Show Review: San Francisco’s 2012 Outside Lands Festival, Day 1

by Jonathan Pirro on August 14, 2012

The iconic Outside Lands windmill greets all attendees at some point in the festival

The iconic Outside Lands windmill greets all attendees at some point in the festival

Additional contributions to this article by Dakin Hardwick. All photos by Jonathan Pirro except where noted.

Summer is always slow and somewhat sporadic to come to the Bay Area, and with it comes a mostly dry spell of live music, with many large groups heading overseas for massive festivals and international tours, while California and the rest of the country relax and find other ways to enjoy themselves in whatever sun decides to creep over the land. The city of San Francisco is even more prone to aberrant weather and happenings, especially since right in the middle of August is the colossal technicolor monstrosity that is the annual Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival. In 2012, the festival enters its fifth year of existence, and a crowd of 65,000 fans plowed into the historic Golden Gate Park each day of the surprisingly chilly and foggy weekend, which was relatively unexpected based on the forecasts from earlier in the week. However, with tickets sold out and a number of huge bands set to take the 4 stages across the three-day weekend, even dreary weather couldn’t dull the enthusiasm of the sprawling, voracious crowd that clambered into the park, and raised voices, fists, and flags in unison for over 10 hours of music each day.

James Petralli of White Denim

James Petralli of White Denim

Despite Friday still being a workday for a large chunk of the festivalgoers, a decent crowd managed to swarm its way into the park by the hour of noon, when the Austin rock quartet known as White Denim took residence at the Sutro Stage and proceeded to bowl over their onlookers with an unstoppable burst of white-hot psychedelic rock. With all of the brilliant segues of jam bands of yesteryear, but all of the energy of a youthful group of wild rockers hell-bent on unleashing pure chaos before them, the men of White Denim let loose a marvelous blend of fusion, jam, progressive, and even the tiniest bit of Southern indie twang to top things off. The first four or five songs of the set blended together seamlessly, with singer James Petralli trading licks and speedy dance moves with the rest of his band, as the crowd around them began to grow — hopefully in admiration of the expert musicianship onstage. The dynamite kickoff act of the stage was followed up, strangely, by the slow and haunting dirges of singer Sharon Van Etten, who, while she did not display the same ferocity as the four Texans before her, culled even more onlookers towards her with a haunting, dreamy voice, rustic guitars, and billowing keyboard passages — perhaps allowing some breathing room after the cataclysm that had begun the day.

Sharon Van Etten

Sharon Van Etten

While San Francisco’s wildly eclectic duo Two Gallants took over the main Land’s End stage at the end of the Polo Field, a massive party had begun on the opposite side of the park, thanks to the wild synths and thundering drumbeats of the Oakland act known as Wallpaper. Headed by main showman Ricky Reed, the Twin Peaks stage — and most of the sizeable crowd around it — was vastly populated by MCs and drummers alike, all thrashing about wildly to delightfully catchy rhythms and the hilariously whimsical words of Mr. Reed himself. Reed and guest vocalist Novena Carmel traded vocal duties, while the drummers behind them added to the vastly-pulsing synth beats, and the group was a flailing storm of limbs as all four ended up bouncing from side to side of the giant stage. The party energy had shifted to the other side of the park, and would be there to stay in the hours to come.

Ricky Reed of Wallpaper.

Ricky Reed of Wallpaper.

Back at the Sutro Stage, following another explosive and hilarious performance by New York comedic mastermind Reggie Watts, the East Coast indie act named The Walkmen continued the somber but beautiful vibe that Van Etten had conjured up earlier, with their lofty but groovy rock songs filling the San Francisco forest with a glorious shimmer. Singer Hamilton Leithauser led the energy of his band with gusto, his fingers clutching the mic as he twisted and writhed with a joyful expression on his face, while his band cascaded back and forth in accompaniment. The audience had begun to reach a critical mass at this point, so dense in some areas that movement became impossible, and those unable to see participated in knocking a beach ball from side to side across the heads of the crowd. Obviously annoyed by the distraction, but still displaying remarkable candor and good sportsmanship, Leithauser caught the beach ball when it finally landed onstage, tore it open with a ferocious bite, and tossed its lifeless corpse back to the people below, who roared with glee at this act of defiance.

The Walkmen

The Walkmen

Out on the Land’s End stage, the second Outside Lands appearance by Beck, sadly, left a little to be desired. His current band might be the tightest group he’s every assembled, especially with Odelay-era guitarist Smokey Hormel back in the group. They ran through this greatest hits set with great energy and precision. The only sour point was, well, Beck himself. He seemed completely disinterested in performing, opting to hide behind his guitar and stand stoically while he mumbled through hits such as “Devil’s Haircut” and “Loser.” Not wanting to puncture the afternoon with something so lackluster, we stumbled across Tennis at the Panhandle Stage on the way back to Twin Peaks. This indie pop duo from Denver brought the enthusiasm that Beck was dearly missing. The weather was cold, and it looked like everyone in the band bought thick winter jackets just on their way to the fest to contend with Golden Gate Park in the Summer. This band’s perky energy certainly helped fend off the chill, and eventually helped the intimate Panhandle Stage feel like a great intimate venue.

Alaina Moore of Tennis (photo by Paige K. Parsons)

Alaina Moore of Tennis (photo by Paige K. Parsons)

This year’s Outside Lands marks Die Antwoord’s fifth visit to San Francisco, and were a clear indication that anyone who had passed up seeing them in the past had made the wrong decision. They came out on bright orange jumpsuits, and leaped into high gear with the hip hop / techno fusion of “Fok Julie Naaiers.” DJ Hi-Tek was in the back wearing a mask, while rappers Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er were dressed in bright orange and black jumpsuits. Throughout the set, which was evenly distributed between tracks off Ten$ion and $0$, costumes kept changing: Ninja would simply keep shedding clothes until he was in nothing but Pink Floyd boxers, while Yo-Landi wore a gold one piece, and eventually was also performing in just her underwear. The Twin Peaks crowd was at an uncontrollable frenzy for every single track Die Antwoord unleashed upon them. It felt like everybody in the field knew every word, and nobody stopped dancing for even a moment. Yo-Landi proved to be one of the most skilled MC’s that had ever taken the stage at Outside Lands. These folks didn’t care that they were missing Foo Fighters across the park. This was living in the moment, and taking in one of the most talented hip hop combos to burst onto the scene in years.

Yo-Landi Vi$$er, Ninja, and DJ Hi-Tek of Die Antwoord

Yo-Landi Vi$$er, Ninja, and DJ Hi-Tek of Die Antwoord

After Die Antwoord finished their set, it was a short distance to see Antibalas, another band who, like Beck, has spent a number of years off the radar. Their blend of afrobeat and James-Brown-influenced funk, plus just a hint of reggae, was the perfect band to check out after Die Antwoord for anyone who wanted to keep the dance party going. Frontman Duke Amayo kept bouncing between vocals and congas, and the band locked into a nice & steady groove that simply felt good. Moments after the end of their set, it was easy to bounce back to the Twin Peaks stage to see the Toronto electronic duo known as MSTRKRFT. After the fierce energy of both Die Antwoord and Antibalas, however, it was difficult to connect to two DJ’s simply queuing up tracks. They sounded great, but there was absolutely no human connection with the crowd. Despite that, however, a massive amount folks did keep dancing, still able to feed into the energy of their surrounding cohorts to keep moving deep into the night. After almost 3 hours of dancing and walking between stages, the more tired souls found a nice stack of hay to sit on to enjoy Washed Out at the Panhandle Stage. After all, the genre is “chillwave,” so it’s nice to actually chill. Happily, they were the right tempo at the right time. Those expecting something rather mellow instead got some pleasant disco/soul fusion with a bit of electronic flourishes, reminiscent of early Zero 7 — making it pretty easy to see what the hype about this trio was all about.

Chris Gardner, touring bassist for Washed Out

Chris Gardner, touring bassist for Washed Out

The final hour of Outside Lands was either a slow but delightful bombast of old-time rock from the legendary Neil Young, or the hyperreal dance party that French electronic wizards Justice were putting on at the Twin Peaks stage, no doubt to try and usurp the crown that had been snatched up by MSTRKRFT an hour earlier. Those familiar and passionate about the Canadian singer-songwriter occupied a large swath of the Polo Field, and anyone still possessed of energy was sweating and dancing the last of it out on the opposite side of the park. It was a pleasant end to the day to see that Justice still puts on the same insane light show and marvelously-constructed playlist that they brought to the Fox Theater back in April, with a dizzying wall of lasers and LED-laced Marshall stacks lighting up Golden Gate Park like a miniature supernova. While some might voice their frustration of seeing the same show twice, the vastly-attended performance indicated that those who could finally see the pair were more than happy for every moment of the set.

Two more days of Outside Lands are still to come, featuring reviews of Norah Jones, Metallica, Sigur Rós, Tom Morello, fun., Jack White, and, of course, Stevie Wonder!

Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2012 Jonathan Pirro except where specified.

Jonathan Pirro

Off-kilter multimedia enthusiast.

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