The official lineup for San Francisco’s third annual Outside Lands Festival caused some waves of bewilderment when it was first announced. Considering the lineups that had dominated Lollapalooza and Coachella this year, it was surprising that Outside Lands didn’t seem to step up to the same plate, while still remaining within the ballpark. Despite this, and the unusual inclusion of San Francisco regulars Furthur (featuring Phil Lesh and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead) as headliners opposite acts such as The Strokes and Kings Of Leon, a handful of excellent acts did make their way into the roster, attracting yet another slew of thousands of avid concertgoers to the first day of the festival.
Even with overcast weather still glowering over San Francisco, those that showed up were not disappointed. The festival this year has been condensed to only 4 stages, and the schedules have been better arranged to allow easier access to as many acts as possible. Upon entering the gates of the park, the crowd split up, with one half heading east to see The Whigs warm up the Panhandle Solar Stage, and the latter half heading west to watch hip-hop duo People Under The Stairs break in the sound system on the Lands’ End stage in the Polo Field.
Not having a terribly great love of underground hip-hop, I spent some time wandering around the festival grounds and seeing what was around before parking myself at the rail of the Sutro Stage, just in time for Electric Six to take the stage. Despite being one of the first acts of the day, the Humboldt County rockers were in high spirits; singer Dick Valentine remarked that they had been offered the headlining spot, but declined on account of likely being too drunk to take the stage at the end of the day. In between each of their numbers of off-kilter rock-and-roll, Valentine quipped about other random facts; he mainly focused on drummer Mike Alonso (nicknamed Percussion World), stating that he was related to Carlos Santana and going into great detail about his rough early life in Marin County. The sheer bizarreness of Valentine’s delivery, as well as the wild yet solid licks of the band’s humorous brand of everything rock, helped to bring one hell of an opening set to Outside Lands.
However, if the energy was high and wild for Electric Six, it was absolutely destroying all possible forms of measurement when Gogol Bordello took the Lands’ End stage an hour and a half later. Following a performance by Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars that had a large portion of the crowd swaying back and forth in the Polo Field to African, Jamaican and other worldly rhythms, the attendance at the stage swelled to a dense peak as the gypsy punk rockers set up and took the stage. The appearance of frontman Eugene Hütz was met with furiously ecstatic cheers, and the crowd was on its feet in a dancing, rocking, and shoving mass that almost matched the energy of the band’s whirlwind performance onstage.
Gogol Bordello brought a great deal of material from their new album, Trans-Continental Hustle, into the set, and for the most part it was met with great enthusiasm. The highlight of the set, however, was definitely “Start Wearing Purple”, the band’s biggest hit, which was coupled with Hütz slinging a bottle of red wine back and forth across the stage. Backup singer Pedro Erazo was nearly as wild as Hütz, and his fanaticism helped to stir the crowd into a frenzy for the entire hour of Gogol Bordello’s set.
Following the onstage mayhem of Gogol Bordello, the crowd detangled themselves and split off once again, with some heading far to the east to catch the tail end of Levon Helm’s set and the start of Tokyo Police Club. Many of the crowd members who headed over to see Bassnectar, whose set died within minutes of him taking the stage, eventually joined those that had stayed at the western end of the Polo Field. 5:00 PM saw the arrival of the Kentucky rock-country-jam quintet My Morning Jacket, the penultimate act on the Land’s End stage and definite ear candy for the Deadheads that were waiting patiently for Furthur but had been more than a little jarred by the antics of Gogol Bordello.
Not having been in the Bay Area for almost two years, the band seemed to be in great cheer as they tore into their set, which, while mostly drawing upon their new record Evil Urges and the cult favorite It Still Moves, had a few surprises thrown in, as well as some wild and furious improvisational jams. Singer Jim James donned a towel for a hat and a great navy-colored cape for the performance of “Highly Suspicious”, keeping the cape for most of the set until his mic cable tossed it across the stage. The most impressive moment of the set was the jump from “Smokin’ From Shootin’” to the furious, snarling mid-song jam of “Run Thru”, which then blended seamlessly into the latter half of the song; this was one of several raucous jam sessions that got the somewhat-entranced crowd up on their feet again, thrashing away to the music or simply watching in awe.
Those who had grown weary of the drifting, dreamy melodies of My Morning Jacket and were missing the explosive energy that had opened the festival were to be found at the Sutro Stage just before the hour of 7, at which point the Australian rock maelstrom that is Wolfmother took the stage. Apparently startled at being on such a small stage, singer Andrew Stockdale and his three bandmates decided to end the Sutro’s schedule with an astonishingly solid performance. Classic songs such as “Dimension” and “California Queen” were extended with chaotic solos and thunderous drumlines, and accented by Stockdale’s Jim Morrison-esque undulations and maneuvers.
To top it off, the band threw a small bit of The Doors’ “Riders On The Storm” into their performance of “White Unicorn”, and, before closing their set, played a cover of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” in its entirety, with keyboardist Ian Peres mimicking the classic keyboard intro with cursory precision. The closing number, “Joker And The Thief”, saw the biggest reaction from the stomping, jumping, and surfing crowd, and was brought to a slamming conclusion when Stockdale threw his guitar at his amp stack, knocking one over and then crawling over it before marching off the stage. The sheer attitude that Stockdale and the rest of Wolfmother brought to the stage was the perfect compliment to their truly excellent set.
Even after departing from the western end of the festival and waiting for indie-rock queen Cat Power to finish her set, navigation to the Twin Peaks stage at the eastern end of the festival proved nearly impossible as a massive amount of the crowd waited in vast anticipation of the final act of the night: New York City’s retro-rock revivalists The Strokes. The festival grounds were completely jammed by the time the massive lighting and stage rigs were fully built into place, with some areas packed more densely than some parts of Gogol Bordello’s crowd. Only moments into the Strokes’ set were needed to justify the crowd’s enthusiasm; despite an almost four-year absence from the Bay Area and the concert scene in general, the band held together an incredibly tight performance that was highly accentuated by their stunning light show. A wall of LEDs danced behind the quintet, projecting both solid colors and animations between three banners lit up on either side of the stage, adding a tunnel-like effect to the onstage lights (which, incidentally, were few and far between; the band was in shadow for most of the set).
Despite pauses and some seemingly rambling statements from singer Julian Casablancas, the band held together marvelously and played an excellent set, spanning across all three records and barely stopping for breaks between songs. The last four songs of the set were most impressive in performance and in response, with “Vision Division” and “I Can’t Win” competing for the most energetic songs in the set, and “Reptilia” and “Last Nite” for loudest, wildest crowd response. After the encore break, Casablancas was heard to comment “be careful what you wish for” in response to the crowd’s chant of “one more song”; the encore contained FOUR songs, including a wonderfully-received performance of “Someday” which saw giant-sized playthroughs of Pac-Man and Space Invaders on the screens behind the band, and the closing number “Take It Or Leave It” finishing out the night.
Despite my own puzzled expectations about the first day of Outside Lands, it kicked off with a marvelous start and ended with a few spectacular performances. All of the acts that I was able to see put on some of the best performances that I’ve witnessed, and seemed to be almost competing to be the most energetic or passionate band onstage, and their energy became fuel for the thousands of concertgoers that had braved the cold and dreary not-really-summer weather to stamp out a path across Golden Gate Park. The first night of Outside Lands 2010 has come to a close, but if today’s festivities were any indication, tomorrow will be fairly spectacular as well.
Photos by Jonathan Pirro except where otherwise specified.