12:35pm: It’s overcast and I’m sick and the media line is motionless. This is a hell of a way to start a party. We’re checking our clocks because we want to see this band called Electric Six play a song about a gay bar and they start in five minutes but some mouth-breather up front must have spelled his name wrong or something because our progress has brick-walled. I came here with two goals: too much music and too much booze, and our current lack of credentials is making a mockery of them both. This will not stand. But we will. In line. Waiting.
1:05: We finally get our wristbands and push through the herd to the side gate. With me are Victoria, Patrick, and David, all of whom are consummate professionals. As such, our first stop is the beer tent. Thanks to forward planning, we have “VIP Media Special Access” to something called the Freedom Lounge, which is a tent sponsored by a multi-national bank with a dubious public image. The VIP area is an outdoor garden with white couches and canopies and private bathrooms and, of course, free booze. I suspect this is a Hail Mary viral marketing campaign to ply the media with alcohol—“maybe if we get those losers plastered they’ll write something nice about us.” But I’m not biting. Not only do I have a massive tolerance, I also understand cost-shifting. Remember your last overdraft fee? You just paid for my beers. Thanks buddy!
2:15: First up is a drum and DJ duo known as Pretty Lights. We arrive to find a DJ, but no drums. I feel deceived. Some of David’s friends show up. They work for online magazines and other questionable outfits. Everyone agrees that this is excellent dance party music. We watch a few songs. Unfortunately, it’s much too sober out to enjoy it. Next.
2:40: I’m navigating the dork wreckage in the press tent when I notice Eugene Hutz from Gogol Bordello. He’s doing a video interview in the corner. I point him out to David, because I know David wants to ask him a question, and I am one thousand percent in favor of it: “Hey Eugene, what would you do if a pigeon shat in your mouth onstage?” I see the Pitchfork logo on the interviewer’s mic and realize that Mr. Hutz might actually be qualified to answer this. We decide to ambush him on the way out. Victoria has her camera ready, and David has his microphone out, and it’s pretty obvious what we’re planning, and his handler notices and jumps up and starts yelling about stage time or something like that, and we’re distracted, and by the time we look back, the singer has vanished into the air like a gypsy. A half hour later, he reappears on stage with his band and proceeds to tear it up. It was one of the best sets of the festival. I guess sometimes questions answer themselves.
4:15: I’ve never seen Bassnectar before, and it turns out, this guy is amazing. Imagine drowning under a massive wave of bass. If that sounds like a death you’d enjoy, let me recommend Bassnectar. But just as we’re getting into it, the sound cuts out. Ten minutes in and bam—silence. The audience is left drenched and confused and wanting more bass. By the time the roadies figure out which plug came loose, Victoria and I are leaving. We consider staying, but our drinks are running low and there is no guarantee that the booze in press tent will last until dark. Next time, Bassnectar. Next time.
6:40: I’ve never liked Wolfmother, and their set isn’t changing my opinion. Every song sounds like the White Stripes covering “Hole In The Sky.” I demand variety in my White Stripes Sabbath covers. I’ve also never been comfortable with the look of the band. Their haircuts are killing me. They remind me of the Rice Krispies elves, but with more leather. Wait a minute—leather-clad cereal elves playing 70s stoner rock? That sounds amazing. I’m so confused. I need another beer.
7:25: Further feat. Phil Lesh and Bob Weir is up next. From the late sixties to the mid-seventies, the Grateful Dead were an absolute psychedelic hurricane. They were untouchable. Even though it’s 2010, and Further is maybe a psychedelic breeze, I still want to watch them do their thing. The lineup includes Phil and Bobby and some other guys who are notable for the fact that they weren’t in the Dead. They play “Cassidy” and “Loser” and everything is flowing pretty well, but I keep getting distracted by a guy in a custom airbrushed Avatar shirt dancing like asshole in front of me. My God, does my taste in music put me in league with people like this? The thought is too grim to handle. The Strokes are playing across the park. I decide to cut my losses and head over.
8:50: Clearly I’ve made the right decision. The Strokes are on fire. The energy is palpable; the audience is floating on electricity. This is where it’s at tonight. It’s dirty New York rock in Golden Gate Park and it works. The east coast is crashing down on the west. Tall and hunched and wearing denim and sunglasses, Julian Casablancas is channeling the spirit of Joey Ramone and Lou Reed—the New York thing. It’s iconic. Even though it’s been four years since The Strokes toured, the performance couldn’t be tighter. The songs are alive. It’s the perfect end to the day. Great show. Great band. Good night.
2:20pm: Victoria and I arrive late after being waylaid by the hot tub at my apartment complex. We cut past the line and flash our wristbands at the gate—immediate entry. According to this wristband, I am a member of the media elite. My time is of the essence. The public is hungry for information. Someone has to dictate the opinions that matter. Someone has to sort the signal from the noise. Someone has to create taste. Our first stop is the beer tent. We are not alone. Do you see where this is going?
3:15: Vieux Farka Touré performed at the 2010 World Cup Opening Ceremony. He played for hundreds of millions of viewers. Let me repeat that: hundreds of millions. Today, he’s on the smallest stage at the festival in front of myself and maybe 400 others. To say this show is intimate is an understatement—it’s pretty much like Prince giving you a lap dance. I wonder if the setting is too small for the music. I try to imagine these songs echoing through a South African football stadium. It fits. But vuvuzelas also fit, so I’m not sure what that says. Regardless, Vieux Farka Touré is an amazing performer. I’m lucky to see him here today. In related news, his drummer is also incredibly funky. This is a plus.
3:40: I swing through the Freedom Lounge—which I have renamed the “Freedom From Sobriety Lounge”—to refill my beer. Next up is Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. I arrive just in time hear the band hit the first note. Singer Alex Ebert dives into the audience. The vibes flip from neutral to charged in less than a second. Everyone surges forward. This band knows how to make an impression. It’s not fast music, but it’s catchy. Hands are in the air, and Alex Ebert is wading on top of them, and nine more musicians in neon rags are chugging away on stage, and the whole production has sort of a Nick Cave-hippie-gospel flavor to it. Since I enjoy two out of those three things, I call it a win for the Magnetic Zeros.
4:15: Al Green doesn’t need an introduction. In fact, there’s a rule in music that states if singer performs with a red rose in his hand and after his first song yells “Somebody say Amen!” then by law he doesn’t need an introduction. It’s no accident that the Reverend is scheduled on a Sunday. He is doing the Lord’s work, and service today has attracted a crowd. I push up to the front. The back-up dancers are dressed in purple shirts with white slacks and white shoes. The drummer is wearing a dress shirt and a bow tie. Al Green is tossing roses to the crowd. This is the classiest thing I’ve seen all year. Granted, that’s not a high bar, but still, I appreciate it. Is this what church is like?
6:05: Next up is Phoenix. They won the 2010 Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. Instead of alternative, I’d describe them as “tight minimalist rock with an 80s edge,” or maybe just “French,” but whatever floats your boat. Earlier in the day, David interviewed the band, and Victoria took pictures of them in a tree. They tell me that Phoenix was the backing band for Air in the late 90s. This makes some sense, given the musical ambience they cultivate. But it’s still a stretch. As I watch them perform, I try to imagine their songs at half the speed. It doesn’t work. It seems the band has dropped their French electronic roots in favor of a more American sound. And they’ve done it well. We’ve given them trophies.
8:30: Empire Of The Sun is playing opposite Kings Of Leon, and never before have the lines of good taste been so clearly drawn. Full disclosure: I am triple fisting wine, but I swear to God, when Empire Of The Sun comes on, it’s like watching a UFO land on stage. Do you hear me? A UFO. You may think you don’t like dance music, but when it’s presented like this, I assure you, you do. The stage show is unreal. Imagine Labyrinth-era Bowie meets Aztec-themed Daft Punk…on the moon. Or just drop acid and watch Tron. Either way, you’re close. Maybe I’m a sucker for bright lights and sparkly costumes, but this is the best set I’ve seen all day. Spectacle done right propels the music it supports onto a higher plane, and that is what is happening here. It’s something to witness. I stay until the end, then I find Victoria, and we walk back to the car. Black spots from the lights are drifting across my vision and obscuring the night. I’m dazed. I’m done.
-Written by Erik Thybony & Photographs by Victoria Smith