Jimmy Leslie: Guitar-centric Insights from the 2012 Outside Lands Festival

| August 15, 2012

There was no better place to be a guitar fan this past weekend than at the fifth annual Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. With icons such as Metallica, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Foo Fighters, and Jack White topping the delightfully ecclectic bill (Norah Jones played right before Metallica!), Outside Lands was totally sold out in advance for the first time at 65,000 fans per day. This year’s event ran flawlessly—like a seasoned band that’s got its set totally locked and loaded.

Beck Still Tied to Pawnshop Prizes
Beck performed at the inaugural Outside Lands Festival in 2008, but he’s kept a low profile since, so I was curious to see what my favorite Loser was up to now. As it turned out, not much has changed about Beck’s own performance. The formerly frenetic frontman is still tying himself to a few vintage Silvertones, and using them to scrape up sounds ranging from surf to severe. He kicked off the set with a handful of rockers including “Devil’s Haircut” and “Novacane.” Then he chilled out with some folkier stuff including a quick “After the Gold Rush” tip of the hat to headliner Neil Young. It got awfully mellow for a while, but any Beck fan knows that his mellow can be gold. With old counterpart Smokey Hormel back in the fold handling the atmospheric guitar textures, Beck’s set flowed well with the misty weather.
Foo Fighters Gang Up for Group Tone
The Foo Fighters didn’t fog around for even a moment on Friday. Dave Grohl and company came out swinging, kept their feet on the gas, and pounded out hit after riff-laden hit. Until now, I never really understood why Grohl needed two other guitar players. Grohl handles almost all of the main guitar parts himself on his trusty ice blue Gibson semi-hollowbody. His tone is humongous, and his gargantuan stage presence eclipses other guitar players Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear. Grohl and always-smiling drummer Taylor Hawkins could surely entertain a crowd by themselves. But after a while, it hit me—the Foo Fighters’ sound is about group tone. All three guitarists play very specific parts rendered on different instruments from Deluxe Teles to Explorers in order to create that fabulous Foo stew. Their glorious group tone turns the Foo’s clever pop tunes into fierce Fighters.
Neil Young’s Sonic Hurricane
In last year’s Outside Lands Blog I mentioned how classic rockers such as John Fogerty who can still bring the noise well into their golden years continue to awe me. This year it was Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Fogerty did it with child-like enthusiasm playing his classics. Young got it going on lots of classic-sounding new material with the air of a bitter ol’ bugger who still has a lot of frustration to vent through his axe. Shoot, he took more time to churn out one improvised solo than most of the other acts allowed for complete tunes. Young’s Bigsby-loaded Les Paul facilitated tones as thick as the Golden Gate fog that Young drenched in feedback and manipulated with a quivering vibrato matching his harrowing voice. Most twang bar cats go Fender or Gretsch, but the Paul-and-Bigsby combo is a match made in heaven for Young’s sonic hurricanes.
Metallica: Heavy As Hell on Home Turf
“It’s a privilege to play right here in our own backyard,” announced James Hetfield from the Lands End stage as the band churned out chestnuts from its formative years including “Seek & Destroy” and “Ride the Lightning.” Metallica’s thunderous set on Saturday was as heavy as Stevie Wonder’s Sunday set was happy, but, honestly, Neil Young’s Friday night tone sounded way dirtier than anything James Hetfield or Kirk Hammet conjured up. Metallica managed to convey even its most distorted sounds very clearly, and the clean tones came across with impeccable clarity. Even Hammet’s most furious leads were amazingly articulate.
My buddy, who lives many blocks away, told me that he easily heard every note from his apartment. Having interviewed Dave Mustaine a couple of times over the past few years, I couldn’t help but think of Metallica’s original lead player while Hammet basked in the glory of the being in the world’s biggest band rocking the hallowed ground of its adopted home town. Coincidentally, a friend of mine who never listens to metal leaned over to me and unwittingly said, “I can kind of relate to these guys. It’s not all thrashy like Megadeth.”
Jack White Solo Is His Best Band Ever
Jack White moved from his native Detroit to Nashville a few years back, and now he’s sporting a powder blue Tele. It appeared to be vintage with a Bigsby bar that made the classic guitar look even more like classic car. He grabbed a Gretsch once in a while, and played some wicked slide. Delta blues through a Whammy pedal sounds sweet! White’s rig included a few RCA amps that looked like ’50s stereo equipment. He played with reckless abandon alternating between reverb-tinged clean tones and in-your-face fuzz tones much the same way he has in previous ensembles, but the Jack White solo band is his ultimate creation. Fleshed out with keys, pedal steel, fiddle, bass, and a super funky drummer, it was awesome to watch White deftly switch from blazing White Stripes rockers including “Seven Nation Army,” to tender ballads and everything in-between. After following White’s career as he funneled everything through Meg White in the Stripes, bounced ideas off of Brendan Benson in the Raconteurs, and ran the show from the drum throne in the Dead Weather, it was awesome to see Jack back out front with a completely cool-looking and hot-sounding ensemble.  --Jimmy Leslie

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