An hour and a half after our streetcar adventure began, we made it to Golden Gate Park Friday evening with more than a half an hour to spare before Manu Chao took the stage at 6:15.
Making our way through the gates took another 45 minutes: We entered the park at 19th Avenue, the closest entrance to the box office and our passes, but the festival map did not label the intra-park streets, which snake around and break off into tributaries. I figured this was the organizers' way of testing our spatial-reasoning skills.
This thought was confirmed when, after we realized we had walked too far and turned around to backtrack, we saw signs labeled "media check-in" and "will call" with arrows pointing us in the right direction. The sign was hanging on a fence, facing away from anyone who entered the park at 19th Avenue.
We still had another few hundred yards to walk before we were in view of the Lands End stage, where Manu Chao had already started playing, so to save time I decided to skip it and head to the Sutro stage, where Beck would be playing at 6:40. The stage sat about 200 yards directly north of Lands End, but a long grove of trees clogged that gap, meaning anyone walking from one to the other had to schlep around it, turning a walk in the park into a commute.
When I arrived at Beck's stage, the sound check was almost done, so I decided to push my way through the crowd for a better view. But even from just outside the "VIP" area—a limited-access wedge of grass for people who paid a few hundred extra dollars to view every show from an "exclusive" location—I couldn't see much of the stage.
As soon as Beck took the stage an exploded into "E-Pro," the smell of pot and cigarettes began mixing with the aroma of mud and Heineken that had already been clogging my nostrils. Of course, this is part of the festival experience; I expect it whenever I attend any sort of outdoor concert. So it wasn't eau de Outside Lands that made me retreat toward the back. It was the stream festival-goers wedging their way through the tightly packed crowd to find a closer spot to see the show. One college-age guy attempted this while carrying a glass of red wine and a double cheeseburger; it did not end up well for his shirt.
But once I found a spot that let me breathe, I could focus on appreciating Beck's set, which he packed with songs from Modern Guilt, his latest. He sounded spot on, and upbeat songs like "Gamma Ray" and "Girl" meshed perfectly with the festival backdrop.
I left the Sutro stage area early to find a good spot for Radiohead's set, which began just as the sun had sunk below the trees behind the stage, giving it a halo of sunlight. I walked around for a while before finding a hill to the right of the stage where my view wasn't blocked, and as soon as I heard the hook-beat of "15 Step," their opening number, I forgot about all the slogging I had to do to get there. —Steve Aquino