Arcata Eye Scene

A-town art, music, theatre. Mostly music. Updated Wednesdays.

SPECIAL REPORT: Outside Lands

Here’s the thing: I couldn’t go. I’d already gone to SF for the Surfrider Foundation California Chapters conference, then taken off to Washington for a cousin-in-law’s wedding. Much as I wanted to spend yet another 10 hours driving back-and-forth to San Francisco, much as I longed to join the throngs worshipping Radiohead, much as the thought of seeing Tom Petty live made me giggle and despite the appeal of the other gazillion acts on the bill, the reality was, I couldn’t justify taking off again. I won’t bore you with all the reasons; suffice to say anyone experienced in life’s great family-work-fun circus act should understand.

But I couldn’t stand the press pass going to waste. I tried to give it to Josh Duke – perhaps reading his critique of “successful” acts would cheer up the local musicians whose feelings he’s hurt. But even with a free ticket, the cost and inconvenience of travel prevented him from accepting.

Finally, I turned to one of my San Francisco connections: my little brother. Sure, he’s 6’3″ and practically 30, but he’ll always be that kid I took to see They Might Be Giants at the Wiltern way back when he was 13. Snuck him into the bar where I worked to see Jonathan Richmond around that time, too. So, you see, the musical precedent exists.

Besides, his journalism experience isn’t lacking – Tag wrote for (and won awards for) U.C. Berkeley‘s student paper. Which has a name, I’m sure, but we don’t really care about that. What we care about is, how was it? So, dear readers, I offer you the following special report, courtesy of my kid bro.

~ Jennifer Savage/Eye Scene Editor

Radiohead was fine

By Tag Savage (Special to the Eye)

Everyone wants to know about Radiohead. Radiohead was fine. Thom Yorke sounds more heartbreaking live. Does he banter? Not especially, no. Had the sound not cut out, he would probably have been disinclined to speak at all. But since it did, he managed this lethargic aside: “Someone poured beer in the plug.”

I’m not really one for giant concerts, and I’m sort of fellow that’s spent his 20s forgetting about music and remembering about NPR, but wary and uninformed, regardless, Radiohead was nice. Granted, my “Media 08” wristband lifted me above the hoi polloi, who were mashed navel to spine and stinking of vice. They probably needed something more “epic” than “nice” to trump their circumstances. Did they get it? I do not know.

I do know that, as no fan of light shows, I was taken aback by Radiohead’s. How to describe it? The band was trapped in a matrix, in an ancient computer monitor, in a modern candelabra, in an oscilloscope, in all sorts of stupid and abstract metaphors that were absolutely mesmerizing.

Before Radiohead played, Beck played. Beck played in adjacent meadow that was, well, topographically unsuited to its task. It slunk down into a pit, and in that pit was the stage. Tens of thousands of people wanted to see Beck and almost no one was able to. They crawled all over each other just to get a glimpse. When it was time to see Radiohead they tore down an impeding fence.

For this transgression, a beehive was sent crashing down onto them, and many were stung. Beck was competent but not so playful as he is known to be. A few Casio jokes, but none of the grand digressions he brings to his finer shows.

The festival was considerably less crush-packed on days two and three. Perhaps it was the longer hours or perhaps the less magnetic choice of acts, but all in all it made for a better experience. Or not, depending on your outlook toward these things. Doubtless there are those that judge an event like this one by the number of bodies they are in contact with simultaneously.

Saturday was especially good, I’ll say. Started off with The Coup, an Oakland hip-hop outfit that’s just real damn satisfying. They indulge in all kinds of embarrassing subgenres but they do so with gleeful abandon. When it comes time to address funk, say, it sounds like sexy water balloons. Their frontman, Boots, is short and cute and looks a bit like Snoopy’s brother.

Steve Winwood played mostly new stuff, and I guess that’s alright. Every song of his still has closing-credits vibe. Feel-good rock that makes you want to shuffle out of a theater. He has the curly mullet of an older Englishman. I wanted to hear “Valerie,” but oh well. Steve Winwood doesn’t have to pander.

It was a 20-minute walk to see The Walkmen. Is this a normal distance from end to end of a festival, or was this one especially rangy? The Walkmen are supposed to be great and they sounded nice enough but they are, in the end, undifferentiated. I can’t separate their sound from that of any other Brooklyn indie rockers. The lead singer has a surprisingly effective yelp but ultimately it’s just more music to mope to. And that’s just what the crowd did. Least movement-inducing set of the festival, bar none.

Not so with Primus. I cannot begin to describe the looks of joy upon the ugly teenage misfits that thronged the stage. Chinless, bepimpled, puke-haired, trenchcoatted, ugly! Wonderful! These fans were ready to dance as best they knew, and Les Claypool was ready to indulge them. As eye-rollingly lame as Primus can be, their show was the most unreservedly fun of the festival. I am surprised to be writing that, I tell you.

Then a long walk back to see Tom Petty. Tom Petty! A hitmaker plays his greatest hits! There was some talk about Tom Petty being so old, looking so old, but hasn’t Tom Petty always been sort of old? He never seemed especially virile, or sensual, or even traditionally handsome. His aging has been a mellow one, and if anything the very slight burr that’s come into his voice only adds depth to his thinner numbers.

He did not tear up the stage. He played fine songs well. He brought Steve Winwood up and they did a spirited take on “Gimme Some Lovin'”. He did a cover of “Gloria” that was breezy and long on laughs. A real winner, that one. All in all, a nice reminder of why you like the guy.

Day three was kind of boring, or perhaps I was just very tired by this point. Regardless: Andrew Bird is great! A fascinating fellow in a handsome suit. He plays the violin and whistles and periodically twiddles a mysterious instrument of his own invention. His songs have a kind of religiosity about them that’s absolutely enthralling. A big performance from him, it looked absolutely exhausting. A thin but appreciative crowd.

One thing: it felt a bit like a book reading. Same trappings, same clothes, same reverence for whimsy. A bit jarring against the greater festival backdrop.

Broken Social Scene: they’re an entertaining outfit. A little dippy, but entertaining. It is clearly alright to be a jam band again; should we blame the Canadians for this? They treated the audience like a kindergarten class (making us scream, clap, etc.) but, somehow, it was flattering.

Wilco was outright boring, I’m sad to report. A very tired performance to some very passive fans. We were to bored, even, to keep a clap out a beat when we were asked to. Jeff Tweedy implored us, but we failed. Sorry.

Food. It was as dismayingly expensive as you would expect but, happily, tasty and local. San Francisco wears its fancy on its sleeve, and right now its fancy is fine food. So while the prospect of a $12 sausage sandwich is something of a downer, you can be sure that your meat was grass-fed and killed kindly, with heartfelt goodbyes at the abattoir door.

Wine was available in this embarrassing tent called Winehaven. It reeked of middle-aged alcoholism and girl-party despair. Beers were $7 and small. Lines were as long as you would imagine.

Best was the sight of so many people arriving and departing by bicycle. Myself and thousands of others left the park in a lumpen mob that eventually stretched out into an unbroken line as we meandered through the Panhandle, lights blinking, gears clicking. A girl in the park, coming home from a date with a flower in her hand, waved at each of us and shouted “I love you all!” A fine nightcap, that.

The city buses that Outside Lands suggested people take were, it appeared, less lovely. They are erratic in schedule and overcrowded by nature. Forcing tens of thousands of additional riders onto the system all at once, well, it didn’t look pretty. Glass boxes of mashed kids lurching slowly through the night.

I did not stay for Jack Johnson, and in that decision I was not alone. Too sleepy a way to say goodbye.

Will Outside Lands return? That’d be alright. Stuffing 150,000 people into Golden Gate Park is an improbable feat, but what could have been a disaster was diffused into a mere hassle.

Yes, it was too expensive. Yes, it was a little bit too calm for its own good. But it was fine and fun. So there.

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