.Review & Photos: Outside Lands 2012, San Francisco

All photos: David Korman

For a full slideshow of bands at Outside Lands, click here.
For a full slideshow of people and fashions at Outside Lands, click here.
Outside Lands is too crowded, Outside Lands is too expensive, Outside Lands shot their wad on big-name headliners—I’ve heard these complaints and more about the festival from fans, and yet it still completely sold out this year, all three days. The neighbors? Their complaint is that it’s too loud, and yet Metallica played.
At this years’ Outside Lands more than ever, it was evident that San Francisco has a banner festival not unlike Bumbershoot or Bonnaroo. It was in the air Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Golden Gate Park, this shift in emphasis. The first few years of Outside Lands were all about the music, but Outside Lands is an experience now, a thing you and all your friends go to, a water-cooler discussion, an Instagram feeding frenzy. Someday, Another Planet Entertainment may be able to sell it out without even announcing the lineup, and when that day comes, I will be baffled, but not surprised.
Out of the 65 acts, including a lot of worthy feel-good nostalgia (Metallica, replete with 30-ft.-high pyrotechnics, played almost all songs from 1991 and earlier), here are five in particular that had an impact.

The Surprise: Sharon Van Etten
The lines are long to get in, but once inside, it’s the surprise of the festival right there on the Sutro stage: Sharon Van Etten. She introduces her band members individually as all brilliant songwriters or poets in their own right, and peels off song after song of brilliant poetry on her own. She makes jokes about the jacket she bought at a thrift store in Shasta. She says, “Thanks for coming to see us so early in the day. I know it’s weird to be seeing other people in daylight, not drunk yet.”
She closes with “I’m Wrong,” from her newest album Tramp, while her second guitarist uses a violin bow to achieve a constant drone and her drummer plays inside and outside of the beat. Van Etten, small and strong, sings “Tell me I’m worth all the miles that you put on your car… Tell me I’m right / Tell me I’m funny / Even when I’m not…” The band drops to the floor. A quilt of quiet awe blankets the field. Is this really how the festival starts? With the heavens opening up and shining down?

The Court Jester: Reggie Watts
If all you’ve known of Reggie Watts is “Fuck Shit Stack,” you’re missing out (genius though this video is). Live and in person—and I didn’t know this until seeing him—Watts improves everything in the moment, and it’s intelligent, fascinating, hilarious and entertaining. At one point, he busts into this total Bob Seger-esque acapella about having a song but then not wanting it to go to the chorus too soon because that would sound like all the other songs, and you want to try to be original in this world, so you take off your socks to show the world that they don’t stink… and then he stops, suddenly, and mutters, “I don’t know where I was going with that.”
Watts also gives a rundown of how to survive different drugs, and I think it’s going to be funny, but then I realize it’s serious, and then I realize that Reggie Watts giving advice on taking LSD is even funnier when he’s being serious. “You may think you’re going to go get tacos in an hour. That’s not gonna happen,” he cautions. “You’re gonna lay on the ground for eight hours and question your existence.” He gives an obligatory nod to San Francisco for its pioneering 1960s drug culture—“Good times, great state, good city, you invented tripping”—and then minutes later is riffing, in song, about why you should never go to Haight-Ashbury in the year 2012.
Before he finishes, he announces the upcoming acts as James Brown, Joni Mitchell, Ministry and Skinny Puppy.

The Maddening Legend: Neil Young
The first song by Neil Young & Crazy Horse, who I am very excited to see, is “Love and Only Love.” It’s 16 minutes long, and it’s the same two chords over and over, and that’s not really such a bad thing. What is a bad thing, however, is that after “Powderfinger,” he keeps playing songs that nobody recognizes. Isn’t a festival the place where you’re supposed to just buck up and play the hits? I know Neil Young has earned the right to do whatever he wants, but that doesn’t mean a huge field needs to enjoy it.
What makes it more tiresome is that the new songs aren’t great, and are fixated on the 1960s. One of them, “Walk Like a Giant,” is basically about how the hippies failed. Another, “Ontario,” is about growing up in Canada. Another is about hearing “Like a Rolling Stone” for the first time, and quotes from Dylan’s lyrics. These aren’t songs that embody the vibrancy of youth. They’re plodding ruminations that leave you with the distinct impression that Neil Young believes the world’s greatest years were when he was the ages of 20–25, and that all of his dreams have died, and that there is no hope. “Me and some of my friends / We were gonna save the world,” he sings in “Walk Like a Giant,” “We were trying to make it better/ We were ready to save the world / Then the weather changed, and life got strange, and it fell apart / and it breaks my heart to think about how close we came.”
I love old-man-type shit, like Sinatra’s September of My Years and Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. But those albums’ magic lies in the stark confrontation of mortality, the staring into the mirror and saying, Okay, this is it, bub, there’s no escape. Neil Young’s stance is clear, especially when you’re familiar with his 1986 track “Hippie Dream”: Just because it’s over for you, doesn’t mean it’s over for him. Even while admitting that his generation didn’t save the world.
I just want musicians, and everybody really, to move on. My mom once told me that grownups like to wear their hair the same way they wore it when they were teenagers. Once, while working at the record store, a lady asked me, “Haven’t you noticed that all the best music came out when I was in high school?” 90s reunions, nostalgia fests, fuckin’ Jesus Christ, it drives me crazy.
Back to Neil Young, he’s playing “The Needle and the Damage Done,” and I’m wondering if this is his idea of cruel and unusual punishment, because there are so many other songs he could possibly be playing at this very moment in his incredible catalogue but no, he chooses this overexposed one that basically sounds like a TV commercial at this point, and I realize that goes against my prior wishes that he play a greatest-hits set, but then I think about all the songs I want him to play and realize he won’t play them, and then I start thinking that maybe despite 15 years of listening to his music, maybe I actually don’t like Neil Young at all.
He plays “Cinnamon Girl.” It doesn’t help. I am standing in a cold field having some weird existential crisis about Neil Young. I start texting my friend, who is home, stoned, and who will forgive Neil Young anything. I tell him Neil Young and his band have played the same one note, over and over, for four and a half minutes. He’s like “I would love to hear that.”
So Neil Young starts “Hey Hey, My My,” and there’s the infamous line, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Kurt Cobain quoted it in his suicide note, everyone cheers when Young sings it, it’s supposed to contain some huge-ass deep meaning or whatever, I’m witnessing this religious love-fest around Neil Young, but after all these years I’m suddenly like, What the fuck does that line even mean?
Aren’t burning out and fading away the exact same thing?
I think Neil Young maybe meant to say that it’s better to “crash and burn” than to fade away; at least there would be a time difference. Like, a candle burning out happens fast, but if a candle “faded away” it would extinguish just as quickly. So he has to mean people, and the metaphor doesn’t work. Anyone who you’d call a “burnout” is someone who is fading away. All of a sudden, this makes me really angry.
“Well, you understand what he’s trying to say, yeah?” my stoned friend texts me. “So however it was written, you still got the point. It’s rock and roll. Fuck it. Right? I mean, he’s never been that great lyrically.”
All my knotty feelings about Neil Young dissipate when he starts “Roll Another Number” for the encore, but congeal anew when he sings “I long to hear that lonesome hippie girl smile,” and points to a girl in the crowd, and grins and raises his eyebrows suggestively, and it’s just so weird.

The Great Unifier: Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder opens with Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is,” and then a few songs later he’s playing “The Way You Make Me Feel” by Michael Jackson. He’s oozing so much love from the stage that when he starts playing “Imagine” by John Lennon, it doesn’t even make people want to throw up.
Stevie Wonder is leading the crowd in singalongs, but they’re incredibly difficult singalongs. He is trying to teach them harmony and counterpoint and impossible chromatic triplets, with varying results. His patter is dead-on, though, and everything Wonder says is believable. “It is time to give your love to those who are less fortunate!” he declares. “Not to be political, but we have been talking about saving the planet for years and years… It’s time to re-elect Barack Obama!”
“Master Blaster,” “Sir Duke,” “My Cherie Amour” and “Living for the City” comprise some of his bigger hits, and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” is perfect in every single way. I’m dancing like a loon. He’s succeeded in uniting something like 40,000 people. It’s absolutely the best way to close out the festival.
The huge laser lights of Skrillex are barfing into the sky on the east end of the park, and that itching feeling to skip over there and check him out keeps pestering me. Both the Chronicle and SF Weekly have mentioned this very Stevie Wonder vs. Skrillex dilemma, laughable though it may seem to most Stevie Wonder fans, who either don’t know or hate Skrillex. But it’s real. “How could I leave Stevie Wonder?” I think. “What kind of an asshole walks away from an American hero, a soul legend, an immeasurable talent irrevocable woven into the national fabric? What could Stevie Wonder possibly do right now to drive me away?”
Just then, Stevie Wonder plays “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” My question is answered.

The Boy Wonder: Skrillex
To most critics, Skrillex is the jerk who made dubstep too popular in America’s frathouses by co-opting superficial elements of an underground UK scene and maximizing their commercial possibilities by dumbing everything down and adding a bunch of aggressive frequencies and designer-drug flash. Removed from all this chatter, though, Skrillex is incredible. No one should overthink his music, naturally—it’s just dance music—but no one should underestimate it, either. Unlike a lot of fellow electronic/EDM/dubstep etc. artists, Skrillex employs conventional compositional techniques so the songs actually stay stuck in your head after the drugs wear off.
I am sure there are some sad, awful scenes going on up near the front involving overdoses, sexual abuse and barfing. Further back is where I plant myself, taking in the entire Hellman Hollow and the way it’s transformed. Strobes and lasers cut through the natural fog at a seizure-inducing rate, thrashing over a gelatinous blob of humanity. There are 50 people who’ve climbed on top of the bathrooms. The music is visibly coursing through people’s bodies, transforming them into vessels for a thousand different frequencies.
Stevie Wonder may have sent everyone off with a “My Girl” singalong and a good feeling, especially for those who grew up on his music, but Skrillex sent everyone off with a window into the future.

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