Jimmy Leslie: 6-string-centric insights from the 2013 Outside Lands Festival


The guitar story at this year’s Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco didn’t run as deep as previous years, but the headliners provided more than enough promise for an epic weekend. The City by the Bay was all abuzz about McCartney-mania coming to Golden Gate Park atop the Friday night roster. Things got interesting when D’Angelo had to back out for medical reasons just before kickoff, and Chic featuring Nile Rodgers took that pre-McCartney slot. There was plenty of intrigue about how the Red Hot Chili Peppers would sound with new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer. And of course it was going to be interesting to see exactly what would happen when outlaw icon Willie Nelson parked his party vessel smack-dab in the center of the country’s most psychedelic city packing heat in the form of his trusty Martin N-20 “Trigger.”

Outside Lands was again sold out in advance, and year six marked some cool progressions from a site perspective including a rustic outdoor venue with long pews made out of huge logs, the Outside Lambs food court creatively serving fresh sheep, and the Barbary Tent, now in Lindley Meadow, purveying laughs including Comedy Central’s Jeff Ross roasting San Francisco. For the second consecutive year, the Fender Airstream was backstage in the artist village as a professional recording studio and lounge. Out front, attendees visited the Fender Fan Oasis tent stocked with the latest Fender gear and a prize wheel peppered with goodies including a free guitar.

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Nile’s Got Style for Miles

The last-minute addition of Chic featuring Nile Rodgers on was a gift to guitarists. The Chic mastermind put on a slickness clinic. White suit—check. Million-dollar smile—check. Cream-colored Strat with reflective pickgaurd—check. Sick rhythm chops—checkmate!

“Excuse us if this doesn’t seem professional,” said Rodgers standing front and center, “but this is a festival situation and we’re going to do a quick soundcheck. How’s this—can you hear it clear?”

Rodgers hit the slinky opening figure to Chic’s most famous cut, “Le Freak,” and it sounded like a hit all by its lonesome. You could practically hear the full arrangement due to the precise way Rodgers deftly picked out his funky chord fragments. Rodgers’ tone was pristine, but not processed-sounding—just exactly what you would hope to hear out of a Strat plugged into a Fender tube amp. He didn’t hit any gain pedals to check how he’d sound wailing away above the band because it wasn’t relevant. A practically robotic sense of rhythm was the heart of his trip and clearly key to the sleek Chic sound. He rarely strayed from the rails of the groove, and when he did it was often simply to hit a funky figure further up the fretboard for emphasis during a break.

It’s easy to forget how many huge hits Rodgers has under his belt as a player, writer, and producer, and he was there to remind us. “We Are Family,” “Good Times,” and a slamming version of “Let’s Dance” were highlights. Rodgers cut a few notes loose at the end of the Rodgers-produced Bowie smash that featured Stevie Ray Vaughan, but he didn’t venture anywhere near an SRV imitation. When your rhythm is that funky, there’s no need to monkey around.

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Sir Paul Does It All (and hires good help)

Paul McCartney is the most talented musician on the planet—still. The 71-year-old former Beatle and head Wing-man set his personal time machine circa 1971 and jumped around from bass to electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and piano singing all the while for more than two-and-a-half hours. Making the most of every minute allotted including a host of encores, McCartney wowed the crowd with his prowess and pleased all with a set that played like a history of rock and roll itself.

Sir Paul donned a Les Paul crowd with a psychedelic mosaic finish, and he cut sharply into the pentatonic riff on “Let Me Roll It” along with guitarist Rusty Anderson and guitarist/bassist Brian Ray. (Read a GP interview with Ray here.) McCartney played a quick “out” solo on “Roll It” and followed it up with a bit of “Purple Haze.”

“That’s a tribute to the late great Jimi Hendrix,” McCartney announced as he recounted how Hendrix had paid the Beatles “the greatest tribute” when he played “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” a few days after it came out. McCartney then explained that Hendrix used his whammy bar a lot, and told an anecdote about a worried Hendrix on a gig in London hoping Eric Clapton wouldn’t hear him playing out of tune. At that point McCartney fully focused the crowd’s attention on what appeared to be an Epiphone Casino and explained, “I’ve got this guitar out because it’s the one I used to play on the original recording back in the ’60s.” I wasn’t sure if he meant “Sgt. Pepper” or the tune he launched into next, “Paperback Writer,” but either way, he ripped a nice solo on “Paperback,” and he cut a series of searing Chuck Berry-style licks going first during the triple guitar trade-off section right before the end of “The End.”

McCartney spent at least half the evening on acoustic, demonstrating his singular style best on a solo rendition of “Blackbird.” I looked to my left and saw the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir completely captivated. It was an indelible image of a seminal San Franciscan appreciating one of the Brits who started the Invasion and inspired a million guitar players. McCartney was truly amazing—no maybe about it. 

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Dawes Get Dreamy

Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith stretched out on guitar way more during the band’s live set than he does on record. Holding a Fender Telecaster, his lead playing was expressive and lyrical as he rendered improvisational melodies up and down single strings. His rhythm style was right out of the Neil Young playbook—chunky Americana cowboy chords churned out with earnest feeling.

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Willie Nelson Misfires (and is saved by his son)
Willie Nelson and his band of country outlaws have a history of rolling out of their Honeysuckle Rose RV amid wreaths of smoke reeling from copious cannabis consumption and hitting the stage with the grace of a trainwreck, but this instance was particularly puzzling. Nelson clanged out rhythms and leads while his band tried in vain to keep up on “Whiskey River.” It truly sounded as if neither band nor leader could hear the other as one tune crumbled into the next, and the usual group recovery was nowhere to be found. Luckily, Nelson’s son Lukas was there to intervene, and got the wheels back on track when he launched into “Texas Flood,” demonstrating commanding blues chops, wicked tone, and gritty vocals. Mamas, do let your babies grow up to be guitar players!

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Red Hot and New
It’s got to be interesting to land the guitar gig in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It is one of the biggest gigs in rock, but maybe, in a way, there’s not as much pressure as one might expect considering the litany of players who have come and gone over the years, and the fact that the other three guys are so entertaining onstage. Guitarist Josh Klinghoffer is the new new guy, although he’s been a long-time friend of the band and served as second guitarist on much of the Stadium Arcadium tour, so he was able to ease into the job somewhat before joining the core four on 2011’s I’m With You.

He sure seemed comfortable onstage at Outside Lands wielding a variety of guitars, even when drummer Chad Smith and singer Anthony Kiedis cleared out for Klinghoffer and bassist Flea to go toe-to-toe on a dual jam that gradually built up intensity before falling into “Californication.” Klinghoffer delivered an especially dreamy solo near the end, and then he squared off with Smith for a jam on which he used a huge, low octave effect until Flea entered and they took flight together on a rollicking, heady jam in the vein of Pink Floyd’s “One of These Days.” The Peppers closed abruptly with an inspired rendition of “Give It Away” a bit before their listed end time, and they didn’t return. Too bad Paul McCartney wasn’t around to come out and play a few encores for them. —Jimmy Leslie

Photos by Kerri Kelting-Leslie