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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Outside Lands Day 1: Phish Ignites Golden Gate Park, MGMT Disappoints

Posted By on Sat, Aug 13, 2011 at 10:08 AM

Phish at Outside Lands - CHRISTOPHER VICTORIO
  • Christopher Victorio
  • Phish at Outside Lands

Outside Lands Friday: Phish

Lotus, Foster the People, MGMT

August 12, 2011

@ Golden Gate Park

Better than: Any other foggy San Francisco afternoon.

In some way that must ring true for thousands of fans, Phish proves the existence of a cosmic justice in the music universe -- most great bands and guitar players carry an aura about them of celebrity, of differentness, of something almost unreachable.

Phish, on the other hand, manages to shred up a storm yet still remain as uniconic and unromantic as possible -- Trey Anastasio (guitar, lead vocals), Mike Gordon (bass, vocals), Jon Fishman (drums), and Page McConnell (keyboards) look like, in another life, they would work at an accounting firm with your brother-in-law. There's something comforting about knowing that the universe has bestowed its most impressive talents on guys who could easily be your neighbors, and would probably be much less cool than you if they weren't jaw-droppingly good musicians.

  • Phish

As reigning musical jam-lords, Phish was slated for two sets on the first day of Outside Lands, each about 90 minutes long. From the moment the band walked onstage, the massive crowd -- which skewed a bit younger than we expected -- was smitten.

The first set stuck closer to structured songs rather than jams, starting with "Kill Devil Falls," "Wilson," "The Funky Bitch," and "The Moma Dance." As the set drew to a close, the band began to open up and explore its grooves more deeply. That looseness and adventurousness continued into the jam-packed (hah!) second set, which began with an impressive extended cover of Lou Reed's "Rock 'n' Roll." The band also covered David Bowie's "Life on Mars."

Highlights included Phish's lush, grand take on Richard Strauss's famous "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (better known as "That Song at the Beginning of 2001") and "Julius," one of the band's originals.

  • Phish

As was to be expected, Phish's set was indulgent and meandering, as the band worked through extended grooves and guitar solos, but the group's cohesiveness (not to mention Anastasio's superb guitar playing) kept the music continuously dynamic, focused, and ear-grabbing. Equally predictably, the band's light show matched the music flawlessly and probably gave optical orgasms to thousands of audience members, courtesy of Phish lighting designer Chris Kuroda.

Somewhat surprisingly (and pleasantly so), the band's sound from both up close and further away was excellent for such a large venue, no small feat for the festival's sound engineers.

  • MGMT

Perhaps the biggest contrast to Phish was MGMT, who performed on the main stage immediately before. Although a spirited performance of "Time to Pretend" early in the set energized the crowd (most of which was running over from the just-ended Foster the People set), the band plateaued, meting out uninspired and rather boring efforts in what was probably the worst high-profile performance of the day. (Even "Electric Feel" was forgettable, a far cry from the song's seductively sexy sound on Oracular Spectacular.) The group skipped "Kids," opting to close instead with "The Handshake," whose heavy, dirty groove was admittedly the set's high point.

Just before MGMT, Foster the People impressively and somewhat unexpectedly filled the Sutro Stage, the festival's second largest, despite playing fairly early in the day. Clearly flattered and even a bit shocked by the high turnout, the band veered between several genres, at times sounding like a much better version of MGMT ("Call It What You Want") and other times sticking to an almost classic sounding pop rock ("Don't Stop (Color on the Walls)").

Unlike MGMT, Foster the People deigned to play its biggest hit, "Pumped Up Kicks." Live, the song lost many of the dark, echo-y overtones of the recording and emerged as a cheery, almost upbeat singalong, despite its creepy lyrics.

Foster the People
  • Foster the People

Between songs, singer Mark Foster recalled attending a party soon after moving to Los Angeles, when he was first learning to write music. "I went to a party, and Rivers Cuomo from Weezer was there," he said. He made Cuomo listen to one of his admittedly terrible songs, and Cuomo gave him tips and helped him improve his songwriting skills. "Four days ago, I found out that Weezer has been covering our song, 'Pumped Up Kicks,'" he said, adding that it was only fitting that his band cover "Say It Ain't So" in return.


As soon as the familiar chords echoed from the stage, fans fleeing to MGMT came scrambling back to hear the cover, which was good fun but lacked the heavy, distorted intensity that makes it one of Weezer's best. Regardless, Foster's sincerity -- both in telling this story and in his vocal appreciation for the huge crowd -- endeared him to the crowd.

Earlier in the day, synth-dance-jam band Lotus brought some color to the gray San Francisco afternoon with a sound somewhere between Phish, MGMT, and electronica.

Critic's Notebook

Weirdest (and first) sight of the day: A procession of people with mime make-up and traditional Scottish garb carrying a coffin through the park.

Best food we tried: Fried plantain and black bean burrito from the Little Chihuahua.

Cutest couple: The guy: a toy giraffe neck and head (complete with trucker hat and hipster sunglasses) on the end of a stick. The girl: a matching giraffe tail.


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