Thursday, August 15, 2013

Outside Lands, Day 3

* * * *

As with Grizzly Bear the previous day, I sat down for Kurt Vile’s set with his touring band The Violators after meeting up with some friends.  Jammy but ambient, the band and their spaced-out frontman showered the audience with gorgeous clouds of guitar noise that occasionally gave way to tight songs.  The opening “Jesus Fever,” a Tom Petty-ish cut from his breakthrough Smoke Ring From My Halo, was a highlight, as was his celebrated outsider anthem “Freak Train.”  Though Vile’s music was easy to enjoy while chilling out on the grass, it was much harder not to focus on than Grizzly Bear’s, and I imagine it may have been even better had I stood up--but I had a fine time on the ground and don’t regret my decision a bit.

* * 1/2

I decided to stay at the stage where Kurt Vile stage--the folk-oriented Sutro stage--during a long lull between bands I wanted to see.  The next act was Trombone Shorty, another name I knew chiefly from festivals and who the friends I met up with had nothing but phrase for.  My friend Robin claimed he “invented his own genre of music”--which, for better or for worse, may have been true.  Most of the show consisted of the youthful, charismatic Shorty showing off his trombone chops over a slightly awkward melange of New Orleans funk and hard ‘70s-styled rock; though my reaction to his music may have been founded chiefly in stylistic prejudice against “rootsy” music, Shorty’s music seemed to me to prioritize style over substance, particularly the sharply divided genres he chose to mix and his admittedly incredible trombone chops.  (Also, he had the second most stoned drummer of the day--more on that later).  

* * * *

I left the Sutro stage briefly to see King Tuff, the L.A.-via-Vermont garage-rock hero who, according to my friend Baylor, “nobody hasn’t seen.”  This was my first experience seeing Tuff live and certainly not my last if I could help it.  He played in a power trio with a hip-looking bassist and an incredibly sleazy-looking drummer who were both very good; however, Tuff’s musicianship was the focus.  Tuff is as good a guitarist as he is a singer--and excellent at both, sporting one of the sexiest voices in contemporary rock as well as one of the most versatile guitar styles.  Fittingly, he also drew the single most attractive crowd I have ever seen in a rock show in terms of men.  While my other straight friends admired the many attractive women (“they must be out of towners,” said one friend, “because I never see people this hot walking the streets”), I was busy focusing on the guys at King Tuff, who mostly appeared to be high school seniors and college freshmen already deep into indie music and at the possible peak of their attractiveness.  If you were there and you’re reading this, hit me up.

* * * * *

There’s really no way to commence my discussion of Willie Nelson’s set without stating that he was the single best artist at the festival.  While Paul McCartney’s set contained plenty of mind-blowing moments and featured maybe ten of the best rock songs ever written, Willie Nelson’s set was arguably stronger for a number of reasons.  Firstly, while Paul’s set was tempered with more than a few of those cheesy Paul songs that are the reason it’s cooler to be a Lennon person, Nelson’s set was unwaveringly strong and contained not a single bad song (despite the obvious showing-off of his golden-maned guitarist son Lukas, who sports the least convincing blues voice this side of Caleb Followill).  Secondly, while Paul’s entire show felt more like a spectacle featuring a legendary musician playing his greatest hits rather than just a legendary musician playing his greatest hits, Nelson’s set felt like a jam that just happened to be composed of ridiculously tight musicians fronted by a fantastic singer and guitarist--and happened to also feature some of the best songs ever written, peaking with a rousing “Georgia On My Mind” that had the drunk lady behind me screaming and sobbing uncontrollably.  

The vibe was as loose and carefree as you’d expect from a group of musicians who presumably spend most of their time playing music and getting obscenely baked (probably both at once, considering how utterly gone the drummer looked).  Though Nelson was unmistakable with his white beard and multitude of hats and bandannas, he always seemed more like a human being than an icon, delivering his songs with jokey sentiment.  Even the guests seemed more like friendly hangers-on, with Bob Weir popping in Kramer-like to deliver a few lines and John Stamos coming out to bang on a pair of bongos and make self-conscious movie-star faces at the audience.  In short, while McCartney could have been an alien or a deity with his pyrotechnics and psychedelic visuals, Nelson never seemed like anything more than an intensely likeable, frequently relatable human being.  

* * * *

Like Metallica last year, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were great but more or less exactly what I expected.  There were no surprises, no deep-cut curveballs, none of the strung-out band tension that marked their awful/brilliant Frusciante-era performances--just the sober stylings of a band coming to terms with its greatest-hits phase and performing as such (they played no material from their newest album, the poorly-received I’m With You, and I knew they would do a second encore just because they hadn't played "Give It Away" yet).  But my God, did they play their songs well.  They sounded as clear and tight as they did on record, usually with a bit extra noodling but never any full-on jamming.  Flea’s bass dominated all, as did Flea himself--he did almost all the talking, while frontman Anthony Kiedis was content to merely sing rather than impose his personality on the audience.  As with Phoenix, I think I may have enjoyed this set significantly more were it earlier in the day and were I closer to the band--I was furthest from the Chili Peppers than any other act I saw, and I could barely see the band’s intricate visuals, let alone the band itself.

I saw the second half of Dawes’ set between King Tuff and Willie Nelson; they really weren’t that great and might have registered as a Mumford & Sons ripoff had I not known they had been around for a while before the recent wave of cute, almost-non-threatening folk-pop bands.


Tied with Friday as the best day, maybe slightly better.  Going to Willie Nelson was the best decision I ever made--for a minute, I wanted to see Vampire Weekend, but then I remembered I don’t like them that much.  

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Outside Lands, Day 2

* * * *

Due to various complications involving several friends and two guys calling themselves “The Party People,” I didn’t get to Outside Lands until around 4:30.  The first full act I caught was Jurassic 5, a group I previously only knew from festivals--they seem perennially on the second row of festival lineups, but I’d never heard a single recorded song from them.  Upon seeing them, this made a whole lot of sense.  The songs the L.A. hip-hop crew (the only rap act at the festival) played wouldn’t be brilliant on record, but they’re probably the best live hip-hop act I’ve seen since Odd Future in 2011.  The DJs contributed to most of the spectacle aspect of the performance, busting out turntable guitars and scratching an enormous, human-sized record during an epic competition that never had a clear winner.  However, the group’s four rappers made up for their relatively limited verses with limitless, crowd-pumping energy and seamless transitions from one MC to another.  

* * *

The next act up I saw was the fantastic Brooklyn indie-rock band Grizzly Bear.  I sat down for their set, which may or may not have been a good idea--half of their material was well-suited for ambient hillside listening, while the rest demanded frenetic dancing and crowd involvement.  Either way, I was slightly disappointed by their set, probably chiefly due to my disappointment with their recent album Shields.  The material from Shields was, for the most part, unmemorable--I barely remember which songs from the album they played.  The highlights came invariably from their early material, especially the songs from their excellent 2009 release Veckatimest and in particular their ubiquitous hit “Two Weeks.”  Watching Grizzly Bear play “Two Weeks” was similar to watching Paul McCartney play “We Can Work It Out” (a likely inspiration)--its pop tightness was kept intact, but the energy and emotion with which it was played transformed it into an all-out jam.  

* * * *

The act that caught me most by surprise that day was Griz, a 21-year-old Detroit producer who laid down one of the best DJ sets I’ve ever seen.  There were really three elements of his set--classic songs (Otis Redding’s “Shake”), trappy hip-hop, and, most effectively, lurching moombahton beats that largely built off the template of Skrillex’s “Reptile” but replaced that artist’s maximalist sound barrage with clicks, cuts, and masterful use of empty space.  Though I don’t know how his music would translate to record, Griz was rivaled only by the legendary Chic as the funkiest act at the festival.

* * * 1/2

I’ve seen Phoenix twice at Outside Lands; this year’s set was certainly inferior to the last, but more due to contextual factors than the band’s actual music.  I was much closer to their 2010 set; in addition, they played much earlier last time, meaning that my energy was still at relatively peak level.  However, it was a great set to at least witness--they fired off all their biggest hits from their massive 2010 album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, in addition to their best song, the monumental “Too Young.”  This was the only act at Outside Lands who played a deep cut I was itching to hear--I was at least hoping for “Sir Psycho Sexy” from the Chili Peppers, but they’re all dads now so no chance.


I heard Youth Lagoon’s set on the way to the festival; it was allegedly amazing, but all I could hear was Trevor Powers’ piercing voice, which cut through the music so sharply I couldn’t tell if he was in tune or not.


Probably the worst day, though Jurassic 5 and Griz (particularly the latter) were both pleasant surprises.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Outside Lands, Day 1

Apologies for lack of photos, my camera died almost immediately after arrival.

* * * 1/2

The first full set I saw was by Seattle’s Band of Horses, best known for their anthemic “The Funeral”--the only song they played I knew.  Though they were a solid band, they were the sort of group I felt I should have researched prior to seeing and were not quite interesting enough to capture my attention as a casual festival-browser coming in blind.  However, I am strongly interested in delving into their music in case I ever see them again at another festival (not unlikely given their hippie appeal and consistent pace of releases).

* * * *

The National’s set was a strange experience, to say the least.  Like Regina Spektor last year, the National’s music was entirely incongruous with what is generally expected of a festival act--but worked extremely well.  In stark contrast to the jammy, fun-loving Band of Horses, the National played melancholy music that hung over the crowd like a dense fog.  Stately singer Matt Berninger encapsulated the group’s aesthetic, wandering aimlessly across the stage and sipping from a bottle of white wine while not crouched over the microphone.  There can only be so much gloom at a vibey summer festival, and the National’s set dragged on long enough that they just became depressing after a while.  But at their early-to mid-set best, they were truly excellent, balancing atmosphere with crowd-moving rock rhythms.  

* * * *

Thirty years after collaborating on some of the biggest records by the biggest names in post-disco pop music, Nile Rodgers is once again one of the world’s most pre-eminent producers thanks to a little record called Random Access Memories.  Many animal-hatted EDM fans could be seen at the crowd, indicating that Rodgers’ work with Daft Punk was the main reason his band Chic was able to secure a gig replacing the notoriously flaky R&B singer D’Angelo.  But Chic didn’t play any Daft Punk songs, opting instead for a mix of their own songs and other Rodgers-affiliated work, such as Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and David Bowie’s almighty “Let’s Dance.”  Perhaps the most impressive thing about Chic was how much they sounded like a timeless ideal of Chic rather than a middle-aged disco relic.  Though they played with the effortless confidence of veterans, there were moments where they sounded like the most relevant band in the world--a statement that might not be as far from the truth as one might think.

* * * * 1/2

Paul McCartney was my first Beatle and I had no idea what to expect.  I was as prepared for a predictable set of the most boring stadium schmaltz ever as I was for one filled with immortal pop gems penned by one of the most influential and brilliant musicians to walk the earth in the last century.  With the exception of a few sappy Beatles and Wings cuts, the answer was almost unequivocally the latter--and even some of the throwaways had a way of being profound.  “All Together Now,” an oft-forgotten pseudo-kid’s song from Yellow Submarine, became a massive psychedelic sing-along complete with trippy Q*bert visuals; “Lovely Rita”’s gorgeous vocal descent defined absolute bliss for the few brief seconds it lasted.  The surprises never ceased--“Yesterday” with the Kronos String Quartet, a bizarre ukulele version of “Something,” a live signing of two ecstatic fans’ arms.  But the best moment for me was “We Can Work It Out,” one of the Beatles’ all-time best songs and one of the most effective live--the time switch was far easier for the stoned crowd to process than the one in “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” (which he also played, but a bit more awkwardly given that it was originally sung by John). 


I came in on the second-to-last song of Surfer Blood’s set; they played “Swim,” a great pop song, and another one I couldn’t identify.  They didn’t sound particularly tight and John Paul Pitts was very noticeably off-key, but their amateurishness complimented their music.  I saw snippets of the Men’s set but couldn’t identify any of the songs despite having heard their first two records; their music didn’t catch my ear enough for me to have any interest in lingering.  


Good day, but crowded and surprisingly dry.  I had trouble deciding whether to stay towards the front after the National to wait for Paul or to head to Chic and lose my spot, but I feel I made the right decision.