Monday, August 22, 2011

Outside Lands 2011, Day 1: The Commute Formidable; or Anger, MGMT

I may have broken my Coachella streak earlier this year due to a startlingly quick sell-out, but I have another festival streak to nourish, and this year marked my third straight at San Francisco's awesome Outside Lands. Last year I failed to review it, but two years ago I did a sort of running diary of Day 1, so I thought I'd give that another go. If no one seems to care, or if writing it just proves too big a pain, expect one large post for Days 2 & 3. But for now, let's dive right into the hills and fog of the Bay Area!

Oh, those hills. Silly us, thinking we could just wander out onto Market Street and hail a cab big enough for six people! After sending away the first one because he could only fit five at the most, we started walking in the general direction of Golden Gate Park, arrogantly assuming on a weekend like this the city would be crawling with cabs. But as taxi after taxi flew by we started to get a little concerned. I'm still not convinced that first guy didn't send out a secret signal against us, branding us with a giant "NO" in bright scarlet letters. Finally broken down, we decided on splitting up after about half an hour and were almost immediately rewarded with what looked like two consecutive taxis. Three of us piled into the first one, my extreme excitement about seeing The Joy Formidable pushing out any thoughts of chivalry. As we sped away we noticed the other half of our party being left in the dust by the second cab. So far ba-, off to a bad start.

Making matters worse, my two friends who came with me in the first cab had forgotten our other friend was holding their tickets. So we get there, call those left behind to check on them only to be informed that we were assholes (as much as I didn't like it, I understood the sentiment), and suddenly I'm the only one in the festival and feeling majorly guilty. But, at the same time, there was live music to be seen, so I left my last two friends by the box office and headed over to the Sutro Stage.

The Joy Formidable, Sutro Stage, 1:10
So, I'm an asshole. But of the bands I was most excited to see, these guys were one of the few I'd never seen. The Big Roar has been one of the better new releases of this year, bringing to mind what you would get if Absolution-era Muse had a baby with Garbage. If that sounds terrible, well, fair enough, but I dig it. Lead singer Ritzy Bryan (no, really) is an adorable little sprite with a killer voice and serious guitar skills, and for a three-piece they make an impressive amount of noise. I've developed a bad habit of thinking about how great my favorite songs on an album would sound live, with no regard for whether or not they'll actually make the set list. Naturally, that was the case here, and my hopes of hearing "The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie" and "The Magnifying Glass" were dashed, but that didn't stop the band from putting on a great start to my weekend. Because many of their songs have extended instrumental freak-outs, they only managed six, but by the time the closing jam of "Whirring" was reaching its peak that didn't matter. Bassist Rhydian Dafydd got so pumped up that he left his instrument behind to blast us with feedback while he ran over to the drums and began slapping at the cymbals, then just kind of jumping around with his fists in the air like he didn't know what to do with himself. If you'll excuse the poor copy editor wordplay, the joy was both formidable and infectious.

Set List: A Heavy Abacus / Austere / The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade / Cradle / I Don't Wanna See You Like This / Whirring

After their set was over my guilt came rushing back in, and I headed back over to the entrance to check on my crew. Surely by now the other three must have hailed a cab. Yeah, not so much. Since I declared Anne Frank jokes as being 'too soon' the first night we arrived in town I won't compare the experience of talking to my friends through a chain link fence to being in an internment camp...but, you know, I'm sure it was totally like that. Finally, we spotted the others, and the happy/relieved/awkward reunion took place. Having walked the whole way, they were justifiably grumpy and anxious to get a drink and sit down. So we wandered over to the main stage area and found a bench while The Original Meters played in the background. Sadly, I couldn't tell you a single thing about them, except that they sounded older. Yep, I kick ass at this!

The will to walk and experience the festival returning with every beer swig, we went over to the tiny Panhandle stage to see Tamaryn, a local shoegaze/goth act that my buddy Spencer was interested in. She certainly had a nice voice, but this set really amounted to more relaxing as the music washed over us. Friday was the easily the weakest day to my mind, so it was nice to take these opportunities to just hang out and take in the surroundings. Obviously any festival is going to be a hotbed of people-watching, but this one in particular brings out a really fascinating blend of young and old, costumed and naked, stoned and less stoned. The big thing this year seemed to be hats and sweaters that resembled animals; every day saw more and more bears and sharks wandering the grounds. So wrapped up in these observations was I that before I knew it Tamaryn had finished and it was off to check out indie buzz act Toro y Moi.

Toro y Moi, Twin Peaks Stage, 3:50
Chazwick Bundick, more commonly known by his recording moniker Toro y Moi, has been getting a ton of positive press for Underneath the Pine, but I can't get into it. I recognize that it's just not my style and won't judge it, but to these ears it's pretty boring. In fact, I'm listening to it now to set the mood while I write this, but it's making me sleepy. Hold on while I get something a little more energizing...
Ahh, much better. Still here? Excellent. So, despite what I said above, it is the type of music that has potential for a really fun live show, and, regardless of how lazy everyone looks in that picture, we definitely got some hints at that here. Using a full band gave the music impact it lacks on record, and it was fun to watch the crazy dancers in the crowd (one guy in particular who seemed to be everywhere at this festival, but more on him later). Eventually the appeal wore off, but, again, it's not my thing. For six or seven songs I was totally bopping along with everyone else. My only real complaint has more to do with the setting than the performance. This band needs to be somewhere enclosed so the beats and layers of music can envelop you. Not that it could have been helped, but it still took away.

We left a couple songs before the end to make the long trek to MGMT on the main stage, yet another band I have lukewarm feelings for but felt the need to see. It took us almost ten minutes, including a pit stop, so we missed the beginning. That's the one drawback to Outside Lands, in my mind. The scheduling is generally a lot lighter than other festivals I've been to, like Coachella or even Street Scene (RIP), so there's less rushing around and feeling like you're missing stuff. On the other hand, most of the stages are significant distances from each other, so you have to be really committed to seeing the bands you're only marginally interested in; otherwise, you just end up camped at one stage or another and spending all your money on food and drink. Hey, wait a minute!

MGMT, Lands End Stage, 4:35
Like I said, we missed the beginning, so we were approaching the stage to the dulcet tones of "Time to Pretend" as swarms of people rushed to get there to hear their favorite song ever, OMG! After that song was over they switched to material from their newer album, much to the horror of many of the people who had pushed past us only moments before. For my part, I though their first album was catchy and disposable and whatever, while Congratulations was at least interesting, like the result of listening to a whole lot of Syd Barrett-era Floyd while watching a Sid and Marty Krofft marathon on repeat, so aggressively weird and un-commercial that I give it points just for existing. Also, the songs are pretty good, and they played them really well, much better than I would have ever expected. "Electric Feel" brought back some of the fair-weather types, but if they stuck around for the whole set they were in for a nasty shock: no "Kids." Good! Leaving it out felt like it was done in the spirit that Congratulations was written. I know it made me like them more.

Set List: Flash Delirium / Time to Pretend / It's Working / Weekend Wars / I Found a Whistle / Electric Feel / Broken Arrows (England's Glory cover) / The Youth / Siberian Breaks / The Handshake / Congratulations

Next...well, not much, actually. Our grand plan to eat at this time was apparently not all that original, and the next hour is lost to history. Some of us had wanted to see Big Boi, but he never even played due to "technical issues," though we all decided he and Erykah Badu got in a spat about Andre 3000 backstage. His delay/no-show did lead to the most random moment of the weekend, as Dave Chappelle came out on stage to talk to the crowd for a few minutes, going on about never having beach balls at shows when he was a kid but not bothering to explain what was up with Big Boi. I left the Sutro Stage to go back to the main area to catch a little bit of Phish, but despite overhearing some guy tell his friend they were "by far the best band here," I was unmoved. Great musicians, but all that jamming is not my thing. And I actively loathe The Shins, so there wasn't much left to do but leave by the time 8:00 rolled around. Sure, the way to the festival was a pain, but we'd be leaving early; taxis would be fighting over us!

But no, this was not the case. Cabs wouldn't stop, and none of the companies were answering their phones. The shuttles were for people with passes only, and the regular buses weren't even going our way. So we started walking. And walking. And walking. Mostly uphill. There was very little talking among us as we slowly resigned ourselves to our fate; the three of us who had walked the whole way earlier were varying degrees of grimly determined and too tired to care. We trudged more than thirty blocks to the edge of the park, cresting the largest hill of them all, and just when we were deciding if we would go straight or hook a right, in flew Douglas Chen, Airport Shuttler of the Gods. It couldn't have been more miraculous if he had drifted down on a golden stream of light with fucking harps and shit. Why he chose our sad party to rescue I'll never know (though the reek of collective desperation probably had something to do with it), but I do know that we are forever in his debt. Douglas Chen, from those about to collapse, we salute you.

MGMT, Tamaryn and The Joy Formidable pictures by Marcello Ambriz, The Audio Perv. The less good ones by Me, This Blog.

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