The first time I ever saw Belle and Sebastian, I was in college and they were still in their “we might just stop and restart a song halfway through” phase. It was not a strong show, and the twee adorability of their first four records rendered itself as sloppy awkwardness. This sprawling Glaswegian band has dealt with personnel changes and a four-year touring hiatus during the mid-aught, where it seemed like they were slowly fading away — but 21 years after the release of Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister, it’s clear they’ve matured tremendously. Frontman Stuart Murdoch was gabby and confident Friday on Outside Lands‘ Sutro Stage, chattily relating a story about the San Francisco mayor who (indirectly) gave it its name, Adolph Sutro.
The fact that it was warm and nearly sunny made it the sweetest moment of the day, and Murdoch wasn’t done extolling the band’s S.F. connections, putting a huge emphasis on the lyric “San Francisco’s calling us, the Giants and Mets will play / Piazza, New York catcher, are you straight or are you gay?” in the song about the baseball player of that name, and mentioning that the guest trumpet player on “Like Dylan in the Movies” was “from here.” (Sadly, that was the only cut from If You’re Feeling Sinister in the entire set.) They closed on three solid songs, however: “I Don’t Love Anyone,” “The Boy With the Arab Strap” — gloriously extended to eight minutes or more — and the somewhat-obscure “Legal Man,” which was only released as a single in 2000. It was effortlessly charming throughout.
Elsewhere, Big Freedia took over the GastroMagic stage for her beignets-and-bounce collaboration with Brenda’s Soul Food. “Azz Everywhere” is always a riot, but it feels like she’s been stuck in the same groove for a few years; some new material would be rad. She also revealed how dubious it can be to have random people come up and dance on stage. They looked like they were drunk enough to work up the courage to do it — but not enough to actually own it, and a gaggle of self-conscious people gyrating in sunglasses with their backs toward the audience is bit of a lame spectacle. One of those people should have been Big Freedia’s victim, after she’s got that gin in her system.
Sleigh Bells, too, felt a bit like an unearthed time capsule from 2011, but damn, Alexis Krauss is a mesmerizing presence on stage. Their conceit is a fine one, and the power-clash of dreamy vocals over — or under? — Derek Edward Miller’s brutal guitar parts sounds excellent even from three hundred yards. Noise Pop may be a San Francisco festival, but Sleigh Bells pretty much perfected noise pop the genre.
As aggressive as their guitars are, nothing can match the Tom Waits-like growl that Future Islands‘ Samuel T. Herring. For a sweaty balding guy who looks a little older than his 33 years, it’s tough to keep your eyes off him as he gallivants around the Twin Peaks stage, fueled by percussive propulsion. Earlier, Electric Guest took over that same spot, and you couldn’t find a chiller act to play during the three o’clock hour. They waited until the end to deliver “Dear to Me,” which feels like a mellow beach day in 1988 when nobody worried about anything. (The video has some adorably cheesy dance moves and lots of kissing.)
Of the 15 or so multi-day festivals I’ve attended, I’ve never seen anything violent, but I did see medical staff surrounding a guy with a bloody nose near the Panhandle Stage mid-afternoon. There was also a lot less neon than in years past, and fewer outlandish looks. But the best totem award goes to a Bob Ross fan, and not just because the fog evaporated during Belle and Sebastian’s set into happy little clouds.
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