Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

The Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival is unlike any other festival in America, and that’s partially because it reflects its location: San Francisco.

The event, held in Golden Gate Park, is fully greened-up, and the city’s foodie culture is represented in the 65 on-site restaurants, 49 wineries, and 19 breweries. This year, there was even fog.

But for all of that, what Outside Lands is mostly about is the music – more than 60 bands over the course of 3 days — and on Day 1, the music was all about Neil Young.

You could hear Neil’s influence in Two Gallants, a powerful two piece who played early on Friday (and even though there’s no Neil in L.A.’s Fitz and the Tantrums, it was hard not to think the latter were booked to provide angst-free modern-soul diversity). Beck covered “After The Gold Rush” mid-way through a typically brilliant set, and Dave Grohl started talking about Neil three songs into the Foos show. “We’ve got a lot of songs to play, and the quicker we play them, the faster I get to see Neil fu*king Young,” he said. The crowd cheered, which was slightly surprising – for a lot of people at the festival, Grohl & Co. were the big ticket, and an abbreviated set wasn’t what they were looking for.

Everyone loves the Foos — it’s hard not to. Taylor Hawkins is a ferocious drummer who never stops smiling, and guitarist Pat Smear is always ecstatic. Dave Grohl’s a guitar superhero; on Friday night, he even did an Angus Young chop step the full length of the stage. It may sound wrong to call a band that rocks as hard as they do charming, but they are — when the band closed their show with “Everlong,” which Dave dedicated to Neil, the crowd went berserk.

Not surprisingly, the crowd went berserk again when Crazy Horse hit the stage. They’ve been playing together off and on for 43 years, and they’ve probably played every possible permutation of every note of every song, yet somehow they’re still able wring out sounds both unexpected and new. There’s an almost umbilical connection between Neil, guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, bassist Billy Talbot, and drummer Ralph Molina, and it’s never more apparent than when they’re on stage.

Outside Lands saw them run the full gamut of Young’s catalog – Neil did an acoustic version of “Needle and the Damage Done,” and the band powered through a 13 minute take on “Love and Only Love.” But it almost didn’t matter what songs they played; as extraordinary as they may be, what makes Crazy Horse exceptional is the subtext, and the subtext is pure heart.

Neil Young may not be a better guitarist now than he was 30 years ago, but he’s a deeper guitarist, and playing with Crazy Horse seemed to give him the room he needs to go all the way to his core. One of the newer songs – possibly called “Giant” — ended with at least four minutes of the same note played over and over again, and it never let up. Neil and Poncho — playing in the pocket of Ralph and Billy — somehow made playing one note for four minutes feel exquisite.

On to Night 2, and Metallica, who can play a million notes in four minutes and be equally exquisite… Although it’s unlikely that earlier-in-the-day performers like Norah Jones or Sigur Ros will be name-checking James Hetfield.

–by Julie Farman

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