Outside Lands Festival 2012 – Looking Back: Metallica, Sigur Ros, Dr. Dog, Alabama Shakes, The Kills, Norah Jones, Grandaddy

Through the thick fog, a festival goer emerges with a flag as the crowd settles in for Stevie Wonder's set

The 5th annual Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival of 2012 will likely be remembered for two main things: the amazing line-up of artists and bands, and the entrenched, thick fog accompanied by relentless chilly winds. Yet, in the end, the music won over Nature, hands down.

The festival’s closing show Sunday night by the legendary Stevie Wonder drew a crowd of some 65,000 fans who sang, danced and partied for the two-hour set in San Francisco‘s green oasis, Golden Gate Park. Read more about Sunday’s performances, and watch HD live videos from Wonder and Jack White. Also, don’t miss our pre-festival playlist and schedule.

Although Outside Lands 2012 is over, festival goers are likely still absorbing the three days of fantastic performances by world famous artists and popular, new bands. And there was also the amazing selection of high-priced food and drinks (still expensive, but good by festival standards), hours and hours of walking and standing, navigating through huge crowds of people, dancing and partying with friends, and, yes, dealing with the gloomy, windy cold weather.

On Saturday, Day Two of Outside Lands, headliners included Metallica and Sigur Ros, The Kills, Norah Jones and Passion Pit, among others. Read more about the headliners further down in this post.

The early noon to mid-afternoon sets on Day Two included performances from popular indie bands such as Yellow Ostrich, Tame Impala, Animal Kingdom, Geographer, Father John Misty, Portugal The Man, and Alabama Shakes.

The crowds are usually always thinner in the early afternoon hours, which is a benefit to indie music junkies because most of the indie bands played before 4pm when the crowds really started to flood into the park for the late afternoon and evening headliners. Plus, arriving early (first show was at lunch time) meant there were more choices of spots in front of, or near, the stage, better overall sound quality, and shorter lines to buy food and drinks or use the blue and gray porta-potties.

Alabama Shakes, Explosions in the Sky, The Kills, Norah Jones and Passion Pit

Yet by 3 pm, the crowds started to quickly thicken as thousands of people entered Golden Gate Park via its numerous nooks and crannies for the later afternoon and evening sets. Such was the case with the wildly popular Alabama Shakes, a quickly rising quartet, headed by Brittany Howard, who have gained a fairly large following in the past year thanks largely to their enthusiastic style of Muscle Shoals blues rock accompanied by Howard’s terrificly unique voice, which has often been compared to Janis Joplin. After starting off with “Goin’ to the Party,” the band played their best known song, “Hold On.” That song is the one that really launched AS into the spotlight. The band performed 11 rousing blues rock tracks at Outside Lands, including “Hang Loose,” “Heartbreaker,” “Boys and Girls,” and the closer, “Heavy Chevy.”

“Hold On” – Alabama Shakes from Boys and Girls via ATO Records (track via KEXP)

Following Alabama Shakes, we headed over to the Lands End stage to catch Explosions in the Sky, who delivered a predictable set of jam-filled esoteric guitar rock that would have been more fitting for a warm, starry night with a color-saturated light show, but in the cold fog of San Francisco, it doesn’t work as well. People need to keep moving to stay warm, and much of EITS’s songs lean towards ‘play at bedtime’ music.

Still, the band delivered some note-worthy sounds, based on the crowd response, not the least of which were soaring guitar solos and there long, meandering songs, including the opener, “First Breath After Coma,” “The Birth and Death of the Day,” and “Catastrophe and the Cure.” We left EITS a little passed the half way of their 60 minute set to walk over to the Sutro stage and soak in some live tracks from the newly reunited band, Grandaddy. That was a good decision.

Grandaddy sounded like they were playing their best gig ever, even though it was there first major gig in six years, and despite the fact that by the time they got on stage it began to get colder – somewhere in the range of 40 F to 45 F (factoring in the wind chill factor, which made all the difference). The fog was so entrenched at this point that it was pretty much a sure bet that it was not going to clear up at all for the rest of the day and night. At times the fog was so dense that you could not see the sun at all – not even a faint outline.


Can’t Be Everywhere at Once Means Making Hard Decisions

One of the most common dilemmas of any multi-stage, big name music festival with a spectacular lineup is making hard decisions to miss one artist or band for another when they’re performing at essentially the same time on different stages. Seeing part of a set of two different bands on at the same time usually means making your way through tens of thousands of people, only to find out you can’t get any where near the stage.

In the case of Outside Lands, it’s not an easy task to move between the two big headliner stages at opposite ends of the festival grounds because of the distance from the large Twin Peaks stage in Golden Gate Park’s Hellman’s Hollow (recently named in honor of the late San Francisco billionaire Warren Hellman, who paid all of the costs for the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, and set aside in his will to continue doing so for years to come) at one end of the festival grounds to the bigger main stage, Lands End at the Polo Fields (and only blocks from the Pacific Ocean) is, by our estimation, some three, perhaps, four, football fields in length.

However, if you wanted to catch a performance on the Twin Peaks stage and immediately after another set on the much smaller Panhandle stage, then you were in luck, because the two stages are much closer to one another than the main stages are. If you wanted to see an artist on the Sutro stage in Lindley Meadow and then walk around the groves of trees to get back to the Lands End stage, it’s a bit more of a distance than Twin Peaks is to the Panhandle stage, but not football fields apart.

Those are the type of practicalities that go into how you plan to move between stages at a festival, but no matter what you do, over the course of three days, and especially if you have a diverse and wide range of tastes in music, you’ll miss bands that you otherwise planned to see. Sacrifices must be made; such is the nature of big, outdoor festivals, especially when the line-up is as loaded up with talent as OSL 2012 was.

This dilemma happened a number of times at OSL, including during the 6pm time slot on Saturday. The Kills (Lands End at 6:10), Norah Jones (Sutro at 6:30) and Passion Pit (Twin Peaks at 6:50pm) all began their sets within the 6pm hour. Therefore, unless you had a time machine, it was literally impossible to see all three sets – from three very popular artists – from beginning to end. The strategy that seemed at first like it would work out was to catch part of The Kills, then go to nearby Lindley Meadow to hear Norah Jones for a while, and then walk and make way through the dense crowds all the way through Choco Lands, past the Sutro stage and then right into the opening for Twin Peaks to catch part of Passion Pit. But it turned out that Norah Jones set was too good to leave and the crowds for Passion Pit were too big to get close enough to hear them well. However, we weren’t going to miss Dr. Dog at 7:50pm on the Panhandle stage.

It was a good decision to stay for all of Norah Jones’ set. The daughter of the famous Ravi Shankar, who taught The Beatles’ George Harrison how to play sitar, and has been successful all on her own for some two decades now, performed one exemplary song after another, including “Fidelity,” “Ballad of a Politician,” “Don’t Leave Me (ne Me Quitte Pas).”


Jason Mraz Spotted, Bob Weir Joins Norah Jones for Dead Song

In the crowd for Jones’ set was Jason Mraz, who surprisingly seemed to go unnoticed by many, including people standing behind and in front of him. Despite a cap and sunglasses, we were 99% certain it was Mraz, which was later backed up by others who were overheard having made a sighting. Popular musicians and other celebrities, not in the official lineup, are spotted all of the time at major music festivals. Shortly after making that positive identification, the Grateful Dead‘s aging guitarist, Bob Weir, joined Jones on stage for a cover of the Dead’s “It Must Have Been The Roses,” which got a roaring applause from the audience, including some older folks, some of whom probably saw San Francisco based The Grateful Dead decades ago, before they built one of the largest cult followings in the history of rock.

Guitarist Abraham Roberts told Rolling Stone that Norah Jones and her fellow bandmates are “huge Deadheads,” adding: “We’re kind of freaking out about it. Playing a Grateful Dead song, in Golden Gate Park, with a member of the Grateful Dead? It’s pretty crazy.” Back in the mid to late 1960’s, hometown blues band, the Grateful Dead, performed free concerts in Golden Gate Park, and were instrumental in the birth of the so-called “hippie movement” that was spawned in San Francisco’s nearby Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Golden Gate Park was the scene of many of the hippies events, from ‘love-ins’ to concerts featuring the emerging, and merging, sounds of psychedelic, blues, folk and rock, and which still influence younger indie and alternative rock bands to this day, including some at Outside Lands.

Following Jones’ spectacular set in a meadow surrounded by eucalyptus and pine trees, we made the trek through the crowds and the wooded Choco Lands area that spill out onto to the Panhandle stage, just in time to catch most of the performance by Philadelphia’s indie rock band, Dr. Dog. They delivered an energetic, highly charged set cheered on by thousands of enthusiastic fans, who sang along word-for-word to song after song, kicking off with “Stranger,” which was followed by 10 other standout tracks, such as “These Days,” “Vampire,” “The Beach,” “I Only Wear Blue” and their well-known cover of Architecture in Helsinki’s song, “Heart It Races,” followed by the last song, “Lonesome.” The pumped up crowd were relentless in demanding an encore, and the band met the request with the wonderfully quirky track, “The Rabbit, The Bat, and The Reindeer.”

Other acts on Day Two included Father John Misty (which is actually the reinvented J. Tillman), Big Boi, Thee Oh Sees, Portugal The Man and many others.

Then it came time for Saturday’s closing headliners – Metallica at one end of the festival grounds, and Sigur Ros at the other, a distance of some 15 city blocks. Add to that more than 60,000 people, and it’s not so easy to get from one end of the grounds to the other. This By this point in the day, die-hard fans (the word ‘fan’ has its origin in ‘fanatic’ – funny, but true) of each band claimed their domain closest to the stage as possible hours before. There is no question, however, that Metallica, a San Francisco band, were the biggest draw at the end of Day Two of Outside Lands.

In fact, Sigur Ros, now famously, said during his set that if he were in the crowd rather than on stage, he would be at the Metallica show. Some people appeared to take his advice literally. The Icelandic band performed tracks like “I Gaer,” “Varuo,” “Festival,” Saeglopur” and ended with “Poplagio.”

Metallica on stage at Outside Lands before a sold-out crowd. Photo via The Bay Bridged

When Metallica took the stage, they shredded the raucous welcoming applause, roars and whistles from the tens of thousands of fans with “Hit the Lights,” James Hetfield’s and Las Ulrich’s first standout track from the break-through 1983 album, Kill ‘Em All, released almost 30 years ago. The band followed “Hit the Lights” with the thunderous “Master of Puppets” and the unrelenting thrasher, “Fuel.”

“Fuel” – Metallica

Interestingly, Metallica stuck mostly to material released prior to the late 1990’s, a format that went over very well with the band’s most knowledgable fans. Entering the second half of the two-hour metal-thon, Metallica did not tire, pleasing fans with more tracks from their early songs, belting out “Fade to Black,” “Welcome Home (Sanitarium),” “One,” and “Enter Sandman.” By now, the crowd was reeling. Even non-Metaliica fans had to admit that they sounded amazing, especially given the conditions (the fog and wind and cold).

But they weren’t done yet. After the band left the stage, the noise of cheering and chanting from the massive crowd was so loud and spanning such a large area that it was thrilling. And then Metallica returned to stage and performed two encore songs, “Seek and Destroy” and “The Frayed Ends of Sanity.” Hetfield concluded with “Metallica is alive and well in San Francisco,” adding that the populace “likes its music heavy.” And then the fireworks went off, signaling the end to a performance that will go down in metal rock festival history.

Metallica Fans Get Positioned Hours Before Show

Hours before the band’s scheduled performance, there were thousands of Metallica fans, determined by the Metallica T-shirts and other clothing, the bike rider gear, goatees, chains, long hair, risque apparel, metal accessories, and so on, taking up positions in front of the stage. That would be the case at any festival where Metallica was in the lineup, but in their hometown of San Francisco, the base of the worldwide Metallica empire, the competition for close-to-the-stage spots was especially fierce.

It’s a fair guess that about 30% to 50% (maybe more) of the crowd for earlier sets by Explosions in the Sky, The Kills and others on the Lands End stage were Metallica fans who would give a leg to be as close to the band as possible, so ‘waiting’ for 3 or 4 hours to be up close and to actually see the band in the flesh (rather than the two huge jumbotrons), to hear every crunch of the guitar and beat of the drums, and to head bang and mosh with thousands of other diehard Metallica fans was not asking much in Metallica terms. Add to that the band’s “home field advantage,” and you have a truly historic night for Metallicad and their fans. It is said there were up to 65,000 people packed in Golden Gate Park for Metallica.

The Coldest Winter in the Summer – That’s San Francisco

The cold, gloomy weather did put a damper on the festivities somewhat, especially when the wind really got whipping around. However, it seemed like most people were either used to it (from living in the city or the area or the Pacific Northwest), dressed and ready for it, or too boozed up to really notice it much. With that in mind, and as most of the rest of the country was suffering through the hottest summer on record, there are some good things that come from the chiller temperatures, including the facts that sanitation facilities don’t smell so bad as they do at other summer festivals, there is nowhere near the levels of heatstroke or dehydration, beer stays colder, and food fresher, for longer and the nippy weather makes most people more alert and less sluggish.

Almost every article you read about Outside Lands 2012 mentions the chilly, foggy weather. But that’s summer in San Francisco. Even out-of-towners know the famous Mark Twain quote: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” So true, so true. But in the age of rapid global warming that has been magnified by this summer’s record-breaking heat across much of the country, cool fog is not such a bad thing; folks from the Colorado plateau to the shores of Cape Cod would welcome fog with praise and glory.

Perhaps the biggest negative effect the fog and winds had were on the sound, especially the further away one is from the stage – which can be a long distance at Outside Lands. While the wind is whipping around, it interferes with the normal flow of sound waves, scattering and dissipating the fog. This is one reason why fans of Metallica or Neil Young grabbed their spots close to the stage hours in advance – almost like those silly tech geeks who camp out overnight at Apple stores to get their hands on the latest release of the iPhone or iPad (never a good idea to grab the first release of anything). Waiting a few hours to see one of the legends of rock perform live, or camp overnight on a sidewalk to get a slightly improved and over-priced gadget? The Metallica and Neil Young fanatics can answer that one in milliseconds.

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  1. norah jones? really? indie rock cafe has a norah jones video on it. I know that indie music has been complete garbage for years now, but freaking come on this post is a new low.

    1. James: We don’t restrict ourselves only to ‘indie rock’ – take a chill pill. She performed at a festival we were covering. And what is ‘indie rock’ anyways? No one agrees on a definition. You’re taking the name way too seriously. We cover all kinds of music.

  2. Mark Twain never said that. The closest thing he said to that was that it was cold at night year round. I hate how that is falsely attributed to him. So annoying to see people be wrong, especially when they are making an attempt at journalism.

    1. Awesome point. There are definitely conflicting accounts whether he said that or not. But, since it is not an established fact, you’re right; we stand corrected.

      1. I’m not saying she makes bad music, I’m sure some people enjoy easy listening, but regardless of what your take is on the term “indie rock”, to make “Come away with me” fit in it, you would need to stretch it. I’m just venting frustration on the current dismal state of music and the blogs that are having to stretch to report on it.

        1. We agree with you James – 2012 hasn’t been a good year for “indie rock,” but still, the fact is that we don’t feel that we have to cover just “indie rock,” especially when it comes to covering festivals.

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