When Eddie Vedder starts making Woodstock jokes onstage, you know you’re at a music festival with a good vibe. So it was that Pearl Jam’s front man addressed the crowd at the Outside Lands festival in San Francisco last Friday, warning them not to take the brown acid (“The mushrooms are fine,” he added). A few moments later the band launched into an epic “Even Flow” as the sun set over Golden Gate Park, and you had to wonder if the muddy hordes at Woodstock ever had it this good.
You’d expect Pearl Jam to play an epic set in this kind of venue, and they did: The Seattle quintet is one of the few modern bands that can pull off being larger-than-life and sounding epic is one of their specialties - even when they did a bunch of the short, punchy rockers from the forthcoming Backspacer (which has only two tracks longer than four minutes!) The show also marked a payback for the band: As they told us backstage, Pearl Jam played Golden Gate Park in 1995, at which point Vedder got a severe case of food poisoning and has to rush off after the first few songs; Neil Young wound up taking his place for the remainder of the set. Much healthier this time around, Vedder referred to that night as “one of the worst of my life.” That probably explains why their encore - which ran another 45 minutes on top of a 90-minute set - closed with a pair of Neil Young songs, “Throw Your Hatred Down” and a climactic “Rockin’ in the Free World” (which they updated with some optimistic post-Bush era lyrics). And about that interview, keep watching this space.
The other superstar act we caught was the Dead Weather, which is supposed to be Jack White’s incognito side project: On disc, White plays only drums while the Kills’ frontwoman Allison Mosshart takes the lead. But somehow, you wouldn’t expect White to keep a low profile onstage - so he escaped from the drumkit whenever the music allowed, whether to take a vocal or to rev up the crowd by hitting sticks over his head; he managed to play some guitar as well. No slouch herself, Mosshart screamed like a blues demon and the band’s overall sound - dirty and primal, with lots of mean guitar licks and a very excitable drummer—wasn’t too far from White Stripes territory. They even did “New Pony,” a swampy Bob Dylan song that the White Stripes have covered. Anyone who wanted an extra shot of Detroit grime could have gotten it from the Dirtbombs, a raunchy combo who fought the garage-rock trend of working without a bass guitar: They had two, with a pair of drummers in hot pursuit.
Also representing the Rock Band lineup was Lucinda Williams, who was part of our alt-country package last year. But really, how many alt-country artists are there who wrap up their set with a letter-perfect cover of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top If You Want to Rock’n’Roll”? Williams is legendary for never doing quite what her fans expect; one reason they love her—Her set may have closed with AC/DC but it opened with the folk/blues standard “Motherless Children,” and her own songs hit all the bases in between. And not forgetting that I heard an ace cover of Prince’s “Kiss” by a guy who was so high on testosterone that women were throwing underwear at him; his set also included a funk number called “Sex Bomb,” with lots of bumping and grinding. That performer was of course Tom Jones, one elder statesman who will never have to make a Viagra joke onstage.
But a festival like this isn’t just about the star acts (which also included Dave Matthews, who drew the weekend’s largest crowd on Saturday). It’s partly about the overall feel - which in my case was notably enhanced by a booth called Philz Coffee, which served the single strongest brew I’ve encountered in a lifetime of caffeination (Heck, they even threw in a sprig of mint; just so we’d get some vitamins!). They swore that their coffee had hallucinogenic properties, and they were probably right - that circus/burlesque tent with exotic dances and pantomimes performed by women (and a few men) in slinky clown costumes couldn’t really have been there, could it?
And it’s partly about catching the lesser-known bands, who were really the heroes of the event. Many of those had to play for smallish audiences at the Lindley Field, where the scenery was enough to steal your attention from the band. That didn’t faze the Duke Spirit, a young major-label band from London that combined sweet female vocals right out of the Phil Spector tradition with a darker guitar sound that brought vintage Sonic Youth to mind. Singer Liela Moss was loving the surroundings, despite having to play under hot lights in 90-degree weather.
Spotting a few hippie types dancing up front she said, “Thanks for dancing like that - Now I really feel like I‘m in San Francisco!” Also playing for the dancers was Extra Golden, a half-Kenyan, half-US band that made some small headlines last year: When they were booked to play Chicago, the African members of the band had their visas held up until then-Senator Obama stepped in to get them reinstated; their tribute song “Obama” became an underground hit at election time. In any case, their sound mixed African polyrhythms (with a positively superhuman drummer) and jam-band guitar solos - the sort of thing that would be perfect for any world leader’s iPod. And if any of the above bands want another shot at a larger audience…Maybe we can interest you in something called the Rock Band Network?
Between acts I visited our crew at the Rock Band tent, where our intrepid community team was hosting the first large-scale public demo of a little game called The Beatles: Rock Band. And it certainly warmed my heart to see the emotional reaction it was getting. The look of joy I saw on one young guy’s face (probably all of ten or eleven) as he belted out “Can’t Buy Me Love” was enough to remind me why I’m in this business. Harmonix Publicist Alex Navarro pointed out one gentlemen who’d been following the game since we announced it (and probably beforehand), and was getting his first chance to play; and I loved the intent, all-business look he was sporting as he aced “Revolution” on Expert drums. Put it this way: We were just a stone’s throw from the burlesque tent and still drawing healthier crowds, so that must mean we have a hit.