SAN FRANCISCO — Though the opening day of the second annual Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park was full of young bands trying to make their mark, the day’s music was dominated by a handful of wily veterans lead by headliners and soon-to-be-considered-classic rockers [artist id="1006"]Pearl Jam[/artist].
The seminal grunge outfit — about to release their ninth studio album, Backspacer — turned in a two-hour set full of hits, passion and none of the power outages that marred Radiohead’s set at the same time and place last year. Eddie Vedder mentioned early on that the band’s current tour, which wrapped with this show, had taken a toll on him and his voice, but his fans were more than happy to help out on favorites like “Black” and “Better Man.” Mike McCready’s no-look, over-the-head solo during “Even Flow” proved that these guys could play these songs in their sleep, but the band seemed genuinely excited to be out there (especially the pogoing McCready), and they reserved a special energy for new tracks like “The Fixer.” Pearl Jam began to close their set with “Alive” before coming back with a Neil Young double-shot of “Throw Your Hatred Down” and “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
Just in case anyone needed proof of Pearl Jam’s influence on alternative rock, Incubus played right before them and showed off why it just put out a hits disc, getting the crowd riled up with songs like “Megalomaniac” and “Stellar.” Like Vedder, [artist id="1303"]Incubus[/artist] singer Brandon Boyd attributed his vocal weakness to a combination of fatigue (they were also ending their tour at Outside Lands) and a cold, but his decision to take his friends’ advice to drink wine seemed like a good one.
Still, even Pearl Jam didn’t get as many onstage shout-outs as Built to Spill. Vedder himself thanked the band by name and [artist id="1969383"]Silversun Pickups[/artist] frontman Brian Aubert twice referred to them as “one of the best f—ing bands ever.” Unfortunately, neither of those compliments made up for the fact that Doug Martsch and Company’s set just wasn’t loud enough. With three guitarists in tow — and Martsch being one of the noisier guitar heroes on the scene — one would have hoped that a festival setting would help make Built to Spill’s songs larger than life. Instead, “Car,” “You Were Right,” and “Big Dipper” remained little more than nice pop songs.
The volume didn’t stay low for long, though. Perhaps the only indie-rock group with enough volume to open for Metallica (which it did at this year’s South By Southwest festival), Silversun Pickups brought bucketfuls of sweet distortion to its mid-afternoon set. Singer Brian Aubert tends to know exactly when to let loose for added effect, while bassist Nikki Monninger — whose purple dress matched Christopher Guanlao’s drums — does a good job of shooting the crowd coy smiles to remind everyone that even as they’re laying out “Future Foe Scenarios,” they’re here to have a good time. Not surprisingly, the band ended its set with their big hit “Lazy Eye,” but it was “There’s No Secrets This Year” from this year’s Swoon that perfectly displayed their delicate balancing act between anthemic pop and scuzzy shoegaze grooves.
But the grooviest — and perhaps most surprising — tunes on Friday came from old-school sex-bomb Tom Jones, who turned in a unique hour of hits and shoulder shakes. The 69-year-old silver fox with matching goatee was assisted by a solid band that included a horn section and backup singers who helped Sir Tom make the most of hits like “What’s New Pussycat,” “She’s A Lady,” and of course “It’s Not Unusual.” But he saved the best for last: a show-closing cover of Prince’s “Kiss,” aided by Jones’ decision to take the “think I better dance now” line quite literally.
Jones’ performance — as well as those of Pearl Jam, Incubus, Silversun Pickups and Built to Spill — captured the free-spiritedness of San Francisco that Ouside Lands tries so harness. So far, so good.