It's safe to say that there were a lot of expectation for the first-ever Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival. For the most part, the festival did live up to its potential; at times there were simply stunning moments and the venue itself was quite a scene to behold. And yet, there were, quite naturally, a few snags too, such as the bottleneck crowd trying to get to the Beck stage, which eventually resorted to mowing down the chain-link fences. Or when the sound cut off — completely — during Radiohead's highly anticipated performance, which happened not just once, but twice. Yet the technical difficulties were also a blunt reminder of the fact that the massive event was being staged by a company with a staff size not much bigger than a picnic-blanket of fans, for the first-ever nighttime performance at Golden Gate Park. In that regard, it was quite a feat.
Despite the overcast weather, the mood was joyous and anticipatory for reggae group Steel Pulse, who opened the show at the massive Lands End stage. As expected at any outdoor festival worth its salt, there was dancing, pot brownies, and groups of friends having picnics. On the opposite end of the elongated eighty-acre festival site, Oakland psych-rock band Howlin' Rain welcomed a small but enthusiastic crowd with a blisteringly loud half-hour set.
The second round of staggered sets included performances by indie rock groups Black Mountain and the Cold War Kids, as well as classy, gospel-inflected funk/soul outfit the Dynamites. But the biggest surprise of the day came when Barcelona-based Manu Chao and his excellent band set the Polo Field on fire with an endlessly interesting patchwork of Latin pop, reggae, rock, and more. The band's ten-minute opener featured the rousing refrain "Yo vengo de yo yo yo!," whipping the crowd into a frenzy. "Me Gustas Tú," another highlight, started with a commanding reggae groove only to shift on a dime into a driving, distorted punk section for about thirty seconds, and then back to reggae, and again all over again. It was jarring, but incredibly powerful.
With all the walking and overlapped sets, it was impossible to catch even half the performances, but Bay Area rapper Lyrics Born, Ohio blues duo the Black Keys, and Beck all drew massive crowds. Dressed in a black suit and fedora, his long shoulder-length blond hair cascading down, Beck led a four-piece band through a set that included old favorites ("Devil's Haircut") and newer hits ("Modern Guilt"). At one point, all the members of the band got up front with 808 drum machines to concoct a bombastic electronic mix before breaking into "Hell Yes." "My beat is correct," Beck deadpanned. "604 equals make-out." While Beck tried to organically translate the weird, eccentric funk master he embodies on record, his attempt fell flat. It was his bluesy slide-guitar intro and "Loser" that got the crowd most excited, launching them into fist-pumping and some middle-age, fanny-pack-wearing women into booty-shaking.
The fog was downright damp by 8 p.m., when Radiohead plugged in for Golden Gate Park's first-ever night concert. And it seemed the whole darn crowd was there to watch.
One of the strengths of Radiohead's live show is its ability to successfully translate its recorded material. But perhaps no tour has created such a complete auditory and visual experience. Two video screens flanked the stage on either side, which projected, in changing monochromatic colors, four changing camera angles simultaneously, including Thom Yorke's face from below, Johnny Greenwood's effects pedals, Colin Greenwood shifting in and out of view, Yorke's profile, Phil Selway's drum set. While some fans lamented that this denied them a full view of what the band was doing, it conveyed one of the band's reoccurring themes — the use of technology to achieve intimacy. The light show helped further this notion. Skinny LED lights behind and above the band were designed like a stage curtain, and the shifting patterns and colors they created complimented the tones and hues of the music, as well as the increasingly digital breakdown of the video screens (blinking, striations, white noise, etc.).
Coinciding with the music, the presentation created not a vivid portrait, but something more akin to a mesmerizing abstract painting. Songs like opener "15 Step," from In Rainbows, had multiple layers for the listener to absorb: delicate guitar, the ghostly Ondes Martenot, glitchy beats, Colin's melodic bass line, and Yorke's hazy vocals. From the time-signature shifting of "Paranoid Android" to the low-intensity rave beat of set closer "Everything in Its Right Place," Radiohead was flawless and in full spectacle mode throughout. Yorke hammed it up, doing spastic dance moves during "Idioteque" and goofy-eyeing a camera. Though the band fulfilled its duty as perhaps the biggest art-rock band of its time, the reception was surprisingly subdued. Admittedly, two technical failures during "Airbag" and "All I Need" in which the sound cut to absolute silence for nearly a minute, temporarily severed the band's spell. But that didn't explain the pathetically weak call for an encore from such a massive crowd.
Saturday started less frenetically at 1 p.m., with a noticeably smaller crowd now that Radiohead was out of the way. A number of local acts kicked off the day, including Oakland R&B singer Goapele, San Francisco Latin fusion collective Rupa & the April Fishes, Oakland hip-hop act the Coup, San Jose rock group Dredg, and freak-folk icon Devendra Banhart, who's now based in LA. Banhart's set was mellow, fun, and funky — the perfect recipe for an outdoor performance in the park. He had an endearing on-stage personality, and the crowd responded enthusiastically — especially to his cover of Mungo Jerry's 1970 hit "In the Summertime."
On the other end of the festival grounds, Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco and his group opened up with an excellent performance of "Kick Push." A massive crowd was already assembled, filling Speedway Meadow to the brim. Lupe's raps were clear and powerful, but his six-member backing band seemed almost incidental: their instruments (bass, drums, turntables, and keyboards) were overpowered by a backing track and turned down so low that it hardly mattered if they played at all. Still, the performance looked and sounded awesome and emanated good energy. A few minutes' walk away, one reveler perhaps wasn't feeling it. "Doesn't it just seem like the end of the world?" she announced to her friend with complete seriousness but not much concern. The friend pulled out his video camera and, hands flailing in the air, she proceeded to play-act her version of Armageddon hysteria. Yet in the midst of a massive, flowing crowd, no one seemed to notice.
Later in the afternoon, when people were still streaming into the park in large numbers, local duo Two Gallants put on a solid show for a tiny crowd. "Welcome to San Francisco," said frontman Adam Stephens. "I think I know half of you." The set wasn't as intense as they have been known to do, but an interesting twist came when drummer Tyson Vogel got out from behind his kit and joined Stephens on acoustic guitar for a song.
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