In its eighth year, San Francisco’s Outside Lands Music Festival which was held at Golden Gate Park from Aug 7 to 9 surpassed expectations in its ability to show music lovers just how much fun you could have at a festival. From it’s diverse lineup which included headliners Elton John and The Black Keys, to heavyweights D’Angelo & The Vanguard, Tame Impala and Kendrick Lamar, to the nascent bands rising up the ranks; and the as eclectic gourmand’s feast of wine, sake and the unlikely, donut burger. Even the weather was gorgeous, a slight drizzle on Day 2 and cooler climes on Day 3 but no dense fog, Karl was very kind.
Headliners & Winners
Elton John set about immediately pleasing his crowd of 70,000 adoring fans closing the festival out on a veritable high. Strangely, we spoke to older concert-goers who happily watched Nate Reuss in the afternoon and chose to leave before John came on. Younger audiences, however, considered him a highlight and sung enthusiastically along to some of his greatest hits – “The Rocket Man”, “Candle In The Wind”, “Your Song” and “Crocodile Rock”.
British electronic act, Hot Chip kicked their set off with “Huarache Lights” of their latest album, Why Makes Sense? and didn’t take long before they got everyone dancing with “Over and Over” and “Are you Ready For The Floor”. They closed with Alexis Taylor doing their rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark”.
In an exclusive interview from the Sound Central Tent, Al Doyle from Hot Chip revealed: “We were speaking to Elton John backstage and he said he never does festivals – I think he’s done three in his whole career. But he was really excited to be here and headline. That speaks volumes about a festival like Outside Lands.”
Festival-goer, Julia Vasik, 24, who was looking forward to John’s set said: “I saw Elton John two years ago in Bonnaroo and he was so fun to watch and full of energy. He was great live. It’s amazing how after all these years he is still performing. I think for the LGBT community here it also very special that he is headlining Outside Lands, as someone who came out all those years ago. But more than that Elton John is just him, he is onstage being himself and totally unapologetic.”
So there was no need to worry if you thought that the lineup which for several years now has included ‘heritage’ acts like Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (2014) and Paul McCartney (2013) was getting too mainstream. Millennials love their EDM but also a variety which Outside Lands has in spades.
And of course, this year we had an added aging rocker, Billy Idol who no doubt delivered one of the most memorable sets. Idol and crew were all power chords, leather pants that Lenny Kravitz would approve, and just owning that Lands End stage. If indie acts sometimes come across as earnest and almost meek in their ability to summon a crowd, Idol and crew proved themselves veterans and completely unabashed. Plus with decade-spanning hits such as “Eyes Without A Face”, “Rebel Yell”, “White Wedding” and “Dancing With Myself” when he thanked everyone for making ‘my life so awesome’, all those kids thanked him right back. “No. Thank you, Billy Idol!” yelled a young man nearby.
Aussie psych-rockers Tame Impala who followed soon after was another festival winner. With three albums under their belt, each has at least one festival-ready killer track – “Elephant” from Innerspeaker, “Feels Like We Always Go Backwards” from Lonerism and “Let It Happen” from their latest, Currents. However, frontman, Kevin Parker’s exercises in solitude and heartbreak you would imagine don’t always translate to the kind of crescendo that he managed at Outside Lands. Deft at putting together the perfect set list, he took everyone on his odyssey with ever the right tempo – a taut balance of gossamer vocals versus deep bass, a lone voice then the entry of the full band. The warm harmonies with keyboardist, Jay Wilson, driving drums and reverb-drenched guitars. Swirly, sprawling and hypnotic. You felt washed up on gentle shores as they exited the stage.
A huge contingent of fans were at Saturday headliners, The Black Keys’ faultless set. A good many did also make their way to the Twin Peak’s stage when Kendrick Lamar’s set began 25 minutes later, proving that variety is the spice of music festivals. And unlike Kanye West’s polarizing set last year, Outside Lands fans showed an undeniable love for rap, especially the kind delivered by Lamar, arguably today’s leading hip-hop artist.
Coming all the way from Burlington, Ohio to attend Day 2 were siblings Peter Goeckner, 19 and Cleo, 23. Earlier in the day, Goeckner had said: “Kendrick Lamar is going to be my thing but I’m also here to see Tame Impala, Misterwives and Waters – a band that I’ve just started listening. “
His sister added: “ Yes, Tame Impala, Milky Chance and also at the Comedy Tents, I want to try and catch the Daily Show comedians especially now that John Stewart has left but I think that might clash with other acts we want to see. There’s just too much going on.”
The ever-encroaching commercial interests did not seem to phase festival-goers, especially the millennials who might still be a challenge for traditional advertising to reach. The handful of companies present, however, appeared to have cracked the code. Give them what they want as swag for free, as a service such as lockers or as unquantifiable, small moments that heightened the music festival experience.
The sheer scale of any music festival worth their salt means festival-goers have to make painful decisions about what acts – some which actually prompt decisions to purchase festival tickets – to forego, and what to traverse the eucalyptus groves, dust clouds underfoot and human bottlenecks to see. But then you have the genius addition of the #NoMoFoMo (No more Fear Of Missing Out) tent where Natalie Prass, Broods and The Drums performed stripped-back sets to an intimate crowd.
Head of event marketing at Stubhub, Justin Finn said: “The Drums was our first act and they got the biggest crowd, wall to wall and overflowing out of the tent.” Like the Pied Piper their heady sweet melodies wafted through the air calling out to unsuspecting festival goers who followed the music despite not being able to see any stage.
In an exclusive interview with The Drums who did a total of four shows – two small tent shows, a Panhandle stage show including a headlining sold out Night Show at the Brick & Mortar, frontman, Jonny Pierce said: “ It’s been pretty intense but we’re really grateful as the last few years we have had so many ups and downs. Now we’ve made a record that we’re proud of so it’s nice to be here and see that ‘ok , we’re still a thing’. And being in high demand at a festival like this where music is the focus, it’s not about the giant slip-and-slide, apple-bobbing or camping, people are here for the music and to be able to make that connection with as many people as possible on the bigger or smaller tent stages is special to us.”
The #NoMoFoMo Tent taps in on the millennials fear of missing out but also their readiness to share their stories on social media. Finn added: “It’s about having an experience. But you don’t need to feel like you’re left out, you can just come into the tents, it’s really relaxed and you can just be a part of it. “ And if seeing your favorite bands onstage was inspiring the rock star out of you then you could also sign up for one of their karaoke sessions or dance parties. All communal gatherings with song that translate well into all manner of social media posts, just remember to use the hashtag.
Sound Central, Toyota’s tent also had a similar roster of smaller performances. Three members of British electronic act, Hot Chip played a DJ set that had the vibe of being in your own living room. Small and intimate where Joe Goddard would sporadically broke out his dance moves while Al Doyle mimed the rap that Owen Clarke spun on the decks. Priceless.
When asked how they felt about this trend at big festivals to have festivals-within-festivals that put artistes to work constantly, Goddard said: “I think it’s a wise thing. Like at Glastonbury we enjoy doing different performances. Playing the Lands End stage just then was the best part.” Doyle agreed:”By the time we had finished the set we couldn’t see an end to the crowds of people. It was that many people.”
Added Goddard: “The bigger stage shows are a different kind of pleasure. DJ sets are smaller and more intimate – it gives you a different buzz.” Clarke said: “Sometimes doing the big stage show and then doing the little show – it helps you to stay focus instead of getting too exploratory! And that can be a good thing to.”
If festival-goers were into exploring there was the great NRG nook in EcoLands where you could sit in hammocks, or go upstairs for an elevated view of the festival while you charge up your phone, as well as learn about the clean energy powering the space, in a non-preachy way.
An NRG spokesperson said: “At a festival, you’re only getting a snackable charge, 15mins and then festival-goers unplug and need to go see the next act, so here at the NRG tent they get to charge up using solar power. We get to engage with millennials and give them the opportunity to understand clean power sources.” As NRG acquired Goal Zero last year, you could purchase their Flip 10 Recharger onsite which allows you to charge on the go as you walk between festival stages. Social media apps like instagram and snapchat also chew up battery and many took advantage of the deal.
This year, Paypal was back with their awesome convenience store where you could buy sunscreen or blankets depending on what the fickle weather was doing. And rather than charge their captive audience a premium for these conveniences, Paypal offered it cheap, either with cash or using their Paypal apps.
Said Josh Beyers, Paypal’s Consumer Experience Advocate: “We are here to enhance the festival experience for people. They can get their face-painted for free (there are always lines) or use our convenience bar, where you can comb your hair (jar of free combs), use lip-balm, bobby-pins, mints whatever you didn’t anticipate for but is going to just help you have a better festival experience. Even a tattoo of the day’s schedule on your arm!”
While many took advantage of the charging stations, resting on the comfy sofas – a nice respite from all the walking, it is their lockers that provide one of the best services allowing you to leave blankets and heavy jackets overnight onsite.
Now if only, one of these sponsors could include access to fancy restrooms in their offerings that would be perfect.
Is Bigger Better?
There is no doubt that Outside Lands has grown, from averaging 60,000 to 66,000 people a day last year to almost 70,000 this year. There were visibly more VIP Tents and space reserved for VIP seating around the Lands End stage this year.
How much bigger should this much beloved Bay Area festival grow? The Barbary Tent this year was moved from among the groovy groves and action of McLaren Pass to South of the Polo Fields. Many comedy fans were getting very lost and frustrated trying to find the Comedy Tents, apart from them not knowing it had been moved to a new location, signposts weren’t very clear and even staff did not know where they were leading you when giving ‘helpful’ directions.
To top it off, it was so close to the Lands End Stage that music was bleeding through quite disruptively during the comedy sets. SF’s own Al Madrigal who performed with his fellow Daily Show cohort, Hassan Minhaj and Jordan Klepper was overheard saying to friends after their first set, that he had a hard time walking through the park in search of the comedy tents. He looked bewildered at just how loud and disconcerting it was to try and do their set with Billy Idol’s rebel yell.
But Madrigal had bigger problems, a kid he had picked-on in the audience saying “Is that a kid? What kind of parents would bring their 3rd Grader to a comedy show where they say ‘dick’ a lot? Bay Area parents!” he mocked. That kid turned out to be someone he knew, “Sam” he said genuinely apologetic after “I wouldn’t have done that if I knew it was you!” and gave the boy his chance to sit on the comedy stool and roast him back. See we all make mistakes but it’s how we make things better after, that truly shows character.
Speaking of mistakes, one of the festivals biggest upsets was that Bay Area favorite, Fantastic Negrito had to have his show cancelled after SFPD police took him away in handcuffs at the festival gates. Apparently, his intern had tried to sell his spare VIP ticket on Craigslist unbeknownst to him. Yet, he was taken away. We all hate the fact that unsuspecting festival-goers have been cheated of their money with fake wristbands but the general consensus felt it would have been the standup thing to do if organizers had expressed some kind of support for the NPR Tiny Desk Concert winner, and maybe tried to squeeze in an appearance for him, the next day.
But as mere mortals we have no real idea what goes on behind the scenes of pulling together a festival of this proportion, and in the end outside the big dramas it was the sponsors that got it right – it is the small moments that matter.
For me this year, it was SF’s own rising stars – Heartwatch’s bubbly frontwoman, Claire George, stretching out her hands to give me a hug in the Media Tent before she even knew who I was! Such was the vibe around the festival. Good music just has a way to transcend it all. And ultimately, that was why we were all there at Outside Lands.
Here’s a quick list of some personal hits and misses.
Hits – The Family Crest took up every inch of the Lands End stage with three back-up singers, flautist, cellist, saxophonist as well as Liam McCormick’s massive vocals. Wolf Alice, what a nice surprise to have their heavy shoe-gazy guitar rhythms offset by Ellie Rowsell’s dreamy vocals on the Panhandle Stage. They are tipped to win this year’s Mercury Prize and have already begun their assault on the US. Swedish sisters, First Aid Kit proving their brand of sweet, folk-rock and “Emmylou” belong on the Lands End stage.
The artist who once said she wanted ‘to make a party record you could play at a funeral’ – St Vincent, in that black jumpsuit cutting a very Prince-like figure with some clever-clog holding up a giant picture of Cara Delevingne’s head was sexy and electrifying to behold in the flesh. Leon Bridges’ smooth Sam Cooke-like stylings on hits like “Coming Home” and “Better Man” were soul-satisfying. And having that donut-burger, a burger that prompted it’s own paparazzi (folks kept asking me if they could take a photo of it!) and yes, it’s that good. No, I didn’t feel a shred of guilt. The patty cooked to perfection is of the best quality ground beef, and the bun…well you know, that’s a doughnut! Win. Win.
Misses – Mumford & Sons did what they did and they were a mighty force on stage but sometimes you just aren’t feeling it. The fact that at the last minute, after traversing the festival grounds and reaching the front of stage, only to get through the barricade and be told we weren’t allowed to take photos in the pit may have had some bearing on this. However, as we have said, music should be able to transcend this. Amon Tobin: ISAM 2.0 I was so looking forward to but it just did not deliver. It was one of the acts that benefitted from being further away from the stage where you are able to see the set in its full entirety with pulsing lights et al, but even then it was lackluster.
Hits – Heartwatch – so bouncy, eager and with great tunes. Oh, very agile at dodging flying sunflowers. Mac De Marco’s slacker rock was tight as. Billy Idol can still rock and his abs are better than some 20 year olds I know. The Black Keys playing all their bluesy-rock favorites from “Gold on the Ceiling” to “Lonely Boy”. The Drums – if you weren’t acquainted with them before the festival, surely you are now. “I Wanna Go Surfing”, “Money” and “Magic Mountain” – a combination of Morrissey, Orange Juice and they keep experimenting.
Beignets & Bounce Brunch with Big Freedia & Brenda’s Soul Food – twerk for your food, that is definitely a thing! And for good reason – Big Freedia’s energetic Bounce big beats just gets you moving.
Tame Impala took the psychedelic cake and was probably my favorite act of the whole festival. Could have something to do with the copious amounts of Wine Lands’ cold sake I consumed before lunch – What! It is made of rice, and is practically a meal. And the highlight – “Feels like we only go backwards, baby…” we all sang along like they were festival headliners.
Misses – Fantastic Negrito no-show. Are you sure the Barbary Tent is that-a-way, I just came from there?
Hits – The lovely Sky Ferreira, I am hoping big things for her – that voice, pout and a vulnerability that shines over synths and guitars with tracks like “You’re Not The One”, “Everything Is Embarrassing” and the new track “Guardian”. Madcap electro-experimentalist, Dan Deacon, one of my festival favorites this year, parting the audience like he was Moses at the Red Sea in the name of a dance-off. And boy did the crowd indulge him with all kinds of funky moves and the best kind of good cheer. Hot Chip’s big stage set and little DJ set.
Misses – James Bay did “Let It Go” the one song of his which I enjoy but while the warm outpouring of love between his fans and him was lovely to see, the rest of his music left me cold. And missing DMA’s not once but twice in the day, though having sung their praises to others, I was pleased to hear from a friend who was prompt and early that ‘the DMA’s morning set was so good that they were now her favorite new band and perhaps the best set she had seen all festival’. Nice.
More pictures of the sights and sounds of Outside Lands to follow. Please click here.