In the decade or so since destination festivals have become in vogue, the massive, multi-day events have essentially been split into two concurrent trends: a huge, megaband undertaking many miles from any metropolis, creating an air of can-do survivilism and how-do-you-do camping (see: Bonnaroo, Coachella), and its closely related cousin, which occurs mid-city, creating a temporary artsy oasis in the midst of skyscrapers and commerce (Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits). Leave it to San Francisco to bridge the gap, though: At the third edition of the Outside Lands festival this past weekend in Golden Gate Park, both urban and urbane seemed the words of the day, thanks to a gorgeous setting that appeared to be a clearing mid-forest, though it was actually a mere mile or so walk inland from the city's rolling hills.
Downsizing to two days and dropping two stages ended up being a blessing for the fest--gone were gripes of midday bottlenecks and massive traffic jams, replaced by scheduling that offered fewer how-the-hell-do-you-choose overlaps than other competitors, offering up the ability for fans to actually make it to see nearly every band on the bill. (And if by some chance you still missed your favorite, plenty played in clubs at night: Jim James and Phil Lesh sat in with Levon Helm at a small club show on Friday, while DJ Pretty Lights lived up to his name at the Independent on Saturday, blasting a packed crowd with LCDs and a remix of DJ Jazzy Jeff &the Fresh Prince's classic "Summertime.") That meant that those who turned up for the Strokes on day one not only saw their scruffy heroes confidently plow through modern classics like "Last Night" and "Hard To Explain" on a futuristic, lighting-strewn set, but could catch the beginning of Furthur's headlining set, which featured the surviving members of the Grateful Dead not only noodling through "Cassidy," but playing a strong, anthematic rendition of Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon classic, "Breathe."
Despite the headliner's hippy rep, the earlier part of the day was all about the rock, initally delivered by festival stalwarts My Morning Jacket, who played a somewhat subdued set despite ragers like "Highly Suspicious," concentrating on thoughtful, high-reaching songs like "Gideon" and the slow-burning new song "Circuital," which suggests that frontman Jim James may've spent much of the last year studying the Arcade Fire, then putting his learnings to good use.
That left Australia's Wolfmother to pick up the guitar-shredding slack, which they did--handily. Delivering a surprising fest highlight, frontman Andrew Stockdale was positively assaultive, shredding both windmilling power-chords and wheedlilee-deedilee solos with frightening verve and efficiency. Covers of "Riders On The Storm" and "Baba O' Riley" were as captivating as originals like "Woman," which led to mosh-pitting, head-banging, and heavy sweating--necessary for fans who were trying to sober up after visits to Wine Land, a unique, bistro-like tent pouring swills of area vino (food also trumped traditional fest fare, with vendors doling out everything from seaweed-wrapped Korean tacos to deliciously breaded fried calamari).
Though the second day's headliners, Kings Of Leon, certainly were the festival's biggest draw, with the field packed from front to back for the Followill family's gritty rock (finally ready for the big time after years of being second-rate live, thanks to well-edited black-and-white video screens, a monster wall of lights, and--most importantly--a singer who actually appears to connect rather than be passive as he plays). But KOL were nonetheless overshadowed performance-wise by a pair of larger-than-life acts who're swiftly becoming major draws in their own right.
The first was L.A.'s Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes, who first made a national impression at Coachella and have become the must-see band of this year's festival blitz. Frontman Alex Ebert was still a mystical talent, clad in ratty threads to match his ratty dreads, yet approachable as he swam through the audience, leading the throng in a singalong on the set opener, "40 Day Dream," and singing wistfully to his (ex?) girlfriend/co-singer Jade Castrinos on this summer's massive indie hit "Home." If music's supposed to make you feel connected to something bigger, then the Magnetic Zeroes proved they're the conduit to that connection.
On the opposite side of spectacle was tremendous newcomers Empire Of The Sun, playing against Kings Of Leon and thus witnessed by a comparatively small crowd--ironic, as their set was as larger-than-life as it gets. Using tricks weaned from artists like David Bowie, the Flaming Lips, Pet Shop Boys, and Muse, Aussie singer/songwriter Luke Steele (formerly of the straightahead rockers Sleepy Jackson) created a glammy future-rock complete with flamboyant headdresses (seriously!), double-rainbow psych visuals (totally seriously!), and dancers dressed like sexy swordfish (no, seriously.) It was an absolutely mind-altering set, leaving many in the field feeling disoriented; good thing they had a half-hour walk to take 'til there was any semblance they were in the real world, after all.