Naturally, as my girlfriend Nikki and I walked through the park toward the gate, we were already baking. Temperatures on that first day were in the 90s, and I couldn't help but feel like it was Coachella with trees. Now, anyone who's been to Coachella knows that would be better than the vast skin cancer seminar held on the polo fields of Indio every April, but Golden Gate Park has a wrinkle that Coachella lacks--hills. Lots of 'em. The festival grounds break down into three areas, and they're all somewhat far apart, so there's a lot of walking involved. One area in particular has a hill to get into and a very steep climb to get out of, and in the heat of that first day I was beginning to miss the Palm Desert.
But what am I bitching about? LIVE MUSIC!!!
The Duke Spirit, Presidio Stage, 1:00
One of the chief appeals of this festival is the relatively uncrowded schedule, which should allow for more free time and less conflicts with bands I want to see. It should come as no surprise then that right off the bat we had to decide between Autolux and The Duke Spirit. I've liked Autolux for a while, and they typically put on a good show, but I've seen them five or six times since their debut album, and they've been working on the follow-up since before Sammy Sosa forgot he spoke English, so good luck with the set, Carla and company. The Duke Spirit proved to be the right choice, as their lively brand of rock set a good tone for the day. Lead singer Liela Moss is like a blond, coherent Bjork, and her stage presence is one of fun-loving energy; it provides a nice contrast to her mostly too-cool guitarists. I couldn't tell you a single song title, or what any of the songs even really sounded like beyond having a clear classic rock influence, but it was a good time, and a nice way to ignore the heat.
Akron/Family, Sutro Stage, 1:45
As it happened, the sun beating down the back of our necks slid behind a welcome cloud cover right about the time The Duke Spirit were finishing, and with some free time before Built to Spill we ambled over to the Sutro Stage to check out the bearded wonders of Akron/Family. I've gone on record as saying any band with punctuation in its name is probably bad, or at least worthy of ridicule, but while the name is awful, the music is decidedly not. The beards were everything we had hoped they would be, and the three guys have a hippie commune vibe to them, but musically they bring to mind The Band, both because of their rotating vocal duties and their songs. Don't get me wrong, they ain't The Band, but I really enjoyed the three songs we saw, and there are worse comparisons.
Built to Spill, Lands End Stage, 2:30
Much as I was enjoying Akron/Family, Built to Spill was one of the biggest reasons I was there, so we made the first of many grueling hikes out of the Lindley Meadow area and went about securing a good spot at the "main" stage. Friday was easily the most scarcely populated day of the festival, but by now there were a lot of people congregating at Lands End, waiting to hear the elder-statesmen of the current indie rock landscape. Back when I did my review of Wilco's latest album, my friend Tom countered my assertion that Wilco was the best American band with Built to Spill, and while I think that's a bit hyperbolic, it's undeniable that they've had a huge influence on alternative and indie rock for the last decade and a half. Oh, and they're pretty much awesome. They wandered out onto the stage casually, picked up their instruments and went into "Traces," a standout from their last album, You in Reverse. As they got to the slowly escalating guitar solo that makes up the centerpiece of the song, and the crowd started to really get excited, I had my first "Shit yeah, I'm at a goddamn rock festival!" moment of the day. Part of what makes Built to Spill so impressive live is that they look like a bunch of dads, and don't move around all that much, but create such a huge swirl of guitars that you almost wonder if it's really them playing. Lead singer and guitarist Doug Martsch just stands there and shreds, with only his head bobbing around as he sings. "Conventional Wisdom," with its epic guitar solo of an outro (sensing a trend here?) was another huge crowd pleaser, as was Keep it Like a Secret's "You Were Right." And when they were done, they just said a modest "thank you" and walked away, leaving only the pleasant ringing in our ears as proof that they'd even been there.
At this point it was time to eat, so we made our way back down into Lindley Meadow to hunt down some food and check out The Dodos. Much to my delight, I (heart) Spicy Pie was there, and I settled down with a fresh beer and two enormous slices of pepperoni pizza. One of best things about Outside Lands is the abundance of food and drink everywhere, not just in designated food courts and beer gardens. And they let you take the drinks with you wherever you go! Maybe this wouldn't be a wise choice for Coachella and other festivals, but the overall congenial mood and relative paucity of people makes it work. The Dodos made for good background while we ate and relaxed, but I'm not sure I see what people are so excited about. Big drums with light acoustic guitar plays like a gimmick to me. After a little bit of that it was time to make our way back to Lands End to see another band I was very excited for, Silversun Pickups.
Silversun Pickups, Lands End Stage, 4:15
Yes, they sound like Smashing Pumpkins. Yes, lead singer Brian Aubert's high voice is a bit of an acquired taste. But I like his voice, I love their guitars, and since when is sounding like early Nineties Pumpkins a bad thing? Billy Corgan sure as shit ain't getting it right anymore. However, even for people who like this band, I keep hearing that they're no good live, which seems impossible since they came up playing in the LA area, and I don't see how they would have made it this far without a good live presence. Whatever their performances have been like in the past, they were awesome on this day, really playing to the crowd, being humble and having a good time. I had doubts about Aubert's vocals holding up in such a big setting, but he sounded great. They opened with "Growing Old is Getting Old" from their new album Swoon, a slow starter that explodes into fuzzed out guitar by the end, and proceeded to play nine more songs, pulling evenly from Swoon and their debut, Carnavas. The highlight was when they played "There's No Secrets This Year" and "The Royal We" back-to-back in the middle of the set, especially the latter, which is probably their best song, no matter how much everyone loves "Lazy Eye." At one point they took a moment to marvel at playing on the same stage as Built to Spill, "pretty much the best fuckin' band ever." (See?) They closed with latest hit single "Panic Switch" and "Lazy Eye," with Aubert sounding particularly strong as he belted out "Waiting and fading and floating away!" during the crescendo of "Panic Switch." After directing the cameras to film the crowd (I confess, I waved my hat around just so I could see it on the big screens on either side of the stage), they departed by throwing flowers out into the audience. A little cheesy, perhaps, but it felt genuine, and earned.
Nikki had bailed halfway through the set because she couldn't deal with the drunk chick in front of us anymore, so I went back to Lindley Meadow again (by now my legs are feeling the pain) to find her at The National, but she was too close to the stage and I decided to lie down for a bit. Honestly, The National just wasn't doing it for me. They're not bad, but nothing really jumped out, and the lead singer's super deep voice lulled me into a much needed half-sleep. Apparently I resemble a hurdle, because a few people decided to jump over me instead of just going around, so after a bit of that I decided to get up and wander over to the Presidio Stage to check out Tea Leaf Green. On the way there I found my girlfriend and we followed the aroma of another type of green leaf to the music.
Tea Leaf Green, Presidio Stage, 6:00Another great thing about festivals is the opportunity to be surprised, to stumble upon some band you've never heard before that blows you away. Outside Lands was full of these bands for me, at least one per day, but Tea Leaf Green was the first and probably best. Being based in San Francisco, it was hardly shocking that there would be so many jammy, hippie bands playing, but they fit into the mood perfectly. Tea Leaf Green consisted of four members, with the lead singer on the keyboard/organ, and all of them were virtuosos. It all had a very bluesy, jazzy feel to it, with songs going off on controlled tangents that were never boring, and each instrument getting its turn to shine. The air was pretty hazy throughout, and there was even a guy walking around with tupperware full of cookies that I'll hazard a guess were not Famous Amos. The whole thing made for a perfect early evening, and we stayed for most of the set. See these guys if you get a chance.
Tom Jones, Sutro Stage, 6:50After Tea Leaf Green it was time to see a legend, if only to say we did. The man who claimed it wasn't unusual to be loved by anyone, then backed it up by deflowering Elvira, Mr. Tom Jones. There was a fairly big crowd for his set, and wouldn't you know it, the old bastard kept us waiting. Eventually his band took their places on stage, with a big black guy grabbing a mic and acting as a hype man. "Are you ready for Tom Jones?" he asked us, as if we didn't know where we were. Then, finally, Jones emerged, very gray but looking amped up. He started with some song where the chorus was "I'm alive!" as if to assure us that we were seeing the real Tom Jones and not the Tom Jones robot (I think it had a gig in Cleveland that night). The next song was a cover of Otis Redding's "Too Hard To Handle," which has already been done much better by The Black Crowes. It wasn't bad, but we had seen enough, and it was time to go jockey for position at the best reason to be there, Pearl Jam.
Pearl Jam, Lands End Stage, 7:50After some strategic maneuvering, we ended up in a good spot, and after making some new friends (he had the same shirt as me!) Pearl Jam came out to the general eruption and losing of their collective mind of the crowd. Pearl Jam has long been one of my favorite bands; one of my earliest experiences with new music was listening to Ten at a sleepover birthday party at a friend's house. So when the first song was "Why Go," a burst of grunge nostalgia from that very album, I freaked out. All these years later, and these guys are still a top notch live act. "Why go home?" the crowd sang along with Eddie Vedder, and I mean everybody. Disinclined to let up, the band went right into "Animal," and then "Severed Hand." Finally, Vedder addressed the crowd, reminding us all to take care of each other, and adding that he'd been asked to tell us not to take the brown acid. "The mushrooms are all right though." Being a festival, the set list was more of a greatest hits, knocking out every hit single they've ever had not called "Jeremy" or "World Wide Suicide." After they played "Corduroy," Vedder called an audible with the set, saying that the sky was perfect to move "Low Light" up. "My throat ain't what it usually is, so any help would be appreciated." Though he was a little hoarse, it didn't matter; he was still all over the stage, jumping and dancing and playing guitar. The band, lead guitarist Mike McCready in particular, gave him a break with an extended guitar solo on "Even Flow," playing part of it behind his head.
As the performance went on, they touched upon every album except Binaural, even playing "Down," an obscure song that's on Lost Dogs. Ten, Vs. and Yield were pulled from the most, which seemed appropriate since those are probably their three best (sorry, Vitalogy). The main set closed the way it began, with another trio of hard-hitting rockers, "Do The Evolution," "Save You" and "Go." After a brief break Vedder came back out alone with just a guitar and played "Wasted Reprise" before the rest of the band returned and reeled off a couple more hits and an amazing version of The Who's "The Real Me." And just when they seemed done, they came back out one last time and sent us all home with "Rockin' in the Free World." Much like their new album (a review of which will appear in this space as soon as I finish my Outside Lands trilogy), this performance announced that they are still very much a force in the music world.
Set List: Why Go / Animal / Severed Hand / Corduroy / Low Light / The Fixer / In My Tree / Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town / Even Flow / Got Some / I Am Mine / Given To Fly / MFC / Down / Black / Save You / Do The Evolution / Go
First Encore: Wasted Reprise / Better Man / Daughter / The Real Me / Crazy Mary / Alive
Second Encore: Throw Your Hatred Down / Rockin' In The Free World
Coming next: Mastodon really throws a wrench in the soul theme of Day 2.