The Tripwire sent two correspondents to the Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival in San Francisco - one to document with photos (and photos and photos), and one to explain it thoroughly for those of us who could not attend. Phillip Mottaz takes through his 3-day account of what it means to "enjoy" the festival experience.
On Monday morning, I shaved for the first time in three or four days. I couldn't remember exactly. That may not sound like a lot of beard if you don't know me, but trust me. I nearly clogged the drain.
My face, like my jeans, shoes and glasses reflected 2 full days of unaltered San Francisco outdoorsmanship; hiking through shrubs, smelling drunks, avoiding head butts, wearing layers in August, seeking toilets, holding breaths, fleeing toilets, locating "Laura," staking out viewing spots, squinting, dancing and missing rendezvous. All in the name of music and contact highs.
If, while reading this, you get the feeling of time displacement, then I've done my job. When you immerse yourself in a festival of this magnitude, it's a little like going to Disneyworld--when you're inside you don't see anything from the outside world. Normal rules of time and space do not apply, only mob rule rules, you see lots of famous characters and there are lines for everything. Over the period of two days, I tried to taste every kind of sampler this platter held for me, and despite odd organization and technical misfires, the shows went on and so did I.
Flash back to Friday. Leading off at the smaller "Panhandle" stage in the semi-middle of the park, Howlin' Rain took me as much by their energy and dedication to the style as you are by their facial hair. A screaming Joe Cocker dressed up like "FM & AM"-era George Carlin, Ethan Miller lead a band hellbent on asking us all, "Who can resist a rock organ?" The answer is, "No one I want to know," but after only a few songs my mind drifted elsewhere, getting ahead of my currently occupied time and focusing on the next thing to come.
My accompanying friend and I worked our way to Lindley Meadow and the Sutro Stage, which would come to be known by the end of the weekend as "Hell." Doglegged off the speedway and encircled in a pit of trees and actual pit, this is where we would eventually see Cold War Kids and Beck. It was also where we would eventually not even attempt to see Cake the next day, as the experience on Friday taught us that nothing was worth that kind of mess. When the Kids took the stage, I got my first taste of the crowd's odd disconnect with this and every other band on the day. I was trying to pay attention to the Kids, who seemed primed to rock with "Something Is Not Right With Me" and especially "We Used To Vacation," and yet my mind kept drifting ahead of my body, drawing me into the future. I did not feel alone. The crowd, while appreciative, was somewhat subdued. It could have been the early evening performance, or it could have been that we were all thinking about seeing the band to come. Radiohead. The Best Band In The World.
I realize I'm not going out on a limb here, but that's what they are and I feel it's important to recognize this, if for no other reason than the fact that it makes this article that much more interesting. You can't count bands like the Stones or U2--groups still working and still a big draw, but whose hey-days are behind them. Radiohead is currently king of the hill because of a number of indisputable facts:
1.) The announcement, release, and reception of every album of theirs is met with near hysteria;
2.) Tickets for their shows are next to impossible to get;
and 3.) When you tell someone you have tickets for one of their shows, you receive a mix of jealousy and congratulations.
This is the umbrella which hung over every act on Friday, and it was only accented by the tight set-list times being upheld. Like knowing the running times to a DVD, learning that Beck was only about to play from 6:40 to 7:50 put a certain annoying anticipation on that show.
But once again, I'm getting ahead of myself. Mid-way through the Cold War Kids, I received a call from fellow Tripwire correspondent Jenn Hernandez (aka JENZ) asking me to run back to the press tent--conveniently located about 28 miles behind the main stage on the race track--to pick up her photo pass by 6:00pm for her. Without this pass she would have no chance to snap pictures of the Best Band In The World, so I bid farewell to Cold Ward Kids, got her pass and went to the rendezvous point. It was at this time--5:58pm--when I wondered if multiple-stage festivals like this are bullshit. I mean, yeah, you CAN see a bunch of groups in a day, but only if at ten till 6:00 you're scrambling from Cold War Kids at one end of the park to pick up a press pass, jog by one stage that's got some brand of rasta thing happening (I later deduce this to be Steel Pulse), cut through mountains of booze-I.D. lines, catch the virtual Al Green tribute kicking on a side stage (The Dynamites featuring Charles Walker), only to position myself near a set of prop windmills while catching someone else (Benevento/Russo Duo) trying to play strictly instrumental jazz rock, but suffering the first of the festival's power outages. And then I'm off to see Beck.
Beck is all the way back in Hell. When I return, it's madness. Not just excited fan madness, but volume-of-people madness. Still, I feel obligated to spend some time with this musical oddity machine, and I was mostly glad I did. Leaning heavily on later-period selections--especially "Guero," with "E-Pro" and "Girl" leading the way--we were treated to a more laid-back Beck than I would have anticipated. Perhaps he too was waiting to see Radiohead, but I certainly hope he didn't feel too insecure about it. While Beck may not have had the show of the festival, the draw of the festival or even the digital backgrounds of the festival, he did deliver the song of our lifetimes with "Loser." I'm sure it's hack to praise a guy for playing his biggest hit, but even from my way-in-the-distance vantage point I could feel the entire crowd lift up. The guys standing on tree branches started dancing, everyone who passed by was mouthing the lyrics easy as pie, and I heard one husband tell his wife as they were bailing on the whole enterprise, "Honey, wait. You gotta stay for this one." I agreed.
At "Hell Yes" I officially said "Hell No" to Beck and started winding out of Hell to find my friend, some food and a suitable Radiohead vantage point. This hour period produced 14 different "Go Cubs" shouts due to my hat, including one very high discussion about how another L.A. based Cub fan was pulling for the Dodgers so he could get playoff tickets for them to see the Cubs. This plan was almost as well conceived as our food plan, which consisted of picking the "shortest" (a.k.a. "least longest") line and standing. And standing. And standing. And standing.
By the time we'd moved two feet (roughly 14 minutes), Radiohead began playing, and we heard their first 25 minutes waiting in line. We were a little bummed not to be close enough to see the band, but not as bummed as we were by the TWO power failures for the auxiliary speakers. Though the band played on, we in the way-back couldn't hear a thing outside of "BOO!" It was almost weird enough that I could've been convinced of it being planned, since the video monitors showed Radiohead playing on like a plug had just fallen out. It was disheartening. I'd allowed myself to get hyped, and I wasn't going to enjoy the show. At this point my friend and I both picked a song we really wanted to hear, and we agreed that if and when two songs were played, we would bolt. I told myself that maybe I'm just too old to stand for an entire day, and that the next time Radiohead came around, I would make a considered effort to secure tickets, only to realize that one of those times had already past, and I was screwed.
Then a weird miracle happened, and by "weird," I mean "kind of lame, but nonetheless welcome." After finally getting some food, we decided to move to the stage-right section of the crowd and as we did, the Best Band In The World saved our night. They began to play "The National Anthem," only a little faster than the "Kid A" version, and my head instinctly began to bob. "Yeah," blurted my friend and I, and from then on, the entire world changed. We found a better viewing point, the sound problems disappeared for a night, and I believe I felt the mood of the entire festival crowd pick up. It's funny what a little properly chosen, properly placed rock can do for your entire existence.
The rest of their show--cinematically set to lights and pipes based loosely on the planet Krypton--was nothing short of phenomenal and I carried this buzz for the rest of the evening, even after walking another mile, waiting for a full 40 minutes for a bus that wasn't packed to the hilt, and taking the train back home. Day one had been completed.
Day two started late. Legs ached. Shirts stunk. This day felt much less focused. With the Best Band In The World lifting off the previous evening, only the promise of discovery and Tom Petty was holding us to the ground. I spent about one song with Nellie McKay (who sang about a cat to a crowd of appreciative yet slightly confused stoners) before deciding to check out some of the non-musical attractions. Most notably, we popped into the CrowdFire tent, which smelled on Day 2 like a combination of B.O. and circus animals. Inside were multiple computers showing videos of festival performances you may have missed but couldn't hear over the semi-annoying D.J. ('cause if there's one thing you'd love to hear in the middle of the day at a music festival, it's a party D.J.). We worked our way over to the Guitar Hero section where we were accosted by two young guys who begged us to cheer for their forthcoming "performance," which would be like cheering for someone playing a narrated game of Centepede. Instead I played the game myself, which as always was fun, but it's funny how it managed to make a song like "Blitzkreig Bop" actually more difficult than if I had been playing with a real guitar.
After a little more wandering, I managed to catch The Walkmen--my official "won me as a fan" of the festival. I'm not generally a fan of a bands with guitarists in sweaters, but these guys do it right. Complete with the first set of horns I saw all weekend, The Walkmen seem to have two styles to accompany Walter Martin's Joplin-esque wailing: sad angry and angry sad, the first suiting them best. It's more of a bluesy moan supporting the emotions of the whole enterprise while the other style (generally songs that start fast and stay that way with little build, especially when compared to the other style) seemed less suited to the group. Still, I was thrilled to catch them, even if they had to cut their set short because "a cowboy" told them time was up. At least they left us all wanting more.
Having agreed never to set foot in Hell again, Primus at the Twin Peaks stage bubbled up as our next big draw, and it wasn't exactly magical. The crowd seemed to fall right in line though, and their energy as always was up. Not being the world's biggest Primus fan, the promise of food won me away. On the other hand, I will forever be indebted to both Primus and Ben Harper (playing at the same time), for without them drawing massive crowds away from the food stands, we might not have gotten our dinner as easily. We had our pick of the litter and then, only two bites into my burrito, the lines filled to full, unholy status. Another weird tiny miracle. Thanks, Primus and Ben Harper.
Again, the big draw of Day Two was Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, an act that couldn't have felt farther away from the previous night's headliner if they'd tried. On Friday night we heard space lullabies from a group whose music falls apart by design. On Saturday night we were watching the Webster's Dictionary definition of what a rock band should look like, act like, say and sound like. Still, there's no denying our connection with Tom Petty, and the crowd ate it up. If Radiohead represented the future, then Petty was high-school, and even though he managed to play only four songs not featured on his greatest hits album, I wasn't complaining. Hearing a time-tested superstar play some of your personal favorites ("Listen To Her Heart," "Won't Back Down" and "Last Dance With Mary Jane") in quick succession pushes your objectivity to the limit. I could not stop smiling, feeling my midwestern roots give my current Southern California living a big hug.
And despite being what some might call "tired" or "old fashioned," the perennially high Petty--constantly thanking the audience and striking a strange preacher pose after every single song--still managed a few welcome surprises. "End of the Line" from the Traveling Wilburys popped in the middle, and they brought Steve Winwood on for a couple tunes (the kind of move that should've been happening all the time with this many artists around), and an acoustic version of "Learning To Fly." They even managed to outdo Radiohead by suffering FOUR power failures during their set--three during "Honey Bee" alone. Maybe it was the cold or the long days, but I admit I felt my attention sag in the middle of the set. This wasn't exactly the most inspiring show in the world, but then they still managed to deliver some goods. When it was encore time and we correctly figured out the only two songs they could play without eliciting a riot ("Running Down a Dream" and "American Girl"), the Heartbreakers still threw in some fun showmanship with an energetic, sprawling, comedic cover of The Them's "Gloria" (a performance that may have been much less spur-of-the-moment than I realized, but in the moment at least it felt genuine).
The next morning, with my 5-plus hours of driving ahead of me, I decided to cash it in, Wilco and Drive-By Truckers be damned. The past seemed rocky and bumpy, but the future of the festival can only be bright. This was the first attempt in this particular location for the organizers, and they're not dumb people. They'll figure it out by next time. The city actually WILL deliver more buses, the audio will not cut out during the biggest acts (not that it's any better to cut out on the little acts, but still...), and the information booth guys will actually know where the press tent is located.
On my drive home, my mind forgot about the future and tried to figure out the past. It was a swirling mass of fits and starts, remembering little bits of what had happened like a dream I could barely grasp: batting cages, silent Radiohead video images, getting kicked out of two VIP areas, the same bearded screaming dude wandering into crowd after crowd, "Loser," Tom Petty's impeccable ability to hold his guitar just like my dreams and T-Shirts and garlic chicken sandwiches.