Additional contributions to this article by Dakin Hardwick. All photos by Jonathan Pirro except where noted.
Saturday dawns with nary a clue that the fog and mist are clearing, and the massive greenery of Golden Gate Park continues to beckon to those who would walk onto its already-heavily-trodden surface, tickets in hand and heads held high. The second day of the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival is upon us, and like many of the other Saturdays of the annual San Francisco festival, it’s filled with some of the biggest, wildest acts, especially those that came to close the night. While the first signs of exhaustion are beginning to set in, those alert enough to pry themselves from slumber and scurry into the park at the hour of 11:00am were greeted by yet more feverishly addictive bursts of musical creativity. After the desiderata of strong coffee and a host of breakfast options that lay lazily along the fields, the several-thousand-strong mass began its trek from side to side, taking in another chapter of the chilly yet invigorating musical thunderstorm within.
Kicking off the day at the Twin Peaks stage was Yellow Ostrich, an experimental rock band from Wisconsin. Despite that phrase being a bit of a turn off for the average music listener, the trio managed to experiment without being too jarring or sacrificing songs. If anything, they come from the same mindset as Built To Spill: beautiful layers of sound, gorgeous hooks, and blistering, air guitar inducing riffage. Despite having an excellent guitarist and singer in Alex Schaaf, the heart and soul of this band is “bassist” Jon Natchez — so placed in quotes because he was much more than just the bassist. He had keyboards, a sampler, a bugle, a baritone sax, and a trumpet all at his disposal, in addition to playing bass. He created many swirling, “trippy” layers around the band’s traditional rock sound, using all of his toys. For one song, he actually flipped between baritone sax and bugle — causing his face to nearly explode!
With the dreary weather beginning to clear, the sun peaked through by the end of Yellow Ostrich’s set. Those feeling sufficiently warmed up decided it was time to do some set jumping. The heavily-buzzed about Animal Kingdom were playing the Panhandle Stage, and they had a rather large crowd built up. They did a set of dance-flavored, fun-filled indie rock, no doubt a difficult follow up to Yellow Ostrich. Despite great sound, some of the onlookers grew bored and wandered off to see Corey Chisel in the AT&T Lounge. He played a short set of soulful acoustic music, fleshed out with stunning harmony vocals by Adrien Chisel. It was a much more interesting set, and nice to see a band in such intimate confines.
Those who waited patiently at the Twin Peaks stage for something more akin to the dynamite energy of Yellow Ostrich were rewarded with a performance from San Francisco’s indie rock trio Geographer. Led by the charismatic and frenetic Michael Deni, the trio traded instrumental duties between synths, guitar, keyboards, and an electric cello, with both Deni and drummer Brian Ostreicher offering up their vocal talents to the dreamy yet upbeat early-afternoon rock set. While wafts of smoke blew past them from fog machines, the members of Geographer rocked and grooved, getting the crowd up and into a charmed swaying of arms, hips and legs for the first major dance party of the day.
While Geographer kept their audience’s blood pumping, the Sutro Stage on the other side of the festival played host for The Be Good Tanyas, a band that is very familiar with Golden Gate Park. Not only are they a veteran of many Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festivals, but 2/3 of this fantastic folk trio, mandolinist Samantha Parton and banjo player Trish Klein, used to busk in the park during the band’s salad days. Their set was a pleasant array of originals from their first decade writing together, as well as some key covers, including a dark and soulful take on Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around To Die.” Everything was built around lead singer Frazey Ford’s absolutely mesmerizing voice. Best described as somewhere between a soulful country siren and a rootsy R&B singer, Ford has one of the most powerful yet subtle singing voices imaginable. Ford could sing the phonebook, and the listener would be in rapt attention. They closed their set, somewhat ironically since the fog never actually broke today, with a cover of The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun,” which led to an actual sing along.
While The Be Good Tanyas held down the northwestern area of the festival, the Panhandle stage was occupied by one J. Tillman, former drummer of snowy Seattle rockers Fleet Foxes, and today performing under the alter ego of Father John Misty. Where many other bands of Outside Lands displayed the members feeding off of each others’ performances and sharing a push-pull of energy between them, Tillman was the captivating, gyrating centerpiece to the psychedelic alt-country quartet. Even the outlandishly colorful outfit and hair of bassist Jeffertiti Ramuno had no hope of eclipsing the Jim Morrison-esque galavanting of the bearded, wild-haired frontman, who sang with a rich, husky voice and moved with a pronounced swagger. Here was a man who knew precisely how to engage his rabid, cheering audience, who also seemed to know every word of his songs, and did so with great pleasure, offering each moment of the set a joy to behold.
As the day wore on, the Sutro Stage was the first to come to a close, with a passionate set from Norah Jones drifting into the early evening. Her first Outside Lands appearance leaned heavily on material from her latest record, the Danger Mouse-produced Little Broken Hearts, which is closer to The Black Keys than Nat “King” Cole. Live, these songs rocked in a way that nobody would ever expect out of Jones. Her current guitarist, Josh Abraham Roberts, is the perfect synthesis of Mark Ribot and Smokey Hormel- he added blistering blues, spooky country, or weird noise flourishes to Jones’ amazing songs, creating a whole new energy to her music. They even updated her break out hit “Come Away With Me” as an electrified country song, giving it a whole new life and enthusiasm. The crowd responded ecstatically to her two new singles, “Miriam” and “Happy Pills,” leading one to believe that more people are paying attention to this record than they have in years.
Jones’ set went quite well for her first appearance at the festival; she did a solo piano rendition of “Don’t Know Why” that spawned, according to her, the first ever mass sing a long at a Norah Jones concert. The band came back out for a Tom Waits-esque rendition of “Sinkin’ Soon,” complete with Roberts doing some rather unworldly guitar effects, an alien sound akin to a sinking boat. It wasn’t long before she brought out the big guns: Grateful Dead founding member Bob Weir came out to sing and play guitar on the Dead classic “Must’ve Been The Roses.” and the audience practically exploded with glee. Even those who were not fans of the Dead could find the song to be fantastic (also, a mere 3 minutes – one of the only non-jammy songs played by a Dead member in decades?).
During the rest of the day, the dance party at the Twin Peaks stage that began with Geographer’s set had been increasing steadily throughout the day, and reached a critical mass just after Norah Jones kicked off her set on the other end of the park. The Cambridge electropop quintet known as Passion Pit was the final act that day to bring an insane volley of electronic beats and bombastic dance moves to the writhing, stomping crowd, which bounced and churned with a dizzying energy that was stunning to see at the end of such a long day. Singer Michael Angelakos lent his piercing, warbling falsetto to the shimmering synths and smashing drumbeats of his bandmates, all the while running, leaping, and spinning about from end to end of the stage. The crowd fed ravenously off the energy of the group, and by the end of the set, the normally-cold festival air was vigorously warm and pungent with the odors of happily-perspiring bodies.
Mere moments after Passion Pit and Norah Jones finished their sets, the entirety of the meadow in front of the Sutro Stage filled with the sound of “Hit The Lights” by Metallica. Those running to the Land’s End stage in a sudden frenzy found it to be a daunting gallop, moving in a U-shape around the forested bends, and it took the length of “Master Of Puppets” to make way from any of the other stages to the main spot on the festival grounds. Most of the new arrivals were situated by the time the band had begun “Fuel”, which was the exact substance that many felt coursing through their veins during the duration of Metallica’s set. James Hetfield can still howl just as well as he could twenty years ago, and is fitter and more energetic than ever. Bassist Robert Trujillo played bass while dancing like a crab, and Kirk Hammett was still holding the throne as one of the finest shredders in rock. The only weak link was Lars Ulrich, who seemed to be fighting to keep the beat; also, after every song he would depart from the stage, only to return a few moments later.
Lest these seem like critical shortcoming to their set, they were nothing of the sort; Metallica brought all the pomp and circumstance of stadium rock to Golden Gate Park, including a volcanic display of pyro that was intimidating with the backdrop of trees surrounding them. As would be fitting in their hometown of San Francisco, tonight saw one of the best setlists Metallica could ever do. It was a performance of their greatest hits, avoiding St. Anger and Death Magnetic entirely — there was no mention of Lulu, either. “One” came complete with a full fireworks show, “Sad But True” prompted a synchronized headbang in the crowd — all of the material one could ever want to get in a Metallica show was to be found. Even their encore featured the ultimate speed metal triplicate: “Creeping Death,” “Battery,” and “Seek & Destroy,” prompting even the most sedentary of onlookers to hand their bags to friends and join the massive circle pit.
All of the raging, violent, and otherwise aggressive energy of the Outside Lands audience, however, was to be found entirely within the confines of the Polo Field. On the other side of the park, an hour after Metallica had begun their hell-hued sonic onslaught, the Twin Peaks stage found itself occupied by the Icelandic post-rock four-piece Sigur Rós, whose first Bay Area appearance in four years was welcomed with ecstatic, emotional cries and cheers. Accompanied by a small orchestra of strings and horns, the ethereal quartet carefully coaxed their haunting melodies and soaring riffs into existence, moving from a near-fragile and gentle susurrus to a staggering display of furious and beautiful sound, all awash in dazzling colors of light and a mesmerizing universe in the projection screen behind them. Frontman Jónsi Birgisson would later remark his surprise, and happiness, that so many people had come to see them over Metallica, and though it had been a difficult decision for many who stayed on the eastern end of the park, their curiosity was rewarded with a delicate yet anthemic performance, each song an otherworldly journey that grabbed its listeners, hurled them through dark dreams and delightful nightmares, and leaving their psyche bowled over in wonder at the end of each piece.
Any doubts that one may have had concerning the endearing mightiness of Sigur Rós’ live sets, due to the extremely ambient nature and, at times, overly somnambulistic pace of their new record Valtari, would have been hard-pressed to see the Icelandic band at a tighter and more powerful level of performance. With their backing orchestration, classic songs such as “Olsen Olsen” and “Festival” had a dazzling display of new life breathed into them, with all the frequencies perceivable by the human ear present and offering a breathtaking treat for their listeners. The biggest surprise came in the form of a performance of “Hafssól”, from the band’s debut album Von, which segued fluidly into the more recent “Með blóðnasir” from their 2005 release Takk… and offered a moment of gleeful reflection to everyone present. As had long become custom, Sigur Rós ended their set with a sprawling, earth-shattering performance of “Popplagið”, the final track from their iconic 2002 album, ( ).
Saturday came to a close with even wearier faces and limbs, the cold enveloping everyone who trudged from the park. Despite this, spirits remained high for the conclusion of the festival, with appearances from fun., Jack White, Bloc Party, and the legendary Stevie Wonder. Stay tuned for our final report!
- Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2012 Jonathan Pirro except where specified.