081113 Willie Nelson/Red Hot Chili Peppers/The Foals/Kurt Vile and the Violaters/Fishbone, San Francisco, CA

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The third and final day of the Outside Lands festival in San Francisco was packed with stuff I wanted to see so on the morning of August 11th, 2013 we got up and at ’em as soon as we could and left for the festival a mere half-hour behind schedule.

Parking is brutal all over San Francisco and Outside Lands doesn’t help the situation any. We ended up parking in the same spot as the day before – not too close yet not too far – and made it in onsite in time to hear Fishbone calling people out from the Lands End Stage.

“Hey, you guys sitting down in the front…git yo butts up outta them chairs befowe I start talking s*** ’bout yo momma in front of all these people!”

Beautiful.

I was in dire need of sustenance so we met up with a friend and booked it into the woods where I found a couple of cups of coffee (both for me) and a big chocolate chip cookie (also for me).  We could hear the band playing from where we sat so we kept sitting, building up strength for a long day to come.

After Fishbone finished our little crew split up, with m’lady and I off to see Kurt Vile and the Violators.  This was my first experience with the band and I liked them pretty okay.  They sounded somewhat like Lou Reed fronting Crazy Horse without being quite as brilliant as that sounds.  I think I would benefit from seeing them in a smaller venue, perhaps with a fair amount of bourbon in me.

As it stood I was barely getting by with just that one cookie in me gulliver; bigger things needed to happen food-wise, and quick.  I had spied a booth at the other end of the festival grounds the previous day that had piqued my interest, so I sauntered over to the Twin Peaks Stage for some piping hot split pea soup.

The very thought of festival soup intrigued me, and I just wasn’t prepared to let the opportunity pass.  Of course there was a vegan option and spicy tomato as well, but I opted for a large bowl of pea soup laden with chunks of pork (not ham; another first).  It was a wonderful foil against the chilly, foggy weather that defines summer in the San Francisco Bay area.

Finishing my soup whilst seated on a log in the woods I noticed I was right next to the Digital Detox zone, something I had been meaning to check out.  To enter, one must read aloud (or closely overhear) an anti-technology manifesto and sign a waiver swearing they won’t text or take digital photos while in the compound.  Polaroids were okay though; Luddites tend to hand-pick their enemies.

They had some typewriters up there, a no-phone chill-out area, and inexplicably, face painting.  It was so incredibly far from being the cool place I was hoping it would be that I decided to not even give it a chance.  I got out of there fast.

We reunited with our little crew at the main stage for The Foals, a band I liked so little I think it would be kindest if I just pretended I hadn’t been there.

I was eager to have a good spot for Willie Nelson on the Sutro Stage, and in my rush I ended up getting there early enough to catch several songs by Dawes, and it turns out I liked them very much.  One of the best things about festivals is catching bands you’re completely unfamiliar with and would otherwise not spend your time and money going to see and Dawes was it for me on this day.

The Sutro Stage area had a great natural bowl to it with a nice slope rising to the right.  We found a good vantage point square with the soundboard, just where the field began to rise.  As Dawes was ending their set things were starting to get pretty busy; space was getting more precious by the moment and the hill to our right filled right up.

And then a freaky thing happened.  Beginning from the side of the stage, security started erecting a pair of barriers, creating a twelve-foot pathway slicing through the grassy field that was already thickly packed with people, and forcing a strip of the crowd to calmly scramble.  I stood and watched with amazement safe from my perch as the yellow-jacketed staff calmly and simply built a barricaded road through the crowd leading back a hundred yards, and still they kept coming with their gray metal barricades.  It was all too much for me, and I just had to find out what was going on.

“I’m gonna go get a beer,” I said to no one in particular, drifting off towards the quiet commotion.

I asked the first yellow jacket I saw who didn’t seem busy.  “I don’t know,” he said, genuinely.  “Some important person is gonna come driving through here, but I don’t know who.”

When I got to the end I could see that the work was done and the path would grow no farther than the hundred and fifty or so yards it had gone.  I saw a lady with a walkie-talkie.  “What’s going on?” I ask.  She pretended not to hear me.

“Hey, who’s coming through here?” I continue.

She smiled the smile of someone with a secret.  “It’s only temporary,” she said.  “We’ll be taking it down shortly.”

My charm was no match for her love of secrets so I went for that beer.  Returning with said beer in hand I saw a van driving slowly through the barricade.  “Hey Willie!” I yelled as he went by, his window open just a crack not two feet away from me.

Well, who were you expecting?  Some secret.

I had seen Willie Nelson earlier that summer and the show had been great, but his Outside Lands set turned out to be something else altogether.  From the first strum it was clear the Willie’s guitar was mixed way to loud in the mix.  “Please don’t fix it, please don’t fix it,” I prayed in the direction of the sound booth.  I guess I’m on someone’s good side because I got my wish.  You could literally hear every single touch Willie made on that old workhorse Martin of his, and it was all glorious.  Once he was good and warmed up he proved that he is equally impressive as a guitarist as he is a songwriter with every riff and every rhythmic flourish.

Incidentally, by the second song the barricade-path was gone.  Dozen of workers had imploded it just as casually and subtly as one could imagine.  I was flabbergasted.  If someone had told me you could just build a fenced-in road through a festival crowd without a smidgen of difficulty I would have said they were nuts.  The reason for the whole thing – or so I figure – lies in the natural bowl shape of the stage area that I mentioned earlier.  From my vantage point I could see that the backstage area was basically a small cliff with a four-flight stairway leading up up up up.  I have a feeling Willie’s handlers took one look at those stairs and insisted the festival find another way to get their octogenarian star to the stage.

Anyways, like I say, when Willie mounted that stage he tore it up, playing about twenty-five songs in his seventy minute set.  I was a bit surprised Wille didn’t mention the passing of his longtime guitarist Jody Payne who died just the day before, but then maybe he just didn’t want to bring us all down.

Midway through the set Bob Weir came out for On The Bayou.  It looked to me like he asked for a guitar and was told “no”, so he sang one verse and walked off the stage looking bearded and grumpy.  He also came out for the encore and again, no guitar.

Willie’s set closed out the Sutro Stage for the fest, and when he was done we made the short trek over to the Lands End Stage for one more set, courtesy of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

It had been quite a while since I’d seen these guys – like almost twenty years – which is to say RHCP had (and have) been around for a long time – and frankly they sounded a bit tired.  Don’t get me wrong, they’re all great players; there is some great guitar playing and deadly solid drumming in the band, the vocals are bang-on and, well, Flea is an icon (even if he gets a bit sloppy when he thrashes about so).

But there was no fire, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers used to absolutely bleed fire.  They’re still a great band with great songs and they probably have a lot of touring years to come, but at this show it felt like they had long ago lost the Eye of the Tiger.

What am I saying?  It was a pretty sweet close-out to a great, great festival. 

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