Outside Lands Day 3-We Have a Winner
It wasn't only about the music, though any time you can see Toots & The Maytals, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, Little Brother and Wilco, back-to-back-to-back-to-back (in the back of the ack), you're entering that sort of rarefied air where the only way to top it is to start throwing out dream scenarios. Like yeah, it could've been better if Jay-Z was backed by the Wailers and started making it rain with $1,000 bills and I grabbed one and then Ray Charles was resurrected and started flying around in a cape whilst singing "Georgia on My Mind." For the most part, if you didn't find something to like yesterday, your best bet is to become a Quaker, or a Shaker, if oatmeal isn't your preferred breakfast.
Indeed, after two days of miserable, melancholy San Francisco gloom casting a pall over Outside Lands, the Sun finally started to dance right around the time that Sharon Jones took the stage, as though it was seemingly impossible not to sway to the Dap-Kings dazzling rhythms. But even before Jones and Co. came on, it was tough not to love the preceding set from legendary roots reggae outfit, Toots & the Maytals, led by the seemingly ageless, 62-year old, Frederick "Toots" Hibbert. Clad in a sleeveless black and rasta-colored leather vest and black pants, backed by three guitarists, two singers, a keyboardist and a drummer, Toots was catnip for the hippie-slanting audience, causing the predominantly Caucasian crowd to start shaking and shimmying with a off-beat series of moves best described as the "Help, I'm On Fire" shuffle. Really, that bad. But Toots was not as the set-list hewed closely to the band's greatest hits, including "Pressure Drop," "Reggae Got Soul," and "54-46," which the crowd likely best knew via the Sublime cover, "5446 That's My Number/Ball and Chain."
Sharon Jones: Ain't Nothing Wrong With That
But legendary reggae artists included, when it comes to the art of live performance nobody in music can fuck with Sharon Jones right now. Maybe Erykah Badu. Maybe Jack White or Jim James. Maybe some other people I can't think of at the moment, but really, there just isn't any amount of hyperbole that could oversell how great Jones is on-stage. The Daptones' neo-soul backing helps, sure. They're razor-sharp, their horns precise and warm, their timing as fluid as the second hand on a Rolex. But Jones seemingly comes from another dimension, where the only comparisons seem to be people you weren't old enough to have seen: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Aretha Franklin in her prime.
Part of it is the voice, ostensibly so bottom-less than you could hear it at the other end of the world. Another part is her graceful dance moves, a spontaneous, limb-flying flurry of shoulder shakes, jazzy jukes, slick shuffles, wild arm gestures, toe-taps and something she calls her "Tina Turner Strut." Did I mention she does this all in high heels? More than anything, it's the sense of fun and celebration that Jones creates. At one point, she brought a guy out from back-stage who'd been trying to flirt with her and sang "Be Easy" to him, as a helpful minder on how to boost his game. At another, she summoned a goofball college kid in a buttoned up dress shirt out of the crowd to dance with her. It made for the day's comic relief, with his stiff spasms so awkward that he seemed perpetually 10 seconds away from "rolling the dice." Every time, I see Sharon Jones at one of these festivals, it seems like she emerges as one of the clear-cut highlights of the weekend. The woman has more swagger than 1,000 gun-toting rappers and if you haven't seen her yet, I highly suggest that you bump her up in your shows-to-catch queue. It's enough to make that old agage about "they don't make them like they used to" seem completely false.
The next act was Little Brother, who did a commendable job in filling in the gap between the high water marks of the weekend: Jones and Wilco. The North Carolina-based duo get a lot of flak in certain quarters for being a little derivative and a little dull. On album, the complaints sometimes ring true. I like all three of their records, but rarely find myself going back to them. At times, they can also sound preachy and the decision to part ways with 9th Wonder was probably a good one, as his Fruity Loops-soul was starting to get repetitive. But when you see these guys in person, it's pretty hard not to root for them.
Little Brother: Not Actually so Little in Person
Thing is, Phonte and Big Pooh do all the little things right. They're passionate on-stage, bounding from one end to the other, constantly striving to stir the crowd. They don't rely on hackneyed hip-hop cliches (i.e. Which side of the crowd is louder, when I say hip, y'all say hop," etc. etc.) They're well-rehearsed, both rapper's chiming in with ad-libs at the right times. Plus, the fact that they love what they're doing comes across in their humble but confident demeanor. In addition to cuts from The Listening, The Minstrel Show and Getback, Phonte and Big Pooh also rhymed over a variety of instrumentals including Prodigy's "Keep It Thoro," Lil Kim's, "Crush on You" Outkast's "Rosa Park's" and Mobb Deep's "Trife Life." It was a fun 40-minute set that validated the Okayplayer set's high appraisal of these guys. Even if they may never stack up to their canonized influences, there's little doubt in my mind that Little Brother are one of the best rap groups to emerge during this decade.
Finally, Wilco, a band often called the American Radiohead, took the Twin Peaks stage to close out the festival two days after its British peer effectively kicked things off. (Jack Johnson was officially Sunday night's headliner, but in the words of Gob Bluth, "C'mon.") Placed in an (probably) inadvertant but direct contrast with Radiohead, Wilco more than aquitted themselves. Playing the "Who's better Wilco or Radiohead" game is like doing the "Beatles or Stones" thing. Both bands are great and saying one is better than the other is pretty much retarded. Who cares? We're lucky to have both. Yet if forced to pick between them, I'd always opt for Wilco, whose performace Sunday night was one of the best I've seen from the band.
In their Kicking Television incarnation, Wilco are practically a super-group and at any given moment, they can slide into the world-crushing Harlem Globetrotters thing, where Nels Cline makes funny faces and wanks off on 28 minute guitar solos and the band locks into their "aren't we all amazing" jam sessions and you have to agree, even if you're looking at your watch and wondering when all this overwhelming virtuousity is going to end. But last night, the band delivered a beautifully, understated performance. Tweedy, clad in a black-shirt, black shades and jeans came out on the acoustic guitar, with a simple steel pedal buffering the mellow, country-folk of "Remember the Mountain Bed" from Mermaid Avenue Volume II.
By song two, "You Are My Face," the band started to press its foot lightly on the gas, with Cline delivering pin-point guitar licks and the band seemingly feeding off the laid-back but excitable crowd and the warm white sun setting slowly in the West. The highlight of the set came early, during "Spiders (Kidsmoke), usually a linchpin of the latter half of Wilco performances, but with only an hour and fifteen minutes allotted, the hypnotic Krautrock-infused jam was deployed early and with maximum effect. Particularly animated, mid-way through the dozen minute-song, Tweedy began clapping his hands and addressing the crowd.
"San Francisco. This is the home of the best concert goers on the planet. I know you guys can clap your hands....Even if you hate Wilco, it's okay, I know you know how to keep rhythm."
In turn, a sea of hands started keeping time and the band descended further into the jam, seamless in their transitions, effortless but never condescendingly winking at the audience. During "Hummingbird" Tweedy dashed around the stage with the youthful joy of a small child. On "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," he conjured the opposite emotion, making a very well-known song played in front of a massive audience sound incredibly personal and vulnerable, especially surrounded by the cracking tape loops and glitchy static. As for "Jesus Etc.," it was pretty much miraculous, yielding the sort of transcendence you really only get from the truly great songwriters. Sure, Sky Blue Sky might've been a little staid compared to Summerteeth, A Ghost is Born and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but even the Million Dollar Man would be hard-pressed to buy a better band than Wilco.