If you measure the strength of a festival by the number of days it takes to recuperate afterward, this year’s Outside Lands was a bona fide Wednesday. This is both a commentary on the waning stamina of one such music festival reporter. I’ve since bucked the Converse cool in exchange for New Balance comfort when attending such occasions. It’s a testament to the clout of this ultra-stimulating, three-day marvel. A few days is needed for processing those big, gigantic sets.
A counterbalancing comedown naturally ensures, considering the novelty surrounding this year’s go-around of the popular 30-hour party in Golden Gate Park. Saturday saw the festival’s largest audience yet with a reported 90,000-plus concertgoers in awe of Childish Gambino’s marquee performance.
Exiting the grounds after his record-breaking set, we the gargantuan horde were in a collective beat shuffling out of the gates. The sardined pack passed the time by hollering the hallowed chorus of Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” — a singalong that spontaneously erupted on both Saturday and Sunday nights.
Photo: Sachyn Mital
San Francisco’s premier Big-Name festival returned to the park over the August 9th weekend for its 12th consecutive year of attracting over 200,000 to the verdant meadows and dusty polo field off near the City’s western, seaward edge. The spectacle always occurs towards the tail end of the summer festival season, a bookend with Coachella.
Outside Lands is most advantageous in its refinement of certain spoils that mar the modern festival experience. The festival peels off from the bloated pack of its contemporaries by booking a balanced roster who shine with multi-generational appeal.
The three headliners may best represent that. Friday’s Twenty One Pilots have captured the ears, hearts, and digital gaze of the youth. Childish Gambino has been a millennial mayor for a decade. Then there’s Paul Simon who’s found 50 ways to remain lovable for 50 years. Moreover, the artists booked are either solidified in their respected circles: Paul Simon, Leon Bridges. Or rising to the point of urgent consideration: Tierra Whack, Altin Gün.
Photo: Sachyn Mital
Outside Lands strives to limit its eco-footprint by encouraging attendees to pick up garbage in exchange for clothes. One full bag equates to an upcycled shirt. Globe guardians hang by the trash receptacles to ensure every item is recycled, composted or disposed of properly. Reusable cups were sold and encouraged. For the first time (legally), marijuana was sold on festival grounds at the much-hyped Grass Lands sideshow, and the use of public transportation was pushed. But the city and festival could improve by increasing the number of MUNI bus running lines on these particular nights. (I’m looking at you, Mayor London Breed.)
Police presence / Photo: Sachyn Mital
Arriving by bus during Friday dusk, it didn’t take long to detect this year’s enhanced safety measures, bolstered as a result of the recent mass shooting tragedies. Outside Lands typically has tight security — in 2012, I tried sneaking in by digging under a fence only to quickly discover another row of detouring fence lines — yet this year showed a clear beef up. That was unequivocally a welcomed enhancement and the whole weekend flowed without a hitch. But the image of four Kevlar-clad officers sporting assault rifles roaming towards the Twin Peaks stage in full combat, four-wheel ATV ranger while a DJ nearby blasted “Hard in the Paint” by Waka Flocka Flame was an amusing macho moment not lost on some of us.
Counting Crows / Photo: Sachyn Mital
The first of several festival forks in the roads was a split between blink-182 and the Counting Crows around 6:30 pm on Friday. Eventually the nostalgic lure for hearing cuts from Enema of the State prevailed.
(However, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Crows’ set concluded by suggesting it could be the band’s last. “I don’t know when we’ll see you again — or if we’ll see you again. Thanks for all the years,” Adam Duritz apparently told the crowd. Furthermore, news breaking of Duritz’s shaving off his notorious dreadlocks a few days after suggests some sort of upheaval.)
blink-182 / Photo: Sachyn Mital
blink-182, who’ve been on a co-headliner tour with Lil Wayne this past summer, nabbed attention with a setlist rooted in favorites like “Feeling This” and “Miss You”. But the trio weren’t afraid to balance out with new songs from their latest records. They even shared a couple of tracks from their upcoming album Nine (“Blame It on My” and “Youth Generational Divide”) and ended with their first hit. “We’re contractually bound to play this,” bassist/singer Mark Hoppus deadpanned before concluding their set with “Dammit”.
Twenty One Pilots dazzled fans and earned respect from grizzled naysayers who waded in the back, curious to check out the commotion themselves. The Ohio duo was the only band to place a car on stage for pyrotechnic décor. Singer Tyler Joseph changed his outfit frequently to complement the band’s various styles. He wore a Hawaiian shirt for the ukulele song. Drummer Josh Dun (clearly a disciple of blink-182’s Travis Barker who was onstage only an hour prior) can really pound out a beat. For 12 hours afterward, the infectious melody of “Stressed Out” buzzed about in my cranium.
Haley Heynderickx / Photo: Sachyn Mital
Returning Saturday, the most comprehensive of the days, things began with a 1:00 pm Haley Heynderickx sit-down affair where the Portland singer-songwriter regaled early birds with cuts from her dynamite debut I Need to Start a Garden.
A master in acoustic plucks with storytelling lyrics that enthrall like hearing an all-night bedtime story, Heynderickx also moonlights as a stage banter comedian. Once, in-between numbers, she and her band practiced an angelic tri-tone vocal exercise. “We just cast a spell,” she told us afterward. “Now, somewhere in the green room, Hozier’s beard just disappeared.” She wound us down by finishing with her blissfully sorrowful song “No Face”, which she revealed was inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away.
Altin Gün / Photo: Sachyn Mital
Minutes later came the discovery of Altin Gün at the Panhandle stage: the prime, tried and true stage for discovering new music at Outside Lands. If you like to head nod to King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, you’ll observe similar treats from this six-piece from Amsterdam who play a form of droning psychedelic rock native to Turkey. If there’s anything to learn from this festival write up, it’s that Turkey has an extensive history of psych-rock that’s worthy of a few clicks around the internet or a crate dig at Amoeba Records. Altin Gün’s Outside Lands appearance was the last show of their tour, and they used their mid-afternoon slot to bewitch us with dual percussionists and a Turkish string instrument called the saz. Singer and tambourine enthusiast Merve Dasdemir taught the audience a traditional Turkish dance move where you hold both arms up in the air and flick your wrists to the rhythm of the beat. The audience closely followed, and conformity became a community.
Afterward, the stage-stomping Tierra Whack appeared over on the Twin Peaks grandstand nearby. The Philly MC will soon be too big for an afternoon set like this (coming here fresh off her collaboration with Beyoncé on the soundtrack for the new The Lion King) and the thousands who turned up were ready to hype her hype.
With only a DJ at the deck, Tierra Whack adorned the stage in some Dr. Seuss Green Eggs and Ham imagery with a bushy Lorax outfit around her waist to match. At just 24 years old, Whack is perhaps the only rapper who can meld a reference to the horror film The Hills Have Eyes with the melody of KC & Jojo’s “All My Life”. She’s only released about 25 minutes of music total thus far, but she managed to fill her entire set with entertainment.
The weather on Saturday featured a layer of strato-form clouds which blanketed us from the sun but not UV rays, as made evident by the red-laden sunburns observed the next day. Amid this grey atmosphere, Flume played some of his electronic R&B tunes. His set was somewhat forgettable, minus the part where he picked up potted plants and proceeded to bash them on the stage floor. That was pretty punk rock for a guy who chose the name “Flume”.
Childish Gambino / Photo: Sachyn Mital
Ninety thousand people then assembled for the 8:25 pm headliner performance from Childish Gambino. It’s safe to claim that by his 9:55 pm conclusion, the Renaissance man earned countless new fans. His show was an extravaganza, beginning with him appearing just in white pants and a bright light on a column in the middle of the main stage field. Every moment of his set was meticulously crafted. As he walked from the column to the stage, he would turn to look into the camera’s eye as it followed hot off his heels to give his now-signature 1,000-watt stare, as seen in his “This Is America” music video.
Childish brandished some sleek dance moves while his band followed along with his every command. Most impressively, at one point, Childish directed the band to hit a 27-count which they nailed perfectly and ended with the singer howling a huge cry towards the sky. Part James Brown, part Jesus Christ Superstar, Childish Gambino has always mastered the technique of the crib. This guy knows how to steal and who to steal from. “Hol’ Up” he shouts during “3005” (á la Kendrick Lamar), while the lyrical repetition of “Hunnid bands, hunnid bands…Contraband, contraband…” heard in “This Is America” is pure Lil Pump.
But great artists steal, and Childish Gambino is a headlining bandit.
He made several shout outs to Oakland, where he once lived and told the crowd that, “When I lost my dad, [Oakland filmmaker] Ryan Coogler was the first person to hit me. The Bay makes you understand how close and separate we all are — how you can go over a bridge and everything changes.”
It was a beautiful sentiment that flattered us Bay Area people — even though Childish Gambino, nèe Donald Glover, is an actor who knows how to sell a script.
There might have been something in my water because the rest of night faded away into a colorful kaleidoscope reflecting the lit-up tree tops lining the polo field’s rim.
Jupiter & OkwessPhoto: Sachyn Mital
Sunday was made for rest and this ethos carried over with the fading fog into Golden Gate Park. The sun was punishing but made dancing during Jupiter & Okwess’ 3:00 pm set at the Panhandle stage all the merrier. This Congolese ensemble fuses the Jackson 5, Kool and the Gang and Motown with upbeat jangling guitars to form a style they call “bofenia rock”. The result cast a spell on the tired throng who sidestepped and danced through the afternoon.
Leon Bridges / Photo: Sachyn Mital
Back at the main stage, Texan blues-soul revivalist Leon Bridges married his two major albums together for a satisfying set marked by his irresistibly hot numbers, “Bad Bad News” and “Coming Home”. He’s an unmistakable charmer, introducing one song by telling us, “I wrote this song about a pretty girl I met in New Orleans — she was so pretty I had to write this song!”
A mass exodus appeared after Bridges’ set, and it appears as though the younger members of the Outside Lands family choose Anderson Paak & the Free Nationals or Kygo over Paul Simon. That just meant some of us could get so close to the main stage that we could throw a popsicle and hit the spry septuagenarian who was about to appear.
Paul Simon / Photo: Sachyn Mital
Arriving on stage in a cool burgundy bomber jacket, Paul Simon worked the audience as though he’s been doing this for years. This was a special performance, one that wrestled him out of retirement for a noble purpose. All of Paul Simon’s proceeds were donated to San Francisco Parks Alliance and Friends of the Urban Forest. On the stool behind him, visible on the big screen every time the camera honed in on the singer, a baseball cap with the letter “e” was seen, evoking the environmental focal point behind this show.
Simon’s band was massive in talent and numbers, big enough to include versatile musicians who could float between a cuíca during “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” or washboard for “That Was Your Mother”. Everyone received a moment to solo and shine.
Simon’s set was rooted in Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints. There was a lovely multi-song interlude alongside the orchestral six-piece yMusic who helped bring alive a gorgeous rendition of “René and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War”. It was akin to the version from Simon’s recent In the Blue Light album which featured reworkings of his past songs.
Standing the middle of the musical scrum — engulfed by a trumpet, flute, clarinet, violin, viola, and cello — Simon revealed to us the backstory of this tender ballad, describing a couple aging gracefully along to the bygone doo-wop bands of yesteryear. He explained how back in 1980, he was practicing a duet with Joni Mitchell for the Bread & Roses Festival when he noticed a book of paintings from Belgian Surrealist artist René Magritte. Looking over the pages, he read the photo caption: “René and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War” and thought to himself, “that’s a song”.
What followed then is what followed now: a gentle, musical pirouette spun with words of an everlasting romance. Upon the song’s conclusion, a copy of that inspirational photograph of the couple and their dog, standing half-candid, appeared on the big screen onstage. The listeners applauded, Simon gazed up to the screen. For a fleeting moment, the magician had revealed to the audience his trick. In return, we could see the birth and life of a song.
Paul SimonPhoto: Sachyn Mital