By all account, this year's incantation of the Outside Lands music, art, food and beverage festival was the most successful in the event's six-year history.
Statistically, it was the largest audience yet, with more than 200,000 people in attendance during the three days of the festival.
Augmented by Paul McCartney's massive stage production, the main Lands End stage was the largest ever assembled in Golden Gate Park. This year saw the expansion of the carefully selected concessions, representing more than 70 of the finest local restaurants, more than 35 of the nearby wineries and no fewer than 16 beer breweries. The festival featured more than 80 of the top touring performers in music today, including representatives of nearly every pop music genre, on four main stages.
If that wasn’t enough to keep festivalgoers busy, there were several smaller live music stages, a Heineken dance music dome, featuring top DJs, and the Barbary circus tent, with a hefty performance art schedule, and shows by some of the top comedians from across the country.
The highlight of the festival had to be the day one headline performance of monumental proportions by former Beatle McCartney. For McCartney himself, it may seem a bit like being in the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray is condemned to repeat the same day of his life ad infinitum. McCartney has been touring with the massive custom stage, complete with one-of-a-kind, giant vertical digital video screens, since his 2009 appearance at Coachella music festival. That was his first big show in the United States in decades and the debut of his massive new set. It was also the last big-ticket classic rock band to headline that festival.
Since then, the consummate showman has tweaked his set, including the recent addition of six new songs to his repertoire. He added these to his extensive set at the beginning of the newest leg of his tour, which began in Brazil this year. But the core of his set list has remained the same, with most of his iconic songs each accompanied by a massive custom video and light show, created long ago.
But the most startling regiment in his now nearly four-yar on-and-off tour is his almost verbatim banter between songs. From his early on comment, “Let me stop and take a minute to take it all in,” to his song anecdotes, like the story of being in the audience with Eric Clapton at a Jimi Hendrix concert, nearly every word is precisely choreographed — for each and every concert. Even his outfit is choreographed like that of a performance artist. The former Beatle always first appears onstage in a formal, long English-style top coat. After several songs he sheds his coat, revealing his trademark Beatles-style white silk shirt and black tie. By the end of his marathon set, he has rolled up his sleeves, shed his tie and ends up looking a bit like a sweaty blues singer in a nightclub.
This scenario is repeated ad infinitum on his tour. This may not be a negative thing, however, as most fans have probably never seen a Beatles concert, and few have even seen a McCartney concert, so every word of Sir Paul's regimented presentation seems tailor made to address and educate an adoring crowd.
Of course, a concert is all about the performance and music, and there couldn’t be a bigger or better performance than the 39-or-so-song set list that the legendary musician offers up. This is especially true, since most of the songs are culled from the Beatles' extensive catalog of classics.
Right from the opening song, the early Beatles hit tune “Eight Days a Week” (which was just added to the show this year), the venerable Beatle captured the crowd’s full attention. Generations of music fans were riveted to the stage. By the time the personable and cheeky performer had finished his nearly three-hour set, nearly every member of the audience had danced and sang to at least one of their favorite Beatles tunes.
With all the spectacle, especially during songs like the Wings trademark 1973 James Bond theme song “Live and Let Die” (complete with explosions, fireworks and fire balls), it is easy to forget the immense musical talent of the consummate 71-year-old performer. The ambidextrous musician moved effortlessly throughout the set, playing no fewer than 10 instruments, including his signature Hofner 500/1 bass, electric guitars, acoustic guitars, 12-string guitar, ukelele and piano. It is also nothing short of amazing that the master septuagenarian can sing and play for nearly three hours, nearly twice as long as most other pop performers, even the ones a third of his age.
The mighty McCartney did manage to sneak in some surprises during his regimented set. He always leaves a slot to play a song unique to the area in which he is playing. For Outside Lands, he covered the Jesse Fuller tune “San Francisco Bay Blues.”
Late in the show, he pulled a pair of awestruck girls from the audience who had held signs reading, “Paul I want you to be my first tattoo.” He took a moment to embrace the girls onstage and tattoo them with a marking pen. Judging by the expressions on their faces, they may never shower again. He also had the Kronos Quartet join him during the encore, to play backing strings for “Yesterday” in a riveting performance.
The show ended with the usual “Helter Skelter” jam and the medley of songs that end the Abbey Road album. And in the end, as McCartney says at the end of every show, from the lines of the song with the same name, the regimented experience may be just what music fans really want. People who have witnessed a McCartney show over the last four years share a symbiotic experience, which harkens back to a simpler time, when Beatlemania ruled pop music.
In the 1960s, there was limited television and millions would see the same rare televised musical performance. Records were the only way to buy music, so millions purchased the same albums, complete with photos and artwork. In today's ADD world of watered-down choices, segmented music fans are splintered into groups, following endless pop sub-genres. They are bombarded with musical multimedia from all directions. There may never again be such huge iconic pop stars like the Beatles capturing such a comprehensive global audience in singular lockstep.
Day one of the festival was actually a day full of surprises. The National played a determined set filled with the first big surprises of the day. Early on, the band brought out the local San Francisco contemporary classical Kronos Quartet to supplement their sound. The veteran string musicians offered up a rich new layer to The National's usual prodding rhythm.
But the real surprise was yet to come, when the band brought out perhaps the most famous San Francisco pop icon, Bob Weir, to jam on their final song, “Terrible Love.” The Grateful Dead's founding guitarist played and sang backing vocals with the band to the delight of generations of San Francisco jam band fans.
The festival surprises continued with a last-minute fill-in over on the Sutro stage, for ailing singer D'Angelo. The slot was filled by the disco-era band Chic. Led by music genius and guitarist Nile Rodgers, the band proved to be the biggest surprise of the festival, delighting the audience with their classic hits spanning nearly 38 years. The band opened with their 1977 disco hit “Everybody Dance.”
But thanks to the iconic Rodgers, Chic is not just a retro dance novelty act. Rodgers has penned and played music for some of pop music's biggest stars across the decades and currently is the signature performer on Daft Punk's single “Get Lucky.” The song is one of contemporary EDM's biggest hit songs ever. Each one of the songs in the band's hour-long set seemed to be an iconic classic spanning generations of dance music, and the band had the whole crowd dancing by the end.
The music started early on the second day of the Outside Lands Festival, with so many choices to be made about which bands to listen to, what food to eat and what to drink, that many in the crowd found themselves faced with tough decisions throughout the day. From the first fleeting moments at the festival to the final headliner choice of a set by industrial music genius Trent Reznor with his latest incantation of Nine Inch Nails, or the popular French band Phoenix, with their feel-good dance-oriented pop hits, tough choices had to be made. But it was a day of dilemma that most attending this year's festival gladly embraced, so there were really no wrong choices to make.
Early on the smaller Panhandle stage, an entirely different type of jam band played one of the most unique sets of the day. Bombino, appearing in traditional Niger garb, played their own rock-infused version of traditional “Tuareg” music. Led by singer/guitarist Omara Bombino Moctar, the band plays infectious rhythms that meld into classic but subtle jams, sending music fans into a trance-induced dancing fever.
Just across the way, the Kopecky Family Band was playing a showcase set at the newest addition to the Outside Lands festival — the AT&T Mobile Lounge. The Nashville-based band could be heard playing their unique version of Fleetwood Mac's classic “Tusk,” inside the small tent. The stage, not on the main music schedule, offered a small group of music fans a chance to see a close-up, less-amplified version of several of the bands performing at the festival.
As the evening fog rolled in, the smoke machines began to churn on the main Lands End stage, paving the way for the closing set by hard-core industrial musical genius Reznor. The mysterious Reznor may have invented the entire screamo genre, but his musical roots are tied more to the influences of musical prophets like David Bowie and Gary Numan. The sinister-staring singer and multi-instrumentalist is now a veteran of the unique dark, demonic sound that he invented as Nine Inch Nails, 25 years ago. Reinventing and reconfiguring Nine Inch Nails for each live tour, there is always a unique feel to each incantation of his live NIN performance.
The maestro of screamo-infused gloom appeared first onstage alone, with a simple small keyboard and microphone in his latest production of live NIN classics. Slowly his band mates were ushered onstage one by one and provided their own small electronic apparatus.
Looking much like the godfathers of electronic rock, Germany’s own Kraftwerk stood stoically in the fog backing Reznor's ever-increasing growls on the microphone. Harsh lighting, multiple strobe lights, a wall of fog and an ever morphing metallic background set engulfed the band into a nightmarish scenario, and bathed the audience in explosive random bursts of light.
The concert slowly evolved into a more traditional NIN assault on the senses with band members taking up more mainstream rock instruments and breaking into the classic dark industrial screeching sound that Reznor is famous for. Smiling and leering like a madman, Reznor tore through a 90-minute set featuring a few new songs and most of his well-known classic NIN hits.
Some in the crowd were overpowered by the ferocity of Reznor's show and retreated to the Twin Peaks stage at the opposite end of the park, where Phoenix was playing a more pleasant hit-laden set of fun, danceable pop hits. The crowd eventually spread evenly between the two stages in a perfect dichotomy offering up a dilemma for some and an opportunity for others. But no matter what the missing half of the crowd thought about Reznor's closing set in the end, musical history was being made by the Witkin invoking, industrial rock visionary, who constantly reinvents his art form known as NIN.
Day three of the festival offered the most diverse lineup of the festival's three days. Ivan Neville and his group Dumpstaphunk offered New Orleans-style funky jam music early on the main stage, followed up punk funk pioneers Fishbone.
At the same time over on the Sutro stage, the recently reunited alternative music pioneers Camper Van Beethoven were offering their own brand of indie music. From their 1989 hit remake of the English classic “Pictures of Matchstick Men” by Status Quo to the trademark violin solos of Jonathan Segel, the group displayed their diverse musical skills.
Hall & Oates played the main Lands End stage to an exhilarated crowd, coming right out of the gates with an awesome guitar jam before sinking into a set of their biggest pop hits.
Willie Nelson seemed to have brought his own separate crowd assembled en masse at his closing set on the Sutro stage. Infatuated sign-holding fans stood wild-eyed throughout the set, as the strong aroma of marijuana engulfed the crowd. Nelson endeared himself to the fans, seemingly making eye contact and pointing at nearly everyone in the massive audience.
Back over on the main stage, the campy Vampire Weekend was a big hit with the young San Francisco crowd. Boys in colorful clothes and girls with flowers in the hair danced about in stiff little anglo-style wiggles reminiscent of the hippie-era generation.
Probably the only disappointing moments in the entire three days came with the closing set by California's biggest party band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The band played a 100-minute set of their biggest hits, but the group's members seemed a bit lethargic, like they had been on the road too long. There were none of the antics that made the band famous, like their appearance dressed only in socks covering their precious parts. The show also ended 10 minutes earlier than the scheduled set time, in an anticlimactic moment, like the band had just run out of steam.
But it was a rare disappointing moment in what, overall, was the most exciting and interesting Outside Lands festival so far.
— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributing writer. The opinions expressed are his own.