The Outside Lands Music Festival Allowed This Old Dude In!

Category: Weekly Columns

Outside Lands Music Festival

Preamble: I joke that I’m the oldest person on the grounds at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco for the Outside Lands Music Festival – this being my third year going with my sons. The only people I saw that were older than me were performers. The first year it was Tom Jones, last year it was Neil Young, and this year it is both Paul McCartney and Willie Nelson. Outside Lands is an amazing experience and I don’t think age should be a determinant of attendance even if the 65,000 attendees could pretty much all be my kids.

Outside Lands crowd

Note: I wrote this column for The Hype Magazine and it appeared in two parts. Here is the entire 4000-word+ essay:

It’s a blast for this old guy. The reasons I attend are mutli-fold. First, it’s an extraordinary time to be with my boys. Second, we all love San Francisco. Third, the food here is incredible and fourth, my boys visit their mom on each trip. The latter is not a common occurrence for a confluence of reasons, but at least this annual trip allows it to happen.

Outside Lands is three days. It begins at noon each day and ends around 10:00 p.m. It takes place on the sizable grounds of Golden Gate Park and there are five different stages strewn throughout the acreage of grounds and a number of smaller performance places. There are also many sponsor booths, tons of food and drink, and even a chocolate village where everything sold contains chocolate.

People Watching

                       No caption necessary!

The people-watching is half the fun. There is usually some sort of ongoing art installation in the center of the main area, where the biggest stage is set. The undeniable smell of weed permeates the air, along with the smell of beer and cigarettes. However, this is no Coachella or Woodstock-like mud-fest. It’s largely pretty clean.

I love talking to all the kids. Yes, most are high and, when they come my way, I’m always passing a joint in one direction or another. I interview the kids in an informal manner. I take tons of photos and I take a lot of video with my GoPro, which is quite inconspicuous. By the end of the three days, I am physically wasted, while most of the other attendees are literally recovering from being wasted themselves due to drink and drugs.

Sitting in The Willows Inn B&B around two miles from Golden Gate Park, I am anticipating another incredible adventure when Outside Lands begins on Friday, August 9, 2013. We will walk to and from the event. We will fall into bed each evening thoroughly spent. And the amount of music we’ll hear, people we’ll meet, and sensory overload will leave us with a long recovery period of latent bliss.

Tomorrow is another prep day for the boys and me. We will simply relax, enjoy San Francisco, go to bed relatively early and then begin the 72-hour orgy known as Outside Lands. Following is my “take” on the shows, the experience, and the people. I will briefly review the bands I saw, but this piece is more a “review” of the overall experience. I’ll leave detailed music reviews to the music critics.

The Sallan Boys going to #OutsideLands

                                                    The Sallan Boys

Day One, August 9, 2013: Sitting in our B&B, I’m stealing myself for the endurance test that is about to begin. My older son loaded the Outside Lands “app” on my cell-phone with “My Schedule,” which includes the bands I want to see and the ones he said I should see. We are going to get some dim sum before going since none of the “cool” bands open at noon, when they open the doors. Wish me luck. I’ll next write, if I’m able, when I return this evening.

We decided to drive near Golden Gate Park for the dim sum, and hopefully find a place to park and then “walk in.” We did both. I parked with about 12 inches of my car in the red and came back to a ticket. Thank you, San Francisco! But, thankfully, that was after a truly awesome first day.

Outside Lands crowd waiting to get in

The crowds are absolutely overwhelming. Tens of thousands of mostly “kids” descending on the venue. At the gate, everyone is searched, though it’s a much more pleasant pat down than any ever done by the TSA. Once inside, my younger son said, “Adios” and we didn’t see him until we met to head home. I mostly “lost” my older son and his girlfriend as well after we entered the main “Polo Fields” where all the big vendors and the main stage sits. Looking back at the people coming in, I swear it looked like a scene from this summer’s hit movie, “World War Z.”

The set-up is one in which there are five stages, all separate enough to insure their own sound. Strewn throughout the grounds are hundreds, if not thousands, of porta-potties. Literally, there are camps of toilets. Thankfully, further away from those areas are the various food and beverage booths.

Art installations abound with big rectangular murals being worked on in the center of the field and the completed ones lined up in various locations. This year they also had some unusually shaped standing sculptures – all the same shape – but each with their own unique art painted on.

Art Installation at #OutsideLands

I joke that I was the oldest person there – with the exception of Paul McCartney who was performing the first night. It truly seemed to be true, as I’d say the average age was mid-twenties. For Paul McCartney, the closing show of Day One, I was sardined between some teen girls (more on them later) and a few thousand of my best friends.

For the first day, I wanted a good spot to see McCartney, so I got relatively close for an earlier act, Surfer Blond that was a fun old-style rock band. I moved to the other side for Band of Horses, and ended up standing near that spot – moving closer with each change of band – for ultimately over seven hours. Next was The National, after which there was a 70-minute wait for Sir Paul.

Band of Horses on main stage at #OutsideLands

Band of Horses was a good rock band: tight, fun, but nothing all that special. The National seemed more musically proficient with a horn section and some contributions from the infamous Kronos String Quartet. However, their sound tended to be quite repetitive. Their songs ultimately all sounded much the same.

About twenty minutes before McCartney began, I was really feeling the pain of standing in one position for several hours. Getting in or out would be quite an ordeal yet I wasn’t sure – at that moment – if I could stand another three hours, since he hadn’t yet begun and his show was scheduled to last just less than three hours. I endured.

Paul McCartney of The Beatles

Once Sir Paul began, the energy from him, from the crowd, and the music literally lifted me up along with what I estimate to be 35,000 or so people standing on the field in front of the Lands End stage.

His show was among the best concerts I’ve ever attended. First, the last time I saw him was during his anti-Beatles period and, frankly, that show was feh. This time, he embraced his past, paid tribute to his two dead Beatle friends, and the variety of new and old music was simply incredible.

He also did something no other performer I saw over the entire festival did – he actively engaged with his audience. He told short stories, invited two girls on stage who had signs saying they wanted their first tattoo to be his autograph, and otherwise acted truly like he was having as much fun as we were.

Confetti in the air at #OutsideLands

When he did “Live and Let Die” the crowd went absolutely bonkers with the quality of the sound and the wonderful pyrotechnics of it all. Be sure to see my video – A Taste of Paul – which reduces his three-hour performance to just over three minutes!

I so enjoyed the spirit of the crowd. It seemed everyone – of every age – knew every word to every song and were singing along. His set-list was a perfect mix of fast and slow music, new and old, and was so well paced by his regular interaction with all of us. In many ways, it didn’t feel like such a large space thanks to his graciousness. Very impressive.

Before he began, I made a bet with a nearby gal that I was the oldest person in the crowd. I bet her a beer. She was 22. She approached several men that looked near my age or older. None were in fact older. Most looked like burned-out hippies. Finally, she saw a Santa Claus look-alike and ran him down. I followed. He indeed looked 75 but turned out to be just five years older than me. She whooped it up as if she’d won the lottery. I went with her immediately and paid off the bet.

There were three teen girls near me (all of which are in the A Taste of Paul video): two were 17, one was 16. One of the 17-year-old girls was clearly already quite high. The other 17-year-old seemed a bit like a goodie-two-shoes type (WRONG!). During McCartney, both “hooked up” with guys – strangers to them – and the “goodie two-shoes” girl got drunk on wine that “her guy” gave her. Both girls were grinding against these guys and making out like crazy. I sort of felt like I should’ve intruded. I asked the 16-year-old friend of the goodie two-shoes girl if I should, to which she said, “No, she always does this.” Boy, did I judge wrong.

The McCartney show was 2 hours and 45 minutes. He did so many songs, but these are the ones I remember, Live and Let Die, Day Tripper, Yesterday, Band on the Run, Something (on ukulele to start, then the full band), Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, Maybe I’m Amazed, Let It Be, Hey Jude, Eight Days a Week, Helter Skelter, Paperback Writer, The Long and Winding Road, We Can Work It Out, And I Love Her, Blackbird, Lady Madonna, All Together Now, Lovely Rita, Eleanor Rigby, Back in the U.S.S.R., and Get Back.

The outside temperature was probably in the low 50’s but the surrounding body heat from the thousands of bodies actually kept us quite warm – at times even hot. I made one ultimately very wise choice. I chose not to drink any water once I was “in position” so I’d not have to go to the bathroom. Thank goodness I made that choice, since if I’d had to get out, I might have succeeded, but I’d NEVER make it back. All in all, the first day was truly an awesome time!

Day Two, August 10, 2013: By Day Two, fatigue had set in and the apparently increased crowds affected all of us. I actually don’t think there were more people since they had sold out for the entire festival. It just felt like more people.

Love the spirit of the crowd at #OutsideLands

Day Two was not as much fun as the first day, partly due to fatigue and because I didn’t enjoy the performers as much. I will say right now that the McCartney show was by far my favorite, though I enjoyed several others, too.

During one of the shows – I don’t remember which – there were a couple of guys that crowd-surfed. One of them “fell” right near me. He was fine, got up and grinned at me, and said, “Sorry, man.”

The first performer I saw was Gary Carter, Jr. who is sort of a Jimi Hendrix-type hard-rock guitarist. He was very good. Young the Giant followed him, all on the main stage, and they were also fun. Mainstream music – I guess they’re considered “alternative” – a description that I really don’t understand, but my sons use to describe a lot of bands.

The Outside Lands Music Festival

There was NO WAY I was going to stand as long as I did on day one. So, after Young the Giant, I moved back near the windmills – a favorite spot in the center of everything where people congregate and meet. Picnic tables are strewn around right in front of the windmills, facing the Lands End main stage. I sat at one and talked with the people there. EVERYONE is quite friendly. The general atmosphere is very upbeat. Yes, some kids and adults get rowdy or too drunk or high, but that seemed at a minimum.

#OutsideLands crowd

From there I heard Jurassic 5, a rap-style group. They were quite innovative and I found myself enjoying their music – which included quite unusual sounds evidently made with quite unusual instruments including what appeared to be a turntable guitar – at least that is what it looked like on the video screens. They could “scratch” on this guitar-like instrument. Cool.

I had heard that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were quite good and that the lead singer – a girl – was sort of like a Blondie type. So, I made my way back up towards the main stage. There is an art to weaving in and out of the people, many of whom have laid down blankets – and keeping momentum going. There are a lot of “Excuse Me’s” and “Sorry, dude” coming from everyone that is moving along.

By Day Two, I’d figured that the best spot was on either side of the stage next to the retaining fence, which was about 4-feet high. It was VERY solid and I was able to sit against it between sets and lean against it during a performance. Because there was air beyond it, it was far less claustrophobic than being in the midst of the crowds as I was the day before.

The crowds at #OutsideLands

Sadly, the sound mix for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs sucked. And, they never got it right. The lead singer’s voice was almost fully drowned out by the drumming and/or the music. I was so fed up that I left halfway through. My older son texted me that it was just as bad for him and he was much closer. So, I really can’t say how I feel about the group.

I decided to head over to my favorite smaller stage – Sutro – and hear a band that got good reviews from various people I’d talked to during the day. I got there just as The Head and the Heart was beginning. Sutro is mellower and I was able to move up pretty close and lean against the fence just in front of the sound booth.

My favorite “discovery” at last year’s festival was the group Of Monsters and Men, who also performed at the Sutro stage. The Head in the Heart sort of resembled them in that they were a mix of acoustic and electric music with a blend of male and female voices. I liked them, but not near as much as Of Monsters and Men and, in fact, I left before they finished.

There are no screens at Sutro, which was a disappointment because the lead (girl) singer seemed to be wearing a pretty revealing see-through blouse. I never could quite “see” it/them.

Phoenix performing at #OutsideLands

My older son was going to see Nine Inch Nails, one of his favorites, as they were the closing act on the main stage for Day Two. I don’t really like that kind of “hard” music and had been told that Phoenix, who was performing at the same time on the Twin Peaks stage (the second biggest at the festival), was fun so I chose to make my way there.

Phoenix is also described as “alternative” though they simply sounded like rock ‘n’ roll to me. I’d found that when I didn’t know a group, I’d ask people around me to nudge me when they played one of their more well-known and popular songs. That way I’d pay closer attention and video those numbers. Phoenix was good. The lead singer could sing and their light show was excellent. The one screen to the left of the stage gave a great view since I was further back among the many thousands crammed in there.

We had learned from Day One that buying food at Outside Lands was both expensive and often very time-consuming due to the lines so, we all brought snacks, which was a wise choice. Again, my younger son was gone the moment we walked in and I didn’t see him at all. He got tired and actually left an hour earlier than I did.

Just before Phoenix ended, I made my way out of the crowd. I was tired. I hung around the Wine Lands area, by now empty, and people-watched. One girl showed up with her friends and promptly fell flat on her face. They coaxed her up and then she jumped on one of the standing drinking tables (five feet high or so) and began dancing. Her friends were scared silly and ultimately talked her down, though she apparently chose to fall into their waiting arms.

I met up with my older son and his girlfriend near Wine Lands. I asked how Nine Inch Nails was. He said he loved them, but that Trent Reznor was the direct opposite of the affable Paul McCartney. He performed as if there was no one there. Nonetheless, my son loves his work and enjoyed the show but did admit it lacked the personal touch that McCartney gave his many fans. We were all quite done for the day.

Day Three, August 11, 2013: As we approached Day Three, we were all so completely and thoroughly exhausted that we decided to begin the day later. There were only a few acts we all wanted to see. The closing act was The Red Hot Chili Peppers and I thought I’d drop in and see Willie Nelson, who was performing on The Sutro Stage, where it’s so much more comfortable.

“Comfortable” is a relative word and feeling at these festivals. There is a reason that I’m one of the oldest attendees. Going to Outside Lands, this being the third year in four is truly a marathon and test of fortitude and endurance.

Portable toilets - a sea of them

Today, we arrived during the Hall & Oates show on the Main Stage. Most people don’t know that they are the biggest selling duo of all-time – out-selling even Simon & Garfunkel, though I will assert that Paul Simon is one of the best and most prolific songwriters of all-time. Maybe Paul McCartney (and John Lennon), along with Bob Dylan and Paul Simon are the most successful singer/songwriters of the modern rock era? I’ll leave that discussion to the music pundits. It’s just this guy’s opinion.

One of the logistical nightmares of such a festival as this is navigating the crowds and getting to and from Golden Gate Park. Parking is pretty much non-existent and the B&B we stayed at had misled us to believe we were walking distance from Golden Gate Park. Yeah, if we were Sherpas perhaps!

We had tried the parking thing and thought we’d hit the jackpot, but the City chose to make that apparent score cost me an expensive parking ticket. So much for civic welcoming. Going in the afternoon we did manage to catch trains that had room for a mouse or two. After a couple trains passed – often not even stopping because they were so jammed full – we finally secured standing room for the 25-minute ride that dropped us off somewhat near the park entrance.

Getting off the train, we’d follow the crowds toward the single entrance. It was a stream of people unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Lining the way were various vendors hocking everything from illegal t-shirts to legal (or illegal) marijuana in its many forms. Also, lining the way were desperate people trying to secure a ticket to the sold-out event. And, just like the rest of San Francisco, the homeless – mostly druggies and alcoholics – were everywhere.

On the third day, once inside, I witnessed a young girl crying her heart out. I asked if she was all right to which she said, “NO” and walked away. During the next performance I watched as she and a “boyfriend” engaged in a heated argument. Nearby them, surrounded by dozens of concert attendees – all standing up at the time – was a young man completely curled up and passed out on the ground. People were swarming around and I was just waiting for someone to step on his head. Thankfully, it didn’t happen.

Much later, he was sitting up with a girl friend encouraging him to drink some water.

Dope smoking was omni-present. Dancing in groups was everywhere as well as those completely lost in their own solo world.

Hall & Oates were exactly as you’d expect: fun, sort of old school boring, but still entertaining. They were followed by another so-called “alternative” band, Vampire Weekend. With that name I didn’t expect the soothing sound of this group. They were headliners on the main stage and they were good. But, the crowd for Vampire Weekend was just too intense and too jammed together. My older son needed some space and left. I liked the music but was tired of the squeeze and left as well, heading over to The Sutro Stage for Willie.

The Grateful Dead's Bob Weir with Willie Nelso

                                  Bob Weir on stage with Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson is in his eighties and is still an amazing performer. His 70-minute set was quite familiar, as I’d seen him a couple of times in the last couple of years. He does a tight show, with plenty of instrumental breaks that include his own superb guitar work on his completely worn-out ancient acoustic guitar. His sister does one honky-tonk number and two of his sons are also included in this family affair. He, too, has a big body of work that includes his version of the Patsy Cline hit, “Crazy” that he wrote very early in his career.

The stark difference with his show – at The Sutro Stage – and the one by Vampire Weekend at the main stage, was the mellow and comfortable atmosphere of Willie Nelson’s audience and show. It was a needed breathe of fresh air, literally and figuratively.

At one point, the crowd went nuts when Bob Weir (of The Grateful Dead) came on stage and briefly sang with Willie’s band. Beyond that, the crowd was swaying, singing, and dancing. Fun, but predictable. Even leaving that area after he finished was a relatively easy thing to do as I headed back to the main area for the final and closing performance of this year’s Outside Lands, The Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers at The Outside Lands Music Festival

We chose not to work hard at getting too close for the Red Hot Chili’s because we just didn’t have it in us to push our way through the throngs. We got a comfortable spot about a football field away and simply enjoyed their show on the screens and their ant-size images from our vantage point. The sound was great and it was a great ending to a great Outside Lands festival.

Wisely, we left a bit before they concluded and got a train back – after two passed by totally full – in which I was the LAST person to make it aboard. I now know what it must be like to be the 27th person stuffed in a phone booth.

Final Thoughts: I’m presently sitting in the back of our car, as my younger son does the first shift of driving home. All joking aside about my age, these music festivals are a young person’s thing. If I go back, I will either spring for the VIP ticket that gives those ticket-holders a separate area on either side of the main stage, which is far less crowded. They also have easily accessible (and I think better) bathrooms, along with food and drink. Or, I may just buy a one-day ticket for what I think may be the best day’s line-up.

All my whining aside – and the only thing that really irked me was getting that ridiculous parking ticket – I had a fantastic time. It’s a very well run event considering the super-sized crowds and space. It’s also the kind of family time most parents wouldn’t consider and I am proud of sharing these memories with my boys since they are at that age where dad is not that cool and they seem to mostly approve of me coming along – well, I do pay for it all!

And, finally, please enjoy my video taking 3-days of an amazing music festival and hours of video footage and reducing it to a mere 11 minutes and 47 seconds in The Best Of Outside Lands, 2013.

The End

You might enjoy some further reflections in my column, I’m REALLY Not Twenty Anymore: Attending The Outside Lands Music Festival.

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Book Cover from The Empty Nest