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Big thanks to Cassandra, KZSC’s guest columnist for covering the 2012 Outside Lands Festival.


by Cassandra Cronin

Enter the wooded field of San Francisco’s largest urban park between the dates of August 10th through the 12th, and if you haven’t already lost your footing on a tangle of roots under the eucalyptus leaves, you’ve sunk into a populous sea amassed by myriad music enthusiasts and (presumably) compostable cups.
A landscape muted by coastal fog, Golden Gate Park stands to be the obvious choice for one of the city’s favorite annual music and art festivals, boasting over 1000 acres of topographic artistry and a vast enclave of conifer trees suited to enshroud even the most elusive of attendees. As per usual with the chaos of any jam-packed festival schedule, it was impossible to bear witness to every act. Fans were plagued by a woefully misguided overlap of common favorites, be it Friday’s simultaneous performances by Beck and Tennis, or worse still, Saturday’s The Kills and Thee Oh Sees.

In light of these letdowns, I chose to outline only a few of the outstanding performances of the weekend that may have flown under the radar, leaving the obvious crowd favorites, ie. Jack White and Stevie Wonder, for your own YouTubing pleasure.

Amidst the inglourious throngs of stoners and stone-throwers, there was a path, and it lead me first to YACHT, a two-piece outfit consisting of auteur Jona Bechtolt of Portland, Oregon, and vocalist Claire Evans of Marfa, Texas. YACHT, a self-proclaimed “Band, Belief System, and Business” seeking the “undifferentiated collective experience”, plays like a B-52’s reunion in the International Space Station, anthemic in its synth-soaked mantras and blatant in its anarchic sonic progression. Opening songs “Paradise Engineering” and “Beam Me Up” are often reminiscent of disaffected 60’s youth culture, smelling heavily of teen spirit in their execution – Evans’ vocals leave an unrefined impression of a young Siouxsie Sioux or Kate Pierson, and the electro-pop hooks might as well have been lifted from the catalog of the minimalist no-wave duo Suicide.

That said, the set showed like a matinee on the moon, gracefully hosted by highly intelligent extraterrestrials and completed with a informative powerpoint on the origins and utopian message behind YACHT, and its goals towards establishing a temporary autonomous zone where both its creators and audience may come together and party. This is a message we would not hesitate to get on board and lift off with.

Next in line was the poprocks and coke of the afternoon shows, the ever-present alt monolith Beck, who warmed the fog-encased bodies with an onslaught of crowd favorites, opening with “Black Tambourine” and a James Brown’ed take of “Devil’s Haircut”, all the while enjoying the sartorial bliss of stonewashed designer jeans and a careful display of enthusiasm behind signature blues brother shades. “Novacane” and “Loser” were delivered with all the fervor and precision of Lowell George on slide guitar — impeccable, adaptable, and steeped in heavy metallic ooze.
By the time he got through a bass-heavy rendition of “Soul of a Man”, I had gotten to thinking to myself – what makes it? The integrity of Beck’s performance was structured upon indifference cooler than the coastal breeze, clean riffs (think Mark Knopfler circa Dire Straits) and even cleaner leather, and above all, covers of Bob Dylan’s “Leather Skinned Pillbox Hat” and Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” that were crushed like a cigarette under razorblade shoes.
Sophomoric disillusionment has never transitioned so smoothly, all with the classic rock sensibility that reaches new heights when coupled with Beck’s groovy, soaring harmonics and absolute command of every aspect of his performance – stuttering bass, juxtaposed moog rock and downtempo jazz lines, and a refreshing aftertaste. Treated.

Following this masterful sonic shakedown was a loud rehash of the Foo Fighters’ youthful arena rock catalogue, maestroed by lead singer Dave Grohl and dredged out with all the blood, sweat, and manly tears that one would expect from the former Nirvana drummer. However, the high-energy performance was largely obscured by the looming shadow of one the festival’s most highly anticipated headliners, the legendary Neil Young & Crazy Horse. The opening ten-minute jam “Love and Only Love”, a superficial lesion on the surface of Young’s erratic repertoire, led into what was to be a very repetitious rendition of “Powderfinger”, during which little or no eye contact or engagement was made between the band and the crowd, a cavalier move for any seasoned musician with such a celebrated collection of songs.

With such a lack of dynamism, the performance fell flat and I chose to meander to Justice for a little crunchy electronic revival. The elaborate moving A/V, dual platforms, and LED backlit props including their signature Cross was a total revelation and rang prophetic of a hour-long conversation with big guns upstairs himself. Highlights included (but not limited to) the breathless desperation behind “Stress”, the breakneck groove “Waters of Nazareth”, and of course the glorious canticles suited only for a cathedral on the moon, “We Are Your Friends (You Will Never Be Alone)” and “D.A.N.C.E.”. A sweating, screaming mass of ravers and crowd surfers never felt so divine.

“Is that the band name right there?” Joshua Tillman asks his formidable crowd on day two of the festival, directing our attention to the Panhandle Stage blackboard printed with his newest moniker, Father John Misty; “It should say Metallica.” Formerly known as J. Tillman of Fleet Foxes, Tillman’s was friendly face amidst a sea of nemo in the early afternoon haze. Tillman and his bandmates appeared in a tribal collage of colorful ponchos, bleached thrift-store tees, and leggings that would have brought the Hubble Space Telescope to shame. Tillman’s new material, however, encompassed little of the totemic desert garb – rather than a soft acoustic ponderance and industrial-age pipe dreams circa J. Tillman’s Vacilando Territory Blues, Fear Fun (2012) characterizes a more confident, booming-voiced Tillman musing over the grandeur and glitter of his Bowiesque alter ego and resulting rise to fame. This turnaround from timid to triumphant can most clearly be recognized in “Only Son of the Ladiesman” and “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”, within Father John Misty sets off for the Pacific coast, armed with a stack of weird fuzz folk LPs and a month’s supply of hallucinogens, chronicling his misadventures in Hollywood with all the command and declarative force of a gospel choir. An amusing, hopeful, albeit misanthropic collage of stories from the city and stories from the sea.

My exploratory phase of the day was thence over in pursuit of bigger names, the day’s headliners being the visceral, ever-sanguine alt-rock rarity, the Kills, and the beloved Icelandic experimental post-rock suit Sigur Rós. Both delivered nothing short of their usual devastating performances, of which highlights included a tension-building opener “No Wow” and the heavy-hitting title track from Blood Pressures (2012) “Future Starts Slow”, and the driving, aurally dynamic explosives “Saeglópur” and “Hafsól”, respectively.
The Kills hammered out material old and new with a larger-than-life stadium rock presence, carefully subverted with a tug-o-war between teeth-baring theatrics and garage punk classicism, while Sigur Rós sinuously weaved in and out of their trademark sparkling atmospherics and driving percussive post-rock sensibility, bearing the torch of their latest 8-track steamroller (literally, Valtari translates to just that), inching towards sonic oblivion and at the last second lifting you away from the edge in minor-key dissolution.

I ended my note-taking that day with the knowledge that Mr.’s White and Wonder would invariably dominate my Sunday schedule and that little time would be spent pen in hand, knowing full well that anything I could say about either artist has been said or written before and likely will be again. So in lieu of going into depth about their sets, I compiled a small list of video links for you to enjoy below (or relive, depending on your coordinates that weekend). Reason being, in the surprisingly poignant words of YACHT’s artistic credo, “creative output is powerless without contact with a spectators, who complete the creative act and brings it into contact with the world by registering its existence and interpreting its value.” Surrounded by spectators and immersed in constant observation, a performance is easily overwhelmed by the expectations imposed upon it by the crowd.

What made Outside Lands 2012 memorable wasn’t it’s star-spangled lineup or swirling milieu of drugs, dance, and general debauchery, it was its perfect juxtaposition of young music lovers awashed in the cold light of coastal midday over a fluid progression of alternatives to the traditional humdrum of radio-friendly pop music, powerfully ebbing and flowing in a continuum, like the tides just two miles west.