The 2nd Annual Outside Lands Festival: Sun, Surf and Syrah

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The 2nd Annual Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco this past August benefited from a combination of improved planning and the luck of some of the nicest weather the city had seen all summer. The result was a far more pleasant and exciting experience for festivalgoers at this food, wine and music extravaganza.

I started my first day at the festival early, as I was unsure how complicated using public transportation in a strange city would be. To my surprise, I was able to catch a single city bus two blocks from my hotel and ride several miles down the colorful Haight Street district to within a short walking distance to the festival box office. Volunteers and city planners had worked long hours to devise an efficient strategy for funneling fans to and from the venue. A fading tropical wave from Baja, Mexico sent an unusual weather pattern over the region, making it feel more like Miami than the historically foggy City by the Bay.

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The venue for the festival is extraordinary, taking up about a third of the massive Golden Gate Park. Once inside, it’s hard to believe you’re in the middle of a large city. Giant trees and grassy meadows block out any view of outside buildings, and the festival is arranged around the topography so that each group of stages has its own unique look and feel. There were many secluded areas and empty meadows nearby for those in need of respite from the music. Thanks to the efforts of innovative organizers, Outside Lands truly becomes a world unto itself.

Much more than a purely musical event, this year’s Outside Lands featured some of San Francisco’s finest restaurants offering up some of their most sumptuous dishes. Dozens of different cuisines were on offer, from delicious combination plates of Indian curries to fresh seafood like Hawaiian poke and shucked oysters. More standard fare like gourmet pizza, spicy barbecue and homemade sausages sent savory smells throughout the park. All manner of deserts from Ben and Jerry’s ice cream to fresh baked cookies kept fans’ sweet tooths satisfied. The festival also featured a giant wine-tasting tent called “Winehaven.” With over 30 wineries participating, it was a Lolapalooza for oenophiles. I tried more syrah and pinot noir — my particular grapes of choice — than I had ever seen assembled in one place.

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Besides the wealth of food and drink available, there were also loads activities on hand, including a comedy and vaudeville tent; pitching and batting cages; Heineken and Intel areas, disco tents and video games. The most high-profile video game on show was the newly-released Beatles “Rock Band,” with many kids lining up to play their favorite songs.

After some delicious Indian food and my first round of wine tasting at Winehaven, I sauntered over to the Solar stage which is powered entirely by solar panels. This stage was host to some of the most intriguing new acts to appear at the festival. Malaysian singer Zee Avi played pleasing songs with a fresh new voice, and switched between strumming a guitar and a ukulele. Then I rushed back over to the main stage to catch a rocking and energetic set by the Silversun Pickups, followed by Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears back at the Solar. Often compared to Howlin’ Wolf or James Brown, Lewis is a young singer/guitarist with an eons-old soul.

9v5_got_6Then it was back to the Sutro stage for what became the highlight of my day: a set by Tom Jones. The promoters were asking for band suggestions when I corresponded with them last year about their inaugural event. I mentioned that I’d just seen Jones perform in Las Vegas and would love to see him perform in front of a younger audience. Playing a shorter set than his legendary marathon shows, Jones wisely started with a few hard-rocking tunes, before settling into his more mainstream hits. This near septuagenarian still has one of the strongest voices in the music business, at times wailing like an young Robert Plant and at others adopting a deep, gospel-inspired baritone. The fans went wild, throwing dozens of pairs of underwear — both male and female — onto the stage.

When I was growing up in Florida, my imagination was captured by a story I read about a Woodstock-like music festival called Mar y Sol. The festival took place in Puerto Rico by a famous surfing beach named Los Tubos. I thought that it must be heaven on earth to attend a three-day music festival within earshot of good surfing waves. So it was a great surprise to find that the Outside Lands’ main stage was only blocks away from one of the best surfing beaches in California.

It may not be the warm tropical paradise I envisioned in my dreams, but it was pretty close, and I heard that there was an early big-winter swell headed to Ocean Beach the second day of the festival. Paddling out by the huge Seal Rock, a strong riptide aided me in accessing six to eight barreling breakers. The waves were the scariest and most powerful I had seen since last winter at Rincon. A few miles to the south, even larger ones could be seen breaking nearly a mile out to sea. A few surfers dodged the outside sets looking like flies on a windscreen. After an exciting but humbling surf session, I was dropped off at the entrance to Outside Lands, dressed in a t-shirt and jeans and covered with fresh ocean salt. I made my way into the festival and straight into the Winehaven tent for more syrah to enjoy the rest of day-two, with sets by the Black Eyed Peas and Atlanta-based heavy metal band Mastodon.

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A sleepy shroud of fog returned to Golden Gate Park for the third and final day of the festival. The cooler weather, combined with the earlier cancellation of headlining supergroup the Beastie Boys, lead to a smaller crowd at the festival than the previous two days. Hot coffee and wine replaced cold beer and ice cream as more popular fare on this typically San Franciscan day. Closing out the festival were performances by Ween, masterful blues vocalist Bettye Lavette (whose rendition of her 1965 hit “Let me Down Easy” nearly brought me to tears), techno disco diva M.I.A., and Band of Horses. About 15,000 devoted fans waited out the cold, drizzly conditions to catch the grand finale of comedy rockers Tenacious D.

Overall, this year’s Outside Lands Festival was a huge success. Melding superior food and drink and breathtaking scenery with stellar surf and an eclectic roster of performers, it shatters every staid notion of how live music should be experienced. Through creative, outside-the-box planning and cutting-edge technology, Outside Lands has changed the traditional concert landscape for both fans and performers. If you have to go to one music event next year, make sure it’s this one.

To find out more about Outside Lands, visit www.sfoutsidelands.com

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