After the damp winter chill of Friday (typical of a summer in San Francisco), the sun burst forth for Saturday’s packed day of shows in Golden Gate Park. Perhaps it was the gift of good weather, but the energy around the festival grounds was vibrant and palpable. And what better way to start of the day than a visit to local food vendors Kasa for Indian kati rolls and dal and Philz Coffee for a caffeine boost? Say what you will about San Francisco and its culture of foodies– the fact remains that the fare at Outside Lands was delicious, beautifully prepared and local. For such a large production as a festival organized for a daily mass of 60,000 people, OSL keeping everything Bay Area-based was heartening and downright satisfying.
After having plenty of fill for lunch, the show to see was newly formed UK rock group The Vaccines on the Twin Peaks stage. Fresh off their sold out opening gig for The Arctic Monkeys the night before at the Independent, The Vaccines tore right into “Blow It Up” from their debut album What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? Certain comparisons to a younger version of Morrissey and The Smiths are definitely apt, but that is in no way a detriment. The band played through the majority of their album, throwing in a cover and beloved b-side “We’re Happening” to round out the set. Quite a good way to turn up the volume and pump up the crowd for a day of hard-hitting shows across a variety of genres.
Next was OK Go on the Land’s End main stage– surprisingly the first really solid show there since the festival began at noontime Friday. Led by the feverish intensity of frontman Damian Kulash, the band performed their standard 2011 festival setlist, but it was by no means “standard.” Rather, OK Go injected such an unbridled glee to their live renditions that it was impossible to not smile and bounce along. The audience particularly enjoyed when Kulash left the stage to play “Last Leaf” in the middle of the throngs of fans near the front of the pack. Perhaps slightly dramatic, but no less engaging, the band focused on their best material. If the continual influx of people to the polo field was any indication, they really succeeded and set the bar high for those to follow.
More and more people poured into the main stage area to prepare for The Arctic Monkeys, making it easier to take in Sia and local favorite Vetiver. The former, though, was a major highlight of the day, as well as the festival in general. Not to be outdone by OK Go’s dedication to monochrome, Sia decked out the entire stage in Day-Glo inspired knits, covering sound monitors, instruments and generally giving the ensemble a bright, vivid look. While the audience was regrettably smaller than it may have been had there been no Arctic Monkeys/Black Keys conflicts, those who did catch the show were willing to dance to Sia’s infectious art-pop. A strong songwriter in her own right, Sia also knows how to pace a show, regardless of the venue, so she threw in a couple of key ballads at opportune moments. But it was Sia’s voice that was so dramatically brilliant, cascading over the Twin Peaks stage area with force and conviction. It was also fun to watch people whisper “that’s the ‘Six Feet Under’ finale girl!” and see the wide-eyed surprised faces of their friends. Sia not only silenced those who have called her a one-note performer– she attracted a whole new group of fans enthralled by her Outside Lands performance.
The Black Keys drew a huge audience for their main stage set, and the few songs I heard while passing through were quite good. But back on the Twin Peaks stage were Philadelphia-based and Jimmy Fallon house band heroes The Roots. If you had to name five acts you can count on to make any fine festival lineup great, The Roots would absolutely be on that list. They know how to combine the right amount of rap and hip hop with rock, while their full focus is always on participating with the audience. They did tend to get a bit repetitive in the middle of their set (it’s hard when you’re reliant on guitar-driven rap dialogues), but ?uestlove’s superlative drumming kept the foundation alive. What is so captivating about The Roots especially is their utter musicianship– something you often don’t find among their contemporaries. Even though The Black Keys commanded a major portion of the Saturday festivalgoers, tons of people poured in for The Roots’ set, making it almost impossible to wade back through to leave the area and head to the Sutro stage for the first time that day.
Warren Haynes Band was the final performance on the Sutro stage for Saturday, and they certainly took that opportunity to wail. While many at the festival wrote off Haynes for his white-male rock of an earlier generation sound, his Outside Lands just went to show how wrong those detractors were. He may not have the best voice, but he sings with such deep passion and expression, and where he fails his gospel-influenced backup singers pick up. But the center of the entire show was Haynes’ impeccable electric guitar playing, which continues to be fresh and inspired. What was most surprising, though, was how well the material from his latest album Man in Motion fit into his set, especially "Sick of My Shadow," which grew in intensity until a final cathartic guitar solo. A bit of a sore thumb in the lineup, Warren Haynes and his Band definitely rose to the occasion and delivered in spades.
Muse’s set on the Lands End main stage started off tedious and rather conventional, with Muse playing typically Muse-like songs. Clearly there were many impressed, since they stayed for the whole two hours, but the real party (and one of the biggest surprises for the weekend) was at the Twin Peaks stage (again!) for Girl Talk. By now, pretty much everyone going to an Outside Lands Festival type show know of Gregg Gillis’ work, where he constantly mixes in samples of popular songs to create what is essentially a giant DJ mixtape. While some of his choices can be stale and unremarkable, Gillis kept the energy level high throughout the show, allowing those tripping to feel transcendent and those buzzed from all the music happily content to dance all over the place. Because night had fallen, there were fewer inhibitions all around, so the typically awkward San Francisco hipster felt more comfortable letting loose. So, even though the headliner was a massive disappointment, Outside Lands definitely made up for it by giving the crowd an alternative that was thoroughly enjoyable, and an excellent way to cap off the second day of the festival.
Two Out of Three is…. Kind of Bad
Muse and Phish were both underwhelming headliners for the Festival. Certainly both acts drove ticket sales immensely, thereby bringing in a whole legion of people who may not make it to Outside Lands. But, that was also kind of the problem. Both Friday and Saturday night there appeared to be a bipolar kind of reaction to the evening schedules. What did result were massive crowds for Erykah Badu/The Shins (Friday) and Girl Talk (Saturday), who were playing to their strengths and delivering incredible sets. Sunday’s headliner– The Arcade Fire– made the two previous missteps totally worth it, though.
Public Transportation: Chronicles of the Dreadful N Train
If you’re a Bay Area local, complaints about the MUNI are about as regular as small talk about the weather or the Giants. Every day there seems to be some major malfunction with the system, and amazingly it appears to always happen during rush hour. Perfect timing, right? With 60,000 people in attendance each day, you’d expect the SFMTA to increase the number of outbound N trains early on and then inbound ones later at night. But logic continues to defy the bedraggled transit alternative, as there were close to 25-minute lapses between trains that occurred regularly throughout the weekend. Oh, and don’t even try the 71 train along Lincoln Highway. It was so crammed full of riders that people needed to grease up just to exit the bus.