Outside Lands Push the Envelope with Buzz Bands and Grass Lands
The 2019 edition of San Francisco's Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival featured a number of emerging rock 'n' roll buzz bands, providing music fans a chance to catch a variety of fresh sonic flavors and maybe even discover a new favorite.
Of all the many festival sites in America, San Francisco's Golden Gate Park is easily one of the best. The City resisted for years, until organizers convinced the powers that be that putting on a weekend festival would not only reap profits for promoters, but could also help provide funds to maintain the park and benefit local non-profits devoted to music and art education through Outside Lands Works. Hence the Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival was born in 2008 and has been a top attraction on regional and national festival calendars ever since.
The local rock 'n' roll crowd grew somewhat disgruntled in 2018 though when the festival's lineup seemed to field little in the way of rock and/or roll. With a lineup heavy on pop, hip-hop and electronic music, some Bay Area music fans were left wondering what happened to a festival that had previously featured big time rock headliners like Radiohead, Pearl Jam, Furthur, Phish, Muse, Foo Fighters, and Metallica. This year's lineup doesn't exactly include a major modern rock headliner either, although having Paul Simon close out the festival on Sunday night does provide a sentimental drawing card for the classic rock crowd.
But the 2019 edition of Outside Lands features a number of emerging rock 'n' roll buzz bands, providing music fans a chance to catch a variety of fresh sonic flavors and maybe even discover a new favorite. Outside Lands also pushes the envelope this year with its Grass Lands area becoming the first ever cannabis experience at a major American festival where attendees can legally purchase cannabis products inside the festival. Sure there have previously been festivals with medical cannabis areas such as the Chalice Cup in San Berdoo, but making recreational cannabis available to anyone over the age of 21 truly breaks new ground (and it's about time.)
Saturday, 10 August
Those who couldn't make it to the festival on Friday still had plenty of great music to see over the final two days, with Saturday easily featuring the strongest lineup of the weekend for the rock 'n' rollers. Ohio-based indie folk rock trio CAAMP get things going at 2:00 pm as they're blessed with warm sunny weather on the Sutro stage. Touring behind their second album with 2019's By and By, the band has achieved official buzz band status with their infectious hit single "Peach Fuzz" being featured on taste-making indie rock radio stations like LA's KCRW and Austin's KUTX. The song seems to bite the Velvet Underground classic "Sweet Jane" in an ingenious way, utilizing both the basic three-chord hook and low-fi vibe but with a fresh melodic spin to generate one of the summer's most vibrant tunes. It sounds great here in the Golden Gate Park sunshine as the band draws a good crowd.
At 3:00 pm, I found Turkish psyche rock band Altin Gun rocking the smaller Panhandle stage with a uniquely groovy vibe that really gets the good times rolling. Signed to ATO Records after landing a featured spot at King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard's annual Gizzfest in Australia last year, Altin Gun is making the most of their first American tour here. Mixing some old world style vocals with tight beats, psychedelic guitars and analog organs to conjure a truly festive dance party, this set is big fun from start to finish.
Altin Gun / Photo by Greg M. Schwartz
Does this crowd care that Altin Gun sings in a foreign language? Hell no, because the band's infectious sound clearly crosses the language barrier. The energetic set has a pack of young ladies dancing in such care-free glee at one point that one of them suffers a wardrobe failure nipple slip for which she scarcely cares, which only serves to show what an ecstatic vibe the band is putting out here.
Back over at the Sutro stage, it's a 30-year flashback with Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians bringing their endearingly folky psyche-rock to life. The band has been back in action since releasing 2018's Rocket LP, a strong outing that finds Brickell in fine form with the original band backing her on a dynamic collection of fresh tunes. The group's breakthrough hit single "What I Am" conjures a festive vibe here, with Brickell clearly retaining her youthful vigor. A new tune that sounds like it's titled "My Power" sees the band finding a cool spacey groove, as Brickell gets her mojo working.
Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians / Photo by Greg M. Schwartz
The band strikes sonic gold with "Green Magic", an upbeat funky gem that's one of the most vibrant tunes from the new album. Here the Bohemians utilize polyrhythmic percussion and fiery guitar licks to catch a hot groove, while also mixing in a spacey bridge that gets downright mesmerizing.
Outside Lands juxtaposes a classic group with another new buzz band next as Brickell's set is followed by one of 2019's most dynamic new artists as Amo Amo takes the intimate Cocktail Magic stage. The psychedelic dream pop group from Los Angeles had opened the day with a noon set on the larger Sutro stage, but it's a great move by the festival to give the band another chance here since many fans were challenged to arrive by high noon. The quintet released their self-titled debut album here in 2019 and has been winning hearts and minds this summer opening for their friend Jim James from My Morning Jacket (who also produced their album.) Alluring vocalist Lovelle Femme seems like some kind of woodland angel here, first rocking on guitar before moving into the frontwoman role as the crowd grows throughout the set.
Amo Amo / Photo by Greg M. Schwartz
"Wish I Had the Power" is one of the more compelling songs of the day as Femme and lead guitarist Omar Velasco sing "I wish I had the power to change your life, but only you can do that for yourself" over a simmering mid-tempo groove. "Closer to You" is another endearing tune where the band gets an airy feel good vibe going for Femme's enchanting vocals about connecting with life, the universe and everything.
The set comes to a climactic conclusion with Amo Amo's smash hit in waiting, "Antidote". Femme and Velasco harmonize in mesmerizing fashion on a timely tune about getting the mind and body in tune to love and dance more. It's a message that goes over quite well here, with Femme acting as a shamanic siren to bring the audience into transcendent harmony with the cosmos for one of the weekend's peak moments.
Buzz band action continues in the 6:00 hour back at the Sutro stage, where Better Oblivion Community Center (BOCC) draw a large audience eager to witness this intriguing team-up between Connor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers. In the wake of the Ryan Adams scandal that saw Bridgers testifying to the New York Times about her brief and troubled relationship with Adams (later revealing that her hit song "Motion Sickness" was inspired by his overzealous pursuit), BOCC almost seems like her spiritual revenge against Adams. There's an odd parallel here with Adams having played a great set on this same stage three years ago, but that was then and this is now. "Little Trouble" is an early highlight in the set, with the dynamic duo harmonizing in energetic fashion on an upbeat tune that didn't even make the band's debut album released in January but which was released as a single in April.
A shimmery cover of the Magnetic Fields' "All the Umbrellas" is a surprise gem, with the duo trading verses then cranking up the guitars as they harmonize on the choruses. The set hits peak vibe on the band's zeitgeist lead single "Dylan Thomas", with Oberst and Bridgers singing their hearts out much to the delight of the adoring audience. The duo have said the song was partly inspired by the insane "Qanon" conspiracy theory that Donald Trump is playing 4D chess as a genius hero against the Deep State, an absurd theory considering how all available evidence indicates he's a genuine menace to society. BOCC closes the set with Oberst leading a triumphant rendition of Bright Eyes' "Easy/Lucky/Free" that brings the set to a rocking conclusion with some deep thoughts to boot.
Better Oblivion Community Center - Dylan Thomasyoutu.be
Australian electronica wiz Flume has meanwhile drawn a huge throng to the Land's End stage in the Polo Grounds. While this sound may not be for everyone, there's no denying that he can conjure a big dance party as he's got thousands of fans literally waving their hands in the air like they just don't care. Irish singer/songwriter Hozier then packs the Sutro stage area in a way that it wasn't jammed earlier. Songs that sound lightweight on the radio take on a much more dynamic impact in the live setting here and one can't help but sense that there's more than just hype here. Saturday's main stage headliner Childish Gambino then closes out the evening with an undeniably high energy set before a massive crowd back in the Polo Field. The hip-hop/funk/R&B maestro has become a huge star and it's easy to see he's got some serious mojo working during this set, throwing down a number of tight funky groovers to electrify the party people.
Sunday, 11 August
The festivities get going early on Sunday afternoon with Cherry Glazerr rocking the Sutro stage in the warm sunshine of the 1 o'clock hour. The LA-based indie power trio has an energetic guitar-driven sound going with dynamic female guitarist/vocalist Clementine Creevy leading the way. With tunes that blend elements of grunge, power pop and new wave, Cherry Glazerr are hard to pigeon hole (a rare and desirable commodity in modern music.)
Nahko and Medicine for the People take the Twin Peaks stage in the 2:00 hour with a vibrant sound and uplifting socially conscious vibe that recalls local heroes Michael Franti & Spearhead. Vocalist Nahko Bear conjures a festive atmosphere on "Aloha Ke Akua", singing out about being "wide awake and taking names" as he lays down some deeper spiritual concepts. The band digs into a deeply funky groove on the new "Take Your Power Back", a timely tune for these tumultuous times. The song is a showcase for the band's diverse sound as the funk is enhanced with saxophone and violin, before Nahko leads the crowd in an inspiring sing-along to "take your power back!" The soulful "Love Letters to God" is another highlight as Nahko sings of being "wiser than the enemy will ever be," while warning listeners "don't believe everything your told". It's always great to hear music that also aims to conjure higher consciousness -- a long time tradition here in Golden Gate Park -- and Nahko delivers for Outside Lands with this set.
The 3:00 hour seems like an ideal time to visit the Grass Lands area where attendees can take in "a curated cannabis experience" that "spotlights the celebration, education, and integration of cannabis products into daily life." And this time, it's for more than just education because attendees can purchase a wide variety of products to enhance their festival experience ranging from flower and concentrates to edibles and THC-infused beverages like Lagunitas Hi-Fi Hops.
The Cannabis Voter Project is also on hand where HeadCount founder Andy Bernstein welcomes counterculture luminaries Mickey Hart and Trixie Garcia to talk about how the times are a changing. It's been a long strange trip for the city of San Francisco from the Grateful Dead being raided for cannabis at their 710 Ashbury home in 1967 to legal cannabis for sale here at Outside Lands, empirical proof of the positive effect that the Dead have had on American culture. Fans can also send emails to their Congressional reps to ask where they stand on cannabis policy, injecting a little activism opportunity into the afternoon as well.
Enchanting country diva Kacey Musgraves takes the Land's End stage in the 4 o'clock hour, as Outside Lands continues to deliver a diverse array of sonic landscapes. Musgraves caught the attention of the counterculture in 2013 on her song "Follow Your Arrow", when she sang ""When the straight and narrow / Gets a little too straight / Roll up a joint, or don't / Just follow your arrow / Wherever it points," so it seems fitting for her to be here this weekend. The mid-tempo "Golden Hour" has a comforting vibe, as Musgraves sings about loving the life she's found in her special someone. The set seems to lean a little more pop and a little less alt-country Americana than some might have hoped, but Musgraves' soul soothing voice makes for a pleasing experience nonetheless. A cover of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" cranks up the party vibe with a festive sentimental sing-along, while her own "High Horse" blends that pop vibe with some country flavor for a big dance party.
When dinner time comes around, Outside Lands stands tall with some of the finest and most diverse food fare in festival history. There's a wide array of offerings just like San Francisco is known for, but the most uniquely tantalizing selection might be the Nombe Ramenburger, in which a pork belly/wagyu beef patty is served between ramen patties instead of a bun for a sublime culinary experience.
The festival comes to a grand conclusion with a two-hour headlining set from music legend Paul Simon, on what's being billed as a farewell tour. It's a big change of pace from the previous two nights, but it's nice to see that Outside Lands isn't forgetting the classic rock crowd. Simon kicks things off with the festive "Late in the Evening", setting the tone for a set of crowd-pleasing fan favorites. The line about stepping outside "to smoke myself a J" seems particularly appropriate with Grass Lands right nearby and there's little doubt that most of this crowd is lit. "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" is another early highlight, leading some Gen-Xers to flashback to childhood when this was one of their first favorite songs because of the fun rhyme scheme. "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" is another peak moment, with Simon leading the band through a groovy number to get a Sunday night dance party going.
A poignant moment occurs when Simon speaks of how music can come through you as if you're a conduit, referring to when he came up with "Bridge Over Troubled Water" at age 28. He says he didn't sing it for years, "but tonight I reclaim my lost child." Some orchestral accompaniment adds an extra dimension to the heartfelt classic as Simon sings of comforting a friend when they're down and out. "Obvious Child" gets the crowd grooving again as does "Wristband", another fun song about Simon getting denied entry to a club he was playing at. "Spirit Voices" provides a shimmering moment of communion with nature that sounds great here in Golden Gate Park, which combos nicely with the bluesy zeitgeist of "The Cool, Cool River" as Simon sings "I believe in the future, We shall suffer no more, Maybe not in my lifetime, But in yours, I feel sure…"
The encore sequence provides multiple moments of climactic transcendence, such as "Still Crazy After All These Years" with its ode to all those who dare to follow a different path than the mainstream. One of the most special moments in Outside Lands history follows as Simon tells a tale of being in town for the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and deciding he would go to the Grateful Dead's house in the Haight-Ashbury. "I knocked on the door of their house and Bob Weir opened the door and we've been friends ever since," Simon says as Weir comes on stage for what Simon says is their first ever collaboration with a heartwarming rendition of "The Boxer". The evening ends with Simon delivering a sublime solo version of "The Sound of Silence", a timeless classic that shimmers here like a sacred prayer.
Outside Lands 2019 has had something for almost everyone (save for the hard rock crowd), regaining its place as one of the top destination festivals in America.
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