Insights from inside the Outside Lands Festival

August 29, 2008
The Outside Lands Festival was a big deal because it was like sticking Bonnaroo in the middle of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Radiohead, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Ben Harper, Beck, Wilco, Jack Johnson, and a host of others performed for some 130,000 concertgoers over three days and—for the first time—nights outdoors under the fog. GP has the guitar story, chock full of highlights, awesome photos with insightful captions, plus a bonus acoustic MP3 performance from Best Fresh Faces, Carney.

The festival was named after San Francisco’s far west region—the “outside lands”—as it was called before Golden Gate Park was built in the 1870s. Superfly Presents (Bonnaroo, Vegoose) and local promoter Another Planet Entertainment brought in the best international headliners available, featured a bevy of Bay Area talent on the undercard, and represented the region’s hallmark industries and culture by displaying cutting edge eco and technological innovations, and offering copious local wine and cuisine options. Primus, Cake, ALO, the Mother Hips, Jackie Green, Two Gallants, Howlin’ Rain, Rogue Wave, and many more represented the Bay Area’s notoriously diverse musical tapestry.

Favorite Son
“I’m so proud of San Francisco,” says Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz, who plays guitar with local heroes and jam-band juggernauts ALO (Animal Liberation Orchestra). “It was awesome to see Golden Gate Park transform into a major rock festival, and especially cool at night with the killer stage lighting.” Lebo has a singular perspective on the remarkable event. The versatile acoustic-electric player has lived near Golden Gate Park for five years, ALO kicked off Sunday’s festivities, and Lebo sat in on lap steel and pedal steel guitar with festival closer Jack Johnson. Lebo used to work down the road in Haight Asbury Music’s repair shop, and he’s a great study in how to use effects. He’s particularly adept at hitting, say, a delay for just one note, and then jumping back to funky staccato rhythm playing. We should all try to be as creative and judicious with pedals.

Best Overall Guitar Player
Ben Harper is one of those cats that can handle anything with strings. He demonstrated his versatility within the first three songs of his set. Harper played his signature Asher lap steel (placed on a stand), a vintage Les Paul Special, and a Weissenborn acoustic lap slide. He showed fine capacity and sounded splendid on all three—and later on traditional acoustic as well—but his complete command and singular tone on the Weissenborn was the real showstopper. The heavily amplified sound was thick, gooey, and distorted, yet it also packed a percussive acoustic punch at its heart. Harper manipulated a volume pedal with his right foot while intermittently pumping a wah with his left to create expressive phrases. He demonstrated real zeal via body slapping, string tugging, and leaning hard into his instruments. He also sang so forcefully at times on “Better Way” that I thought his head might explode.

Most Innovative Player
However the hell Johnny Greenwood does what he does in Radiohead is just spellbinding. I couldn’t get close enough to see what exactly he was up to, but I never heard anything close to a cliché. I did catch him striking a bow across a Telecaster or Tele-style guitar. He was constantly working footpedals, and he often disappeared behind his rack of keyboards/electronics. He rendered a glorious array of galactic tones. The set was more cosmic than crazy, but Greenwood went wolverine on his instrument during select dynamic hot spots. Underneath that flop of black hair lies one compelling musical brain.

Most Valuable Player
Nels Cline brought so much to Wilco’s Twin Peaks stage set on Sunday evening. Like Harper, Cline showed his capability on different instruments, including a lap steel, his trademark Fender Jazzmaster, and a Jerry Jones Neptune12-string. He hustled to switch guitars between songs like his life depended on it so as not to disrupt the flow of the set. Like Greenwood, Cline took his band’s music to an entirely different level via distinctive parts and wild effects, which he had placed on a table rather than on the floor. I appreciated being able to see him manipulate them. In fact, when I was watching Cline that evening it dawned on me—he makes Wilco the Radiohead of roots music.

Tastiest Player
Mike Campbell’s guitar playing during Tom Petty & the Heartbreaker’s show was remarkable for many reasons, primarily taste and tone. Whether he was wailing the solo for “You Wreck Me” or playing the melodic line that absolutely makes “Breakdown,” Campbell’s performance was a study in how to hit just the right number of just the right notes. I’d go so far as to say that the best guitar solo of the event was each and every one of Campbell’s. Both he and Petty played through an impressive wall of Vox stacks that sounded killer and looked stylish, and they changed guitars for almost every tune. That’s an exercise in excess for some players, but not these two—especially Campbell. He’s got an uncanny knack for picking the right tool to compliment Petty, and make each song interesting. Excellent examples included an electric sitar guitar for “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” and a Gretsch White Falcon for the slinky slide solo on “Won’t Back Down.”

True Pros
Much respect to Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Radiohead for keeping cool in an uncomfortable situation. The power went out intermittently during both headliners’ sets due to an incompatibility between their respective mixing boards and the venue’s generator power with battery backups. Neither act threw a hissy. They just kept playing. When Petty had to take five to allow the crew to work on the problem, he prevailed by reappearing with Steve Winwood in tow.

Freshest New Faces
Carney features brothers Reeve and Zane Carney, and if there’s any sense of order in the universe, they are going to be household names sometime soon. Reeve played in Jonny Lang’s band for a couple of years, and Zane can be seen in the house band on Last Call with Carson Daly when he’s not touring. Reeve has a Freddy Mercury quality to his voice that comes around once in a generation. His thick rhythm tone holds down the foundation for Carney, while Zane draws on jazzy inspirations to add brighter colors from his blue Telecaster. They have the ability to cover everything from Django-inspired workouts such as “Amelie,” to thunderous rock blues tunes such as “Testify.” Click the link at page bottom to check out their acoustic performance of “Amelie” from the press tent. Carney’s debut EP Nothing Without You [Daslabel] is out now, and their debut full-length is due on Interscope in February. Look for a feature in an upcoming issue of Guitar Player.

Biggest Surprise
Steve Winwood is primarily known for his keyboard prowess. He’s played guitar for a long time, but not like this. Maybe reuniting with Eric Clapton for a few Blind Faith performances has rubbed off on the venerable Englishman because his guitar playing and humongous tone were surprisingly sensational at Outside Lands. Winwood also wins Best Sit-in Performance for his stint with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Winwood led them through an energetic “Gimmie Some Lovin’” and a beautiful rendition of “Can’t Find My Way Home.”

Second Biggest Surprise
Beck played guitar throughout his set including solid rhythm parts and a few awkward leads. He got some great surf-inspired tones and some severe distortion sounds. He’s has his own unique style on the instrument, but it was a bit weird to see such a great frontman on a guitar leash for almost the entire show. 

Most Bizarre Player
Larry LaLonde from Primus wins this one hands down. At times, the sounds emanating from his PRS seemed like they were creeping over from some other band playing in some other key on a nearby stage. It was shocking to watch Ben Harper’s traditional mastery and then wander over to hear LaLonde, Les Claypool, and Tim Alexander tearing tradition to shreds at that opposite end of the park. Primus still sucks!!!

Eye on the Prize Award
This goes to Toots & the Maytals’ Carl Harvey. Watching Harvey locked on his bandleader was a lesson in how to respond to a frontperson’s body language. Harvey never lost focus on Toots, and Harvey was adept at reacting to the reggae originator’s every move with changes in dynamics, tempo, and tenacity.

Real Guitar Hero
Jack Johnson is one of the most successful acts in an ailing music business, and the singer/songwriter/surfer is more than happy to share the spoils with fellow players as he simultaneously does everything he can to prevent people from spoiling the planet. Is there anything better you can do with your dough than start a label, put out music you dig by people you admire, and donate part of each record sale towards conservation? Johnson does just that with Brushfire records. ALO, Donovan Frankenreiter, and Rogue Wave represented Johnson’s Brushfire posse at Outside Lands. I originally thought it was going to be tough for Johnson to follow a bill full of heavyweight bands, but after three days and nights of trekking, I was ready to let relaxed Jack chill me out and take me home. All things considered, he was a fitting closer to a momentous event.

—Jimmy Leslie

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