A three-day music festival like Outside Lands is hectic and exhausting no matter how you approach it. So, I try to pare down the wish list, not rush from stage to stage to see every single band I’m interested in, and let the festival vibe take care of whatever other decisions need to be made. Recapping the experience without running over the itinerary isn’t much easier. But paying attention to what isn’t on stage is a start.
The San Francisco crowd is one you won’t find anywhere else. While the vast majority falls well within a spectrum ranging from normal folks to edgy hipsters, there were also thousands of people who would be called a freak almost anywhere else. Indeed, a distinct portion of the crowd seemed to be treating Outside Lands as a warm-up for Burning Man. There was a circus tent, but it was hard to tell who had just finished a performance and who was merely engaged in a little self-expression.
But that confusion is what sets the event apart from your run-of-the-mill rock festival, and also the aspect hardest to communicate in a traditional review. The music was great, sure, but sometimes I wondered whether it wasn’t just a pretext for the real action taking place amid the crowd.
That’s why I’ve decided to take a different approach, presenting Outside Lands through a series of anecdotes that capture the “stoned” quality of the proceedings. Not only in a literal sense — though there’s plenty of marijuana to be had — but as a temporary shift of consciousness that resists being sobered up in prose. Without further ado, then, I present my festival “travelogue.” This is what caught my eye and ear:
Mason: A fellow at the bus stop who was also fed up with waiting and decided to pitch in with us to get a cab. A bearded guy, he’d chosen to pay the $226 to enter the festival this year after watching from the disc golf course last year. He was meeting up with some friends who would be recognizable in the crowd because of the ostrich head they’d affixed to a tall pole.
Long-haired SFSU hoodie guy: New to San Francisco from Fresno, he was thrilled with the city’s public transportation and had never been to a festival of Outside Lands’ scale.
Unknowns 1 through X: It’s impossible to share a stretch of grass with San Franciscans and not get to chatting about the festival, the bands, the food, the city or whatever else.
We spotted numerous pool noodles used to visually mark a space deep inside a dense crowd. Flags as always were popular choices. But, this being San Francisco, some people went artistically overboard, avoiding the dull at all costs.
Sub-category of pole decorations: Disco division. The festival’s overall winner and runner-up for best pole decoration both came from within the disco division.
First-place: The disco blender. Yes, an honest to god disco blender. It’s just like it sounds: a blender carefully decorated with all those little glass squares that make a disco ball shine like it does. Awesome.
Runner-up: Disco mouse head – neon mouse ears, fitted with a disco-decorated mask.
Talking Heads cover
Idaho folk rocker Josh Ritter wove “Once In A Lifetime” into his song “Harrisburg.”
Sub-rule: One must always stand during a Talking Heads cover.
Camera operator checklist
Sub-category of facial hair: Unique facial hair (handlebar moustache) of a band member matched by crowd member and shown on big screen.
Sub-category of age: Oldest/youngest visible person shown on big screen.
Sub-category of unbridled enthusiasm: Set by set, joyously lyric-screaming fan shown on big screen.
The Morkunas/Orbison/Fogerty tattoo clause
It is mandatory to drink or smoke when a performer plays a cover song by an artist who is represented in a friend’s tattoo.
First example: John Fogerty sang Pretty Woman, which provides a direct connection to J. Morkunas’ “Only The Lonely” heart tattoo.
Expected second example (that did not actually occur): The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy released an EP of Morrissey cover songs. Had his band played one at the fest, any of M. Preston’s Morrissey tattoos would have invoked the clause.
Apparently unique tattoos that turn out to be duplicates (and might actually be temporary)
Forearm “Riesling” tattoo: We first noticed one girl with the wine variety inked in large plain text on her forearm. Why would somebody do that? Hours later, we saw another girl with the same tattoo, only on the opposite forearm. The questions became more interesting: How? Why? Who? Then we saw two more, shared by girls on a blanket right next to us. Is it possible that four girls have the same otherwise unique tattoo? The prevailing theory now points to temporary tattoos available at the Wine Lands tent.
Mis-colored Big Lebowski reference
Some dude was actually wearing a full bowling jumpsuit, complete with the name “Jesus” above the left breast pocket. But the jumpsuit was blue!
Extraneous & obscure David Cross reference
Ween’s “Champagne Jam,” the song in the closing credits of Cross’s Mr. Show movie Run Ronnie Run, played over the sound system between bands on the festival’s last day.
Doppelgängers (aka The Scharf-ish clause)
Always be on the lookout for impersonators of all stripes – people who look uncannily like celebrities, friends or even your concert-going companions.
A skinny, long-haired Mickey Rourke, wearing black boots, jeans and a full-length coat.
A fat Roger Clemens (when he walked by, we made eye contact and I’m pretty sure that he knew we thought he looked like a fat Roger Clemens and might even have been expecting some harsh steroid jokes.)
An uncanny likeness to former Florida, Arizona and California resident S. Scharf, now living in Chicago.
Additional sightings of a previously commented upon character
Creepiest old dude at the festival.
Preposterous talking mimes wearing kilts.
Creepiest old dude at the festival
It’s a shame that he’ll probably never know that he won this award, but one particular guy in his 50s stepped way over the line when some girls made a grove of trees into an impromptu bathroom. Stopping in his tracks and flat-out staring, Mr. Creepers definitely earned this ignoble distinction.
Man less than 5 foot 4 inches wearing a full Indian headdress
“Dry the Rain” rule
Expect The Beta Band’s Dry The Rain, popularized (re-popularized?) by the film High Fidelity, to play over the speakers at some point between bands. It will happen.
House audio of a favorite band from a previous year at the same festival (a.k.a. The Broken Social Scene Rule)
“7/4 (Shoreline)” played over the speakers, celebrating Broken Social Scene’s incredible performance on the last day of the 2008 inaugural Outside Lands.
Tots, from the restaurant Q. Hands down the best potatoes not only of the festival, but that I’ve ever eaten. Chili-lime aioli! Since discovering the tots, I have eaten them every day across two years of Outside Lands festivals.
New-revelation sub-clause: Some new friends nearby brought guacamole and the rich, creamy avocado flavor is another perfect match for the tots. “Gwakytots.”
Best potatoes, non-tots category
From samosas to various variations on French fries – tied.
Wearing a University of Arizona basketball logo cap brought out at least a dozen enthusiastic “Bear Down” greetings. Bear Down to you all as well, fellow alumni.
T-shirts combining the San Francisco Giants and popular rock bands
Clever San Francisco Bay Area designers have incorporated prominent imagery from bands into orange and black Giants shirts. Do any exist besides The Misfits, Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia?
Favorite bizarre shirts, non-SF Giants category
I’m Fat. Let’s Party.
An Oakland dock crane, daydreaming about being an Imperial Walker.
Mysterious trends showing how out of touch you are
Neon sunglasses. Sunglasses are always in style, but I thought big J.Lo ones were in.
Bear hats. I can be forgiven the sunglasses, but where the hell did this trend come from? I first thought it was related to the Giants’ “Kung Fu Panda,” Pablo Sandoval. But no. Young men and women alike wore bear or other animal hats by the hundreds.
Inevitable hipster backlash to bear hats
Old ratty coonskin caps, though in one case what appeared to be a coonskin cap was in fact a feathered tiger mullet. I’m not sure what that one was all about.
Most appropriate beach ball song
Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
Biggest crowd sing-along
John Fogerty: Have You Ever Seen The Rain?
By a nose over Arcade Fire, John Fogerty and Mavis Staples, it was The Roots.
Having to miss most of the Black Keys in favor of The Roots.
We never did find Mason’s ostrich head.
Published Aug. 25, 2011 in Souciant Magazine.