Golden Gate Park
San Francisco, CA
August 14, 2010
Outside Lands: Furthur, Cat Power, My Morning Jacket, Levon Helm Band
Outside Lands: Due to a fancy bit of ticket bartering, I was able to finagle a VIP pass for the Outside Lands music festival in Golden Gate Park. And believe me, VIP is the way to go. In addition to separate food and drink concessions, there was a plush lounge area with massage chairs and a view of the main stage. There was also a separate viewing area that allowed me to get quite close to the stage without having to camp out for hours in advance. Oh, and the most luxurious port-a-johns that I’ve ever peed in- they smelled like licorice. Still this could not quite compensate for the general unpleasantness of the summer music festival scene. It’s amazing that these festivals continue to sprout up in and around every major metropolitan area in the US. The promise of these festivals always, always outweighs the reality. There were the drunken louts bouncing off their unfortunate neighbors, grossly overpriced food and drink and at least one crappy band for each that I wanted to see. Certainly hiking back and forth and back and forth from stage to stage was tiring, as was standing for hours and hours. The two main stages were close to a ½ mile apart which meant that I easily hiked 2 miles in addition to standing for 7 hours. But there were some redemptive musical moments:
Furthur: This was not one of the redemptive musical moments. The last time MV&R checked in with the remnants of the Grateful Dead, now calling themselves “Furthur,” I was pleasantly surprised at the quality and energy of the show. Not so much this time around. It could have been the weariness of having trudged around the Outside Lands grounds already for the previous 7 hours or it could have been that, with a large screen, I could easily see that I don’t know these people on stage any longer. There are only two members left of the original Grateful Dead and though their performance was passable, it struck me more as a nostalgia act than ever before. Part of the enduring power of the Grateful Dead, despite their ready association with the 1960s, was their ability to constantly reinvent their music. The Grateful Dead was never the Beach Boys turning out California Girls the exact same over and over. However, this time I felt that the band was missing its soulful leader and while Jerry Garcia’s replacement, John Kadlicek, sounds and plays like Jerry, it’s not the same. The Polo field grounds, where I once saw the actual Grateful Dead perform to 100,000 people, was barely a third full. And that about says it all.
Cat Power: Given the bland and uninspired performance by Furthur, I regretted having left Cat Power midway through her set to hike from one end of Outside Lands to the other. Although Cat Power has developed a reputation for erratic performances, she can really sing. She is Chan Marshall. And it was quite a pleasure to listen to her minimalist, bluesy arrangements that highlighted her breathy but sultry voice. Cat Power has a bedroom voice and is highly regarded for her unique covers of classic rock songs like Space Oddity, Wonderwall and Satisfaction. If you listen to these, you’ll surely recognize her distinctive sound which can be found frequently on TV shows, commercials and feature movies. Though I think much of the crowd was there for The Strokes (who I missed), Cat Power deserves her own audience and I hope that she comes back to the Bay Area at a small venue. Her intimate music needs a more private setting.
My Morning Jacket: Probably the best performance of the four acts that I saw. My Morning Jacket is a critic’s favorite but worthy of much of the attention they get, even if, at times, the music seems to tend more toward atmospherics than, say, an actual melody. Perhaps, they listen to Coldplay too much. Still, this was probably the best performance of Outside Lands both as a result of and despite of the antics of frontman, Jim James. During two songs, James sang with a royal blue towel over his head that covered his face and which came off as more bizarre than ‘artistic.’ But he has an amazingly expressive voice and can be mesmerizing to watch sing with his bushy beard and tremulous alto voice. He is definitely a major talent. Although MMJ always seems to be on the verge of a major commercial breakthrough, they assiduously avoid it - opting instead to maintain their indie cred and build an audience one fan at a time. Well, after their performance at Outside Lands, they have at least one more fan. Check out clips and tunes here and here and here. And here for a high quality video of their first song at Outside Lands.
Levon Helm Band: The Levon Helm Band started their performance with “Ophelia” and “The Shape I’m In,” two classic songs from Levon's time with The Band. Levon was joined by a large band with a full horn section. If Britney Spears and American Idol represent everything bad about American music, Levon Helm represents everything that is good about American music. You would be hard-pressed to find a more authentic American voice than Levon Helm. When listening to Levon Helm and/or The Band, I feel like I’m spending a summer weekend in the mountains, drinking beer on the deck with friends that come and go. Much like Bob Dylan, but in a more down-home, country way, The Band’s music and Levon Helm’s performance connect in both a personal and universal way at the same time. Listening to the Levon Helm Band sing “The Weight,” made me feel like we are all in this together and together, we’ll all get by. Check out Jim James from My Morning Jacket singing The Weight with Levon Helm Band. (without the blue towel)