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If his set at Outside Lands was any indication, Beck knows what audiences want. The unclassifiable rocker’s main-stage set was an energetic romp through all his best-known tunes, from classics like “Loser” and “Where It’s At” to new ones like “Gamma Ray” (from the criminally underrated Danger Mouse collab Modern Guilt) and a number of Gueroand Sea Change classics. It was a setlist that sounded like it was devised by a panel of the cross-faded audience members who would otherwise shout the names of the songs into the air, and many of these songs (especially “Loser” and “Golden Age”) were thrilling to see live. Yet I certainly expected an artist with such an extensive and genre-defying oeuvre as Beck to throw in at least a few deep cuts–or at least “Debra.”
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South African crew Die Antwoord came on like the elevator full of blood from the Shining, unleashing trashy multilingual rave-rap and grotesque visuals of indeterminate blood-spurting objects upon a thousands-strong mass of stoners, ravers, and unfortunate souls simply trying to enjoy their sisig tacos. Yo-Landi Vi$$er will still be dancing through my nightmares ten years from now, flaunting her age-indeterminate frame at me while making noises reminiscent of a Japanese schoolgirl impersonating Alan Vega. Yet for all their unapologetic trashiness, their set still felt like a breath of fresh air. This was truly a “who the fuck booked these guys” sort of set, with the band fully taking advantage of the festival setting to presumably scare the shit out of any non-psychopath who hadn’t come to Hellman Hollow specifically to see them perform. Plus, Die Antwoord play the sort of music that was seemingly designed for the festival setting, with massive bass and lyrics that were generally comprehensible when they were sung/rapped in anything even closely resembling English.
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Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra specialize in one thing and one thing only, which you can probably guess by looking at the band’s full name. If their name is any indication, the extremely tight Brooklyn crew are an Afrobeat band for the sake of being one–but at Outside Lands, they played with a fiery energy that went far beyond the simple emulation of classic Fela. If Antibalas wasn’t the most original act at Outside Lands, they were among the most technically adept and certainly one of the most fun.
* * * 1/2
Though they weren’t quite as spectacular as the first time I saw them at the Great American Music Hall in 2011, Washed Out (the most Pitchfork-approved band of the night) were nonetheless excellent, easily adapting their sunny electro-pop to the foggy climes of San Francisco. As with Beck’s, Washed Out’s songs didn’t stray far from their studio versions live–which may have been a good thing, as evidenced by a rather dull, electric piano-driven version of “Feel It All Around” (“the Portlandia song,” as at least one audience member loudly noted).
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I don’t know what about Justice’s set was so underwhelming. They had the visuals in check, with the giant glowing cross and the Marshall stacks and the ‘70s-hard-rock-band attire. With the exception of their unnecessarily drawn-out version of “D.A.N.C.E.,” every song sounded as powerful (if not more so, as was the case with “Civilization”) as on their studio albums. The crowd was completely into it. But for some reason, I left Justice severely wishing I’d listened to my friend’s 50-something dad and gone to see Neil Young instead (and not even because what I could hear of Neil Young was particularly good, though I’m sure his set was amazing). I think the culprit was simply that I didn’t feel like dancing. This is music that must be grooved to to truly be felt, and for whatever reason (excessive food intake, walking around, dancing during previous sets, not being on molly) I felt incapable of doing much more than a wavy dance. (The rating here applies to my experience, not the music, which would merit at least three and a half by itself.)
* * * * 1/2
Prior to the festival I’d only just started getting into Tame Impala’s music, thanks to an earlier recommendation from Handshake’s Sam Forester. The Australian psych-rock outfit’s excellent 2010 album Innerspeaker goes best with a bowl of weed and a snack, and at a festival where the quantity and quality of those two things may be unsurpassed, Tame Impala’s music fit perfectly. But after a few minutes, I forgot all about any peripheral distractions, from the bowl of Indonesian noodles in my hand to the tens of thousands of people making noise around me. Though seeing a band at a festival is generally not an immersive experience as a really good club show can be, no act at Outside Lands (with the exception of Sigur Ros later that night) made me inhabit the music as much as Tame Impala did.
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As with Tame Impala, I saw Father John Misty after a recommendation from a member of Handshake–in this case, Evan Greenwald, who has recommended this particular act’s new album Fear Fun in my search for decent music this year. The solo project of former Fleet Foxes member J. Tillman, Father John Misty was more uptempo and rock-oriented than the harmony-led folk of Tillman’s former band. Even more lively than their grooves was Tillman’s stage presence, which had a certain awkward charisma that suggested he was new to being a frontman and thoroughly enjoying it.
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Big Boi’s set at the Twin Peaks stage at Hellman Hollow felt every bit like a main-stage set, with the Atlanta MC’s larger-than-life personality replacing the Jumbotrons. Though not dressed any more remarkably than the various hypemen onstage, Big Boi completely dominated his set, tongue-twisting his way through OutKast classics and solo cuts alike with power and passion. The best moment by far was “Ms. Jackson”–though Big Boi seemed to go for the nostalgia angle by screening the song’s video in the background, his rhymes were so tight and locked into the groove it was difficult to focus on anything else. Without a doubt the best live hip-hop performance I’ve ever seen.
* * * 1/2
I saw the first half of Metallica’s pyrotechnic-filled set, and though Metallica is an unbelievably tight live band with an obvious flair for performing, their set didn’t thrill me quite as much as it could have, likely for similar reasons as my experience seeing Justice the previous day–I simply wasn’t really into it. ”Master Of Puppets” sounded great, but it didn’t have much more of an effect on me than any time I’ve ever heard it on the radio, even with the benefit of fifty-foot flames shooting into the air from the stage.
Sigur Ros was a different story altogether. The Icelandic band’s set found them using the medium of live performance to augment the scale of their sound, projecting their biggest ideas across a suitably massive space. Throughout their set, it felt as if a bubble had been cast over the stage and the audience, creating an isolated space where everything was reduced to inconsequentiality except for the music itself. The band members themselves were barely visible, mere shadows against the giant projections of organic landscapes that dominated the stage. But nobody came to Sigur Ros’s set just so they could behold Jonsi and company with their very own eyes–the music was, truly, the only thing that mattered.
* * * 1/2
I started Sunday a bit late. There literally wasn’t a single act I knew of or wanted to see until Jack White, so when I arrived I ultimately decided to stay by the main stage and watch Regina Spektor’s set. Though I can’t profess to be a fan of Spektor’s music, it was certainly interesting to witness her music in a live festival setting. The setup was minimal–a cellist, a drummer, a synth player, and Spektor on voice and keys. Yet every note sounded so crystal-clear, every word so effortlessly comprehensible, that it was hard to imagine this was taking place at a festival with over a thousand people in attendance. On the subject of the crowd, the audience at Spektor’s set was among the most diverse of any I witnessed–within a few feet of me, there were joint-passing hippies, an old woman who must have been eighty, a face-painted raver girl on her boyfriend’s shoulders, and a number of people waving inflatable sharks in the air.
Maybe I just didn’t give Jack White a chance, or maybe everyone had already been to his surprise set in the forest earlier, but nothing about the main-stage set by the man hailed by many as the savior of rock n’ roll stood out to me. The sound was sharp and tinny, as if the sound people were trying to replicate a garagey Third Man production, and the session musicians played as if they were boogieing for the first time in their lives. Even “Seven Nation Army,” which can be a behemoth live if the version on the White Stripes’ Under Great White Northern Lights is any indication, sounded flimsy and insubstantial. It was a set that could have rocked tremendously, but for whatever reason, it just didn’t.
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Of all the acts I saw, Stevie Wonder was the only one (aside from Sigur Ros) who thoroughly met my expectations. I came to Stevie’s set expecting a lively, energetic set featuring some of the greatest pop songs ever written, as played by one of the most technically skilled musicians ever to perform popular music. As Wonder is one of maybe four or five currently active artists who might play a show fitting the description, it’s safe to say I got exactly what I came for. All the classics were there, from “Higher Ground” to the earth-moving “Superstition” to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” plus some deep cuts I’d never even heard and a truly moving tribute to Michael Jackson by way of “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Wonder’s voice, keyboards, and band were every bit as funky (and frequently more so) as on record. For two glorious hours, Wonder single-handedly made up for the rest of this comparatively sleepy day and every other less-than-satisying experience I had at the festival.