I can think of much worse ways to spend an August weekend than in the heart of one of my favorite cities (San Francisco), seeing an eclectic lineup of bands both headliner-huge and quirky-small. Last year’s inaugural edition of the Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival boasted a solid roster of national and local musicians, but was plagued by a few logistical snafus that ranged from the mildly annoying (no, you can’t go that way anymore, you have to walk all the way around) to the borderline panic-attack inducing (15′-wide gauntlets of death to walk through to get to Beck, crammed like a sausage with your neighbor who is pushing the other way). It made it hard, at times, to lose yourself in the music, as Eminem advises.
This year’s festival returned with with a shimmering bang last weekend, featuring an arguably stronger lineup than last year and straightened out details, continuing to play on the gorgeous natural setting with stages spread out amidst the cypress trees. The fest also showcased local wines and restaurants with some abnormally tasty selections for a festival, far better than your standard funnel cake (not that I have ANY PROBLEM with funnel cake).
Of course, as with any festival, when you take into account the human error fudge factor, heat and/or cold, interpersonal weavings, and the occasional Heineken, it can be awfully difficult to catch all the bands you wanted. But the happy flip-side of that is that you often end up stumbling into something even better.
My three days of musical happiness began with a band that is quickly becoming one of my very favorites – Blind Pilot. This Portland, Oregon band drew a huge crowd with their rich and bittersweet tunes layered with gorgeous instrumentation, and those rootsy leanings. Frontman Israel Nebeker’s evocative voice just keeps drawing me back, no matter how many times I see them live (this was #3 this year).
“How I want that mystery / let me dive ’til I believe.”
Two Towns From Me – Blind Pilot
The only other time I’ve seen The National perform was at Coachella last spring, and it is a testament to this band and their potency that even in a festival setting, in broad daylight, they’ve managed to completely knock me flat in the best way possible. I can’t imagine what they’d do to me in a dark club. As I wrote about the Indio desert, “The National carved something out of me and put something back in, is the best way I can put it.” Their set was riveting, laden with songs that I could hardly have hand-picked better (except maybe, “Lucky You.” I’d add that one).
Matt Berninger looks every bit the refined GQ businessman in a large faceless city; gold wedding band on his hand, dark collared shirt, hair nicely trimmed. But with his baritone velvet voice, dark stories spill from his mouth of all the emptiest fears and the most acute longings that wake us in the night. The bright horns and the swells of melody twinkle and shine like a candle in a colander, putting a streak of beauty through the center.
Start a War, Mistaken for Strangers, the new Blood Buzz Ohio, Slow Show — and my favorite Secret Meeting… it was over far too soon.
Lucky You (live on Daytrotter) – The National
Next up in a magical bit of booking was Tom Jones, the Welsh crooner who can peel panties off people using only his cognac-smooth brogue. You would not believe the universal love that flowed from all sectors of the (hip-shaking) audience for his snappy set. All you need to know about the performance can be gleaned from these two pictures, and if you have more time to amuse yourself, my montage of Tom Jones facial expressions over on Facebook. As a friend texted me during his set, as I reported on the undies flying off 19-year-olds with dreadlocks and ironic t-shirts, “It’s like he went from cool to ironic back to cool.”
Friday night ended as not the best of times for me, although I did try to rally and catch Washington D.C.’s Thievery Corporation, with their Brazilian-dub-lounge groove (it looked like this, and sounded numbingly good floating through the night and turning off my brain).
Saturday started off with a double-shot of global awesomeness from different corners of the world; it was bands like these that illuminated the fest for me. First up was Extra Golden, a combo of half Kenyan-benga music and half American-study-abroad-student rock. You might remember when I wrote about these guys a few months ago, I mentioned “the sound that cut through the din,”and also mused how good they might sound live. I am pleased to report that they both stopped traffic of folks walking by (with their tribal beats and African-laced rock), and also put on a superb set. I would absolutely go see them again; I kept laughing out loud from joy.
Anyango – Extra Golden
Immediately following Extra Golden, we dashed over to the Sutro stage to catch Nortec Collective’s Bostich + Fussible, on the recommendation of my friend Julio, who is much-more-savvy than this white girl when it comes to all things south of the border. I’d never heard any nortec business, but it blew my mind — the crashing together of the traditional Tijuana sounds with effortlessly cool dudes twisting knobs to make ridiculously danceable beats. My friend nailed it when he said they could occupy the stage in the back of any Quentin Tarantino movie scene — they were just that badass. Another band I would see again live in an absolute heartbeat. I mean listen to this:
Aka 47 – Bostich + Fussible
Next was Bat For Lashes (rad British chanteuse Natasha Khan), with a set that created more buzz than any other band I saw at the festival. Everyone was talking about her afterwards, and it was my favorite set of the weekend. I was only casually acquainted with her music before seeing her live, but her rich satiny alto voice flowed like a warm golden river through the middle of the sexy, synthy danceable creations. Where she was competent and confident in her stage presence, her band was amazingly kickass too, and I fell in love with both the drummer and the rainbow zig-zagged guitarist.
And: random celebrity sighting, Josh Groban totally digs Bat For Lashes; he was right by me for the set. YES, Mom, Josh Groban. Omg.
Pearl’s Dream – Bat For Lashes
Use Somebody (Kings of Leon cover, live on BBC) – Bat for Lashes
And: random fashion note, the girls in the band totally share clothes.
After wasting away some hours of the evening with folks like The Ice Cream Man and the Free Heineken Man, the only other set I participated in on Saturday (sadly! festival fail!) was the scorching set from Dave Matthews Band. I forget how much I do love Dave, and a sailor I met recently on my ocean sailing voyage has reminded me how many steps I may have also missed in Dave’s development through the years.
Musical hipsters like to look down our noses at plebian jam-rock like DMB, but dancing my ass off alongside fellow not-afraid-to-love-Dave-ite Nathaniel from I Guess I’m Floating to “Lie In Our Graves,” “Two Step” and a particularly passionate rendition of “All Along The Watchtower,” I was reminded how good it can feel.
Lie In Our Graves – Dave Matthews Band
(“and I can’t believe that we would lie in our graves wondering if we had spent our living days well/ I can’t believe that we would lie in our graves dreaming of things that we might have been….”)
After two sunny warm days, when Sunday arrived grey and misty like SF likes to be in the summer (or any dang time), the layers I had fastidiously packed came in handy. Worn out from the two days already, a third day felt simultaneously like a gift (yay! more live music!) and also an uphill climb. But arriving to the festival to the pleasingly dulcet sounds of local San Franciscan John Vanderslice on the Presidio stage, I forgot my still-tired feet and smiled a wide smile.
Vanderslice is someone I have been delving more deeply into since he wowed me in Chicago at that show with John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. Again on Sunday I was struck by how he could join a musical club with Nada Surf and Death Cab and they’d all nestle in perfectly side by side. It was pretty well-attended too for an early afternoon show on a second stage, perhaps due to the strength of his latest (great) album, Romanian Names.
Too Much Time – John Vanderslice
Whatever I needed to get my mojo back, I found it (of course, in droves) at The Avett Brothers‘ fervent 3pm set at the other end of the meadow.
I had just seen the Avetts in both Boulder and Denver the weekend before (see pics and a video) and loved every raucous, earnest, sweaty second of it, but the recent satiation didn’t even matter when they took the stage before a very enthusiastic crowd. I had urged all the friends and acquaintances and other photographers I met at other shows for the first part of the weekend to make their way over to the Sutro stage at 3pm Sunday, and as I looked around, I saw an awful lot of smiles and the occasional yell-along. Their set was crisp and carried out beautifully over the meadow. They started with “Paranoia in Bb Major,” and then went right into the new “Laundry Room” and then “Die, Die, Die.” When they finished that triple-whammy, they moved into “Murder In The City,” and nearly killed me. Such a wonderful set from these brothers, in a near-perfect setting for their bluegrass punk.
Laundry Room (live on MOKB) – The Avett Brothers
PS – Get the full MOKB Laundromatinee session with Los Avetts.
Switching gears quickly from furiously-strummed banjos to yowling waves of rock, we headed clear over to the Twin Peaks stage to get in position to witness the detonation that is Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs) and Alison Mossheart’s (The Kills) new band, The Dead Weather. This is the same second-stage I saw Wilco play on last year, and it was just as crowded – another act that could have/should have played the main.
Jack White coolly walked out behind dark shades and sat behind the drumkit at the far back of the stage and stayed there for the duration of the first three songs that we photogs get to have at it. Alison handily seized the mantle of being the face of the Dead Weather (fittingly), and paced and flailed and thrashed, leaning down in our faces and threatening to grab us by our hair, and hang us up from those heavens. For a small woman, she packs an intense punch — she was feral in an awesome, invasive way. All the members of this supergroup are mightily accomplished in their own rights, and together they are pretty amazing to watch, even on a bright Sunday afternoon.
Hang You From The Heavens – The Dead Weather
It’s not every day that a girl gets to see both Jack White and Jack Black in the same day, but before I did the Tenacious D rotation (and failed to get pics because I had the wrong lens), I danced as hard as I could muster to the third world democracy sounds of Sri Lankan supernova M.I.A., who puts on a marvelously enjoyable set. I saw her at Coachella last year — well, kind of saw her, whilst I was being crushed from the massive audience that poured into the smallish tent to see her. Her reputation preceded her.
This time around, after I shot the pics, I went to a vantage point where I could see the whole huge main-stage crowd dance and pump their fists in time to the three gunshot sounds in the chorus, and smile that she was finally on the larger stage she deserves.
Paper Planes – M.I.A.
So… in sum, a marvelous weekend.