Even before entering the park, the publicity begins: “Hey, are you guys here to see Radiohead?” asks a too-cheerful girl in jeans and suede boots on the dirt path behind Lloyd Lake. “Do you want a free download card? Do you want to be photographed for their fan gallery?”
Then there’s the Crowdfire tent, brought to you by Windows, where festivalgoers are asked to upload their photos from the day to be projected onto digital screens around the festival grounds (“and while you’re at the pavilion,” says the 100-page festival program, to anyone who’s been asleep for the last ten years, “stop by the Windows Experience, to see how Windows brings your digital life together, from your PC to your phone to your living room!”). The whole idea feels overwhelmingly like a ruse for ticket-buyers to also do work and provide free web content, but it’s not nearly as insulting as the tent nearby, called the “Social” tent, “brought to you by Heineken.”
There’s a Visa Signature tent, a Dell Dome, a PG&E booth. Even at 5:30, the lines for the bathrooms are long and the lines for the ID Check are longer. Official-looking people are running all around. Black Mountain plays the Twin Peaks stage while hundreds of people wait in the Will Call lines. In one 30-second span, four golf carts pass by me. It’s not getting off to a very promising start.
Then Manu Chao plays, and I remember why we’re all here: because music is fucking awesome.
When the show starts, I realize that I couldn’t be more wrong. Chao hits the stage with a fury, leaping all over the place in an “Africa Unite” T-shirt and throwing his fist in the air in time to the band. Did he hire these guys from the Dropkick Murphys?
It’s easy to see why Chao is a star the world over, and it’s thrilling to see a crowd of Americans, who’ve been jockeying for position for Radiohead, held as a captive audience and won over by his energy. He’s been at it for so many years that his blend of reggae, punk and world music is as natural as breathing, and his disregard for borders (anyone have one of his “No Work Visas” tour shirts from the Greek Theater?) and understandable disgust for George W. Bush make him a right-on dude in my book.
Chao is killing it, pogoing in unison with his band and firing up the crowd, when I hear the noise of something falling on the ground at my feet. I look, and it’s a 22 oz. can of Budweiser. Seconds later, another one comes flying over the fence and lands on the grass. Then four hands clutch the top of the fence, and while it buckles under the weight, the struggling faces of two hopefuls come into view. One guy makes it over by sliding head-first into the grass, and the other guy throws himself over in a sideways roll. By this point, a small group of onlookers has gathered, and they all applaud while the guys grab their cold ones and run off into the crowd.
Damn, I think. Those guys just saved themselves $170—and they got a standing ovation for it.
Not long afterwards, Quannum Spectrum came out, “I Changed My Mind” was a sleeper hit, and everything changed for Lyrics Born. He’s a soul singer now, albeit in a certain Bay Area fashion that’s inimitably his. And he’s still a great performer.
Backup singer Joyo Velarde worked the stage in a pink-striped jumpsuit and heels, throwing her hands back and forth while Lyrics Born elevated his live band to various climaxes. (Funny thing: last time I saw Joyo Velarde was at Max’s Opera Café on Van Ness, where she was working as a singing waitress.) They played all new stuff, but it was good to check in on the old dog again and see that he’s still teaching new tricks.
I guess there’s also this to say: he forces every photographer to sign special waivers allowing his management final say over photos to be used for publication. Actually, we don’t really have any idea what the waiver says. It could be an enlistment form into a deranged science-fiction cult, for all we know. But the upshot of it all is that we bring you this photo, from one of the digital screens, instead of a true-to-life, up-close photo.
Not that anyone can get anywhere near the stage. First of all, the corral between the Polo Fields and Lindley Meadow is jam-packed and moving at a snail’s pace. To make matters worse, a guy stands guard over the cluster of people, sitting on top of pallets full of bottled water.
Second of all, the stage sinks down into the landscape, meaning that if you’re not in the front 15 rows or so, you’re stuck behind the sound booth tent with no visibility. The sound itself isn’t much to write home about either, and Beck is playing drab new songs. I recall reading an interview with him, post-Odelay, where he articulately explained how he was compelled to write happy, uplifting music because he’d had such a brutal home life as a child. It made a big impression on me then, as did his music. When I saw him on the Sea Change tour in 2001, I was struck at how he flipped the equation; he was completely at home with depressing songs like “Paper Tiger,” and awkwardly going through the motions for “Where It’s At.”
But now, it seems the knee-jerk is working in a diagonal direction—the question isn’t ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ anymore. It’s as if he’s reacting to his charmed life in the spotlight by imposing bland music on his fans. We trek back through the narrow corral, moving at about ten feet per minute while others break through the fence and trample the foliage, cringing at each new song Beck starts. Oh well. Hope he snaps out of it someday.
I like Radiohead and all, but I’m confounded at the suggestion that they’re the world’s most popular band. It simply can’t be true. Their music is way too weird for the average person, like the devil-horn girl, to honestly enjoy. The crowd estimate tonight is 60,000, and of that, I’d wager to say that 20,000 truly love Radiohead. The rest are here because they feel, for some reason, like they should be. Maybe they’re afraid to be apathetic about Radiohead lest they appear unintelligent, or unsupportive of “art.”
I’m also aghast at the comparison that Radiohead is the next U2. My friend Kim puts it best: “They managed to get really big by not doing anything except for playing bigger places.” Which means: No giant lemons. No vacuous dance-club albums. No pompous charading. Just sticking to the guns, making the music that seemed most interesting at the time, and against all odds watching the world go crazy falling all over itself for it.
Before Radiohead comes on, I overhear two guys talking. One of them says to his friend, “I like Beck, but live, he’s not that good. But this, this is going to be great. It’s like my highlight of the year. And I love the weed smell. San Francisco’s so cool.”
During the first couple songs, a very drunk guy topples over the front barricade and into the photo pit. He’s out cold, just completely unconscious, crumpled on the ground. A public-relations girl working the festival runs over and motions security to join her, and they build a wall around the poor guy, making sure that no photographers can snap a photo of him.
There are glistening moments in Radiohead’s set where, for a brief passage or chorus, they still seem like that scrappy little band who sat down and made an mind-shattering album called OK Computer. The sense of discovery is still there; the feeling of urgency hasn’t been lost. It’s like watching David Murray, or Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, or Rakim.
Then, I look out across the field and wonder what in the hell is happening, and just how on Earth so many people can possibly be passionate about what is obviously a very weird orchestration of sound. I suppose this is a familiar sensation for people who’ve listened to Radiohead in their bedrooms alone for years and then go to see them for the first time, but outdoors in Golden Gate Park, it’s especially bizarre.
During “Airbag,” the sound goes out. It’s back on after 40 seconds or so, and it’s not really that much of a big deal, even though it’s all anyone is going to be talking about the next day. It goes out again a few songs later. I like it. It lends an air of unpredictability to the experience. Plus it forces Thom Yorke, looking like a decomposed rubber walrus, to actually address the crowd. “I don’t know what the fuck’s going on,” he says. A wasted guy next to me screams, “Me too! Me and Thom Yorke have so much in common!”
We walk around after a while, noticing the hordes of people who’ve scaled the Port-a-Potties to get a better view. For my money, Radiohead’s best album is The Bends, and luckily, they play two songs from it. During “Fake Plastic Trees,” I’m sitting, staring at the trees surrounding the Polo Fields. They’re lit up by huge, colored lights, and they look synthetic. It’s beautiful.
All I Need
Talk Show Host
Jigsaw Falling Into Place
Exit Music (For a Film)
You And Whose Army
Fake Plastic Trees
Everything In Its Right Place