Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival – Friday: Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA 08/10/2012

Buzz about this year’s Outside Lands Festival began in mid-April, when Another Planet Entertainment and Superfly Presents (who also host the annual Bonnaroo Festival) announced this year’s lineup for the three-day event. In many ways, this was the “Monsters of the 90s” festival, in terms of headliners, with Metallica, Foo Fighters and Beck claiming top billing, rounded out with Neil Young & Crazy Horse and Stevie Wonder– two other fantastic but albeit nostalgic acts. Even so, the list of performers that stretched far beneath the headliners was a solid group with great diversity, and so the anticipation began for the still fairly young Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival.

Earlier this week, though, announcements were made that Outside Lands had sold out of every ticket type and package that were available, marking this the first sell out in the Festival’s history. This is a pretty big turning point for them, because with a capacity of almost 200,000, it’s quite the feat and bodes well for the future.

The difference between 2011 and 2012 was immediate at the very beginning of the Festival, too. Last year, very few showed up early for the opening sets around noon on Friday, instead sauntering in throughout the mid-afternoon until by 6PM it started to reach capacity. Yesterday, however, thousands of people streamed into the fog-drenched Golden Gate Park to see the very first bands to hit the stage. By the time White Denim, PAPA and Futurebirds all started playing around noon, they were amazed at the sheer volume of people who had shown up, and it made a clear difference in upping their enthusiasm during their shows.

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Sharon Van Etten (from @glidemag Instagram)

Sharon Van Etten followed White Denim on the Sutro Stage and actually gave one of the best sets of the entire day, even though she had an early 1:15 PM time slot. Many may feel she’s an odd choice for a festival, and sometimes the melancholic arc of her songs can be a potential buzzkill, but there’s a magnetism and ferocity to her playing and singing that keeps the audience fully engaged. Yesterday, she also seemed very much at ease with the crowd, often joking with them and talking about the genesis of many songs. Particularly affecting were opener “Peace Signs,” an intense take on “Magic Chords” and the cathartic, all-bets-are-off rocker “Serpents.”

Jukebox the Ghost did a fantastic job of corralling in passers-by to the Panhandle Stage, which is an intimate and small space wedged in the walkway between the Twin Peaks and main Polo Field stage. Even so, the Panhandle Stage is often host to some of the best sets of the weekend (like Wye Oak and Lord Huron last year), and Jukebox the Ghost proved that yet again. Particularly enjoyable was the mix of drums, guitar and piano, where each instrument played a key role in the fabric of each song. Ben Thornewill had wonderful stage presence, too, and engaged the ever-growing throng of people in sing-a-longs and fun stories. One of the highlights of the set, though, was a spirited take on Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” that bore close resemblance to David Byrne’s classic take, but was wholly entertaining and had the audience singing with glee the chorus loudly to Tommy Siegel and Thornewill’s tightly synced harmonies.

Jukebox The Ghost
(from @glidemag Instagram)

Usually a really great live band, The Walkmen was the first major disappointment of the day, with an entirely middle-of-the-road set and very little dynamic spread to their sound. There was a fairly sizeable crowd for them, but didn’t seem particularly engaged, and soon it became apparent that they were there waiting for Of Monsters and Men, who were slated to follow at 5:40. It’s a shame, too, because The Walkmen have the repertoire and ability to construct a thoroughly enjoyable festival set.

Of Monsters and Men rose to the hype challenge that has been in full effect since their huge entrance at this year’s South By Southwest Festival. They played a show the night before at the California Academy of Sciences to kick off the weekend’s festivities, and many were still buzzing from that. But the crowd that showed up for Of Monsters and Men’s Outside Lands show was equally impressive. It was definitely the biggest crowd seen at the Sutro Stage, and certainly rivaled those who showed up to see Beck play the main stage. Thankfully, Of Monsters and Men delivered with an unendingly joyful set, bringing in the cathartic element originally perfected by Mumford and Sons and adding in their own folk-y, off-beat character. Surprising, though, was that many of the non-hit tracks had tons of folks still singing along, which reveals just how much they’ve arrived as a band.

Andrew Bird was next on the Sutro Stage, and after an oddly long instrumental open, he and his band launched into “Dark Matter,” which is definitely one of the biggest pop/rockers in his catalog, but this version sounded strangely like it was cut from U2’s Joshua Tree cloth. It was actually really fun and benefited the song, but Bono’s timbre is not a sound you’d expect to be coming out of Andrew Bird. He followed with a deconstructed take on “A Nervous Tic Motion Of The Head To The Left,” but after that seemed to lose the steam that was in the set, and just didn’t really connect again.

Washed Out on the Panhandle Stage was the first real taste at anything EDM for the weekend, but it maintained the indie glam that Ernest Greene is so known for. It wasn’t a very big crowd at the beginning, as most were still seeing the tail ends of Foo Fighters and Andrew Bird, but it continued to grow and reached maximum capacity just when Washed Out started playing “Feel It All Around,” otherwise known as the Portlandia theme song. While it’s sort of impossible to sing along to Washed Out’s electronica, songs like “Eyes Be Closed” and “Amor Fati” were very well received, and in general the band put on a thoroughly enjoyable and dancy-heavy set — a nice respite from the bitter cold coming in from the night’s fog and wind.

Washed Out
(from @glidemag Instagram)

Neil Young and Crazy Horse began their set ten minutes earlier at 8 PM than originally scheduled, and so many were still coming to see them around 8:15. Surprising, though, was how many people were leaving the main stage area to head to the Twin Peaks stage to see Justice. Mass exodus would be too strong a phrase, but the crowd at the main stage was surprisingly modest around 8:30. Definitely the smallest audience for any headliner over the past two years, Neil Young and Crazy Horse seemed pretty uninterested in whether or not they connected with this already meager audience, which further exacerbated the disconnect. While festivals usually bring out a more “greatest hits” hyped set-list, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that a major artistic legend delves into back material, or even new songs, but Young and his band really didn’t tailor their set away from what they’ve been touring to try and satisfy themselves and the audience, so instead of getting massive sing-a-longs to ” “Down By The River,” “Rockin’ in the Free World” or “Helpless,” we were treated to epic 20-minute long distortion guitar jams with little dynamic swoop or build. The few concessions you might claim were a shortened acoustic take on “Needle and the Damage Done,” a gripping “Cinnamon Girl” and a pretty fantastic “Hey, Hey, My,My” but other than that, it was a pretty bewildering set, that seemed to even not be what die-hards would enjoy. Four new songs had the audience left a bit in the dark, and the huge guitar jams lacked the fun and jovial nature of Phish from last year. In fact, the majority of the audience left before the encores, opting to see what was left of Justice’s set before leaving for the night. A truly missed opportunity, because Neil Young (and Crazy Horse) has so much talent, has done so much for rock music and deserves so much more than he got last night, but it requires meeting halfway with an audience, and rather than make a killer set that people would talk about for years, Young really dropped the ball.

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