In its fifth year, Outside Lands grows up in many ways 

click to enlarge Weekend in the park: James Hetfeld and Metallica were one of Outside Lands’ headliners. Other featured performers included Norah Jones, the Foo Fighters, and Big Boi. - JOSEPH SCHELL/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Joseph Schell/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • Weekend in the park: James Hetfeld and Metallica were one of Outside Lands’ headliners. Other featured performers included Norah Jones, the Foo Fighters, and Big Boi.

In its fifth year of existence, the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival has fully realized its artistic and commercial potential.

It’s not as if the first four festivals lacked appeal, but in the wake of last year’s near-capacity crowds, festival organizers apparently planned for the completely full house that they announced last week. In response, they took an already-compelling experience and enhanced it, adding a compelling comedy lineup, expanded bike parking, and separate new concession areas dedicated to beer and chocolate.

Music, of course, remains the primary appeal. As in years past, the lineup lacked cohesion when first announced. Metallica, Stevie Wonder and Neil Young looked like nostalgia acts. And even alongside the Foo Fighters, Norah Jones and Jack White, they seemed to appeal to wildly different audiences. But then the organizers unveiled the day-by-day lineup, and suddenly it was possible for music lovers to program a personal festival suited to their own tastes.

Outside Lands excels due to its inspiring setting, novel diversions, great food and drink, and Another Planet Entertainment’s world-class logistics. But it’s the thematic unity that invariably unites the programming that ultimately makes the festival such a rewarding source of musical discovery.

Take the Sutro Stage in Lindley Meadow, which Friday alone hosted indie luminaries Sharon Van Etten, Reggie Watts, The Walkmen and Andrew Bird, and was home of some of 2012’s musical highlights. Iceland’s Of Monsters and Men — whose collegial joy is reminiscent of Arcade Fire or The New Pornographers — attracted a huge throng of people entering the festival. Modesto’s venerable Grandaddy — imagine an indie rock Beach Boys that sings about small appliances instead of surfing — turned in an exquisite if criminally underappreciated set.

Outside Lands and Golden Gate Park concert veteran Beck, attired for the weather in a  black leather jacket, worked through his eclectic catalog, concentrating on songs from the albums “Odelay,” “Guero,” “Modern Guilt” and “Sea Change” and covering Young and Bob Dylan.

On Saturday, the unheralded Father John Misty — drummer for Seattle’s twee Fleet Foxes — electrified the Panhandle Stage with a rollicking set whose energy level outstripped the demure folk-rock of his new CD. Misty, the stage name of Joshua Tillman, should backburner his day job; he and his incredibly tight band can carry a whole festival.

Iceland also brought us Sigur Rós, whose nighttime set in foggy Hellman Hollow started slowly but soon cascaded into a thundering crescendo of symphonic prog-rock. Oddly enough, they would have been right at home backing up the triumphant Neil Young and Crazy Horse, who stretched several songs into extended feedback dirges lasting more than 20 minutes. How is it possible that Crazy Horse rocks harder today than it did back in 1969?

While Young and Crazy Horse entertained rockers at the Polo Field, French electronic duo Justice (Xavier de Rosnay and Gaspard Augé)  packed Hellman Hollow with fans eager to hear dance music from the group’s two albums, “Cross” and “Audio, Video, Disco.”

And Sunday, well, everyone was invited, and that made for the best set ever. Bomba Esterio’s infectious Colombian beat immobilized everyone within earshot. Bloc Party tore it up. Stevie Wonder preached the gospel of President Barack Obama.

And the seductive, siren-voiced weirdo Santigold dropped in from some other dimension to launch a new religion that I’m ready to join. She, not Wonder, is my choice for official music of the Democratic National Convention. It was 1968 all over again.
Staff Writer Leslie Katz contributed to this report.

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