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Friday, February 22 , 2019, 3:47 am | Fair 46º


Paul Mann: Outside Lands Festival, Day 1

The second annual San Francisco event shines in more ways than one

Promoters learned many lessons from last year’s inaugural Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco. They benefited from a combination of improved planning and the luck of some of the nicest weather the city by the bay has seen all summer. The result was a far more pleasant and exciting experience for festival-goers at the second annual food, wine and music extravaganza. Improved planning included better access to more toilets, more food and beverage booths, bigger and better sound, easier access to the many stages and more eclectic fun things to do.

I started my day early because I was unsure how complicated it would be to use public transportation in a new city. To my surprise, I was able to catch a single city bus, two blocks from my hotel, and ride several miles down the colorful Haight Street District to within a short walking distance to the festival box office.

Volunteers and city planners had worked long hours to devise a plan to funnel fans to and from the venue. The smiling army of transportation expediters relieved the concerns of many visitors like me, afraid they may be lost in a scary and unknown part of the city. Arriving early, I was able to study the festival layout and make my plan for the day even before the music started. Like most multiday and multistage music festivals, it is always a treat to arrive early. It’s possible to walk right up to the front of the opening acts, sometimes the most new and interesting of the day, and then scurry off to another area, before the crushing crowds arrive. If you’re a dedicated audiophile like myself, you can scurry about quickly and catch part of many acts, exposing yourself to a plethora of musical genres. Perhaps the more civilized thing to do is to pick an area near where your favorite acts are scheduled to play and lounge about enjoying the day.

The venue for the festival is extraordinary, taking up about a third of the massive Golden Gate Park. Once inside, it’s hard to believe you’re in the middle of a large city. Giant trees and grassy meadows block any view of outside buildings. The festival is arranged around the topography so that each group of stages has its own look and feel, and there are areas where you can wander away from all the music and relax in empty meadows. The festival truly becomes a world unto itself.

The main attraction of the festival is the eclectic array of carefully chosen musical acts, especially the crowd-pleasing headline supergroups. Organizers, also responsible for the largest and most successful music festival in the country, Bonnaroo, have an uncanny ability to pick the best and most diverse group of touring acts in the country.

But the festival is much more than a musical event. There is a virtual food festival frenzy, with some of San Francisco’s finest restaurants offering some of their most sumptuous dishes. Unlike most large events, where generic food and drink are available in cookie-cutter stands with limited choices, each region of the festival has its unique set of food booths. Dozens of cuisines were offered, from combination plates of Indian food to fresh seafood. More standard fare such as gourmet pizza, spicy barbecue and homemade sausages sent savory smells throughout the park. All manner of desserts could satisfy any fan’s sweet tooth.

The festival also featured a giant wine-tasting tent called Winehaven. With more than 30 wineries participating, it was a Lollapalooza of wine tasting. Unfortunately, there wasn’t as much variety in the beer available, but there were a few alternatives if you knew where to look.

There were a slew of activities to participate in, including a comedy and Vaudeville tent, pitching and batting cages, disco tents and video games. The most high-profile video game setup was the tent dedicated to the new “Beatles Rock Band” game. It was great to see so many kids lining up to play their favorite Beatles songs.

Oh yeah, there is also a bit of music at the festival.

Outside Lands is so vast, with so many bands playing simultaneously, that it’s a good idea to devise a plan of the music you want to hear. For me, I try to focus on bands I have never seen, or performances of some of my favorite musicians. It can sometimes be a difficult choice, but the bands I covered met this criteria, or simply were scheduled better to maximize my music exposure.

I started with a quick trip to the giant Barbary tent to see Rosin Coven. Describing themselves as a Pagan lounge ensemble, the seven-piece jazz ensemble in clown makeup would be right at home in the desert at the Burning Man festival. They played an eclectic set of jazzy lounge music.

Next I wandered to the quieter, greener and more isolated Presidio stage for an energetic set by English rockers The Duke Spirit. Lead singer Leila Moss, who is married to guitar player Luke Ford, was an enthralling performer, captivating the crowd with her sexy performance. The band, who recently opened for No Doubt at the Santa Barbara Bowl, has a pleasing retro sound reminiscent of Missing Persons.

From there I wandered to the other side of the hilly meadow to the larger Sutro stage, where the Akron Family band was jamming. The New York-based group is a consummate jam band, with each member playing a variety of instruments, moving about on the stage, and shifting intricate rhythms into a fascinating set of music. They apparently honed their skills after several years of playing as the house band at the Gimmie Coffee Shop, in New York.

I then made my way back to the massive Lands’ End main stage, to watch the Boise-based band Built To Spill. One of the hardest-working bands on the festival circuit, the group has produced seven albums in the past 16 years. Their straight-up rocking set seemed to be a favorite with other musicians backstage. They garnered onstage kudos from several other bands, including the lead singer of Incubus, Brandon Boyd.

After lunch and my first round of wine tasting, I sauntered over to the little panhandle Solar stage, powered by solar panels. The stage was host to some of the most intriguing new acts to appear at the festival. Malaysian singer Zee Avi played pleasing songs with a fresh new voice, and vacillated between strumming a guitar and ukulele. Then I rushed back to the main stage to catch a rocking and energetic set by the Silverspun Pickups. The Smashing Pumpkins seemed to have passed the torch to this band, which has a similar style to the Pumpkins’ earlier more melodic period. While lead singer Brian Aubert sometimes seems to be channeling Billy Corgan, the Los Angeles band has put its own stamp on the explosive sound.

From there I did an about-face back to the solar stage, to catch Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. Often compared to Howlin’ Wolf or James Brown, Joe Lewis is a young singer and guitar player with a seeming old soul. Together with his band the Honeybears, this young group of Austin-based musicians plays rhythm and blues and soul music as well as any band in the genre. It was nice to see young musicians carrying on such a great traditional sound.

After another round of wine tasting and more food, I walked back to the Sutro stage in the meadow to listen to Indy music darlings, the decade-old band The National. With rich, intricate layers of sounds, this New York band has become one of the most successful of the genre. Then it was time for a long hike back to the main stage to see an intense set of mostly older hits by Calabasas band Incubus. Boyd was suffering from a cold, and keeping with the festival’s theme, sucked on a bottle of red wine through the set. With his vocals strained, the rest of the band came to his rescue and played louder and more intensely than usual in the tradition of rock and roll in adversity.

Then it was back to the Sutro stage for what, for me, became the highlight of the day, a set by Tom Jones. The promoters had asked for band suggestions when I corresponded with them last year about the first festival. I mentioned that I had just seen Jones do a classic show in Las Vegas and would love to see him perform in front of a younger audience. Imagine my surprise when they booked him at this year’s festival.

I arrived early to get a prime spot in the photo pit and was a little disappointed, as there was a relatively small crowd in front of the stage. But about five minutes before Jones took the stage, the field and and hill overlooking the stage began to rapidly fill with excited young fans. By the time his band began to jam, the ecstatic crowd swelled. Playing a shorter set than his legendary Las Vegas marathon shows, Jones wisely started with a few hard-rocking tunes before settling into his more mainstream hits. This near septuagenarian still has one of the strongest voices with one of the widest ranges in the music business. Sometimes he began wailing, and at others singing in a deep black gospel archipelago like voice. The fans went wild, throwing dozens of pairs of underwear — both male and female — onto the stage. After a short blues acoustic set, he launched into a medley of his biggest hits, dating back to 1965’s “It’s Not Unusual.”

While a massive crowd was gathering for the grand finale of the day, Pearl Jam, I made the long trek to the other main stage, Twin Peaks, on the far side of the venue. The eclectic electronic band Thievery Corporation was laying down diverse beats, each synced with a dramatic video and LED backdrop. The band, with an ever-changing group of singers, moves in and out of musical genres from rap to traditional Indian music. Anchored by two DJs, the band creates a trancelike set that always pleases its fans.

By the time I returned to the main stage, Pearl Jam was well into its set, mesmerizing a massive crowd of fans. The show did not compare to the last time I saw the band perform, a marathon set at Bonnaroo. That’s partly because Bonnaroo is a unique venue, allowing bands playing at night to play as long as they like, resulting in a near four-hour set for Pearl Jam. At Outside Lands, the band still turned in an impressive crowd-pleasing, two-hour set and seemed to be having a great time doing it.

What an amazing and diverse first day of music.

— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributor.

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