DAY TWO: SATURDAY, AUGUST 11, 2012
San Francisco is a quilt made of dozens of little microclimate patches, so while it may be sunny and mid-80s in one area of the city, you often will find yourself plummeting 20+ degrees in a matter of mere miles. Many who come to the Outside Lands Festival are unprepared for the dramatic weather changes in the city, and so they come decked out in shorts and tank tops, like they would for California’s other huge music festival Coachella, and by 4 PM are utterly miserable as the fog rolls in from the Pacific Ocean and it’s all of a sudden 55 degrees with intense winds.
Historically, too, Friday at Outside Lands is always the harshest weather-wise– maybe as a cosmic reminder to festival-goers to layer, layer, layer and prepare for the worst. Even so, it’s not altogether unwelcome to throw a sweater on for the afternoon and evening– in fact, many prefer it to sweating constantly and practically swimming in humidity. Many hoped, though, since we were walloped with foggy, windy coldness on Friday that Saturday would be a bit of a reprieve. While the sun made some efforts to come out around 2 PM, it just wasn’t meant to be. Despite the less-than-festival-like weather, though, Saturday turned out to be one hell of a day for a music festival, and definitely one of the best days of programming in recent years.
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Zola Jesus opened Day Two on the main stage, performing to a modest sized crowd (it was still 12:30 PM after all), but did an excellent job of using the massive speaker system and lights, even during midday, to create atmosphere and amplify her enormous voice out to all corners of the Polo Field. It actually felt like an excellent clarion call and harbinger for Metallica’s headlining set later that night. Still, this show would definitely have benefitted from being performed at night, where the lights could really play tricks with the fog, maybe sandwiched between Sigur Ros and Metallica on the Panhandle Stage.
Next was a wonderful set by local favorites Geographer, who have had quite the year already, starting with the release of their amazing album Myth in early 2012. They’ve always been a gem in San Francisco’s eye, so it was particularly exciting to see such a huge throng come to the Twin Peaks stage to see them perform. Leadman Michael Deni seemed particularly taken with the crowd. Songs “Life of Crime,” “Lover’s Game” and “Kites” got the biggest audience response, both with singing along and dancing, and really it was the best sort of set to enjoy the slivers of sun with during the mid-afternoon.
The best set of the day, though, was next on the Panhandle Stage. Father John Misty, Josh Tillman’s new band post-Fleet Foxes, gave an impassioned, vibrant and utterly charming set for forty minutes, running through the majority of material from their debut album Fear Fun. They were goofy, playful, caustic, sarcastic, facetious, light-hearted and above all musically completely on point. Album highlights “Nancy From Now On,” “Hollywood Forever Cemetary Sings” and “Only Son of the Ladiesman” were particularly enjoyable, with the band flirting with psychedelic distortion rock during parts of the solos, making it sound what so many of Tillman’s influences are no longer capable of– that youthful, vigorous rock-and-roll. And if Father John Misty is to carry the torch forward for the next generation, then they’re all the better for it, because the musicality and showmanship are all there.
Another big surprise for the day was how enormous the crowd was for Alabama Shakes on the Sutro Stage. Certainly, the band has enjoyed great success since their “discovery” at 2011’s CMJ Festival, with selling out tours left and right and playing just about every festival in the US this year, but this was their first SF-based performance since their brilliant headlining show at the Independent in January. But even with that in mind, no one expected the crowd to be as massive as it was, which of course set people to Twitter and Instagram taking shots of the crowd to just try and get a handle on it. Sadly, the sound mix wasn’t very good for those further away, often obscuring anything except the extreme lows and highs, and so most of Brittany’s voice was muddied. But, if you pushed your way up closer towards the sound booth, it all of a sudden became the rock show that the band is known for, with the jams hitting hard and Brittany’s lead just taking over and wailing. Thankfully, they gave a great set, but sadly about half of the audience couldn’t hear it that well. Alabama Shakes should definitely have been on the main stage, but it was nice to see the Sutro stage filled to the max for them.
The first (and only) disappointment of the day was with Grandaddy, who followed Alabama Shakes on the Sutro Stage. There was a surprisingly small amount of people there to see the much-heralded comeback show, which was certainly a draw for many fans. Now, their show wasn’t patently bad as much as it was uninspired. There weren’t many dynamics throughout the set, so everything felt like a standard rock/folk 4/4 getup, with some electronic flushes thrown in there as ostensible novelty. With very few people singing along and most leaving the area to seek other stages, it was a sad sight for a band that is truly capable of pulling off a great show– they just needed to want to do that, and last night they seemed pretty indifferent to playing.
Norah Jones followed on the Sutro Stage, and whatever frustration or irritation there was following Grandaddy was soon washed away when Jones began her set with “Say Goodbye,” the new single of her incredible fifth album Little Broken Hearts (2012). The crowd continued to build and build, until it reached a fairly massive size– much larger than was expected by both onlookers and Norah herself, who frequently mentioned how touched she was that so many people came to see her set. The setlist was built mostly around Little Broken Hearts, with singles “Come Away With Me,” “Sunrise,” “Chasing Pirates” and a breathtaking solo rendition of “Don’t Know Why” rounding out the set. One big surprise, though, that really took the set to the next level was a surprise guest appearance by Bob Weir on a take of the Grateful Dead’s “It Must Have Been The Roses.”
Next up was a one-two punch of headliners that just tore at your heartstrings if you wanted to see both, because of conflicting set times. Because they started first, most headed to see Metallica on the main stage, who played what you can only conceive of as a greatest hits set, and it was certainly welcome following the previous night’s disappointment with Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Their set focused heavily on their first five albums, with only 3 songs coming from post-Black Album records. Rather than seen as a useless exercise in nostalgia, this was actually met with warmth and praise.
The crowd for Metallica kept growing and growing, until it was huge and fleshed out all along the Polo Field, reaching back to the vendor tents in the back. Pyrotechnics were a staple of Metallica’s set, and every time they were used, the crowd went wild. They were first debuted, appropriately, during “Fuel,” which followed searing takes on “Hit The Lights” and “Master of Puppets.” While at times James Hetfield’s playing was a little off (probably due to weather and such), he put his heart and soul into singing those songs and engaging with the audience. It was also clear how much they love playing in and for San Francisco, their own hometown, and this struck a real chord with the audience.
Other amazing takes from their set were a never-ending and utterly bewitching “The Memory Remains” (where was Marianne Faithfull when you needed her, though?!), “Orion” and the incredible set ending couplet of “Nothing Else Matters” and “Enter Sandman.” Metallica rose to the occasion and totally blew people away– yet again proving why their the #1 metal band still out there playing shows. And what a love letter to the city they call home– just perfect.
Meanwhile, many hiked over to the Twin Peaks stage for a closing set from Icelandic heavy-hitters Sigur Ros. What a striking difference from what was happening on the main stage, too. Instead of huge, roaring electric guitar solos, Sigur Ros chooses to work with its own type of intensity by employing minimalism, which then through subtle permutations of beautiful nuance builds and crashes into all out heart-on-sleeve catharsis. While it may be impossible for the majority of its audiences to sing along to these tracks (they’re not exactly the easiest in terms of lyric memorization or phrasing), people express themselves through dancing with the pieces and getting wrapped up in the emotion pouring out from the stage to the audience.
While many were worried that Sigur Ros wouldn’t be as good of a live band in the festival setting, they had nothing to be worried about, because in fact this was a perfect setting to see the group. The Twin Peaks stage area is surrounded by tons of trees, making this a communal space with nature that fits in with Sigur Ros’ aesthetic and also creates an acoustic enclosure that reverberates out all of their pieces into the ears of the thousands and thousands who came to witness this hourlong experience of human vitality. Their set leaned heavily on older albums, but they chose the pieces that stand up really well in big settings, like “Svefn-g-englar,” “Olsen Olsen,” “Sæglópur” and “Hafsól.” It was a beautiful ending to a day full of amazing music, fantastic performances and an enthusiastic audience that was there to fall in love with these musicians.
Sigur Ros (from @glidemag Instagram)