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Outside Lands 2012: A Musical Feast in San Francisco

by on August 19, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO–It’s taken me nearly a week to recover from a weekend at the Outside Lands music festival at Golden Gate Park, to catch up on sleep, to rest my feet after days of trudging around the venue and the city, and to let my liver take a pause after WAY too much Newcastle and Irish whiskey.

And I would do it again in a heartbeat.

This was Outside Lands’ fifth year, and it’s a remarkably efficient, entertaining event. I thought I was long done going to multiple-day rock festivals when I went to Coachella a few years back, but visiting Outside Lands convinced me that I might still have a few more left in me. Getting to the park each day and getting back to my hotel after the shows was definitely a challenge, but the experience inside the festival? Awesome, and easy.

I never waited in a beer line, something you can chalk up to the fact that it was freezing at night, and that it was really easy for fest-goers to sneak booze and weed (and assorted other, more creative intoxicants) in through the security checkpoints. The first night, my buddy and I looked around and in every direction we saw people passing bottles and joints while we sipped $10 drafts. It was a valuable lesson, and it served us well on Saturday and Sunday.

Bathroom lines weren’t bad, either, for the most part, and neither were the food lines at the series of booths and food trucks dotting the grounds that kept up with the demand of the 65,000 fans on hand each day. Golden Gate Park is a sprawling place–20 percent larger than New York City’s Central Park, I learned–and the festival had five large stages, along with a number of DJ tents, strategically spread out so you could hear, say, Sigur Ros while the band played at the same time as Metallica. Moving between stages took some planning, and usually about a 20-minute walk along dusty paths through the woods. A pretty idyllic setting for sure, and as much as I liked Coachella, the polo grounds of Indio have nothing on Golden Gate Park as a concert environment.

Adding to the good vibes were the fans themselves. I was annoyed by the kids constantly taking pictures of themselves, and amused by all the stuffed-animal hats they were wearing, but for the most part everyone was in good spirits when you’d weasel your way forward to see a specific act. I can’t think of many instances where I would willingly hang out with any Juggalos, but we met a sweet Juggalo couple on the scene for Metallica, and the next night we teamed up with some traveling 20-somethings from Vancouver who had shared an epic road trip down the coast of Washington, Oregon and Northern California to secure a block of space close to the stage for Stevie Wonder. We met a 50ish hippie woman from Eureka who had brought her 17-year-old to see her first concert–not a bad first show! Of course, her mom’s first concert was David Bowie in the ’70s, and none of the acts at Outside Lands this year could match that.

Actually, for the fans on hand, that’s probably not true. The strength of the Outside Lands lineup is its musical diversity. From classic rock to hip-hop, dance music to folk and everything in between–Outside Lands had something for everybody. And no doubt some of the kids seeing Skrillex or the Kills or Passion Pit will hold the experience as dear as the hippie woman holds her David Bowie show.

Stevie Wonder’s Sunday night set was the reason I pulled the trigger and went to Outside Lands for the first time. The fact there were about 60 other acts to check out leading up to that festival-closing show made for a worthy weekend.

Here are some thoughts on the music:


The value of a festival like Outside Lands for someone living in Utah is obvious–it’s a chance to see some folks who don’t come through Salt Lake City on tour very often, if ever, ie. Stevie Wonder. Neil Young, who headlined Friday night, isn’t coming to Utah on his current tour, and we were ready to check him out to end the first day–until the temperature plummeted into the high 30s before he started playing, causing much of the crowd to flee when they realized all the winter hats and blankets for sale were gone. I was one of the fleeing, having stupidly worn shorts, sandals and a hoodie as my fest uniform for the day. Bummer to miss Neil Young, but plenty more to see the next two days, when I was layered up and ready for the elements.

We did get to see Beck and Foo Fighters the first day, though. Beck delivered a strong set full of some of my favorite tunes of his, as well as a Neil Young cover (“After the Goldrush”) and a Bob Dylan tune (“Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”). He dedicated a song to Adam Yauch and talked about playing one of the Tibetan Freedom Concerts the Beastie Boy organized years ago. And the Foo Fighters delivered a rocking set that was a fine reminder that Dave Grohl is a legit frontman and a blast to watch perform.

Beck’s Outside Lands setlist: Black Tambourine>Devil’s Haircut>Novacane>Loser>Soul of a Man>Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat>Hot Wax>Modern Guilt>Soldier Jane>The Golden Age>Lost Cause>After The Goldrush>Sunday Sun>Gamma Ray>Girl>Where It’s At>E-Pro

Saturday was all about Metallica, and they didn’t disappoint. It was a hometown show for the heavy-metal heroes, and their set leaned heavily on their early albums like Kill ‘Em All and Master of Puppets. Lead singer James Hetfield let it be known that the band wanted all of San Francisco to hear them at the Saturday night gig, and no doubt they did. I’ve never seen pyrotechnics at the festival, but Metallica delivered a full show, complete with fire in the sky and massive video screens.

Metallica’s Outside Lands setlist: Hit the Lights>Master of Puppets>Fuel>Ride The Lightning>Fade to Black>The Memory Remains>Hell and Back>Sad But True>Welcome Home (Sanitarium)>Orion>One>For Whom the Bell Tolls>Blackened>Nothing Else Matters>Enter Sandman>Frayed Ends of Sanity>Creeping Death>Battery>Seek and Destroy

Sunday’s top of the bill was Stevie Wonder, who I had never seen, and he hit the stage with multiple backup singers, horn players, percussionists and other musicians, walking out with a key-tar around his neck to play Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is.” I thought starting with a cover song was a little odd, but Stevie Wonder gets to do whatever he wants. That includes a mid-song breakdown, still during the first song, in which he chatted with the crowd for a good five minutes about loving each other, and the need to reelect Barack Obama. Taking his place among a group of pianos, keyboards and synthesizers at mid-stage, Wonder proceeded to deliver a killer set of some of the best American pop music ever written–and a few more covers of songs by Michael Jackson, The Beatles and The Temptations. I could have lived without “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” but there’s no way Stevie is going to ignore one of the biggest hits of his career, even if it doesn’t hold up next to songs like “Superstition” and “Sir Duke.” And he didn’t just replicate the studio versions of his tunes; Wonder creatively tweaked his classics and led his band through some improvised jams, too. Great stuff.

Stevie Wonder’s Outside Lands setlist: How Sweet It Is>Master Blaster (Jammin’)>Higher Ground>The Way You Make Me Feel>Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer>Overjoyed>Imagine>Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing>Sir Duke>I Wish>Signed Sealed Delivered I’m Yours>My Cherie Amour>Living for the City>I Just Called to Say I Love You>You Got Me Runnin’>Superstition>Isn’t She Lovely>As>Happy Birthday>She Loves You>My Girl


Between those main stage acts, we saw plenty of great sets. The most pleasant surprises for me were Of Monsters and Men, whose epic, Arcade Fire-like sound is perfect for a festival crowd, and The Kills, who played on the main stage just before Metallica and absolutely destroyed the place. I couldn’t believe I had never seen them before. The fact that the duo of singer Alison Mosshart and guitarist Jamie Hince added four drummers dressed as ninjas behind them made me love their set all the more. We managed to catch bits of Grandaddy, Fun., Regina Spektor, City & Colour and Thee Oh Sees, and they were all pretty decent.

Franz Ferdinand’s mid-afternoon set Sunday was brilliant, as the Scottish band always is live. They seem like a perfect choice for a future Twilight Concert Series show, with pop hooks galore and tough-enough guitars to attract the rockers along with the dance-music kids. I’ve seen them probably five times now, and they never disappoint.

Tom Morello: The Nightwatchmen was a great eye-opener Sunday afternoon, beseeching the crowd to put their phones away so we can all “be here right now, together, in the moment, if only for one song.” He wasn’t the only act to ask fans to put their gadgets away for a song or two, but he was the most articulate. His political folk songs hit the spot, and The Coup’s Boots Riley joined him to rap through some of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

Big Boi was high on my list of must-sees, but the booming bass obscured his rhymes to such a degree that we bailed to get in better position for the Kills.

There was no such problem for Jack White, who played Sunday night just before Stevie Wonder. Leading an excellent band, White did songs from his latest release, Blunderbuss, as well as covers and plenty of White Stripes songs. I’ve seen White playing drums for Dead Weather, his project with The Kills’ Mosshart, but never doing his thing as a frontman, and he was excellent. His guitar playing was gleefully sloppy at times, poignant at others, and his vocals were great. I’m already dying to see him again.

Hopefully that will be in Salt Lake City. Or I just might have to go back to Outside Lands next August and hope he makes a return trip.

Jack White’s Outside Lands setlist: Black Math>Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground>Freedom at 21>Missing Pieces>Weep Themselves to Sleep>Two Against One>Top Yourself>Hotel Yorba>Cannon/John the Revelator/We’re Going to Be Friends>I Guess I Should Go To Sleep>Take Me With You When You Go>I Cut Like a Buffalo>The Same Boy You’ve Always Known>Catch Hell Blues>Seven Nation Army

One Comment
  1. Sounds fun. Bummer you missed Neil. Saw Jack White 2 days later, great show, shittY venue. Ive seen every incarnation of Jack & this was second only to White Stripes at the Joint in Vegas…

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