Jimmy Leslie: Guitar Highlights from the Outside Lands Festival in Golden Gate Park, August 12-14, 2011


I look forward to the Outside Lands Festival because there's no better place to soak in a day and evening of music than smack-dab in the middle of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The lineup is always as eclectic as the tastes of its host city, although I admittedly don’t spend much time in the electronica dome—no guitars! The production at Outside Lands is on par with pretty much any major festival, from Bonarroo to Coachella. There have been occasional hiccups such as the power cutting out on Radiohead a few years back, but each year Outside Lands runs more smoothly. That was certainly the case this year, although Leo Nocentelli would surely beg to differ.

Leo Nocentelli's Amp Issues

Whenever all four of the original Meters actually meet up onstage, it's a big deal to them and to legions of funkateers. Unfortunately for Nocentelli, an amp demon struck him on this historic occasion. His Boogie (apparently a backline amp provided by the festival) was only in the mood to play clean, so Nocentelli became "Non Solo." "I apologize for this," he said on the mic. "If I had a decent amp up here, it'd be melting this mother down." The other Meters tried their best to keep Nocentelli cool, lauding him with praises throughout the show. But Leo's bad luck blues made their way into the music, and it consequently suffered. The silver lining for die-hard Meters fans was that they got a chance to hear perhaps the greatest rhythm guitar player of all time focus on that aspect of his playing, rather than resorting to the kind of overblown pentatonic histrionics that have become a big part of Nocentelli's bag in modern times. When they broke down "People Say" for audience participation, Meters fans got a rewarding dose of Nocentelli's rhythmic genius.

Trey O-K

Phish could probably sell out a festival in Golden Gate Park on its own, so having them at the top of an already interesting Friday bill was like a huge cherry on the Outside Lands cake. The Alpha hippie band has been back on the jam circuit for a couple of years now, and their cult following danced into the Polo Fields all geeked up over their recent shows in Colorado and Tahoe. Phish played two sets. The first was rather uneventful, other than a spot-on rendition of Frank Zappa's masterpiece, "Peaches en Regalia." The most notable thing about it was the fact that bandleader and lead guitarist Trey Anastasio—who has a penchant for making ten-minute jams out of snippets—kept so true to the original arrangement. The second set was an entirely different story. Anastasio and company returned to the stage under an awesome laser light show, and proceeded to lift the Phish mothership right off the Lands End Stage with endlessly entertaining jams on gems such as epic "Fluffhead" and the climactic "Chalk Dust Torture." I admit to being an original Phish-head who has grown somewhat cold on the band that brought me so much joy so many years ago, but those years peeled away tune by tune as Trey tossed lick after tube-soaked lick straight into my blissing brain.

Muse: The Best and Worst Band at Outside Lands

The band I was most intrigued to see was Saturday-night headliner Muse because I'd heard enough to be interested, but didn't really know much about them. I was in the photo pit when frontman and guitar player Matthew Bellamy leapt onstage from out of nowhere, started pointing at the screaming audience of 14-year-old girls crammed upfront, and then proceeded to put on a Freddie Mercury-like performance that was at once awe-inspiring, and silly over-the-top in an arena rock kind of way. Bellamy is an incredible talent. He's got sound rhythm chops that provided a bedrock foundation for his insane vocal range. He completely owned it when he quoted venerable guitar riffs by Led Zeppelin and AC/CD within his rocking tunes. Bellamy also demonstrated impressive lead chops at times—nothing too fancy, but enough to show he has total command over his instrument. Bellamy rendered cool sonics as well, some of which came by manipulating a built-in Kaoss pad on his Manson guitars. But every time I started thinking that this cat might just be "shaping the future of guitar tone" as printed on the front of his July 2010 GP cover story, Muse would pull an about-face, and launch into some cheesy, '80s-inspired synth pop tune. My crew and I eventually walked away scratching our heads.

Fogerty in Fine Form

Classic rockers who can still bring the noise well into their golden years continue to awe me. One such hero whom I'd yet to witness live was John Fogerty. His energetic performance on the closing day of Outside Lands made my life-long wait well worthwhile because the old man is finally getting down on the road happily belting out his greatest hits after many years of that not being the case. Fogerty was downright childlike in his exuberance plucking out the greasy intro lick to "Green River" on a goldtop Paul, and hitting his hallmark rhythmic leads on "Bad Moon Rising" and "Proud Mary" via a black Paul that sounded as if it were tuned down a whole step. Fogerty even got his EVH on during the intro to "Keep on Chooglin'." He seriously went for some two-hand tapping that—while being a rather hilarious idea—showed just how happy John is to be Fogerty these days, and how much joy he's finding on those six strings. Infectious.

Other notable guitar moments from Outside Lands included an incendiary performance by the Black Keys, and a groovy romp by the Warren Haynes Band. Keys frontman Dan Auerbach conjured the thickest tones of the weekend, some being so drenched in fuzz that one had to wonder if he wasn't melting down the house PA. Haynes' set was interesting because of the musical context in which he threw down his guitar gauntlet. We're all so used to hearing Haynes in a Southern rock setting—either with the Allman Brothers Band or Gov't Mule—that it was cool to hear him getting his groove on in an R&B setting, and that's largely where he's living with his solo band.

Ah, Outside Lands in the park. I can't wait for next August.