Everything about the third annual Outside Lands festival seemed smaller.
Most notably, it was a two-day production as opposed to the three-day fandangos held in 2008 and '09. There were also fewer bands and less stages than in the past.
And the headliners at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park were definitely smaller -- Saturday's top act was the Grateful Dead spinoff Furthur, while Sunday's main draw was Kings of Leon. Just to be clear, those two headliners, although appealing in their own ways, aren't exactly Radiohead, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, the Dave Matthews Band, the Black Eyed Peas or Pearl Jam, all of which performed at previous festivals.
Correspondingly, expectations for this event didn't seem quite as high. The buzz leading up to the festival was quieter, in comparison to the ruckus that raged around the prior two Outside Lands, and it was difficult to find fans that were really looking forward to the show.
It's hard to say exactly how all that affected attendance, since promoters don't make those figures available Saturday. Plus, the physical layout had been reduced so dramatically -- with the loss of the two stages usually erected in Lindsay Meadow -- that there was no point in trying to compare the density of this year's crowd to what was seen in 2008-09. Suffice it to say that the lines for the restrooms and concessions Saturday seemed significantly smaller, which was definitely a good thing for concertgoers.
In keeping with the trend, the most enticing part of the 2010 Outside Lands may well have been the plethora of small-venue "night" shows that took place mainly on Friday. Indeed, the top ticket of the entire festival was Levon Helm's sold-out gig Friday at the newly remodeled Independent, which featured guest stars Phil Lesh (Furthur) and Jim James (My Morning Jacket).
Helm was also one of the distinct highlights on Saturday. The drummer, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 as a member of The Band, drew one of the larger crowds of the afternoon to watch his group perform both Band classics and folksy covers, such as the heart-wrenching ballad "Long Black Veil."
One thing that this festival certainly wasn't short on was variety. While thousands sang along the classic rock being pumped out by Helm's ensemble, nearly as many bounced along to the juicy electronic beats spun by the Bay Area's own trip-hop sensation Bassnectar. After those acts finished, fans could watch My Morning Jacket combine indie-pop and jam-rock, catch Wolfmother do its best Led Zeppelin imitation or hear Cat Power sing equally enchanting and disarming ballads.
The schedule looked even more eclectic for Sunday. Top offerings included soul titan Al Green, neo-psychedelic avengers Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, reggae-rockers Slightly Stoopid, all-star jammers Garage A Trios, indie-pop buzz band Phoenix, punk legends Social Distortion and, of course, Top 40 hit-men Kings of Leon.
What's not to like?
Well, for one thing, it's really difficult to go back and forth between stages at Outside Lands. The two main stages are located very far away from each other, some 10 city blocks apart, and doing the 20-minute walk between them gets rather old, rather quick. Trying to catch, say, the Temper Trap as well as the Devil Makes Three -- two acts scheduled during roughly the same time on Sunday -- would mean missing most of both.
Of course, the Deadheads didn't do much moving around on Saturday. Some just got to the festival early, got a good spot by the main stage and waited several hours until it was time for Furthur, featuring original Grateful Dead members Phil Lesh and Bob Weir.
That's mighty understandable -- the chance to hear Dead tunes performed in Golden Gate was tantamount to a time-machine trip back to the Summer of Love and, thus, the biggest draw of the 2010 Outside Lands. Furthur didn't disappoint the tie-dyed masses as they jammed through such Dead staples as "Fire on the Mountain," "Terrapin Station" and "Loser" as well as a patchouli-scented cover of Pink Floyd's "Time." Yet, Furthur's set still felt a bit anticlimactic, given that the true jam-band event of the summer in the Bay Area -- Phish's sold-out three-night stand at the UC Greek in Berkeley -- had just happened a few days prior.
Those that tuned into Furthur missed a fine set by the Strokes, the garage-rock act that came to fame with 2001's landmark "Is This It." The only band that really topped the Strokes on Saturday was Gogol Bordello, the wild gypsy punk-rock troupe that is touring in support of one this year's best albums, "Trans-Continental Hustle."
The festival didn't feel like the big deal that it was in 2008-09. Yet, it did provide just enough diverse thrills to make us look forward to Outside Lands 2011.
Read Jim Harrington's Concert Blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts/.