Far away from the arid home of Southern California’s music festivals, San Francisco’s Outside Lands takes place deep within the temperate confines of the city’s Golden Gate Park. Noticeably cooler than most festivals, Outside Lands lacks the relentless heat and soul-sucking humidity that seem to go hand-in-hand with the festival experience. What it gains in comfort for the cooler temperature, it gives back in sheer size and distance. The space within Golden Gate Park is huge. The polo field space where the main stage resides (“The Lands End Stage”) is one of the largest spaces for a main stage imaginable stretching to the far end of the valley. As was warned, it’s a hike from stage to stage. Running to catch fifteen minutes of a hip indie band seems less appealing after numerous trips around the sloping fields. Still, this year’s event is completely sold out, and fans looked undaunted, joyously bopping from stage to stage.
As with any common music festival, the results of the bill were a bit of a mixed bag. A few performed with real heart, while some seemed lost trying to connect. On the successful side, the most pleasant surprise was Beck. Performing at the Lands End stage, Beck pulled largely on his more lively groovy material for this set. Beck has had a reputation of being hit-or-miss live these past few years. For his performance here he dropped classic cuts “Where It’s At,” “Devil’s Haircut,” “Hot Wax” and “Novocaine” amidst the Sea Change-era material “Golden Age,” “Lost Cause” and “Sunday Sun.” In addition to a fun cover of Bob Dylan’s “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” the set also featured the energetic “Girl” and The Beastie Boys’ sampling “E-Pro.” It still feels like Beck’s current band configuration is still lacking some of the electronics and studio wizardry which always helped bring the songs to life, but generally this is a solid demonstration of if Beck doesn’t lean his set towards the ultra-calm, sing-you-a-quiet song material, people will respond favorably.
Also on the positive side were South African rave rappers Die Antwoord. Die Antwoord is simply just hard to explain for the unitiated. This band is strange through-and-through and a casual listener would likely not understand what was really happening, or being said. The bands twin MCs Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er, opt for vibrant neon clothing. Ninja barks out rhymes while Vi$$er squeaks out her lyrics sounding much like you might imagine an alien would rapping. Using short blasts of raved-out beats the band is a full-throttle sonic and visual assault. Somehow, that’s all a part of what makes it work. It doesn’t look or feel like anything normal, even if it’s hard to understand what the hell they are talking about. To their credit, they are as confident as performers as anyone could hope to be, and that fuels the believability of their bizarre sound. By the point that they got to “Rich Bich” and “I Fink U Freeky,” Ninja was wearing nothing but boxers with the cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on them and Vi$$er was down to some kind of neon blue underwear and a small shirt. The crowd loved every moment of it.
Earlier in the day Reggie Watts did well in spite of legitimately believing he had finished fifteen minutes on stage, only to find out he had twenty-five more. His almost improvisational loops and beat boxing made for impressive dynamics, and as a musical comedian, Watts convincingly appears to be inhabited by four or five separate personalities. Jokes often change mid-stream from massive evil voices into decidedly effeminate, girly uber-artists characters. Later in the day Washed Out performed at one of the smaller stages but failed to display any energy. The band’s nuanced atmospherics failed to gel in this setting, sounding more like odd background music than a chilled-out dynasty.
On the less-than-successful side Foo Fighters gave a performance that can most likely be described as an off day for them. To his credit, lead singer/guitarist Dave Grohl performed every song like it was his last, but the enthusiasm wasn’t enough. Yes, fan-favorites “Everlong,” “Walk” and “Best of You” were all present, but little jumped off the page as truly inspired rock music. The band has shown in the past they’re capable of better, but this was too much emphasis on the middle-of-the-road nature of their material. Also, headliner Neil Young & Crazy Horse was two hours of overwrought slop. Classic songs “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” and “The Needle and the Damage Done” were slotted up against far too many meandering guitar solos. The band is famous for more material beyond reckoning that’s of revelatory merit, but here everything just kind of stammered on, boringly.