Saturday In The Park (I Think It Was The 13th Of August) **UPDATED
I tend to avoid big festivals but I will admit that I DO go to the GG park every October for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, financier Warren Hellman’s FREE festival which, true to its name, is only very slightly about bluegrass music. Spoiled by the free-ness of that festival, and probably spoiled by the comp culture of being a journalist and musician, I find it hard to spend the money on big package tickets for PAY Festivals like Outside Lands. Still, the rewards are there, tons of bands, spending a day outdoors, and food on sticks. Yep. It’s like the Iowa Caucus with music to rock us. No fried butter though.
When I saw that The Roots were appearing at this years festival, I made a note that I should very much like to groove in “the glow of their majestic presence” (to borrow a phrase from They Might Be Giants). But being a spoiled, entitled freebie hog, I politely asked my friend Steven Mandel, who works with the Roots on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, if I could squeeze in just for their set. After a bit of wrangling, Steven came through (thanks man). But while I was waiting, I heard that another Twitter acquaintance of mine, the brilliant comedian Paul F. Tompkins, was also appearing that day. So I hedged my bets by asking him as well. He also came through, which was super nice in that we’d never actually met before and this was an awfully sweet leap of faith and generosity.
After a traffic hassle on the drive to Golden Gate park, and a huge pedestrian jam at the gates, I entered the Outside Lands area. It was like a circus, with tents and amusements and food, food, food. Although, this being the Bay Area, there were several upscale wine merchants tents and booths showcasing Napa vintages.
I suddenly heard the strains of OKGo in mid-set. They were as awesome as ever, and I hadn’t even come to hear them, didn’t even know they were on the bill. Sweet.
I bought lunch/dinner at the Asqew Grill booth that was serving Thai BBQ Beef over Jasmine Rice (8 dollars) and picked up a Sprite (a rare, for me, sugary soda) which was a whopping 4 dollars. Still, they both did the trick and after the hassle getting to and in, I was finally enjoying myself.
As I was eating, my ears picked up something really great floating over from the Sutro Stage. It was Vetiver.
To be honest, I’d only ever heard a couple of things by them before, but everything I heard on Saturday made me believe that they are a fine, fine group. They played with the confident maturity of a band twice their age, evoking a kind of slow-motion version of Wilco. I am sold, I will pursue this band further.
I bumped into Owen Biddle, bass player from the Roots, walking through the grounds with Jonathan Cohen, the man who books all the amazing musical acts for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Jonathan’s booking skills have made him sort of a hero to me, and he’s a nice guy too. I told them that I couldn’t wait to see The Roots set, later on the Twin Peaks stage, and let them go about their business.
[UPDATE: In my haste to post this on Monday, I neglected to mention Arctic Monkeys]
While looking around I noticed that Arctic Monkeys were already well into their set, so I walked toward the stage in time to hear a few songs. They have never sounded better and, while they may not be front of mind to a lot of people, they are quietly becoming a classic live band. Alex Turner is as impressive as ever, and they’re still playing the song that started it all for them, “I Bet You Look Good on The Dance Floor”, as though it was their new single. It occurred to me that “Dancefloor” is to Arctic Monkeys, what “Rock Lobster” was to the B-52’s, a timeless debut single that never seems to wear out its welcome.
Here’s a photo of Alex Turner, looking very “Beatles Hamburg era”, which I nabbed from The Audio Pervwebsite (which you should totally check out) taken by photographer Marcello Ambriz, who is also awesome. (I’ll take it down if you want, guys).I was looking for Paul F. Tompkins, mainly to apologize to him for missing his set, due to all the frustrating delays in entering the grounds. As it happened, I had just missed his 3 pm show. I started tweeting him and walked toward the Sutro Stage where The Old 97s were starting.
While I’ve never actually met Rhett Miller of the Old 97s, he’s also a Twitter pal and we have a ton of actual mutual friends like Jon Brion, Tom DeSavia and Craig Northey. I really loved their set, loose and swaggering in all the right places, with that tumbling quality of an Irish dance hall band or the vaguely drunk sound of vintage Replacements, only twangier. I kept checking to see if Paul was gonna respond on Twitter, when I noticed that he had just tweeted a picture of The Old 97s in action. His view of the stage was almost identical to my view of the stage. I turned around and there was Paul F. Tompkins! We’d never met before, only chatted online, but hey, I know what he looks like from TV and he at least recognized me from my Twitter avatar pic. We shook hands and I handed him a copy of my Todd Rundgren book, which he accepted although I’m not really sure if he really wanted it. (He has since told me he’s reading it and enjoying it, so that’s nice.) Then I took this picture:
We chatted some, and then both laughed, in a delighted and decidedly non-spiteful way, at this dude dancing:
Then I bid him adieu and made my way over to the Twin Peaks stage.
The Roots were incendiary.
Drummer, leader (and commanding presence) Questlove slammed down the beats, funk over funk, coupled with slabs of big funk bass from my new friend Owen, who covered more bass than ever as tuba player Tuba Gooding, Jr’s horn valve had been damaged in transit, so he had to sit out the gig. They played original Roots tunes. Singer/Rapper Black Thought (a/k/a Tariq Trotter) barked with rhythmic authority while flash guitarist (Captain) Kirk Douglas was all flash and dexterity on his sunburst Les Paul, wailing impressive melodies over the funk soup. They covered Guns N Roses at one point, then broke into an urgent cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Bottle” in tribute to the fallen poet.
After the show, I was just going to split when I noticed Owen walking amid the crowd, looking for someone. He told me that his folks were there and that they were all heading over to the big stage to see Muse. We found his parents, two very delightful and hip people, and walked toward the pulsing and glowing Muse stage, which looked like a space ship landing in a farmer’s field.
I have to admit, having only seen the band on TV, I had never really warmed to them. I always thought that Matt Bellamy sang with far too much of the kind of histrionic affectation inherent in Midge Ure of Ultravox (think “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes”) and my take on their overall sound was lots of bombast signifying nothing. Yeah, I know, I can be harsh sometimes. Anyway, I kind of take some of that back, because in the flesh, standing before one of the most beautiful stages I’ve seen in a while — all neons, hexagon screens, platforms and Ikea microphone stands (kidding about the Ikea part) — the music really makes sense. It’s like the pomp of, say, Rush with the Indie emotion and longform pop songs of a Radiohead. It kinda works, and hey they’re huge right?
After the show, me and Owen and his parents, made our way out of the park, walking and walking and walking until we were very tired of walking. (Note to Outside Lands, next year MORE public transit to get people out of the GG park area, okay?)
My feet and calves were killing me when I finally got back to Berkeley but, all in all, it was nice day in the park.