(all photos by Christopher Victorio)
Don't expect much. No one with an iota of common sense would attend a music festival after being struck by the snarling combination of African Sleeping Sickness/Mono/Ricketts/Gout/Scurvy that waylaid me for a full two weeks of misery and and continues to leave my left leg swollen and tubby as though it belonged to William Howard Taft. After one half-day of Outside Lands, my knees are wailing like banshees, the cartilage attenuated and frail, my calves feel like a madman autopsist got to play slice and dice and this coffee that I'm drinking is weak and dirty and nowhere near providing me with the jolt of energy that I need to spin out this gibberish before 10:00 a.m. Gadzooks.
I have no one but myself to blame. But what are you supposed to do when the plane tickets are booked and the press credentials secured and Radiohead and Beck are playing back-to-back on Friday night? Of course, you go, even if you're walking like a zombie in the Thriller video and are sporting a devil's haircut received last week that's left you wishing you had an 80s Jacko jheri curl instead. So despite this tenuous condition, I found myself limping up the hill to Outside Lands last night, under the slate-colored San Francisco sky, one of those cold, clammy bay area nights, full of thin, penetrant fog and 60,000 people swarming ant-like in every direction through San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.
Give the Outside Lands organizers credit. Few places in the world make for a better venue than the 1,000 acre verdant sprawl of Golden Gate Park, site of dozens of hippie love-ins and a place that the moment you enter has you stifling the almost insatiable urge to start making jokes about the usage of the words “groovy” and “far out,” and of course, the Scott McKenzie-sanctioned desire to start rambling about “wearing some flowers in your hair.” I didn't see anyone with flowers in their hair last night. As far as crowds go, this one was decidedly normal. Not the hipster hordes of Pitchfork. Not the hippy haven of Bonnaroo. Not the LA sleaze of Coachella. Just normal, decent-seeming people, willing to go completely Escape From New York, the moment it appeared that the Woodstock '99-sized security staff wasn't looking. Indeed, yesterday, the vibe was mildly anarchic, with people alternately wantonly hopping the fence into the VIP section and breaking down the frail, chain-link fences to create alternate, impromptu paths through the park, over fallen trees, up slippery dirt hills, not the sort of thing fit for a half-incapacited journalist just getting over a Bubonic escapade.
Beck: “I Did The Robot One Too Many Times and Look What Happened”
But like I said, Beck and Radiohead back-to-back, with Wilco slated for Sunday. Had the organizers thrown Belle & Sebastian into the mix and re-animated Elliott Smith and Kurt Cobain from their graves, they could've had a shot at getting all of the premier 90s rock genius' in one three-day swoop. Alas, reclaiming people from Hades is a bit much to ask of a festival organizer. After all, Stevie Winwood is playing this afternoon and I'm afraid that's the closest we're going to get. I mean he did die once or twice between Traffic and “Higher Love,” right?
Back to the music, right, the music. Once I finally got my bearings in this massive, labyrinth, spread out across six stages and innumerable VIP areas, double-top secret VIP areas and the hand-crafted throne of skulls that serves as Radiohead's trailer, I caught the final few songs of Britain's great reggae group Steel Pulse. Steel Pulse is the ideal outfit to kick off a festival like this, a mellow energy (despite the heavy, politicized nature of their catalog), great tunes, the right sort of act to spark that first joint of the weekend. Of course, with the sky the color of spit and that mean San Francisco wind barking in your ears, Steel Pulse's spliff on da' beach lilt seemed a bit misplaced, though they certainly sounded excellent.
Navigating from stage-to-stage is a bitch, so I lamentably missed the chance to catch Vancouver sludge-psych masters, Black Mountain and Angeleno favorites, The Cold War Kids, in favor of snagging a good spot for Beck, whose new album, the 60s pysch-oriented Modern Guilt, is probably my favorite thing that he's done since Sea Changes. It's nowhere near a perfect album, there seems something a bit soulless and robotic to it, the work of a prodigiously talented craftsman on auto-pilot, capable of churning out great song after great song as though it seemingly took no effort. Yet removed from the context of “another Beck album in 2008,” it's probably better than almost any guitar rock album made this year, even if it is a little dull and lacking in joie de vivre.
Krang: A Huge Fan of “Devil's Haircut”
But that seems to be the Beck we're getting these days, at least if his Outside Lands set was any indication. I had the opportunity to catch Beck once in his Midnite Vultures incarnation and there's really no comparison between the two. That Beck was an animal: writhing, preening, swaggering, splaying himself across a gigantic bed-on stage, selling you on the theater, a weird blend of irony and id that made for one of the best showmen I'd ever seen. This boring black-hat, black suit Beck just sings his songs, polite, timid, and competent, as though he were being controlled by Krang. The set-list hewed heavily to material from his last three albums, though he threw in “Loser,” “Devil's Haircut” and a cover of Dylan's “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat,” and I can't say that it wasn't a “good set.” At this point in his career, Beck has too many lights-out, incredible songs to do anything less than that but there was something missing, something flat and with about 15 minutes left in his set, things grew so dull that I bailed in an effort to beat the fierce flood of people steady mobbing it to Radiohead.
So this Radiohead band. As Randall Roberts said in the latest edition of the Weekly, there just ain't all that much to say about these guys anymore. And even if there was, I probably wouldn't be the ideal guy to say it. See, a little confession here, I've never been a big Radiohead fan. During the 90s, when The Bends kick-started their world-beating streak, I was buried in a pile of Source magazines, Maxell tapes full of Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang and Maurice Malone shirts (don't ask). Liking an effete, whiny, British band was the furthest thing from my mind. Give me Liquid Swords any day long, the cold world manifesting itself in shogun decapitations and the GZA's rugged slang, no need for that karma police prattling. In recent years, I've grown to respect Radiohead a great deal. I own all the albums you're supposed to own and I like each of them, but out of any of the bands I consider great, I don't think there's another one I actively want to listen to less than Radiohead.
Shiny, Happy People
This parodox was on display during the band's nearly two hour long set on Friday night (see set-list here). I can't say that it wasn't a great set. Few bands have ever been more innovative than Radiohead and even fewer have amassed such a deep discography. There wasn't a dud song in their entire performance (save for some sound problems that marred things at times) and Thom Yorke is certainly a passionate performer, whipping his neck back in anguish, staggering around with a sprightly, elfin hop, letting that celestial howl slice through the billowing layers of fog. At this point in their career, Radiohead are consummate professionals, flawless in their execution, you just can't sweat the technique.
So yes, at times, you'd look up at the dirt-blue sky beginning to blend to black, then affix your eyes towards the soft purple glow of the light floating from the stage, then close them and just listen to the stuttering guitars and patient, prodding drums and Yorke's heavenly wail and think that it doesn't get better than this. But as good as I think they are and as much as I appreciate them, I will never love Radiohead. For me, their sound will always be a little chilly, a little too hermetic and serpentine. This isn't about whether they're brilliant or not. They obviously are, but to me, Radiohead will always feel like a tank full of beautiful, exotic, tropical fish, dazzling to look at and consider, but ultimately, I'll always prefer a dog or a cat, maybe a bit more mundane and simple, but warm-blooded and amiable.
Thing is, Thom Yorke could turn a sing-a-long of “Happy Birthday” into a lugubrious dirge and while there's something to be said about that, after an hour and a half, I'd had enough. It didn't help matters that my legs felt fit for amputation and my blissed-out Southern Californian naivete failed to pack appropriately for the cold. Wanting no part of an exit strategy that had 60,000 people about to throng the un-prepared mass transit system, I ducked out before the encore, hopping onto the most crowded bus I've ever been on, complete with a Goliath-like sociopath with a Dillbert tatoo on his neck and a pair of giant eyes tatted the back of his bald pate. He threatened to kill anyone who dared cross his path, at least six people, including several recent Asian immigrants who didn't speak a lick of English. Just like the karma police, they're never there when you need them.