- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 02 September 2008
I got inside at about 2:30 on Saturday and headed straight to the Avenues Stage to see Oakland's hip-hop heavyweights in The Coup. These folks throw hay-makers from the time they hit the stage to the time they leave a crater in its place. The line-up was a leaner version than the one I'm used to, but the decline in membership was countered by the ferocity of those present giving us a rawer sound that worked well with their message. I made it in time for "Get That Monkey Off Your Back" and a couple of more favorites off of their epic "Pick A Bigger Weapon" album.
Boots Riley, and company, rock as hard as any band around and today they did it with a guitar, bass, drums and vocals just like in the old days. Almost. Someone was cueing up the occasional sample from somewhere. I could never figure out where they were coming from, but they were on time and appropriate to the song so hats off from me. The overall sound was crispand clear, and the bass was not at all overwhelming which is always a concern for me at a live hip-hop event. The Coup finished their set on time and then Boots took some time to get his point across. He reminded us that you can't vote for change, that you have to make it yourself. That it is not the will in a politician's heart, but the will of the people that spurs action. Boots Riley is a man with a lot to say, and I'm always happy to be around when he says it. I only wish that The Coup had played a late night show in town so that I could have heard more from him.
At this point, I left the Avenues Stageand headed over to the Lands End Stage to stake out a spot for Tom Petty. I was five hours early, and Galactic's Crescent City Soul Krewe had just gotten started when I set up camp next to one of the Meyer Sound speaker towers. The company is based in Berkeley as is Another Planet, so I was happy to see local businesses working together on a project like this. The folks at Meyer did a respectable job too as all of the bands could be heard far and wide all day with relatively little "bleeding" from one stage to the next. I felt like I was getting a good mix from the main speakers as well as the tower so I remained in my spot for the rest of the afternoon.
The Soul Krewe consisted of the boys in Galactic with the Dirty Dozen Horns for most of the set. Cyril Neville came out eventually to sing on "Gossip," which was his only single release as a solo artist, and a few others including "Big Chief" by Earl King. The music was as celebratory as New Orleans music often is, but I wasn't particularly moved by the sounds from this stage yet. I might have preferred to see Neville with his family band or Dirty Dozen by themselves as the ensemble's sound was a little crowded for my taste.
A licensed '60's legend was next on the bill,and the hippies started rolling in with the fog. I saw one aging hippie introduce two friends who shared the same first name. He smiled vaguely and shook his head the whole time as if this were the most mystifying experience of his life. Generally, the hippies were well represented though not as numerous as one might expect. They made their presence felt more with their props which consisted mostly of sunflowers, jester hats, & hula hoops. The older ones were still comfortably attired in their tie-dyes as if they hadn't gotten the memo about that one. I was prepared for those folks, and for the frat crowd, but I was a little taken aback by the number of babies in attendance. These little guys came in a wild variety of shelters, transports, harnesses and the like. The traditional baby carriage has gone the way of the dinosaur, I guess. The infants were a very agreeable lot, by and large, though not as generous with their goods as some.
Stevie Winwood took the stage with his band promptly at 4:10 and entertained us with a set of songs that was conspicuously absent of any '80's hits. He immediately locked in with a Santana vibe much to the delight of the congregation, as he played some Traffic favorites and some from his newest release, "Nine Lives." "Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys" was a highlight for me as he tweaked the arrangement and spread out into his next number without missing a beat. Everyone knows that Winwood can light up an organ, but today his guitar playing was a revelation. He played the parts on "Dirty City" that Eric Clapton handles on the recording where I could scarcely tell the difference. Winwood's solos were never flashy or busy. He played mostly blues scales with lots of sustainand distortion - just how I like it. His band played "Dear Mr. Fantasy" as a trio to close their set,and people started to get a little rowdy. Some of the folks in attendance had probably seen the Grateful Dead cover that song from the exact spot where they were standing. By now, the air was fragrant and cool, but Ben Harper had a hot stage to step onto.
Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals was the band that I was the least enthusiastic about going in, but I gotta say, the guy puts on quite a show. His fans are devout and he brings a certain amount of religious zeal to his performance. "Better Way" was a powerful opener,but he really didn't let up from there. "Diamonds On The Inside" was a crowd favorite, but his cover of Bill Wither's "Use Me" was the climax of his set for me. It's tough to conceive of a funkier bass line, but the moment seemed somewhat lost on those around me. Still, I thought it was a fitting tribute to one of the pioneers of popular African-American message music. Perhaps we can coax Withers himself out of retirement for next year's party...
Speaking of a party: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers were up next and they brought the night to an astonishing close. It's nice to see a younger band like the Innocent Criminals acquit themselves so nicely in such an arena, but the Heartbreakers take good taste and musicianship to another level entirely. No one overplays or steps on each others' toes. Mike Campbell is officially a Rock God by now as he took solos from the far end of the stage and played a double-neck Telecaster on some choice tunes. Petty wanders around with arms aloft like cartoon royalty between songs, and it all seems 100% for real.
The band opened with "You Wreck Me," closed with "American Girl,"and played sixteen songs in between. They had the crowd with them every second of the way. This is remarkable because they lost sound entirely three times during "Honey Bee" alone, and no one stopped singing or smiling during the outage. (I heard that Radiohead suffered the same fate on Friday though I was not present to witness it personally.) Petty brought Steve Winwood onstage & the Heartbreakers served as his backing band for Blind Faith's classic "Can't Find My Way Home" & the Spencer Davis Group's "Gimme Some Lovin." This was the highlight of the festival for me and the band could have shut it down after that, but they still had plenty left in the tank to finish us off with. By the time they stopped playing, the Heartbreakers had helped everyone forget about the chilly conditionsand left everyone smiling. I, for one, still wanted more, but I was thankful for having been there at all. It seemed to me like something really special had happened and I'm already looking forward to running the tape in my head for days to come.
Sunday was a bit of a disappointment for me, possibly because I had been so moved the night before, but more likely because every band that I wanted to see was scheduled against each other. I'd decided to see Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings instead of my hometown heroes in the Drive-By Truckers. I've seen the Truckers countless times, and missed the Dap-Kings every time I've had a chance to check them out. I made my way to the Sutro Stage to see the first fifteen minutes of the Trucker's set,and never made it back. I should have known better than to try to leave once they'd started. They're too good to miss and it was too troublesome to move between the two stages.
This is the trade-off for having great sound at an outdoor festival: You're going to have to cover some ground to get where you're going. You can't have the stages too close or you'll end up with a battle for sound supremacy. Meanwhile, your favorite acts are starting or finishing their sets while you're in transit. I decided to pick a stage and stick with it, though I might have done it a little differently with the advantage of hindsight. The Truckers had some sound issues of their own, though they avoided the blackouts that plagued the headliners' sets. They soldiered on like the true road warriors they areand seemed to be having a good time doing it. Shonna Tucker, the group's bassist, took a vocal turn on "I'm Sorry Huston"and told some audience members that they were "too sweet... or too drunk" afterwards. Patterson Hood, the Trucker's most visible leader, took some time to endorse our Democratic candidate for the next presidency, while Mike Cooley & John Neff looked cool and played guitars. The Trucker's set was brief by their standards, and I got the impression that they were just getting warmed up when they quit. So it goes in festival land...
Widespread Panic came on next,and they were the second band in a row on the Sutro Stage to represent Athens, Georgia's vibrant music scene. I've seen these guys an embarrassing amount of times,and they are true professionals, but it wasn't happening for me on Sunday. They often treat their fans to a couple of rare selections during most shows, but the setlist was devoid of any surprises where I felt like they were hindered by time constraints too. They normally play two sets with at least one encore, but were relegated to the one extended set for this festival. Couple that with their lack of a light showand you've got a sub-standard Widespread experience on your hands.
These guys play multiple shows in a row without repeating a song,and I was hoping for some sort of nod to their historic surroundings, but none was forthcoming. Every artist has a right to play anything they want at whatever time, and no one should be held back by their audience's expectations. Panic has been doing this for over 20 years now so I'm sure they had a plan in mind. Maybe they wanted to ease into their new tour. Or maybe I was a little overzealous with my predictions for their first gig (to my knowledge) in Golden Gate Park. Or maybe they were annoyed at the first sounds from another stage that invaded their space during a quieter segment of "Her Dance Needs No Body."
I tried to make it over to the Twin Peaks Stage to see some of Wilco's set after Widespread Panic, but I couldn't get close enough to hear very well. They were working out on the triple guitar attack of "Impossible Germany" when I made my approach. Their crowd was as doting as ever and I'm always up for watching Jeff Tweedy's miniature comedy routines between songs, but I was pretty well spent by this point. Tom Petty had left a hard hole to fill on the main stage the night before & Jack Johnson didn't sound up to the task from where I was standing. You couldn't have told that to any of the women in the audience. They love him, and are much more suited to report on his set than I am. I don't know the name of one song. I mean it.