Outside Lands takes over SF once again with acts like the Strokes and Further -- but is it possible to build a better music festival?
MUSIC As summer fades, the Bay grows warmer, and full-fledged adult music circuses — a mixture of marquee names, garlic fries, sideshow stilt-walkers, and questionable street art — begin to arrive, it's time to ask: how does one go about building a better festival?
The Great Recession hasn't helped the foundering music industry. Entertainment Weekly has dubbed this the Summer of Sadness, with partial or total tour cancellations on the part of Lilith Fair, Rihanna, Christina Aguilera, the Eagles, Jonas Brothers, and American Idol. All of which explains why Outside Lands, once three days strong, is now down to two, from Aug. 14-15.
"It's about the economic climate and who's touring," says Allen Scott, festival producer and Another Planet Entertainment vice president. Initially, he says, Another Planet conceived Outside Lands as a two-day festival for the first two years, with a third day being added the fourth year — this was before Radiohead agreed to play the first year on a Friday. But 2010 is a whole 'nother story: "Some artists, after last year when tickets weren't doing as well as they hoped, are choosing to take this year off," Scott says.
Where does that leave the sophisticated breed of music fan the Bay Area fosters — one who has made the effort to hoist him- or herself away from the laptop or TV on a regular basis and go out to seek new sounds? It takes a lot to make a slightly jaded, still passionate listener perk up and plonk down the much-sweated-over bucks rather than sitting on the sidelines and taking in the music from the meadow on the other side of the fence.
First-day headliner Further, featuring Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, is obviously playing to "the jam band realm," Scott acknowledges.
"But they obviously have a deep history in San Francisco music," he continues. "Phil and Bobby, who are carrying the torch now, haven't played in Golden Gate Park since Bill Graham passed away and the Dead played free shows in Golden Gate Park in the '60S and '70s — it's more of a nod to that."
For Further, I'd expect — nay, I'd demand — an older, boomer crowd, one that can afford the capacious wine tent and booths helmed by upscale SF mainstays like Slanted Door. The food and wine aspect of Outside Lands does make it unique among destination music festivals, putting in a bid for a "sophisticated" audience, according to Scott, and placing it a cut above the ubiquitous free wine and food events in the region.
But how, exactly, does the Dead/Further audience mesh with Strokes fans, or My Morning Jacket, Gogol Bordello, Cat Power, Wolfmother listeners? Not well, one suspects, picturing the kind of audience switch-overs — and cognitive dissonance and cultural disconnect — that have accompanied odd clashes between Black Eyed Peas and Dave Matthews, Street Sweeper Social Club and Mastodon. "The Bay Area has a wide array of tastes, and we try to reflect those different tastes," explains Allen, who describes the scene as "niche." "Frankly, we tried to steer away from pop music this year. We didn't have it the first year. I think the taste of a festival-goer is less pop-oriented."
Outside Lands offers a few delights for the discerning, opinionated music lover: the right Reverend Al Green and Levon Helm have earned their statuses as legends; Janelle Monae and Nneka have generated press and acclaim for distinctive takes on R&B, rock, and hip-hop; and the Stanton Moore, Marco Benevento, Skerik, and Mike Dillon project sounds like a doozy. Yet Phoenix, Vieux Farka Toure, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Tokyo Police Club have already been through town recently — some at least twice — while some up-and-comers seemingly making the rounds of the nation's festivals, like Japandroids, have failed to surface at Outside Lands.
From my snug, perhaps too-smug armchair-quarterback position, I want to believe it's not hard to beat the megaconcert doldrums. I'd suggest adding these reliable — and excitingly unpredictable — ingredients to future recipes.
1) Blend in at least one must-see reunion/once-a-decade reappearance that get music geek diehards drooling. Noise Pop used to get this right with stunning regularity, resuscitating critical faves like Big Star and Mission of Burma. The closest thing to that this year for Outside Lands is the Strokes, who I'm guessing don't inspire the same level of intense passion as, say, Dinosaur Jr. This year Coachella boasted rare turns by Sly Stone and Friends (it would have been a coup for the Bay Area festival to score the NorCal genius recluse), the once-Bay-based Faith No More, the Specials, Public Image Ltd., and Pavement.
2) In lieu of the once-in-a-lifetime reunion, sift in a very special album-length performance that everyone will yap about on online message boards, Facebook, or Twitter. Bonnaroo made it happen this year with the Flaming Lips performing Pink Floyd's 1973 The Dark Side of the Moon, and ATP New York on Sept. 3 has it in spades. Bay Area-bred Sleep is performing 1992's Holy Mountain, Iggy and the Stooges are playing 1973's Raw Power, Mudhoney is bringing 1988's Superfuzz Bigmuff back to life, and the Scientists are playing 1983's Blood Red River for the group's first U.S. show.
3) Mix in a dash of artists at the very top of their game. Pitchfork got it on with Big Boi, who may have released the best hip-hop album this year. Treasure Island has LCD Soundsystem, whose engagingly brainy, pop-literate James Murphy had even Terry Gross of Fresh Air tossing her KISS LPs.
4) Toss in a dollop of bands that are freakin' party-starters. Dan Deacon brought it last year at Treasure Island, and you can bet that the Gossip and Titus Andronicus did at Bonnaroo and Pitchfork, respectively.
5) Make sure to add a pinch of artists that get the critics and the kids hot and bothered. Pitchfork dangled such rare treats as Panda Bear, Robyn, and Lightning Bolt.
6) Last but not least, make it transcendent. The Barbary tent and puppet-covered wagon at last year's Outside Lands was an eye candy start. How about handing over a funhouse to an imaginative installation artist, or creating an low-priced, locally-sourced oasis for a star chef and a few lucky random audience members who aren't necessarily VIPs? Another idea: opening a DIY art salon or music-making studio space or dance palace, sans overly pushy corporate sponsorship.
I bet I'm not alone when I say I want to see something that's going to make me rethink what happens at these nouveau carnivals for adult merrymakers, these hipster art and wine festivals — something that will make me levitate, like Shellac as the house band (ATP), or, hey, maybe even Darryl Hall & Chromeo. I can go for that.
Aug. 14–15, all day, $75–$395
Golden Gate Park, SF