We didn't get Radiohead magic in the fog, but we also didn't have "trying to get into Beck" bottlenecks. It was a well-run festival full of polite music aimed at an older, mellower crowd. The roughest situations I saw in the park came from the cops--who would swarm in on some unsuspecting kid and drag him out of the crowd for doing god knows what. Oh, and one dude was throwing up some bright yellow substance in the trash cans outside Tom Jones. But otherwise, the event was just as tame as a family day in the park--down to the parents at Pearl Jam dancing with their pre-adolescent kids on the lawn.
Lineup-wise, opening day at Outside Lands was a strange one. There were a number of popular indie acts on the bill (Autolux, The Duke Spirit, Built to Spill) but they were all pretty early in the day. By the time I arrived in the late afternoon, the good stuff was nearly over. I was, however, able to check out Austin's Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, who were excellent performers perfect for an outdoor summer fest. The band went well with the random heat turning the park into a giant sunbathing belt. Under hazy, humid skies, Lewis belted out Otis Redding-worthy rock 'n' soul songs in long shorts, a t-shirt, and baseball cap, playing the guitar as he sang about doing his woman wrong--but trying to do her right by bringing home some chicken. He was backed by a dress shirt 'n tie horn section, whose enthusiasm was evident not only in the constant grins but in the energy the guys gave their late afternoon set. Around the stage, Black Joe Lewis fans did their little hippie dances in bikini tops and low-slung summer shorts, showing lots of skin--and bare feet--a look that continued late into the night, the big winds never kicking in.
Black Joe Lewis performed at the Panhandle Solar stage, an area close to Outside Lands gourmet ghetto--where you could grab oysters as easily as you could get corn on the cob. The "Taste of the Bay Area" concept behind the festival this year brought in a ton of great restaurants, from Farmer Brown to Pacific Catch. Although the dinner I ordered--a $6 garden burger from Treasure Island Bar & Grill--was the same old patty on a white bun, save for the blue cheese they added on top. Still, prices were reasonable for the grub all over the grounds.
There were also a number of beer and wine booths, and unlike last year's opening night, any lines that formed around them moved swifty. That rule went for the lines all over the park. There was barely a wait anywhere, from the front gates to the porta potties to the booze, and when there was a line it moved fast. Blame it on the recession or blame it on a Friday lineup that didn't hold a candle to last year's big-hitter headliners, but there were fewer people inside the gates this year compared to last year. The grounds didn't feel empty--looking around during Pearl Jam's set, there was still a sea of people holding camera phones aloft--but it was noticeably easy to be exactly where you wanted to be during the night. One other thing to note--the signage was excellent this round. Giant kiosks posted all over the park showed folks where they were, and mapped out all the other places they could be wanting to get to.
But the biggest deal at Outside Lands is still the music, which was hit and miss with the acts I caught. After Black Joe Lewis, I watched Incubus, who forced me to wonder how such an unimaginative rock act manages to not only stick around, but make it on to the main stage at a big music festival. Their bland, soulless style was a poor distillation of so many alternative rock and grunge acts before them, and their cover of "Let's Go Crazy" was nothing short of cloying.
I mean, if you're gonna be cheesy, your name should be Tom Jones. That man still does the fromage in style. The Welsch entertainer didn't get too deep into his set list before panties of every shade of pastel were flying on to the stage. Jones gave fans his schmaltzy, Vegas-friendly versions of "Hard to Handle," "You Can Leave Your Hat On," and "Mama Told Me Not To Come." He delivered these tunes with lots of butt wiggling and crowd thanking. The audience seemed to dig him too. Even the ones who kept their undies that evening were commenting "Tom Jones nailed it!" and "He kicks ass!" appreciatively. The best moments were when everyone sang along, as during "Delilah," "What's New Pussycat," and other mom-beloved classics.
The one bummer--Jones saved the biggest crowd pleaser for last, belting out "It's Not Unusual" right when the hordes were streaming out to see Pearl Jam, booked to start at the exact minute the tanned and greying lady charmer waltzed off stage. Ah well.
Pearl Jam gave the tightest performance of the night, or at least the most full bodied.. Frontman Eddie Vedder moved from crouches to back bends, while guitarist Mike McCready performed a long behind-the-back guitar solo. It was hard to get up front for these guys, as the big fans had parked it there much earlier, but the jumbo screens showed everything from Eddie's flannel to his long gungy locks in crisp detail.
The band seemed to be a uniting force between hipsters citing it as a guilty pleasure and unabashed loyalists, and it was hard to doubt the skill or sincerity of the act once they got going. The group pulled heavily from the early days. The set list included "Even Flow," "Black," "Alive" (which really got the troups punching the air and singing along) and other Ten classics. Pearl Jam also threw in a couple familiar covers--Victoria Williams' "Crazy Mary," which they payed tribute to on a benefit record for Williams years back called Sweet Relief--and Neil Young's classic "Rockin' in the Free World."
That last number took fans out into the night, as the 10 p.m. curfew for music was strictly enforced. Unlike last year, the music fans left not in a drunken stampede but rather a quieter stroll. The buses packed the sweaty masses under cruel Muni lighting (the one I saw go by looked filled to the brim) but it was much more fun to walk. That's where you'd hear cyclists biking by signing "Alive" again, or listen as one guy with a big boom box gave us a little Guns 'N Roses on our way out. Plus it was so warm in the park it seemed criminal to miss taking advantage of a late night stroll in a sleeveless shirt--which hopefully Outside Landers will have the chance to do again tonight, when Day 2 of the festival hits on another summer San Francisco day.
Public Transportation issues: None that I really saw. Took the N to the Upper Haight in the late afternoon and it wasn't any more crowded than normal.
Fence-jumping: Didn't catch any where I was, although the entrance to the front gate looked like hippie hill dumped deeper into the park. If you have any need for "cosmic" treats or dogs on hemp ropes, it's all right there at the start of the festival grounds.
Bizarre anomaly: While it's great that Intel has the money to help support Outside Lands, their giant blue and white, two-storied dome was really strange, a last vestige of tacky corporate cash at an event where more subtle signage and artwork ruled the scene.
Tip for Saturday: I hear the comedy tent is sweltering inside, but I also hear that Reggie Watts is supposed to be a really funny dude. Music-wise, my picks for Saturday include: Zion I, The Dirtbombs, Street Sweeper Social Club, Mastodon, TV on the Radio, Mars Volta, Extra Golden, Deerhunter, and Os Mutantes. Lots of good stuff today.