This week I woke up sore and happy. After the pain of three days of music, friends, and even a little sun from time to time, I sat down to the monumental task of writing about Outside Lands. Like my thoughts on most things San Francisco, there is a lot more gray area than concrete opinions.
The festival brings together many of the things that make San Francisco amazing. There is food from local vendors, Northern California craft beer, wine, live art and of course music. But this isn’t a utopia and there were a lot of reminders of the current excesses of the Bay. For starters, everything is branded; notorious meal replacement startup Soylent even had a booth. The crowd skews toward the younger, less diverse tech scene, and like at Dolores Park, my soul hurt seeing all the trash around the park. (Thank you Outside Lands clean up teams.) This is 2015, so of course there was a police scandal when SFPD targeted and detaining local act Fantastic Negrito for allegedly selling a wristband.
At the end of the day, what makes or breaks a music festival is the caliber of music, and how it compares to Coachella (half joking, but this happens every year). Photographer Pedro Paredes-Haz and I set out to discover the best, most surprising acts of Outside Lands. If you are just looking for the good stuff stop reading now and go check out Pedro’s photos:
I always make a plan for Outside Lands, but I have found that you have to allow space to discover the acts you would never see on your own. Last year that meant Big Freedia and this year it meant… well, Big Freedia again. New rule, no Outside Lands without Big Freedia. After 3 days, a few beers and several miles of ground covered the following list appeared to me on golden tablets that I could only read with magic spectacles.
Last year I got sucked into the ego singularity that is Kanye West, and while I felt there were entertaining moments, overall it was more a look at the Kanye experience than a great music moment. This of course made me a little nervous about picking Kendrick Lamar over The Black Keys for the Saturday night headline show. I needn’t have worried.
From start to finish Kendrick put on a stellar show, possibly the most energetic festival set I’ve ever seen next to Arcade Fire in 2011. Kendrick is a master of his environment. He immediately connected with the crowd on West Coast roots, incorporated live instrumentation and played all the songs casual and hardcore fans alike wanted to hear. Maybe we didn’t hear the more controversial songs like “The Blacker The Berry” but I’m not sure it would have been appropriate given how loud a majority white crowd was dropping N-bombs during other songs.
A great moment came when Kendrick took time to acknowledge two guys in wheelchairs crowdsurfing during “Alright.” He told them and the rest of us in the crowd “that we goin’ be alright” and on an uncommonly warm night in SF, no one could disagree.
Remember when MJ came out of retirement and was still the best fucking player in the NBA? D’Angelo disappeared from the music scene for over 10 years as he dealt with some really serious personal issues and then last year he drops Black Messiah, one of the years best albums. Fast forward to last weekend and the guy basically stole the show on the third tier stage at a major music festival.
Taking the stage in an outfit I would call post-apocalyptic western wear with a guitar that looked like something Rick James designed on a bender, D’Angelo got the Sutro Stage up and moving. It doesn’t hurt that his band The Vanguard might be one of the tightest funk bands ever assembled.
Highlights for me included “The Charade” and D’Angelo asking the crowd to put fists in the air to show solidarity against police violence.
Benny, the Jets, rocket men, crocodiles that rock; they were all there Sunday night. Classic acts like Paul McCartney and Tom Petty from years past and Elton this year bring so much to the festival experience. You see people from all age groups singing along, taking in the experience of seeing an all-time great.
Elton John must sleep in some sort of high tech chamber every night, because the 68 year old is a ball of energy while on stage. While he may not leave the piano bench as much as he might have in past years there was no shortage of hammered piano chords and powerful vocal flourishes.
At one point a young woman came up to us and asked if he had played “Piano Man” yet which gave me a good laugh. I feel like maybe he should have tried his hand at the Joel classic, he did seem to leave the stage with enough time scheduled for one more song.
This was my first time seeing St Vincent (Annie Clark) live, and while friends had promised me an unbelievable experience, I had no idea what was coming. She was dressed like something out of a Tim Burton movie, complete with skin-tight, perforated body suit and eerie doll-like make up. Her movements were calculated, rigid and staccato matching her style of guitar play during solos.
Her 2014 self titled album definitely raised her profile over the past year, but nothing could prepare for the live performance. It was bizarre in the best way possible, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her for the entire set. For the next few days I saw people mimicking her quick, shuffling feet moving back and forth at different sets.
Most surprising sets
This was definitely my the biggest holy shit moment of the festival. I knew since the lineups were announced I wanted to see Django Django. I love the music, but I was a little afraid that they might not have it live. I was so very wrong.
Many people are familiar with “Default,” and they definitely put on a hell of a finale with their hit. But right from the get go it was clear the UK quartet was the real deal. Newer songs like “First Light” just exploded out of the speakers at the Twin Peaks stage. Several other writers also commented that Django Django were their big surprise as well.
As I said earlier, Outside Land should not exist without Big Freedia. The New Orleans-based Queen of Bounce makes the crowd go completely out of their minds. Big Freedia, does not identify as transgender and instead focuses on the message of being true to yourself. She is a pioneer of a unique hip hop style called bounce, and although it can be repetitive it is like catnip for festival goers.
Accompanied by her team of twerk dancers at the criminally small Gastromagic stage, Big Freedia put on a clinic in dancing while stuffing your face with beignets. She easily went 15 minutes over her scheduled set time with a constant shuffle of audience members dancing up on stage.
Seeing Benjamin Booker felt like finding a diamond in the rough. With so many acts focused on producing and reproducing the same tones, listening to Booker felt like someone pouring blood, sweat and tears directly into their guitar pickup. The instruments blared lo-fi blues with heavy punk influences, layered on Booker’s harsh, gritty vocals for a set that felt perfect for a Sunday afternoon in the park.
Booker was not afraid to get weird, often playing around with his guitar distortion between sets creating a the feeling of a unique and unrepeatable performance just for the audience who was there to see it.
Other special moments
Heartwatch (FKA The Tropics)
I have been a fan of this local pop rock band for a while now and was excited they got the opportunity to play Outside Lands. They opened the festival Saturday at the Panhandle stage as a heavy fog mist rained down on on the band and fans alike. Real SF summer weather for the SF band. The crowd didn’t seem to mind. Many fans brought flowers and threw them on stage as they closed with hit “Fireproof” making for a few hilarious moments where the band was trying to duck and dodge flowers.
When MisterWives started their set with their hit “Our Own House” I was a little surprised. Most bands will save their top songs for later in the set, but they came out swinging. This was just the first surprise from the NYC-based band. From the onset they proved not only can they put together a good album, but also a top notch performance. Another big reason I enjoyed the show is their style takes me back to the ska bands I loved in high school like Save Ferris and Reel Big Fish (I was THAT cool in High School). Lead singer Mandy Lee is a total badass. She is all over the stage singing, doing pushups and even drumming.
First Aid Kit
I have seen First Aid Kit a few times in the past and I should know by now not to pigeon hole the Swedish sisters as just folk singers. They played my favorite cover of the weekend with a full eight or nine minute version of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” I never knew metal could sound so beautiful.
Most Mumford & Sons-like Act at Outside Lands
Mumford wins this one hands down. As a white guy in his 30s, people look at me like I am crazy when I say I’m just not that into Mumford & Sons. They make music, but its not my thing. No judgements. I bet it rocked.
Most pictures by Pedro Paredes-Haz. Follow Pedro on IG for more great shots: https://instagram.com/pedropar
The pictures that look kind of crappy are mine.