Live Music: Inside the Art of Outside Lands

Written by Concert Reviews, Music

windmill_smallOutside Lands came and went last weekend, blowing in and out of the Golden Gate Park with the signature stomp, rock, and dazzle that’s it’s become equanimous with since Another Planet first unleashed it upon San Francisco six summers ago. This year, the dazzle was bigger and brighter than ever, the rock louder, the stomp harder, and widespread and whimsical art lavished the weekend with a warmth and brightness that superseded the grey skies.

Outside Lands always has a killer lineup—like many fests of its size, it snatches up a lot of the big touring bands and artists that are high on the collective radar and books them early, oftentimes with the condition that they won’t play elsewhere in the area before or after the event. This puts pressure on fans to see their favorite artists in this setting and this setting only, and for me at least, it can make the weekend an aggressive test of will, patience, and manipulation in order to catch everyone I want to see up close and personal. Last year, my strategic attempts to maximize ChocoSmallevery single second and set was successful, to a degree, sort of, although I inflicted a terrible amount of stress on myself because I was hard-sworn to a strict agenda of my own making. This year, I was much less resistant to both the crowd and the clock, and ultimately had a much better, more satisfying time. Of the five previous Outside Lands I’ve attended, this has been my favorite year yet, simply because I relinquished myself to the harmony of it all.

It was a perfect hybrid of many things—all the incredible musical performances, of course, but also the people, food, dancing, art, setting, and myriad other treasures that made Outside Lands such a colorful delight. Below are the pieces that made up the puzzle of my festival experience as it unfolded over three days.

Art and Ambiance, Awash and Aglowchocosmallsign
This year the promoters went above and beyond to showcase the art and ambiance of the festival grounds–from the colorful stages, live paintings, and graffiti murals to the structures, installations, and hues of purple, pink, and green that lit up the trees and clung to the fog. The aesthetic was seemingly clamoring to a standard, mightily wrought by many festival promoters these days, that the visual art, ambiance, and presentation of space be integral to the festival experience. In the early days, Outside Lands’ décor was defined by the lonely latticed windmill standing tall in the heart of the park. The accoutrements have been progressively improved upon in the past six years, and those details tastefully enhance the natural beauty of the Golden Gate.

Billing and Booking, Harmony and Flow
Outside Lands does a great job billing a range of disparate range of artists (from ‘90s rock giants to club DJs to mainstream comics to singer-songwriter folk) and booking them in time slots that work with the crowd. The shitstorm that ensued during OSL’s inaugural year when Beck played up against Radiohead is still a stain on the memory of many, most of all probably the park itself, which took a beating when thousands of kids tore through the trees and knocked down fences in the migration between the two adjoining stages. This year the crowd movement was synergistic among the stages and sets, and despite an initial frustrating bottleneck getting through the gates on Saturday afternoon, it flowed harmoniously all weekend long.

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CHIC’s Disco Dance Party
D’Angelo canceled at the last minute due to illness, and that was a bummer all around. But the disco-funk of fill-in act CHIC featuring Nile Rodgers was infectious, with timeless hits like “Le Freak,” “I’m Coming Out,” and“We Are Family” setting a tone of buoyant camaraderie between the crowd and the band—who were dazzlingly clad in all white. CHIC was a perfect way to rev up for Friday night and they jump-started a collective crowd momentum that kept the whole weekend moving.

Choco-Lands: Willy Wonka Goes Camping in Candy Land
The quaint vending area dedicated to ye olde sweet tooth was not only charming and adorable but tempting. After deliberating all weekend over which treat to eat, I opted for a “liquid candy bar” concocted to order by two confectioners behind a mini glass-walled candy kitchen, a la Oompa Loompas. Two bites in and it became kind of disgustingly rich, but the idea is sweet, am I right? There were vendors selling supersized s’mores and peanut butter cups, fancy hot chocolate, milk and cookies, and more. On the chin-up bar in the middle of the confectioners (it’s part of the fitness trail that rims the Polo Fields) people competed in silly tests of strength to onlookers shoving chocolate in their faces.

main_marty_4684_smallDr. Flotsam’s Hell Brew Revue with Marty O’Reilly and the Carney Bastards
Among the dust and dirt and hay the carnies created a haven for anyone wanting an intimate experience away from the amplified rock, bass, and people swarming the well-trod grassy grounds. All weekend long, the Hell Brew Revue was my respite. Marty O’Reilly and the Old Soul Orchestra brought an authenticity to the stage with their fabulous gospel tinged Americana, and a minstrel medicine show calling themselves the Carney Bastards unfolded into a variety ensemble of comedy, music, dance, theatrics, and more. A gypsy doctor healed whatever ailment the stranger pulled out of the crowd by valkyries in long white gowns was afflicted with—be it a broken foot or lack of grace. After chugging some of the Emcee’s secret brew, the ailed became an agile backflipping break dancer and a juggling master, respectively. The Hell Brew Revue was flanked by an ominous black-robed body hanging on a cross and antiquey vending booths rimmed the area, reminiscent of carnivals of the olden days.

Food and Booze: Upscale and Everywhere
Yeah yeah, there’s good food at Outside Lands. Who cares? But not only is the food good, it’s everywhere. Standard fried fare like funnel cakes and chicken strips were offered in their gourmet renderings, and for those looking to imbibe on fancypants booze, Beerlands and Winelands were given massive, central real estate. Even the regular beer tents at least offered Sierra Nevada in addition to the ubiquitous (blegh!) Heineken. Among the things I ate were a fried chicken sandwich with spicy slaw, Havarti grilled cheese with fig jam, Lamb Paella with calamari, cheese fries, and that aforementioned cup of chocolate goo.

Hall and Oates Can Go for ThatHallOates_360x145
So do these guys still hate each other or what? They seemed to be having a real good time on Sunday afternoon singing crowd favorites like “Sara Smile”, “I Can Go For That”, “Rich Girl,” “Out of Touch.” Their blast from the past set of ‘80s blue-eyed soul inspired a sing-along when I was in the bathroom line during “Maneater.” Now that’s some feel-good musical solidarity right there.

Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk Sunday Serenade
Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk drew me to the festival early on Sunday. What better way is there to wake up and nurse a hangover than with a healthy loud dose of New Orleans funk?

Path to the Digital Detox: Take the Long Way Homedecorsmall
Choco-Lands was just one reason the dusty trail that ran through the trees became a well-traveled back road for many throughout the weekend. There was cute quotes and sayings interspersed throughout on cardboard on signs, a margarita bar, lots of people peeing in the woods, and a “Digital Detox” area, where you had to sign a waiver alleging that you were utterly unplugged (device off) to take in the analog offerings—which included crafts, tea in a yurt, chalkboards, manual typewriters, acoustic music, more.

ninenailssmaNine Inch Nails’ Industrial Rock Time Machine
After an afternoon of electronica, Americana, and Brooklyn-bred indie rock, Nine Inch Nails served my palate just right. Trent Reznor was an utterly compelling frontman, cast in silhouette against the stark white strobe lights. Having no barometer to measure their set against, since I’d never seen them live before and haven’t listened to them in years (and never really dug in deep) I had no expectations going into their set but knew I wanted to watch it start to finish. And so when I stood entranced for two hours listening to a set of intensely dark music that withstood the test of time and space and then walked out of the park at its conclusion in a fugue state alongside my boyfriend and two friends, the cathartic release was pronounced and the epiphany immediate: I suddenly, totally got Nine Inch Nails.

Jurassic 5: Quality Control of Hip-Hop Hits jurassic5small
Jurassic 5 was one of the most highly anticipated performances of the entire weekend. It’s been six years since they broke up, but seems like longer since they’ve really been out and about—their music was so definitive of the early 2000s. During their Saturday afternoon slot Chali 2na, Nu-Mark, Cut Chemist, and the crew treated the crowd to a set of old school hip-hop favorites that evoked a particular time in my life while sounding as vital as ever; their “Freedom” tribute to Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin brought an especially topical relevancy–and poignancy–to the set.

McCartney’s Magical Mystery Wow
To this day, Paul McCartney sets the bar. First of all, he’s a Beatle for chrissakes. He’s 70 years old. He’s as high-energy and satisfying a performer as anyone else playing today. On Friday, he paid loving tribute to his fallen fellow Beatles. He played for nearly three full hours. He set off fireworks. And he did this all right in my backyard!

The National and Bob Weir

The National’s Brooding American Beauty
I am transfixed by the National’s music, be it through headphones or in a live setting. Their moody brew rose to the occasion of opening for a Beatle on Friday evening, and singer Matt Berninger jumped off stage and into the audience, bringing the massive crowd closer with his brooding baritone, which bordered on raspy when he really let it wail. The Kronos Quartet joined the band, adding an elegant and avant touch, and then the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir came out on guitar—all grey hair and white beard and to little fanfare, considering—for “Terrible Love” to close their set. I would have expected (and loved!) a Dead tune too, but Weir’s reciprocal affection for a band of Dead fans was highlight enough.

PrettyLights_330x201

Pretty Lights In Our City Skies
Pretty Lights’ light show alone–pink and green lasers cutting sharp lines through the fog, beaming strobes of all hues under the rainbow–is befitting of a headlining spot directly opposite (albeit a half-mile away) a Beatle. And his music is killer too: Derek Vincent Smith lovingly laces glitch, hip-hop, deep bass, and vintage funk and soul samples into his compositions, and while his tracks rely on samples, he’s proven remarkably progressive–he gives away all his music for free, has a state-of-the-art light show and video projections, and most recently, he brought soul musicians into his studio and captured their tracks live to sample into his songs. Sure he’s formulaic, to a degree… but it’s a formula that he continues to develop and hone, and the presentation is unparalleled.

Supine for The Tallest Man on Earth
Right when I needed it, when my legs were giving out and the crowd was closing in, a Swedish folkie played a set of hushed indie folk on the Sutro Stage. I sat in the grass on a blanket with my friends and basked in the moment–which was fleeting, as Kristian Matsson said that was his last performance in the States for a while. He played “Love Is All,” one of my all-time faves.

dancersmalWillie Nelson, Uncle Jessie, and Bob Weir
It was with difficulty that I pulled myself away from Marty O’Reilly on Sunday afternoon to fight the thickening crowd for Willie, but I love him so much there was no way I could skip his set. I got there late, and the crowd was distracted and fidgety, but Nelson’s set drew nomadic festival folks in up until the last note of the final song–which happened to be “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” with John Stamos–who played percussion for much of the set–and Bob Weir!

And as for the myriad other pieces of my festival puzzle…

Shout out to Kurt Vile, whom I shall love always. A missed connection to Craig Robertson, who I waited eagerly and unsuccessfully to see perform in the at-capacity comedy tent. Catch ya next time Kopecky Family Band–I just don’t get the hype. A high-five to Foals, during whose high-energy show I sent a gloating text to my brother-in-law; an “I love you Karen O, even though I didn’t stay for you!”; thank you to GRiZ for picking me up when I wanted to sit down; a appreciative head-nod to Youth Lagoon whose set I enjoyed but whose studio albums I enjoy better; another catch ya next time, this one to Gary Clark, whose show I mostly missed thanks to ill-planned festival logistics. Band of Horses gets a somewhat unanticipated two crossthumbs up because I wrote them off after their last record; and oh yes–a big  round of applause and sincere thank you to so many other artists I saw in full, in passing, or didn’t see at all, as well as the festival organizers, promoters, volunteers, vendors, painters and crafters, fellow attendees, and the city of San Francisco, for giving me a truly memorable, magical, wonderful weekend. See ya next year!

All photography by Shaun Beall