No Bonnaroo, But Better than Altamont: Dispatches from the Front Rail of Outside Lands
September 3, 2008 · Print This Article
by Luke PImentel, Contributing Editor
September 3, 2008
*Iâ€™ll preface this article by saying the folks at Outside Lands denied my request for press credentials, so I chose to attend for one day only.Â I picked the day that I felt boasted the strongest lineup â€“ that would be the first day, Friday the 22nd – and viewed the festivities purely from the perspective of a normal concertgoer.Â This has in no way colored my opinions of the festival and its operation.Â
Well, okay, maybe a little.*
To start, a wee history lesson:Â back in 1969, the Rolling Stones were eviscerated in the Bay Area press for what were deemed too-high ticket prices (a monolithic $15).Â In response, the band decided to throw a free shindig to culminate their American tour preceding the release of Let it Bleed.Â The original location for this concert was to be Golden Gate Park in San Francisco; however, due to difficulties securing proper permits, it was moved to Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, a few miles North of the city.Â When squabbles over filming rights broke out there, the concert was moved yet again at the very last minute, to a tiny speedway just outside the town of Livermore, called Altamont.
Everybody whoâ€™s seen Gimme Shelter knows how that one turned out.
It is, then, partly because of the Bay Areaâ€™s long-checkered history with big crowds and festival-style events that I was initially excited when the inaugural Outside Lands Festival was announced this spring.Â I had long felt the Bay was ready to host its own high-powered musical event, and this seemed just the thing to compete with the spate of superfestivals that had sprouted up all over the country the past few years.Â Â The pedigree was formidable:Â local alternative promoter Another Planet was teaming with Superfly Productions, the company behind the now-legendary Bonnaroo festival, to organize the new event.Â And the very first headliner was going to be Radiohead, my very favorite band.Â It was to be an historic gig, the first-ever night concert in Golden Gate Park, and â€“ to some, perhaps – a symbolic exorcism of that botched Stones event from nearly forty years ago.
Finally, I thought, the Bay Area is gonna get this festival thing right.
I arrived early in the day so that I would have time to park properly and, perhaps, explore the festival grounds a bit.Â Although there were closer options, I decided to park at my alma mater a few miles down the road – San Francisco State University – and in the spirit of the festivalâ€™s â€œgreenâ€ ethos, take public transportation to get to the venue proper.Â (This was a mistake, as weâ€™ll see below.)
Following a lengthy walk from the bus stop to the main gate, the first thing that became apparent was just how incredibly huge these festival grounds were.Â Encompassing two large meadows and a polo field, it was almost a twenty-minute walk just to get from one end to the other… and that was with nobody else in the way.Â Separating the meadows from the polo field was a hill with a very narrow path surrounded by groves of trees and fencing.Â Beyond that hill, the gigantic Landâ€™s End stage could be seen in the far distance, surrounded by endless rows of green booths hawking organic food and overpriced merch.
Right away, I determined that I would have to skip several acts I wanted to see – Cold War Kids, Beck, and The Black Keys – simply due to the length of time it would take to walk from stage to stage and wade through the likely hordes of people that would be doing the same.Â (This was a very wise decisionâ€¦ as weâ€™ll see below.)
Having come to this painful realization a bit quicker than I really wanted to, I entrenched myselfÂ on the front rail ofÂ the Land’s End stage and awaited the three acts I would get to see:Â Steel Pulse, Manu Chao, and Radiohead.
This was to be my first time seeing Steel Pulse, the venerable British reggae act.Â Lead singer David Hinds – sporting dreadlocks so massive they disconcertingly resembled those of a Psychlo from Battlefield Earth – looked far younger than a guy playing since 1975 has any right to look, and he and his band played with an enthusiasm to match, evenÂ if the cloudy conditions betrayed the summery tone of the music.
David Hinds of Steel Pulse.Â Photo by Luke Pimentel
It should be said that my tolerance threshold for reggae doesnâ€™t extend much beyond fifteen minutes or three songs, whichever comes first.Â Itâ€™s sort of an involuntary reaction.Â So many of my generation growing up in Northern California have listened to the stuff ad nauseum since their teen years, packing it onto beer party boomboxes â€“ and later, office iPod playlists â€“ so much that it has become tiresome, a cliche that is omnipresent no matter how hard I run or how much gauze I pack in my ears.Â Now, whenever I hear the loping hop-thump of reggae start up yet again, it makes we want to poke out my eyeballs with a rusty pickaxe.Â
I tend to be more tolerant, though, when its rhythms and meter are folded into other musical styles, a la New Wave acts like The Police and Elvis Costello.Â That may have been the reason why Steel Pulse were able to play for twice as long as my normal reggae time allotment without a serious psychotic episode being involved.Â Turns out the band have branched into electronica, funk, and hip-hop forms over the years, making their set diverse enough in tone as to be more than a mereÂ excuse for audience members to whip out their green… though, as it turned out,Â many folks did just that anyway.Â It was, of course, not the kind of green officially endorsed by the festival, andÂ all the prodigious lighting-up did little to relax the more conservative members of the audience, who took it upon themselves to loudlyÂ announce – to a very uninterested cluster of security guards – that it was, in fact,Â illegal to smoke in the park.
Given the number of hippie acid freakouts hosted here over the decades, I couldnâ€™t help but giggle at the irony.
Evil, pot-smoking hippies.Â Photo by Luke Pimentel
Following Steel Pulse was Manu Chao and his massive backing band, the Radio Bemba Sound System.Â Manu Chao is a bit like the sport of soccer – a tremendous force internationally, but relatively obscure in America.Â Perhaps it’s because he’s a French guy whose bandâ€™s name is a reference to Cuban revolutionaries.Â Or maybe itâ€™s because he sings in virtually every language except English…. probably a bit too much ethnicity for most Americans to bother with.Â At any rate, Outside Lands was to be one of only a couple U.S. appearances for him in 2008.
It should be noted for anyone who has heard Manu Chaoâ€™s studio recordings that the languid beats and goofy sound effects of those albums are no preparation whatsoever for the energy of his live shows.Â Propelled by trumpet blasts, multi-ethnic percussion, and lots of spastic jumping around, a Manu Chao live set is more Clash than Bob Marley, and goes full-throttle until it is more or less forced off the stage.
Gambeat and Manu Chao of Radio Bemba Sound System.Â Photo by Luke Pimentel
I saw Radio Bemba last year when they were in the unenviable position of playing before the highly-touted Rage against the Machine reunion at Coachella, and they pulled off that task with admirable grace.Â Here at Outside Lands, the band succeeded again, getting a muted and fairly incongruous crowd of Radiohead nuts to throw their hands in the air and chant repeated mantras they probably didnâ€™t even understand.Â
Hulking bassist Gambeat – who looks like he should be a fighter for the UFC â€“ kept the clapalongs going fast and furious while Chao himself took time out to denounce George W. Bush, the only blatantly political moment that I myself witnessed on the night, though surely not the only of the festival.
Once Chao had sent his final, furious blitzkrieg rumbling across the stage, the crowd began to bulk up for arguably the festival’s main event.Â
As more people clambered to the front railing, word began to circulate that there had been a massive charge to get from the end of Beckâ€™s set in Lindley Meadow to the Radiohead set about to begin.Â Apparently, the stampede had involved thousands of people, and had taken a number of fences and a good chunk of park scenery with it; a moment of anarchy amidst an otherwise jovial gathering.Â Though I love Beck and am still yet to see him live, I was very glad to have not been involved in the fracas, which would turn out to be one of a number of unfortunate stains on this first night of the festival.Â Â Â
The last time Radiohead played the Bay Area was at Berkeley in 2006.Â Those shows had been relatively intimate affairs in the Greek Theatre, a venue housing about 8,000 people.Â The crowd they commandeered for the Outside Lands performance was wellÂ north ofÂ 60,000, by far the festival’s largest crowd of the weekend.Â
As the light rapidly faded, the low-level fog shrouding the top of the stage took on an eerie glow from the surrounding trees, which had been festoonedÂ by the promoters intoÂ a beautiful tapestry of red, yellow and blue lights.
The stage, meanwhile, was bathed in syncopated effectsÂ being emitted by dozens of light poles hanging symmetrically from the ceiling like giant, blinking icicles.Â The crowd roared lustily as a chaotic skitter of electronic beats wormedÂ its way out of the speakers.Â Then the members of Radiohead emerged, quickly transforming the chaos into the memorable stomp rhythm of â€œ15 Stepâ€, the opening track off the bandâ€™s superlative 2007 effort, In Rainbows.
â€œWhassup,â€ lead singer Thom Yorke drawled, looking vaguely Mick Jagger-esque as he sashayed to the echoey grandeur of â€œReckonerâ€ in fire-red pants, with an Arafat Kaffiyeh around his neck.Â
One song later,Â the gears changed rapidlyÂ from new to oldÂ with â€œAirbagâ€, where â€“ at the height of the intertwined tendrils of Jonny Greenwoodâ€™s and Ed Oâ€™Brienâ€™s massive guitar solo â€“ the house sound abruptly cut out, drawing a massive groan from the collective, as though somebody had just whiffed with the bases loaded.Â Â
Nothing will put a knife in the heart of a live concertâ€™s momentum faster than the P.A. cutting out.Â Luckily, the sound crew had it back up and running again after a few seconds.Â â€œYeeeeeeah!â€ Thom Yorke bellowed as the amplifiers came back on, to huge cheers from the crowd.
â€œSomeone stepped on the plug then, eh?Â Who put beer in the plug?â€ Yorke asked jovially when the song was over.
He wasnâ€™t joking, however, when the exact same thing happened just two songs later, this time killing the bandâ€™s own monitors as well, making for a complete and disastrous sound failure.
Yorke, now thoroughly irked, dropped his mic and leaned contemptuously against his piano.Â Admirably, the crowd kept its cool through the almost interminable blackout, singing the lyrics to â€œAll I Needâ€ for themselves until â€“ finally – the sound came back on about a minute later.
â€œItâ€™s not alrightâ€¦. itâ€™s alright,â€ Yorke sang over and over as the crowd cheered once again to climax the song.
Although it will be remembered mostly for those two glitches â€“ Spinal Tap-ian enough in nature as to be inexcusable from a major festival â€“ the remainder of Radioheadâ€™s set did haveÂ its moments.Â TheirÂ 2008 tour has been notoriously plagued byÂ adverse conditions (theyâ€™ve joked at prior shows that they â€œbring the weather with themâ€),Â and it has to be said that the band performsÂ pretty well under pressure.Â One might evenÂ argue thatÂ a certain amountÂ of tension suits the often dark and dreary modus operandi of the band’s music.Â Â
Rather than coming apart as a result of the difficulties at Outside Lands, they instead became fierce and insistent with their playing, refusing to dwell on frustration.Â The band are consummate masters of mood, and can move from one color to the next with supernatural dexterity, as evidenced by the seesaw eclecticism of the setlist – loud, angry â€œJustâ€ at one moment, quiet and vulnerable â€œExit Music (for a film)â€ the next.Â
Ed Oâ€™Brien was a monster at stage right, twisting and contorting his instrument to coax seemingly every type of sound and feedback possible out of it during â€œFake Plastic Treesâ€, while bassist Colin Greenwood was a constant source of upbeat energy, buzzing like a hummingbird throughout the entire set from his perch next to percussionist Phil Selway.Â
Jonny Greenwood was more subdued at stage left, providing impeccable support while alternating between old-fashioned Telecaster noise orgies, a theremin soundalike called the Ondes Martenot, and lots and lots of Kaoss pad looping.Â
Yorkeâ€™s vocals, meanwhile,Â were particularly excellent, careening from the reckless abandon necessary for â€œBodysnatchersâ€ to a slow-burning, almost ethereal passion for the gorgeous â€œVideotape.â€
During the bandâ€™s single encore â€“ one of the shortest sets of the In Rainbows tour – Yorke apologized for the technical difficulties.Â â€œThings bust, and so on,â€ he said.Â â€œWeâ€™re sorry about that.Â But, itâ€™s about the music ultimately.â€
Radiohead are not the kind of band that needs to apologize â€“ their fans would probably follow them to the gates of Hell if asked â€“ but it was a magnanimous gesture nonetheless, as they mustâ€™ve keenly felt the audienceâ€™sÂ disappointment at the bandâ€™s only Bay Area appearance being both truncated and hobbled by sound trouble.
Yorkeâ€™s quote also seemed to sum up my general feelings on the festival itself.Â While the first night of Outside Lands hardly qualified as a disaster, it certainly showcased a number of sizable problems that could hamper the festivalâ€™s longevity.Â Many of these problems were simple organizational gaffes, miscues borne of an enormously misappropriated sense of direction.Â
From what I saw, the festival was bursting at the seams with concepts and progressive-minded ideals, like farmerâ€™s markets, carbon footprint measurers, giant wine tasting displays, and an enormous circus tent filled with computer kiosks for attendees to upload their concert footage.Â All bold, neat, inventive ideas; obviously, the promoters thought long and hard about ways to make the event reflect the culture of the region.Â In that quest, I have to say that they were successful – Outside Lands is a quintessentially Northern California enterprise, all overly ambitious creativity running rampant at the expense of logic and organization.Â
The booklet they handed out at the gate pretty much says it all.Â Normally, a festival will provide attendees with a small schedule giving set times and the festival layout â€“ essential details only.Â The Outside Lands handout is 80 pages long, a full-on almanac.Â It waxes poetic about Golden Gate Park, features articles about the headliners, and has an â€œA to Zâ€ section with information about every artist performing throughout the weekend.Â
Itâ€™s a very pretty thing for a giveaway, and clearly gave employment to a veritable army of graphic designers for a few months.Â However, flipping through it, I couldnâ€™t help but think:Â how much money did they blow printing up 200,000 of them?Â
Maybe they couldâ€™ve put that money into shuttle buses and extra generators.Â Maybe they might have avoided the debacle of the pre-Radiohead stampede had they streamlined the festival layout and had more (and better) security; in all honesty, there were more people on hand to tell you how to compost properly than there were to actually enforce order.Â Maybe they shouldâ€™ve thought twice about scheduling their second biggest draw of the evening â€“ Beck â€“ on a stage completely opposite the one their headliner was on.
I was thinking about all of those things as I trudged through the enormous bottleneck of people waiting to be shepherded out the tiny exit gates in Speedway Meadow.Â I thought about it even more as I emerged from the park to find thousands of people descending like locusts onto 19th Avenue, all standing around and blocking traffic, with virtually no hope of hailing a cab or finding a bus that wasnâ€™t already packed full of grumpy people who had taken the festival organizerâ€™s recommendations to heart and tried to do things the â€œgreenâ€ way.Â
I can guarantee you it was all I was thinking about as I moved from packed bus stop to packed bus stop, waiting in vain for promised buses that never appeared, eventually giving up and walking the four miles back to my car, piling into it nearly three hours after the final note had been played.Â
It was, to say the least, a sour way to end the evening.
I donâ€™t know that Iâ€™ll return to Outside Lands next year, but if I do, Iâ€™ll expect that the organizers spent some long, sleepless nights contemplating the same things I did, and that theyâ€™ve concocted a few solutions to the quandaries this yearâ€™s event presented.Â If not, then I fear itâ€™ll be a long while before San Francisco becomes a festival market the rest of the music world can truly take seriously.
Or maybe I’m just getting too old for festivals.