Written by DJ Ken aka Kenny Oravetz
Outside Lands takes place in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. This means a few things. One, it’s big. Getting from stage to stage can be a trek, as you tromp from one large, grassy field to the next, with excursions over small hills and through wooded areas. The trees surrounding the stage areas give the whole festival a pleasant, forested vibe. Everything is green, with little of the dust issues you encounter at other festivals, and the weather is temperate, making staying cool and hydrated easy. At night, the trees light up in purple and green hues, and the festival continues with its chill and natural vibe. There are no parking lots here, nor are there vast expanses of dirt. There is only the sweet kiss of San Francisco fog in the morning, and light sunshine during the day, giving way to grey expanses of cloudy sky from time to time.
The food at Outside Lands is also exceptional, a far cry from other festivals. Local San Francisco restaurants set up stands throughout Golden Gate Park, selling traditional and delicious fare like 4505’s Best Damn Cheeseburgers, while also offering more innovative options, like Brazilian arepas, corn pancakes stuffed with pork, beans, cheese, and avocado. And of course, there’s a selection of craft beers and wines as well.
The main focus of the festival, however, is not the ambiance or the dining, but the music. Of course, it’s literally impossible to see every act, so here I’ll highlight five of my favorites.
From Day 1: St. Vincent
Day 1 started with a slew of female fronted acts, a nice shift from the normally heavily male dominated festival fare. While Speedy Ortiz rocked with their atonal and amelodic garage punk sound, their sound mixing could not keep up, leading to relative deafness for the rest of the day. That earache did not stop me from enjoying the next few acts, however. First Aid Kit put on a lively performance, with the sisters’ voices ringing clear, their beautiful tones enhanced by their spunky and easy-on-the-eyes stage presence. A pleasant surprise was their cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” played with folk rock power and sweeping vocal harmonies. That guitar oriented track in the midst of their other dobro oriented songs was refreshing, though by saying so I do not mean to diminish the considerable skills of the band’s dobro player, or how well those country tones went with the Swede’s lovely voices.
Following First Aid Kit was St. Vincent. Her stage presence was especially striking, as she performed intentionally robotically, clad in a skintight black leather jumpsuit, shredding away on her guitar with precisely calculated and nuanced fingering. Her songs had an industrial impact live, humanized by her rich vocals and the occasional smile. St. Vincent shuffled around the stage in highly choreographed fashion as she played, mimicked by her rhythm guitarist, as the other players took a backseat to her charisma and raw ability. This was probably the most visually distinct set of the festival, providing imagery I will not soon forget.
Following St. Vincent, and on the same stage as her and First Aid Kit, was Wilco.
Wilco provided a professional but not wholly exciting jam of a performance, working their way through their new album Star Wars. Their melodies and guitar licks felt just right, as they do recorded, but produced little novel energy or excitement, especially when compared to the preceding act with its innovative prowess. This was a band that felt comfortable, and perhaps too much so.
D’angelo, on the other hand, was a downright party. Featuring a rollicking, funky band and multiple swagged out costume changes, the man himself brought a sexual energy and just straight cool atmosphere to the closing set on Sutro stage, with his songs providing a driving force they lack on his albums, quality as they are. His closing was particularly sweet, as he and The Vanguard did three jammy finishes on “Sugah Daddy” as the crowd erupted in mirth.
From Day 2: Billy Idol, Tame Impala, and The Black Keys
Day 2 rocked. There is no other way to put it. Starting with a pleasant opening set by New Orleans bluegrass band Hurray For The Riff Raff, a favorite with the older audience, the day provided a slew of high quality acts. Unknown Mortal Orchestra impressed with the expected excellent guitar work, but also with on-point vocal work. Their new material functioned well in a live environment, where the psych-funk influences of the band’s entire catalog could be more easily heard, as the audience danced and grooved along despite the often sad thoughts coming from the stage. The whole set felt extremely heartfelt, and just like pretty much every other artist that played this day, I felt the band will be moving up festival ranks and schedules in the future. Other than Fantastic Negrito, that is, as his set was sadly cancelled.
Django Django did not suffer the same fate, and the Scots instead brought a thunderstrike of energy with their electro-rock sounds, a proper forerunner of what was to come with Tame Impala. Walls of bass and ethereal, surfy guitar riffs brought the crowd into a relative frenzy, surprising many members of the audience who had been camping out for more rap and rave oriented acts on the stage. Smoke and bright lights dominated the scene, as reverb-laced though not pristine vocals along with driving drums made the band seem like rocking ambassadors from the future.
The migration over to main stage after that set brought the rock to another level. There were few expectations in place for Billy Idol. As my group walked through an older crowd laced with cigarette smoke and black leather, we expected an old man to emerge on stage to try and reclaim his former glory with more of a fizz than a bang. We were proven wrong. Billy Idol was the antihero, the antagonist to the modern era of EDM bangers, reminding everyone that he could still rock, that he was once a superstar, and that he would never be stamped out into nothingness, health problems be damned. His voice rang out, his guitarist hadn’t changed his haircut in thirty years, Billy’s face looked like a gargoyle, his body like a shadow of its former self, but his sexual energy and vigor was like a thunderbolt. He was the puppeteer, the audience were his puppets, as he roared hit song after hit song, drawing up the sound of the audience with a lift of the hand, and channeling that monstrous energy into his leather clad crotch. “Dancing with Myself” brought the crowd into a state of individualized, fuck-you-world dance frenzy, “Rebel Yell,” left the audience crying for more, and “White Wedding,” as Billy himself said, showed us what a hit song sounded like. Yes, it may have been somewhat cheesy, but in the contemporary world of DJs hovering behind their laptops, Billy’s charismatic, rockstar performance was novel, heartfelt, and defiant.
Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, on the other hand, was low energy, standing still, performing his songs with a talented backing band. That is not, however, to diminish the excellence of Tame Impala’s set. Dominated by new material, every song was a modern miracle of sonic energy, with psychedelic beats, synths, and guitar coming together to make the crowd dance in new and novel ways. After each track Tame would jam out into a massive fuzz of noise and reverb, streophonically sweeping the crowd from side to side in an exhilarating and psychedelic fashion. Rainbowlike fractal patterns dominated the visuals, while synths and guitar, backed by booming kick drum, provided the musical splendor, teleporting the audience to another world. While the physical technology of the festival was not always able to keep up with Tame’s lofty musical goals, whatever minor hiccups there may have been merely served as a testament to how impeccable those songs were.
The Black Keys came next, with Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney‘s crowd-pleasing blues rock backed by a talented full band. Their performance was a testament to both their ability and popularity, a sure sign of future headlining success. Their aesthetic was simple, yet polished, a grown-up garage band without the glitz of Jack White or the filthy undertones of Thee Oh Sees. They played songs old and new, riling the crowd up with tight drumming and crunchy guitar riffs, and summoning almost the entirety of the crowds’ voices for future classics like “Lonely Boy” and “Tighten Up.” The combination of the crowd’s furor and the band’s skill made the set both raw and electrifying, culminating with the raucous conclusion of “Little Black Submarines,” introduced with tender acoustic notes before a booming finish.
From Day 3: Dan Deacon
The last day of a three day festival tends to be low energy, as the action of the previous two days rears its head in the form of soreness and complacency. This Outside Lands proved to be no different, though it was nicely accommodating, as the Allah-Las opened day three with a dreamy, stony surf rock set. Karl Denson‘s Tiny Universe followed with one of the few designed-for-Deadheads jam rock sets of the festival, and then Benjamin Booker, his sandpapery vocals and rough and rowdy guitar bringing the crowd out of their stupor at Sutro.
I next trekked over to main stage for Hot Chip, who performed a dancey songs refreshingly free of laptop theatrics. The synth heavy set featured a slew of slightly melancholic electro-pop tunes, each performed by a band whiter than white bread, with accompanying awkward dancing and outfits. Their frontman wore a wide-brimmed straw hat, a white Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, and white sweatpants, a refreshing change from the slick styles of most other artists on the Outside Lands bill. In the end, their playing and style came across as practiced, sweet, and honest, the crowd was dancing, and the vibes were pleasant.
Hot Chip was significantly less crowded than Odesza, which packed Twin Peaks all the way back to the Panhandle stage. The best DJ set of the festival was aided by a three-piece brass section and a thunderous trap closing track reminiscent of Godzilla both in sound and impact. Once Odesza ended and a flood of molly-water laced festy kids poured toward the main concourse, Dan Deacon began his set on the small Pandhandle stage nearby.
“Hold your hand above your head and look at the sky behind it,” Deacon said, arching his own arm above his bald and bearded face as the crowd did the same. “Imagine all of your anxieties are in the center of your palm. Contemplate how small they are compared to the vastness of that grey sky. Now rest your hand on your chin, and blow. Blow your anxieties away into the sky, because for the next few moments, none of that will matter.”
With that message, Deacon began his set, his manic synths matched with rapid-fire drumming and high-pitched, filtered vocals, a cathartic burst of energy that set the crowd alight. Deacon die-hards mixed with Odesza stragglers in a jubilant explosion of joy. After the first song, Deacon addressed the audience once again. “Everyone back up and make a huge dance circle.” He called out the two people with the most prominent totems in the audience. “Get in the middle of that circle, each of you. You’re going to dance. There are two rules. The first is that you have to pick another person on the edge of the circle to replace you after five seconds. The second is that you have to dance sassy, because all good dances are sassy dances. Let’s do this!”
Those on the edge of the circle crouched down so those outside could see in, the song began, and the two men wielding totems danced like crazy. Smiles and laughter erupted from all sides. The dancers switched off two, three, four times, and by the middle of the song, there weren’t two people in the circle, but seven. The crowd’s energy rose in a vast, euphoric wave. “I was going to tell all of you to get in that circle and start dancing, but you got ahead of me!” said Deacon midway through. “Everyone, go!” And with that, the crowd leapt off their feet, accompanying a cathartic burst of sound into a nirvana of dancing bliss. Every head was bobbing, every foot was pounding, every booty was shaking as Deacon’s chirps and cheeps and ethereal vocals came to its climax. From there, the set continued with its incredibly high and happy energy, culminating in closer “Ride the Lightning.” “Grasp the hand of the person next to you.” Deacon said before his last song. “Close your eyes. Think of the person you love most. Now think of someone you care about, someone that is no longer with us on this Earth. And now think of all those people for whom that person is one and the same, all those who have suffered from injustice and violence. This song is for them.” And he began, the first notes greeted with an emotional outburst unlike almost any other show I’ve ever attended. Dan Deacon didn’t just made me dance, he made me feel. And that’s why his set was so spectacular.
That was the high point of day three, though the last two acts weren’t too shabby either. Caribou showed off hypnotic, danceable jams, again refreshingly laptop-free. Elton John closed the festival, but while his band and piano playing were excellent as ever, his voice lacked its old resonance and high pitched potential, leading to a solid but not legendary set that one would expect from such a headliner. That said, as the festival came to a close, smiles abounded. Another year of Outside Lands had brought another year of festive excellence.