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Festival Review and Photos: Outside Lands 2011, August 12, 2011, Golden Gate Park – San Francisco, CA



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Photos by Philip Cosores

San Francisco’s Outside Lands prides itself on being something of an erudite festival. So close to California’s famed vinyards, they have as many outlets serving wine as they do beer, the food outlets are more up-scale than your average festival burger joints, and for those geeks out there, there’s even an on-site arcade with old-school classics.

Sure, there are plenty of activities to keep yourself occupied, but we’re here for the thing that brings everyone together in the first place: the music. The smarter-than-your-average appeal continues into the lineup, where the organisers have booked three headliners who will attract different crowds but also have enough overlap to seem interesting to everyone. The inclusions of The Roots and John Fogerty amonst others mean that the long-running statesmen are well-represented too. Even more impressive are the selection of acts further down the list – bands like The Joy formidable, Phantogram, Tamaryn, STRFKR, Grouplove and tUnE-yArDs show that the organisers have kept an eye on the blogosphere year-round and ensure to have the most ambitious new bands playing their festival. All this means that there’s never a minute without someone you should be watching. For music lovers like us that means a lot of walking, a lot of listening and a lot of writing, all of which we are more than happy to do.

Release The Sunbird

The name of Zach Rogue of Rogue Wave’s new project promised something that it couldn’t deliver, i.e. to bring the sun to a typically overcast day in San Francisco. What they did deliver however is a set of pop folk songs that provided the soft stirring in the still-sleeping beast that was Outside Lands festival at noon on Friday. Release The Sunbird’s debut album Come Back To Us was only just released, so the crowd was fairly small, but anyone wandering over out of pure curiosity will have been pleasantly entertained by the five piece’s summer vibes, even without the sun.

The Joy Formidable

Release The Sunbird may have caused stirrings but the wake up came with The Joy Formidable’s set, which rang out like the loudest alarm clock on earth and attracted a remarkably huge crowd for an early set on a medium-sized stage. It’s rare that a band with clear stadium aspirations should roll out of the box with their live show fully formed, but since the first time I experience the Welsh trio’s roar two and a half years ago they’ve been on point with every chorus, riff and destructive rock-out they play. Today The Joy Formidable’s performance was the usual high quality and they’re even comfortable enough now to add extra bells and whistles which emphasize the confidence in their performance – added quiet break downs before a crashing return, singer Ritzy Brian had no fear going off-script in her vocal melodies and mid-song banter was even included (on this occasion about groundhogs they’d spotted in the park). Their set may have only consisted of six songs, but each of them was over five minutes in length and any one would be a worthy set-closer in the catalogue of bands of similar size. Throughout the set the crowd clapped along, never moreso than for the concluding “Whirring” which, with its thumping bass drum and tumultuous ending, is a ready-made festival anthem, and hopefully soon they’ll be playing it on bigger stages.

Phantogram

Prior to seeing Phantogram I had thought that their debut album Eyelid Movies had been one of the most overlooked albums of 2010, but judging by the large crowd that gathered for their 2:25 set, I was greatly mistaken. The band were unafraid to play album highlight “Mouthful of Diamonds” early in the set, causing much gyrating in the crowd, encouraged by Sarah Barthel’s stamp-style dancing onstage. Fans were treated to a song from their upcoming EP called “Don’t Move,” which had an instant impact and seems to have the potential to be their biggest earworm yet. Just as they were truly gaining momentum, Phantogram – whose music, at its core, is made to be danced to – decided to play “You Are The Ocean.” I’m sure at a Phantogram headlining set this song can be a spectacle, but in daylight where people are expecting a party-type atmosphere the song seemed ponderous and did little more than to serve as a nice soundtrack to thousands of conversations in the audience. Fortunately Phantogram still had songs like “When I’m Small” in their locker to win the crowd back around by the end of their set.

Tamaryn

When Tamaryn plays a regular show, they do so in pitch black. In the middle of the afternoon, on an outside stage that didn’t even have a roof, this was not even a remote possibility. Nevertheless Tamaryn still managed to look theatrical on stage – what was little more than a breeze in the crowd was made to look like a gale on stage by singer Tamaryn Brown’s hair being constantly whipped across her face and guitarist Rex Shelverton’s constant leaning back into the bluster as he delivered wave upon wave of textural guitar that lulled the crowd into a peaceful daydream. On performance peak “Sandstone,” the rumble of the bass was of a particular quality to make you feel as though your ears were stuffed with warm buzzing cotton buds, the guitar jangled over the fuzz and the drums drove the song its crackling conclusion. Following this, with ten minutes left in their scheduled time left to play, Brown, who hadn’t said a word all set, silently turned around and walked off, with her band traipsing behind her. It was an unfortunate way to end, but judging from the crowd as they walked away, it had only slightly tarnished what had been a very impressive set.

Toro Y Moi

Toro Y Moi’s live performance has come a long way since the bedroom in which the project was conceived. Now a fully-fledged band with two keyboardists, a bassist and a drummer, Chaz Bundick can get his groove on while on stage. Early in the set, he stayed behind his electronics, doing little more than bobbing up and down, but he gradually cut loose over the course of the performance. An early peek at “Freaking Out” from his upcoming EP showed that it follows along the same 80s vibes as the Cherrelle cover “Saturday Love” – which was another highlight of the set. Mid-set Bundick told the crowd to “feel free to move around” and then provided the perfect soundtrack by busting into “Still Sound,” which got everyone moving. Towards the end of the set loosened-up Chaz took the microphone off of its stand to sing whilst cutting some funky shapes to some of Toro Y Moi’s most bassiest songs. Toro Y Moi were a perfect afternoon festival band, providing a soundtrack for the crowd to get down and shake to, while also being interesting musically and visually.

MGMT

Due to Phish’s gargantuan headline set scheduled to follow, MGMT got to play their 70 minutes starting at 4.30pm. Instead of using their time wisely and spreading out the hits they opened with a double header of what are (in this writer’s opinion) their best two songs: “Flash Delirium” and “Time To Pretend.” Whether it was sensible or not, the crowd at this point did not care as they were going wild for it. When “Electric Feel” followed a few songs further down the line the crowd reached full on festival fever with a arms-waving sing along from the front to the back of the polo fields. The main duo had stayed pretty still up until this point, but this euphoric reaction from the crowd managed to provoke a couple of on-the-spot spins from Andrew VanWyngarden. The middle of the set got a little bogged down with MGMT going for a long time without playing a hit and delving more into the neo-psychedelics that they seem to be drifting more towards. At a regular festival show this may have been more of a problem, but since the majority of people in the crowd at that point were Phish fans that are used to seeing long and winding songs it went down fine, with everyone watching on patiently and enjoying.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

It’s almost four years since Clap Your Hands Say Yeah released an album, and with little over a month to go until they put out their new one, it was unsurprising that they were keen to air a bunch of their new material here, even though it is against the unwritten rules of festivals. Opening with “Same Mistake,” the first single from Hysterical, the band set the tone straight away – straightforward indie pop with no messing around. Alec Ounsworth’s cross-between-a-drawl-and-howl vocals are still as unique as ever, and made particular impact on mid-set tentpole “Satan Said Dance,” which also saw three band members end up with drumsticks in hand, collectively putting together the spacey rhythmic layers. The biggest crowd reaction of the performance unsurprisingly came for “The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth,” which was played towards the end of the set. It even coaxed those whose energy had been wavering and were lounging on the grass to get up and bounce about as though it were the start of a new day of festivaling.

Big Boi’s early evening set failed to materialise. Whether it was because of his DJ going to the wrong stage or more serious technical difficulties nobody’s really sure. Dave Chapelle showed up though!


Photo by Max Ritter

Erykah Badu


Photo by Max Ritter

Phish

What’s left to be said about Phish that hasn’t been told you by your Phish-fanatic friend? (Everyone has one.) As someone who had never listened to Phish, my expectations were a little off base as to what I thought their music was like. I had thought that their music would be guitar-heavy and include a lot of guitar solos, but instead the songs, despite their length, were rather poppy and upbeat. The crowd were in full voice, roaring the lyrics to the parts where singer Trey Anastasio left space for them to fill in. Their set was three and a half hours in length – a time that only the complete Phishheads in the audience would have stayed for, but I’m sure the majority of the festival’s attendees will have stopped by at one point or another to see what was going on, and they will have undoubtedly been impressed, even if the music is not to their taste. Needless to say Phish are one of, if not the, tightest live band in the world, and their musicianship is exceptional. But, just in case anyone was not aware, there were plenty of cameras on stage to provide close-up shots of their playing on the big screen, as if to say ‘yes he really is playing this kickass piano solo for minutes on end.’ Having left to watch other bands, I returned three hours later to see the concluding song, and the fact that they were still playing with such vigour by this point was probably the most impressive point of all.

Best Coast

It was clear from the start that Bethany Cosentino was not at full health, arriving with a hot drink and vocals that lacked some of the punch that she’s known for. She confirmed this to the crowd a few songs in, which perhaps encouraged them to perk up more and add vocal support. Even without the full-throated whine on songs like “Boyfriend” and “Crazy For You,” the melody was enough to make the performance enjoyable. Best Coast played the ridiculously undersized (for them) Panhandle Stage, which had seemed like a bad scheduling decision, but taking all factors into account (including the chill that was by now running riot in the bones and feet) it was nice to have a more intimate-feeling atmosphere at a festival.

The Shins

For the people who were not there to see Phish, The Shins were the clear headliner of the night, and they drew a crowd deserving of one. Mercer and co. went right back to album one, track one – “Caring Is Creepy” – to open their performance, and backed this up with Wincing The Night Away single “Australia.” It’s been a while since I revisited the back catalogue of The Shins so I thought it was brave of them to have started with two of their biggest and best songs, but throughout their set the band reminded me with each passing song just how many catchy and smart pop songs they have in their catalogue. Mercer didn’t talk much, seemingly wanting to keep the momentum going by reeling out the songs, but his announcement that the Shins’ new album is “nearly finished” was made even more exciting by the inclusion of a couple of worthy-sounding new songs that slotted into The Shins’ canon nicely. “New Slang” provided the festival highlight so far, with the entire crowd singing along with the song’s haunting “ooh”s, creating a campfire-like atmosphere in the twilight.

Having not released an album since 2007 and having gone through a period where James Mercer focussed on other projects, seeing them here in 2011 playing a string of hits like “Kissing The Lipless,” “Sea Legs,” “So Says I” and “New Slang” back to back, it felt like watching a reunion show of a long-treasured band. Of course this is almost the exact opposite of true, with James Mercer being the only original member still in the lineup. It made me wonder why Mercer, when touring as The Shins, doesn’t receive the same kind of backlash as Billy Corgan touring as The Smashing Pumpkins. It’s probably because Mercer is clearly the guiding force of the band, and his new backing band is a set of quality experienced performers that play as if the songs were their own. That, and he’s just a nicer guy.

The only problem with having written three albums that consist of quality three and four minute pop songs (and there can only be one) is that you’re left without a song to provide a grandstanding conclusion to a live performance. A slightly extended version of “Sleeping Lessons” did a satisfactory job on this occasion, but if there’s one thing that’s needed from Shins LP4, that’s it. Overall The Shins’ set wasn’t flashy or spectacular in any extroverted way, but the 70 minutes was a perfect headline performance for the indie crowd, and served as extended emphasised proof that The Shins are back and they mean business.

[Friday] [Saturday] [Sunday]


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