Radiohead (all photos: Daniel Kielman)
Everything was not in its right place when the gates opened at this year’s Outside Lands Music Festival. The box office lines were stalled to a crawl because the Internet was down, and individuals subsequently experienced significant delays in receiving their wristbands. When their credentials were finally sorted out, many attendees then faced entry scanners that had the tendency to randomly deny access, which subsequently led to painfully long customer service queues. For those who did get in, they soon discovered that the alcohol ID wristbands hadn’t arrived and they couldn’t yet begin their much-anticipated day drinking.
Suffice it to say, it wasn’t a great start. Nor was it a good look for a festival that once again raised ticket prices — and by an even more substantial amount this year than in years past — yet still couldn’t handle the most basic of event functions. So even though I got to the box office before the gates opened, I still couldn’t even make it inside before the music started more than an hour later. It was frustrating – exchanges became tense between festivalgoers and customer service.
The famous windmills
But life happens, and most of the issues early in the day were out of the organizers’ control. Yet while those little administrative hiccups aren’t unique to Outside Lands, you’d expect that with the increased notoriety and ticket revenue that they would do their best to maintain the highest-level of seamless professionalism. So if not put to that end, where did the massive price hike funding go?
I’ll get to that shortly, but I don’t want to risk getting lost in the negativity. Here’s ultimately what matters: Outside Lands 2016 was an extremely successful event by the most important metrics we generally use to gauge these things. I really liked or loved almost every set I caught during the course of the three chilly, but warmly-received days — including a few performances that rank among the best I’ve seen this entire year. No matter how utterly exhausted I was at the end of each day running around to see as much as I could, I still always wound up with enough energy to maintain a default smile. The weekend was undoubtedly awesome, and for the most part the following list of highs and lows concentrates far more heavily on the former.
This is where I imagine most of the increased sales money went — everything at Outside Lands just seemed bigger this year. There was the redesigned main stage with the arching bridge motif strapped up and down the top of Lands End, as well as the shimmering curtains draped along the sides. The grounds at the back of Polo Fields welcomed a new boutique merchandise shop attached to a very posh coffee/donut joint. Meanwhile, my personal favorite addition was the new abundance of screens at Twin Peaks and finally the inclusion of one at Sutro.
Yet it was the little stage that could, Panhandle, that received the biggest facelift. With an impressive tilted light display and a new sturdier build, along with a notable scaling up in size, Panhandle welcomed bigger acts and larger crowds. Although no longer touted as a completely green-energy platform, the stage finally became a real competitor alongside its siblings across the grounds.
But with the rise in Panhandle’s capacity came a loss of its low-key charm. The field outstretching from the stage lost the rustic hay-bale furniture that used to provide cozy (if scratchy) seating, and most of the acts who performed at Panhandle throughout the days drew crowds much larger than those in years past. While I’m glad to see the stage graduate to the big leagues, I can’t help but be a bit bummed that there may no longer be a space at Outside Lands for the names that can’t guarantee larger audiences. Expect brave bookings like last year’s indie-punks Metz or 2014’s The Bots to be replaced exclusively with trendier fare a la Låpsley and HÆLOS.
This was absolutely the most fly set of the entire weekend. The Nigerian singer/rapper was dressed to the nines — confidently barefoot in a classy blue suit — putting the sea of average-looking schmucks in the crowd to shame. Yet it’s not what he wore, but how he performed, that defined his time on stage. Jidenna is a star, even if he’s still relatively unknown compared to his peers. His music swings between Caribbean rhythms and contemporary electronic bounce, but no matter the style he commands the stage with an infectious energy and trained showmanship.
I’m thoroughly convinced this dude should be tapped as an opener for Drake’s current tour, especially since set standout “A Little Bit More” is essentially a Views B-side. Plus he can sell vaguely silly witticisms like they’re biblical poetry: “Your booty don’t lie / But assholes do,” may have been my favorite quotable uttered all weekend. But he also directed his words towards more traditionally powerful messages: “They say ‘Jidenna, why you dressing so classic?’/ I don’t want my best-dressed day in a casket.” Still, the most affecting moment came when he reminded the audience of a simple truth: “No matter what you do and no matter what you say, somebody’s always gonna feel some kind of way about you.” From the perspective of the audience, it was nothing but adoration.
Michigan funk-auteurs Vulfpeck held the most casual performance of the weekend. The set opened with a high school student performing a saxophone solo, and stayed fantastically freewheeling from there. It was all very loose and very goofy – the band shuffling between semi-song jams and semi-jam songs that were at once spunky, greasy, and chunky. Post-song stage banter often stretched into lengths longer than the actual tunes themselves, and an evident artistic ambition led the band to take on risks other mid-afternoon acts wouldn’t dare attempt. An effort to organize a crowd sing-along to the relatively tricky melody on the “Back Pocket” chorus proved surprisingly successful, but it likely the lyrical shift of their song “Christmas In LA” to “Christmas In The Bay” that really won the crowd over.
The troubled Twin Peaks stage
I’m not sure what was happening over at the sound booth, but all weekend I constantly heard friends gripe about sound issues during various sets at Twin Peaks. Personally, the stage managed to ruin two shows I expected to be personal favorites and easily otherwise would have been. It began on Friday with Grimes, whose experimental indie-pop was washed out by a throbbing bass so bleary that the initial slap was out of sync with the subsequent ripple. As a result, the thrilling nuance in project mastermind Claire Boucher’s animated anthems was practically inaudible, and her confident and commanding stage presence was incongruous with the jumbled burp coming from the speakers.
The following day Vince Staples had the air sucked out of his set by different speaker troubles. As the Long Beach rapper charged on stage for set-opener “Lift Me Up” the sound was so poorly mixed that I couldn’t make out a word he said, having to rely on my memory of the lyrics to simply follow along. A large contingent of fans immediately began to scream in unison “Turn it up! Turn it up!” but that command was unfortunately too ambiguous for the rapper on stage who took it as an indication the crowd was ready to go wild. And they were! But they couldn’t act on their inclination, because without audible vocals the set was essentially pointless. I left both Vince and Grimes early, two acts of a select few that were among the most adventurous bookings of what often can feel like a painfully vanilla festival. They deserved better.
I first guffawed when I heard LCD Soundsystem were reuniting hardly half a decade removed from their grand finale farewell tour of 2011. Then I sat in awe after they knocked the wind out of me on Friday night. Contemporary popularity be damned, LCD Soundsystem deserve to headline festivals. They are built for it. From the meditative repetition of “Us V Them” to the closing sweep of “All My Friends,” the band’s music translates incredibly well to a massive field. Not a single sole was sitting still, and there wasn’t a still soul unaffected. James Murphy is so good at fronting this band and commanding a stage that you wonder how he ever thought his talents were better served remixing tennis sounds or opening a wine bar. This was a top-notch live performance by a top-notch ensemble of musicians, and it was the best set of the entire festival.
“Sad songs make me feel better,” Julien Baker told the crowd during her high noon Saturday set. That was the thesis she set out to prove with her 45 minutes of aching first-person confessionals. Baker presence is simultaneously raw and graceful, and surprisingly hefty despite a reverberating guitar with a piercingly hollow tone acting as her sole accompaniment. The crowd was hushed in silence as she moved through music desperately pleading, yet poignantly life-affirming — simulating the halting of the Earth’s rotation whenever Baker would slam her pick-grasping fist straight into the body of her guitar and hold her gaze out past the crowd and directly at her demons. Her artistry is warm and emphatic despite the chilly subject material and yearning delivery, enveloping you in a provisional shelter the way only sad songs truly can.
What Outside Lands does better than almost any other festival is make it impossible to be bored. Even if no one performing on any of the four main music stages interests you, there’s always the ear-blasting bass over at the Heineken Dome, intimate comedy at The Barbary, or corporate curiosities like the StubHub Sound Stage to fallback on. But the single greatest attraction in my mind when you have nowhere else to go is GastroMagic in McLaren Pass. Both the sets I caught this weekend over at the culinary/music crossover stage were absolutely unforgettable experiences unlike anything I’d experienced before.
The first was Ra Ra Riot covering The Police under the alter ego A Humiliating Kick In The Crotch meanwhile Melissa King from Top Chef concocted a meal for onstage taste-testers. The concept made no sense, but it was a real joy to witness the two disparate stage elements take place simultaneously. As AHKITC ran through a spot-on musical impersonation of Sting and his bandmates, including takes on the classics “Roxanne” and “Message In A Bottle,” King gutted a fish and threw into the crowd homemade frozen marshmallows that almost exclusively landed in the dirt. I wasn’t sure which of the two rarely interacting elements on stage I was supposed to pay attention to at any given moment, but I knew that the overall juxtaposition was absolutely brilliant. The experience would only later be one-upped by Big Freedia’s Saturday “Bounce Brunch,” a half hour of industrial dance noise and on-stage twerking that ended in the last two minutes with the audience shaking their asses for beignets. God bless Gastro Magic.
Big Grams have a lot of history with the Bay Area, and specifically the festival organizers Another Planet Entertainment. The pair of Outkast’s Big Boi and indie-pop duo Phantogram initially met at Outside Lands years ago, and they subsequently performed their first show together at last year’s Treasure Island Music Festival. So it was only fitting they would bring the first cycle of this collaboration to a close at Outside Lands 2016. Unfortunately, nothing about their performance managed to offer reason for why this project needed to exist at all. You could do a lot worse than the group’s glossy hip-pop, but you could also do a whole lot better. Big Grams is an incredibly low-stakes endeavor, and they perform accordingly — which is a real letdown when you imagine what these talents could accomplish if they tried to stretch the limits of their respective sounds. But what you get is unbearably safe and simply unmemorable. It all just dissolves as you watch it. Will anyone regard Big Grams a decade from now as anything other than a minor footnote? Will anyone even remember to ask the question?
Radiohead’s long-awaited return to Golden Gate Park after their performance at the inaugural Outside Lands in 2008 was humbling. These musicians are proficient masters of their craft, and it was an honor to watch them hopscotch through their storied discography. There’s a certain air of expectation that comes along with seeing a band like Radiohead live, and Thom Yorke did everything he could to destroy any notion of how the band should compose themselves in concert. His stage presence played into the stereotype of the “rock star,” simultaneously mocking it and embracing what it can accomplish. The band was in jovial spirits, and Yorke’s casual attitude helped bring the set down to Earth. It was refreshing to see them tone down their stately image — leaving the songs to speak for themselves.
Suffice it to say, they communicated wonders. No matter the era or style, whether it was the haunting balladry of OK Computer or the spectral simmer of The King Of Limbs, Radiohead never sounded less than iconic. It was easy to be overwhelmed by the beauty of the band’s compositions, especially for cuts as poetically expansive as Kid A’s “Idioteque” or In Rainbows’ “Nude.” And while it was painful knowing their planned second encore got cut because of time constraints (maybe we would have gotten a The Bends cut?), it’s hard to think of a more powerful way for the night to come to a close than Yorke leading the crowd as a choir to an acoustic outro of “Karma Police.” For a minute there, I truly lost myself.
I’ve been to other music festivals, and every single one feels just short of pitiful in comparison to Outside Lands when it comes to the culinary arts. Not only does Outside Lands dedicate actual stage time to highlighting renowned chefs and delicious foods, but the selection of meal vendors is expertly curated, expansive, and refreshingly experimental. If you want a burger, you have the option of having it on a bread bun, or on a bed of slightly-cooked ramen, or sandwiched between two glazed donuts. If you want chocolate, you don’t just go to a single dessert booth, but rather explore an entire section of the park dedicated to the stuff. At Outside Lands it’s as easy to get lost in the food as it is the music, and the options are equally varied. Some of my own personal highlights this weekend, among other fare: Hawaiian poke, a Filipino burrito, a Nepalese burrito, a plantain burrito, an arepa, and a liquid chocolate bar. And I still didn’t get to try everything I wanted.
Outside Lands only just introduced wristbands last year, and this time around they caught up on their functionality as a method of transaction. But while many find it convenient to preload their admission pass with “bison bucks” to facilitate payment at the festival, others would rather just stick with traditional cash and credit cards. The newest attraction of Cocktail Magic didn’t let you remain a luddite, however, and thus many didn’t have the option to experience the tastemaking cocktails set to occasional magic tricks even if they wanted to. Not that they would want to, since each drink cost $15 and there was always something more pressing to do than watch card tricks on some shoddy tables in the dirt.
Here’s the thing: Even Radiohead performs at other festivals. But Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem is easily the rarest book all across the entire summer festival circuit. As the band themselves noted, San Francisco was the recipient of the only stop on their world tour. They celebrated the occasion by paying homage to the city, both with their song selection (which included “San Francisco” by The Mowgli’s) and their visuals, which featured vignettes of the band traveling across the city and reminiscing over their collective history here. On top of the inherently magical nature of watching this world-class band offer a once-in-a-lifetime performance, the first time the sun truly shone all weekend was when a massive choir joined them in a rendition of the Beatles-classic “With A Little Help From My Friends.” That was a clear sign this band should be granted an Outside Lands residency and come back every year.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Third Eye Blind at Outside Lands might have been the most significant set of the weekend. Hear me out, because for one they drew one of the most massive and enthusiastic crowds of the entire festival. But not only that, they dropped instantly recognizable hit after hit that sent that crowd into histrionics — I literally saw a girl shed tears during “Jumper.” The fact that the band behind “Semi-Charmed Life” is pulling audiences almost as large as those of any of the headliners in 2016 is an indication that given 20 years, even the most-ridiculed mainstream band can be publicly redeemed through the strength of nostalgia.
Lead singer Stephen Jenkins was all willing to be the savior of a rock and roll spirit long since fallen out of favor, one that existed back when every radio-rock staple featured a totally non-ironic rap-breakdown. He pretended to be both a direct descendent of the U2 arena-rock lineage and an inspirational generational figure for the misfits, when public memory pretty neatly categorized him and his band as merely post-grunge pop-rock curiosities.
Yet for the inevitable crutch Third Eye Blind lean on in terms of having a legacy, they also put in work to give their audience more than just a paint-by-numbers set of familiar tunes mixed in with whatever album they have to promote at the time. No, Jenkins and company went all out — specifically for a goofy-but-gracious tribute to David Bowie that included both a choir donning iconic wigs and San Francisco’s very own Magik*Magik Orchestra. It was a moving mini-set that almost made you forget that just minutes beforehand Jenkins had performed a cringe-worthy social consciousness jam prefaced by the speech: “Radio’s not gonna play this song. Because of the message. It’s controversial. Yeah it’s fucking controversial. Fuck yeah it is.” You can’t win ‘em all.
It wasn’t until Ryan Adams and his band The Shining launched into the opening notes of “Trouble” off his 2014 self-titled release that I realized how much I needed his set of no frills rock and roll this weekend. The five-piece band delivered an anachronistic experience in today’s festival environment, calling back to Outside Land’s roots-rock origins that used to be at home on the main stage before having moved exclusively to the tucked-away Sutro in recent years. The audience in attendance reminded me how young I still am, as I joined maybe a handful of fellow 20-year-olds who chose to wade in the pond of middle-aged rock vets rather than tread deep in the sea of Major Lazer fans.
Not that the presence of the simultaneously occurring set wasn’t still felt beneath the canopy of trees draped to the sides of Ryan Adams. “Somebody’s got their laptop turned up so loud right now,” Adams commented when he noticed the residual bass that carried over from the main stage to Sutro, before later riffing a mild slight at “Major Blazer” in the middle of an unrelated improvised jam about the bouncing beach balls the older folk in the crowd seemed to despise. Right down to the perpetual smell of cigarette smoke and deliriously drunken probable-grandparents, Ryan Adams’ performance was reminiscent of an era long gone. But the blitzing classic rock and churning, somber folk made a case that the spirit is still alive and beating today.
Lana Del Rey was remarkable. Her performance was a skilled production in drama, elegance, depravity, beauty, and perception — tied into a single character that Elizabeth Grant executes flawlessly. The band conjured up a slow-motion storm of moody psychedelia and orchestral pomp, meanwhile Grant sang with glamorous grandeur and a whole lot of grit. Her voice is beautiful but damning, equally haunting as it is majestic. There were die-hard fans tearing apart their vocal chords throughout the set, but I imagine there were also a large number of newcomers who walked away holding her in a newly high regard.
The brilliance of the Lana Del Rey image is that through her songs Grant tells you exactly who she wants you to think she is, painting an exquisitely detailed, unflinching portrait of a masquerade. Yet everyone in the audience sees Lana Del Rey for what they want to see. She’s either the threat of a total lost cause, or a paragon of youthful excess excellence. But no matter what you see, it’s all still just an act, and in a way that makes Lana Del Rey a fitting icon for a generation that has more control over their narrative than any ever before. Sure Lana Del Rey was Grant’s projection on stage, but she was also a mirror to her audience watching from below.