead’s here and that’s enough culture to make up for the faux-San Franciscization of this festival, eh. What would be really sharp is if they had an inaccessible corner of the park where they put all of the poor, non-white people and gave them guns and drugs and called it the Hunter’s Point stage. Now that would be racist, classist, and a damn honest slice of the city at hand. Shit, even the ghost of Mac Dre could headline that stage.

The choices are really not that difficult. I will not see the Felice Brothers because it is a long fucking walk. I will not see Beck, not just because I am bored with this year’s Modern Guilt, but because when I try to walk over and see Beck the line is impossible. A small dusty pathway connecting one field to another is bottlenecked with strife.

I weigh the situation: see Beck from afar and then see Radiohead from afar too or just go find a good place for Radiohead? In this sense, this festival is what you make of it, not what it makes for you. Like many alterna-fortress indie city festivals, the possible disappointment is still pungent enough. Still: I have not only missed Beck but I’m not even feeling his presence here. For all I know he never showed up. And the Black Keys, they’re playing right now, half a mile away but I can’t even picture them in my head. This is neither good nor bad. It just is. I see Radiohead on Friday night and that’s pretty much it. Friday night is really less of a festival. It’s just a really big Radiohead show with a lot of people walking in a bunch of different directions.

Someone’s head is about to get severed Wu-Tang style. Radiohead’s P.A. sound just dropped completely out. Completely. In the distance you can hear the whimper of Ed O’Brien’s amp onstage. They’ve never sounded so small. Thom Yorke rolls with it and then the sound comes back on and everyone’s happy because this truly is the best band on earth, the beats of “15 Step” creating an almost club-like atmosphere on Golden Gate’s lawn. And then it happens again. Radiohead’s sound completely dies. The P.A. is out. Who charges over $200/head for festival tickets and doesn’t get a legit sound system? I think Jonny Greenwood just whipped out his dick and it’s a blue light saber. Witness: the Outside Lands sound engineering staff exiting the festival grounds with haste.

It’s Sunday and I’ve pulled the quintessential San Francisco move by flaking out. I’m not even at the festival. The “Panic” is probably spreading the bad acid vibes around a crowd of long hairs right now and I’m nowhere to be found. I’m in hiding, quietly licking the wounds of Saturday. The park, the people, and the priceless sight of bands playing in a modest uproar of weather patterns, it all bit me like a French kiss from a Great White shark. I’m impressed and a little bit shell-shocked. I’m getting too old to walk around that much.

The press conference is funny to no one except me, my buddy who came along for the ride, and Les Claypool. Claypool sits in between Kaki King and one of the dudes from Two Gallants. I want to pull out a map and ask, “I’m looking Les, but I just can’t seem to find these fabled seas of cheese. Could you point them out?” but they don’t let us ask any questions. The moderator is extolling, or rather, prodding the artists to extol the festival’s green initiative. I look around at the stacks of festival guidebooks on tables and strewn about the grass. The best use for these things really would be to make a bonfire. I wonder, since they brought us this deep into Golden Gate Park, Why not push further onto Ocean Beach and just have Radiohead play in the fucking Pacific on a raft going down in flames, Beowulf-style? At any rate, Claypool seems a bit elsewhere when it comes to the festival’s greenness. Among other things he says, “Where I live in the [California] country, I drive a big-ass truck… I’m leaving my carbon ass-print everywhere I go.”

I’m a bit far away but Primus continues to shred faces all over the front of the crowd. Flashing his jam-band cred, Claypool slips into an extended bass solo but when he comes back in it’s all headbangers’ ball. Ten thousand California hirsute asexuals waving their arms, their heads, their backs, and their bodies back and forth like waves on the break: that is the sea of cheese and I’m quite sucked into its rapture.

I can’t get over the redneck’s shirt in front of me: Oh Hell Yeah, Oh Hell Yes. That’s what it reads on the back. It’s fucking genius and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” is certainly the best song Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers rip out all night. What’s astonishing is the way Petty and his boys have secured their rock fandom unlike any of their peers. Their best songs can happen at any moment in time: “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (1993), “Free Fallin’ (1988), “American Girl” (1978)—for as old as they get and as greatest-hits-tour-circuit as they wanna be, they’ll always have hits that span several generations. “You Don’t Know How it Feels” is as good as “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is as good as “Here Comes My Girl.” We try to leave during Petty’s set to sneak into VIP but as we move through the crowd we keep getting caught up in the jams, dancing our way around groups of blissed-out drunks. And then, impossibly, the P.A. sound goes completely out. Petty pauses to tell us there’s a major problem and that they need to take a five-minute break to let the engineers figure it out. He sounds cheery and forgiving, but as he walks offstage I see him whip out his dick and it’s an antique Civil War rifle. For once, it’s the only thing him and his kind can do. Witness: the sound engineering staff of Outside Lands leaving the grounds with much haste.

With her guitar-heavy and methodical indie-jam tactics Kaki King comes off like Broken Social Scene Jr. and that’s good enough for a mid-afternoon session in the non-sun. I’m more enthralled, however, with the stage she’s playing on. It’s in the same zone where Beck had played on Friday. It’s like a whole new world over here, like a whole village that I didn’t even know existed. This festival is geographically huge. I’m not sure if the programming is in synch with the park’s hugeness. Do they want me to choose only to see Kaki King during this time slot and only the Walkmen during the next? Again, I find it unintentionally progressive: SXSW would have me running around Red River Street in Austin catching thirty minutes of White Williams before hopping down the block to get a handful of sweat-heavy moments with Ponytail and then a few blocks away to hear Peter, Bjorn, and John do that whistling thing. But Outside Lands isn’t about playing musical chairs, it’s more into the notion of finding a nice place in the park and pitching one’s tent for a good while. It’s momentarily warm enough to hold two beers so I uproot my tent, bail on the music, and get more beer for my skinny little paws.

In 29 seconds we spend $28 on four beers.

Hamilton Leithauser croons intimately all over the Walkmen’s latest album, but out here he’s screaming his face off like old times. I like how he screams in tune. “In the New Year,” a cheerful romp on the album is pure anthem in the live setting. He bellows, veins bursting from his neck, “All my sisters are marrying my best friends!” There’s a freak in the audience yelling, “We love you! You guys are fucking awesome!” Walkmen fans lock arms, like only the truest Walkmen fantoid idiots can do, and sing along, “I’m waiting on a subway line! I’m thinking of a dream I had.” It’s a relatively small crowd for the Walkmen—200 vs. a potential 2000—but it’s the most touching moment of the whole Outside Lands affair (a vicious rendition of “Fake Plastic Trees” by Radiohead comes in at a close second). It’s the first time that I feel that somehow that we, a strange rendition of the royal we, are all in this concert together, spilling Sierra Nevada Anniversary Ale all over each other, pumping our fists, and jumping up over the crowd, catching a whiff of the cold, and plunging back down into the fold of warm bodies and fluorescent hoodies. This here, them at that small stage with two hundred people with those green seductive trees blowing behind them, this is the intimacy that whoever dreamed up this festival was going for, the golden moment whoever conjured up when whoever put this thing together. A place where artist and fan can make a true connection. I track down Leithauser after the set and corner him into a one-question interview. “You guys sounded great. How’d it sound up there?” Both smiling and disenchanted, he posits, “Oh, that’s good to hear, ‘cause it sounded like shit onstage.”