All right. Let's do this. We are live from the annual three-day, multi-stage West Coast musical bacchanal known as Outside Lands --- the Coachella of San Francisco, if you will, and if you don't mind absurdly chilly temperatures for an outdoor fete in August, for crying out loud. I will be your guide for what went down Friday, a packed lineup featuring Beck, Foo Fighters, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and so forth. Check back all weekend for further dispatches, exclusive videos and so forth. Here is my report.
On the bus heading toward SF's fairly remote Golden Gate Park, I am not quite sure where to disembark, so I decide to simply follow the thirtysomething bearded gentleman in the Cookie Monster T-shirt. This works out OK.
As a flood of iPhone-brandishing young folks enter the Outside Lands compound proper, doleful indie-rocker-approved singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten is there to greet us with a lovely moan of "You're the reason why I'll move to the city/ Or why I'll need to leave," a sentiment that mixes nicely with the pervasive San Francisco afternoon fog, which will conspire all day to make us forget that the sun even exists.
On the main Polo Grounds stage, the Raspiest Bros Award is promptly claimed by local guitar-and-drums duo Two Gallants, garage-busker Bukowski types who howl "Spent last night in Las Cruces jail" in an alarmingly convincing manner. They are affable sorts, though; most likely this is one of their few recent gigs where "Thank you all for being with us this morning" makes remote sense as stage banter. (For rock 'n' roll types, 2 p.m. might as well be 5:30 a.m.)
Surrealist comedian Reggie Watts' magnificent afro is clearly visible from several football fields' worth of thoroughly befuddled spectators away as he rambles on about the high quality of California burritos, loops himself beatboxing over "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," rants about Hollywood ("How many of you guys gonna see the new G.I. Joe movie?"), tells intentionally awful jokes (the giraffe one especially), and unleashes his dazzling Bill Cosby impression. "For being so fat, he's really good at [garbled]," a young lady murmurs to her friend as they flee the scene, and I'm really mad that I missed the second half of that sentence.
A restorative gourmet-mac-and-cheese lunch as Fitz and the Tantrums liven things up with coed hipster-soul bubbliness, elucidating the difference between rich girls (they'll take your heart) and poor girls (they'll take your money). I witness the first bouts of audience dancing not attributable to irony or outsized substance abuse. Rad sax solos, too!
Electro-punk philosopher weirdos Yacht are a revelation on the other main stage (which feels like a mile away from the main main stage, but one has to work off all that mac and cheese somehow), led by crazily charismatic frontlady Claire L. Evans, a sci-fi-movie vision in white, cheerfully warning us of dysoptian ruin to come, brandishing a cowbell. A hula-hooping young lady in the crowd wearing a "Sex, Drugs and Dubstep" T-shirt is super into it.
THE UNIVERSE: "You know, Rob, just to be thorough in your coverage, you'd really better check out "Choco Lands," a cluster of milkshake/cookie/chocolate-dipped popcorn stands nestled deep in the woods so sweet-toothed patrons can conceal their innate sense of shame."
ROB: "Very well."
I stumble across a carnival-style hidden stage, upon which a banjo-brandishing hipster folkie band led by a gregarious redhead is doing an actually quite splendid country-fried version of Sam Cooke's "Bring It on Home to Me." I am also eating chocolate-chip cookies.
Back on a far more prominent stage are The Walkmen, dapper indie-rock barfly types whose woozy records all tend to run together for me, but in person rattle and hum and howl and project deep into the woods like a better-dressed U2. "Remember, remember/ All we fight for," moans frontman Hamilton Leithauser, and I nod, still eating chocolate-chip cookies.
It's Beck! Up earlier than you might expect! And in an Odelay mood early on -- faithful, muscular, not particularly goofy versions of "Devil's Haircut," "Novacane," "Where It's At" later. He's a bit more energized by a cover of Bob Dylan's "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," though he omits my favorite line ("I saw you making love to him/ You forgot to close the garage door"), but then he does "Hotwax" and includes my favorite line ("Silver foxes lookin' for romance/ With the chain-smoke Kansas flashdance ass pants"). He sings, "I'm a loser baby/ So why don't you kill me" with as much conviction as you could possibly expect him to muster in 2012.
Getting colder. There's a Jim Shepherd short story about a wayward Victorian explorer who leads a huge expedition across the Great Australian Desert, expecting to find the ocean any second now, and so sure of it that he's actually hauling a giant whaleboat around to set sail once he gets there. They're hundreds of miles from the coast; it doesn't end well. This is roughly analogous to how dumb I feel, thinking that I needed to take sunblock to this thing.
If you're the kind of person who needs someone to "win" these sorts of festivals, I nominate as your victor Of Monsters and Men, Icelandic shout-along coed folk-rockers who command one of the largest and definitely the most rapturous crowd of the day, especially when they launch into their big hit, "Little Talks," every "HEY!" punctuated by a couple thousand pumped fists. Probably the most enthusiastic response I've ever seen to a live trumpet solo, too.
The Foo Fighters are raging through "My Hero" on the main stage, an excellent song I just assume they're dedicating to me as I walk in the opposite direction, so as to catch righteous Afrobeat crew Antibalas a half-mile away, barely all fitting on the quite large stage, the horn section going full blast. Two rail-thin white dudes, both wearing overalls, square-dance in front of me -- I am no longer bothering trying to distinguish irony from sincerity. "Rat Race" is awesome.
Back with the Foos in time for "Best of You," which is their best song, so good on them, and sorry about earlier.
Our dance-music-obsessed intern swore up and down that wily DJ upstart Justin Martin would be the best artist here; to see him requires waiting in line for a Heineken-sponsored enclosed spacelab-looking geodesic dome-type structure, the bass rattling ominously, punctuated by conspicuous blasts of what I have no choice but to hope is just stage fog. Multiple strangers approach and demand to know what we're all waiting for; I can't think of another way to say it than "the Heineken EDM bio-dome thing," an explanation that satisfies no one. Inside, I age 10 years in 15 minutes.
Battle of the headliners! In this corner we've got Neil Young and Crazy Horse launching into a 20-minute "Love and Only Love," as surly and rousing as ever - something about the way Neil bashes his electric guitar makes you forget that you ever though the electric guitar was played-out and boring. The "OOOOOH" backup vocals on "Powderfinger" are very possibly the best thing ever.
Ah, but all the youngins have opted instead for Justice, the shameless French arena-EDM duo who appear to have more Marshall stacks than Neil, if you can believe it, and also the most elaborate light show of the day by orders of magnitude. (The giant lit-up cross is a confusing image, maybe on purpose.) Their own personal "Rockin' in the Free World" is called "D.A.N.C.E.," and though it's a way too crowded now to do much more than S.T.A.N.D. T.H.E.R.E., everyone's awe is palpable. "Seems like things are changing," Neil sings as the night rages on, perhaps a little nervously, and though he's not wrong, it's worth noting that he's still louder.