Voice of The City: Turn up the volume on concerts in S.F. 



It wasn’t exactly the Summer of Love remix, but San Francisco got a taste of its past recently and it shouldn’t be a hard act to follow.

That is, if The City can cope with its cranky, grumbling ways.

Just more than a week ago, San Francisco played host to the first Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival, a three-day gathering that brought an estimated 130,000 people to the forested backdrop of Golden Gate Park. More than 65 bands — including mega-acts such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Radiohead — played at the festival, which was reminiscent of some of the scenes from the 1960s and ’70s when bands such as Jefferson Airplane regularly played in the park and Kezar Stadium was the site of Day on the Green concerts. (For those of you too young to remember, Led Zeppelin played there when it was the biggest band in the world.)

More importantly, it showed what could be possible for San Francisco when it removes the bureaucratic handcuffs from its cultural environment and works to make use of its natural assets. The music festival was the first time a lighted, night concert was held in Golden Gate Park, and it begs the profound question — why?

“We want to culturally activate the park, but in a sensible way,” said Margot Shaub, director of partnerships for the Recreation and Park Department. “We wanted to have a partnership that made sure if [the promoters] were successful, we’d be successful.”

And by almost any measure, the Outside Lands festival was a success, bringing in close to $600,000 for the cash-strapped recreation department, money which will be put back into the park. For those people who use the fields and would actually like to see grass instead of sand, that’s a promising thought — and it conjures up the prospect of more events at more venues, especially now that San Francisco needs to come up with new ways to make money other than tripling the number of parking tickets.

This is not to say that The City should be hosting 25 multiday concerts per year or that there aren’t problems associated with large festivals, musical or otherwise. According to preliminary reports, there were more than 50 complaints about noise, numerous neighborhood complaints about traffic and illegally parked cars, and a chorus of howls about Muni service.

Yet there were only a handful of arrests, and when aren’t there complaints about traffic, parking and Muni service? All things considered, the event was smooth for such a large gathering. City officials should see the opportunities present in its parks and other facilities (Candlestick is used, what, 12 times a year?)

That’s especially true now that the gold standard has been set by the upcoming Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, which started out as a small niche fest and last year attracted close to 700,000 visitors. The fact that it’s free — thanks to the annual underwriting of San Francisco philanthropist and concert founder Warren Hellman — helps explain the popularity of the banjo bonanza, but it’s now one of the biggest musical concerts in the country, and it has generally played on without a hitch.

“The big difference is that we grew our festival organically, starting with just a dozen or so bands,” Hellman said. “The people behind Outside Lands jumped in fully grown.”

Recreation and Park officials are already looking into other possible events, particularly for Golden Gate Park. And it makes one wonder why it’s taken so long, since I remember the days when rock concerts at the concourse bandshell and Speedway Meadow were the norm, not the exception.

Certainly other promoters are taking notice — already there’s been grumbling about whether Another Planet Entertainment, which put on Outside Lands, is getting favorable treatment from the department while trying to secure a long-term deal with The City for future events.

“We think this is good for The City and not just culturally, but as a community benefit,” Shaub said. “We look at Golden Gate Park as an asset for The City and we don’t want to abuse that. But we’re looking to develop a [proposal] for multiple-day events and trying to figure out what is a recommended use for the Polo Fields so we don’t overuse them.”

Yet think of the possibilities for McLaren Park, Mission Dolores — even the Civic Center, which recently became the site of outdoor big-screen performances of the San Francisco Opera. Sigmund Stern Grove, home of an annual summer concert series, would seem more apropos for a fall Indian summer schedule, though it seems clear most neighborhood groups aren’t looking to extend concert series in their area.

But when the lights went on in the Polo Fields last weekend, we can only hope that they went on elsewhere as well.

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Ken Garcia

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