Outside Lands is just one of dozens of summer music festivals that spring up out of nowhere in America’s parks, dustbowls, parking lots and beaches. Nationwide, it’s still at the end of conversations about large festivals like Coachella or Lollapalooza. But for those who’ve made the trek into San Francisco’s Outer Lands the first weekend of August for the last six years, this festival is more than just about the music, wine and food.
And for performers who are raised or based in the Bay Area, Outside Lands is a unique opportunity.
“It’s not just playing another gig for me — it’s a homecoming,” said San Francisco-born rapper George Watsky, one of nine artists with Bay Area ties at the seventh annual Outside Lands this year. “To be able to do it for the people I grew up with, I feel that there’s not a more meaningful booking I could get from a festival.”
Watsky, who lives in Los Angeles now, has never been to Outside Lands, even though he grew up near the corner of 5th Avenue and Fulton Street, and his parents’ house has been a home base for all of his friends who visit each summer to attend.
“I have a lot of friends going who are really excited about (me playing),” he said. “When I got selected, I heard from so many friends who I went to middle school with, (to) elementary school. I pushed really hard to get the slot. I really, badly, wanted to play it.”
Roughly a dozen acts either from the Bay Area or with strong geographic ties are on the lineup this year. Christopher Owens first made a name for himself here. Grouplove’s Hannah Hooper was raised here, and the Killers’ bassist, Mark Stoermer, owned an apartment in San Francisco for several years.
Geography plays an interesting role for many of this year’s local acts, many of whom won’t need to be chauffeured to Golden Gate Park. Tycho’s Scott Hansen, a Sacramento native who calls San Francisco home, visits the park nearly every week, specifically Hellman Hollow, where the Twin Peaks stage is hoisted each year (and where Tycho will perform this summer).
“It’s kind of cool to be in a space that usually you just kind of play Frisbee (in) — and there’s a million people and a band playing,” Hansen said.
Nicki Bluhm, whose band the Gramblers perform this year, lives on the beach in the Outer Lands and may ride her bike to the festival grounds. Outside Lands makes her feel proud not just to be a San Franciscan, but a resident of the city’s outer reaches.
“It’s basically in my backyard,” Bluhm said. “You get to experience a city in a way that’s not really a city at all. There’s so much history and there’s so much character. It’s a very special place to celebrate music.”
Most of this year’s acts have been to the festival before, and many as performers. Bluhm performed with her husband’s band, The Mother Hips, in the inaugural year. A couple of years later she was invited to perform herself. Mikal Cronin, meanwhile, performed with Ty Segall’s band shortly after moving to San Francisco from Los Angeles three years ago.
“The sun goes down, and they have the trees all lit up,” he said. “It was really fun hanging out, which isn’t always the case with big music festivals. I didn’t feel overwhelmed. And it’s a beautiful time to be in San Francisco.”
Perhaps the most unique former performer stories belong to San Francisco bands The Brothers Comatose and the Tumbleweed Wanderers, who have both had a gig performing for a couple of hours each day at the tree-covered side stage known as Dr. Flotsam’s Hell Brew Review.
From their vantage point, the bands got a front row seat to surprise performances by Jack White and Tom Morello.
“It was just a great experience to be so immersed in the festival both as a performer and as a fan,” Tumbleweed Wanderers’ singer-guitarist Jeremy Lyon said.
Lyon first experienced the festival in 2010, when a friend in Furthur’s group of back-up singers got him a pass. He enjoyed himself so much that he returned the next day, even though he had no ticket.
“We must have hopped six fences and snuck past three different sets of security guards, including one who threatened to beat my face into the ground,” he recalled. “By the time we got in it was night, and we managed to catch part of Empire of the Sun, and Kings of Leon.”
For The Brothers Comatose singer-guitarist Ben Morrison, the magic Outside Lands moments came when he got to watch Stevie Wonder soundcheck to an empty, fog-drenched field. Morrison couldn’t take his eyes off the stage as Wonder taught his band a Beatles cover just hours before he performed it in front of tens of thousands.
They may have the stage to themselves for an hour or so, but each of the acts is still a fan of music, food and wine. Each performer or band has something to look forward to. And musically speaking, more often than not, that someone is Tom Petty. His was the first name spoken by Alameda band Finish Ticket’s guitarist Alex DiDonato, Oakland band Trails and Ways‘ singer Emma Oppen, and Bluhm.
“The first time I saw him was at Outside Lands (in 2008, and) that was a big moment for me,” Bluhm said. “I feel like everyone’s a Tom Petty fan by osmosis; if you’re in your 30s, especially. I went out into the crowd, and I knew every word of every song. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much a part of my childhood his music was.”
Finish Ticket drummer Gabe Stein was the first to point out that San Francisco’s biggest festival seems to have a lineup that differs from the country’s other big events, and features more up-and-coming acts than the others.
For Cronin, the best part of the festival is wandering around to catch as many acts as possible that he’s never heard. And Watsky fans should keep their eyes peeled because the rapper said he’ll also stage-hopping all three days as a fan, trying to take in the entire experience.
“The big thing is the booking and the talent finding — they always seem to be one step ahead,” Tycho’s Hansen said. “A band that you see there one year…the next year they’re the biggest thing in the world. There’s a good chance you’re going to see bands that you don’t even realize are about to explode.”
Each year, the star of the festival is the location. Morrison, of The Brothers Comatose, described Golden Gate Park during the festival as a mystical place with unpredictable weather but reliable joviality. The Tumbleweed Wanderers’ Lyon said the combination of music, food, art and throngs of people with the relative wilderness once you get past the gates is an otherworldly experience.
The local performers know just as well as music fans that Outside Lands is about more than the music. There’s the wine, beer, dozens of food venders of every sort, and the overall feel and mood.
In 2012, Tumbleweed Wanderers vocalist-guitarist Rob Fidel tasted his first fried pickle slice. Yes, he emptied out his wallet on gourmet chow, but he was happy with the selections.
“It was pure bliss,” Fidel said. “My taste buds were almost as happy as my ears that weekend. So with that being said, Food Lands is my favorite part.”
Morrison, meanwhile, enjoys seeing the park transformed into a bustling city, just 20 minutes walking away from his front porch. Trails and Ways singer Keith Brower Brown, who’s never been to Outside Lands, is most intrigued to experience what Morrison described for himself.
“It’s kind of interesting to me how big festivals create their own mini cities with separate roads,” he said.
Hansen compared the experience to a choose-your-own adventure book, with each part of Golden Gate Park transformed into its own environment.
“A lot of festivals end up feeling like, ‘OK, we’ve been here all day,’ but that place never feels like that,” he said.
Nearly all of this summer’s Bay Area-based Outside Lands performers felt it important for themselves and others from San Francisco and the north, south and east to get the chance to be in front of such a large audience.
“There is a wealth of local talent, and a lot of people in the Bay Area don’t necessarily see (it),” Finish Ticket’s DiDonatosaid. “It’s cool for people at Outside Lands to see the big names, but then (they) actually see bands that are from this area.”
And rather than feeling extra pressure about playing in front of such large audiences, the local acts all share an excitement to play in front of their fanbases, friends, and in Watsky’s case, parents.
“We want to play in front of as many people as possible,” Finish Ticket’s Nick Stein said.