Photo: Outside Lands 2021 / Courtesy of Grandstand Media

No Tricks, All Treats at Outside Lands 2021

San Francisco’s marquee festival Outside Lands returned on Halloween for a monstrous mash of musical celebration with Angel Olsen, Tame Impala, Lizzo, and more.

If there was a word to neatly wrap up the Outside Lands weekend, when over 70,000 people a day descended into the grassy slopes of Golden Gate Park, the word is gratitude. It was spoken from the lips of several performers who hadn’t peered into the soul of a mammoth crowd in some 20 months, and festival-goers shared it as they glowingly gazed back from the fields filled with peers.

Outside Lands 2021 was a remarkable return for the treasured San Francisco music festival. Having gone indoors with online streaming last year due to COVID-19, this year’s festival was the first sense of normality for many attendees. Not to mention the artists and promoters themselves, who were eager to share their gifts for producing music events.

The weekend was a success in terms of management and safety. Sure, a couple of artists canceled their sets last minute, and Saturday morning was met with drizzling rain. Still, when roughly 200,000 people converge into a single area for three days of music, the potential for a catastrophe is always a possibility. The worst I can report is an unexpected bill for a $31 lobster roll.

Outside Lands
Photo: Outside Lands 2021 / Courtesy of Grandstand Media

While waiting for Angel Olsen’s Saturday set to begin, right as the sun crept down to usher in those spooky Halloween sensations, I was asked what it takes to make a festival like this happen. I reckon it’s around 400 people working across two weeks straight. The folks who put on a celebration of this magnitude are often unseen, concealed by the stage curtain or behind the bar supplying the juice to withstand 27 hours of activities.

Two such workers, Matty and Jenna, drove out from Minneapolis to work the festival. The young couple staffed the bars in the media tent and the promoter’s tent. While these are somewhat visible positions, they’re camouflaged by the frenzy. However, amid the bustle, they ran their stations smoothly and were even able to embrace some of the music themselves; Jenna squeezed in a few songs from her favorite, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, on Saturday afternoon before rushing back to her post. At Outside Lands, everyone is partaking in the festivities.

Friday afternoon began with a shining sun and an even brighter star. Bartees Strange launched into his set at the Sutro Stage and quickly validated all the buzz surrounding this rising D.C. singer/songwriter.

Bartees swiftly earned his place among a major music festival lineup in a few short years through his emotionally-charged performances without restraint, even though it’s midday on a workday. He flings both arms in the air while pouring out admitted feelings of doubt that he challenges with confidence. An unbashful lover of the National, their impact of sophisticated muttering sounded renewed coming from such a young voice. Upon completing a cathartic cover of “Lemonworld”, Bartees admitted, “The original is too good—shout out to the National!”

Adding to the fun and embracing the holiday was drummer Jordyn Blakely who nailed her marks while sporting some fake blood resembling fangs running down the side of her mouth. The playfulness was matched by guitarist Dan Kleederman who transformed a blue plastic toy bullhorn into a makeshift EBow to cast ghostly sounds of feedback through his guitar.

Soon after, at the Panhandle Stage, traditionally the platform for discovering fresh talent at this festival, the Brooklyn-via-Puerto Rican duo Buscabulla began setting up for their set. Meanwhile, electronic producer 070 Shake raged on at the nearby Twin Peaks stage. (Apparently, 070 Shake was not pleased by the mid-afternoon apathy from the crowd and could be heard screaming “This is boring!” to her audience.)

On the opposite side of the crowd engagement spectrum, Buscabulla couldn’t hold back their appreciation for playing Outside Lands and visiting San Francisco. “It’s so beautiful here!” singer Raquel Berrios gushed. “This morning, I saw the Golden Gate Bridge for my first time.”

Their tropical, electropop rhythm spurred dancing and a carefree attitude for the weekend. Backed by a guitarist and a second percussionist, Buscabulla brought their 2020 album Regresa to life. Numbers like “Nydia” were exceptional and firmly distinguished from their relatable song “American Boy” by Estelle and Kanye West.

By 4:00 pm, the infamous San Franciscan fog had crept over and consumed the sky, but it was nothing an extra sweater couldn’t fix. (Shout out to brave souls who chose sexy over functional and bared their skin to the elements!)

Over at the mainstage Lands End, Sharon Van Etten was ripping through her stadium-ready album Remind Me Tomorrow. Tracks like “No One’s Easy to Love” and her Springsteenesque “Seventeen” are tailor-made to soar over a mass audience and be shared by thousands of ears simultaneously.

For the fellow music nerds who were tracking, the OSL lineup featured both Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen, so the question begged: Will they unite to perform their stunning single “Like I Used To”, and if so, which set will it be? Our answer came as SVE concluded her show by rhapsodizing on stage about how the past two years were manageable through the strength of friendship.

Angel Olsen appeared and couldn’t contain her amusement as the band got in tune, teasing the audience that they were about to play “Island in the Sun”. The two magnificent singers aligned to belt out the chorus of their collaboration from here to Oakland, and the performance felt like a cleansing of the 2020 woes.

The main stage continued to be the strong draw on Friday night as the show continued with the Texas instrumental trio Khruangbin. They began their set with the Mordechai highlight “Time (You and I)”. However, our ears were subjected to awkward feedback as the sound team rushed to figure out how to translate Mark Speer’s guitar for such an extensive sound system. They found their balance by the next song, “August 10”, and imported Thai funk via Texas to California.

Khruangbin / Photo: Outside Lands 2021 / Courtesy of Grandstand Media

Khruangbin are a guaranteed good vibe generator with slick grooves and an endless roll of cover song sprinkled throughout their set. Some favorites: “Back in Black” and “I’ve Got 5 on It”, which represent the range of musical delight that Khruangbin bring to the stage.

The next act to assume control of the main stage was Britain’s Glass Animals who have slowly invaded American radio waves since their 2014 debut hit “Gooey”. The foursome dressed as preppy lads (bandleader Dave Bayley sported an argyle sweater vest) and the neon-retro aesthetic from their latest LP Dreamland was on full display with suspended flashy hotel signs and an empty swimming pool.

Bayley didn’t hold back a single drop of sweat and paraded across the stage with pure front man energy. Humbled and gracious, he paused one moment to give a personalized shout-out to a fan named Nori, who apparently was in attendance of the band’s American debut many years ago.

Glass Animals / Photo: Outside Lands 2021 / Courtesy of Grandstand Media

When the jangly guitar riff for their new hit single “Heat Wave” began, cellphones shot straight up in the air as the audience began singing along to the TikTok-ready chorus. The track was a clear highlight and positive joy; however, it’s impossible to ignore the irony of a crowd of young people getting their kicks to a song about a heatwave just as California finished its yearly burn. But no time for pontificating; their song “Gooey” is pure peanut butter vibes and demands full attention.

The granddaddies of this year’s lineup appeared a little late and finished way too early for the Friday finale. As a fan of The Strokes, I can admit when they’re off, and unfortunately, this OSL headline appearance was inconsistent and careless.

Beginning slowly with the gypsy jazzed “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” (a song that is somehow both a joke and a fair take on Tom Waits), the Manhattan boys kicked things up with “The End Has No End.” But singer Julian Casablancas’s mood quickly soured, asking “Is this on?” in the middle of the song, lamenting the low sound.

Afterward, he snickered, “I mean, our sound guy Gus is notorious for damaging eardrums. So I’m sure it’s the law, or the festival, or some San Francisco law bullshit. I didn’t get let into a restaurant today, I have a vaccine card, and they were like, you need both, I guess, I don’t know. San Francisco, love it.” The disdain for San Francisco is fine, we can take it, but he proceeded to misuse his microphone privileges.

But Casablancas was off when he tried joking, “If we could have ten minutes of silence please, for the inequality. Just kidding. YOYO!”

Outside Lands 2021
The Strokes / Photo: Outside Lands 2021 / Courtesy of Grandstand Media

As he snorted about inequality (a subject that a person of wealth and privilege like Casablancas has zero authority on since he’s only ever known New York City elitism), the singer seemed to suggest that the band may soon reach cultural irrelevancy. The Strokes are now a “classic rock” band.

They finished strong with “New York City Cops”, a triumphant deep cut about rejecting authority and calling a pig “a pig” but if only Julian could hear himself in the lyrics.

Returning to the park on Saturday afternoon, we began with dreamy, back-room disco courtesy of Oakland duo Brijean. Singer and namesake Brijean Murphy commands the congas while multi-instrumentalist and producer Doug Stuart rounds out the rhythm, nestled neatly between ’70s disco and ’90s house music.

Their midtempo set was a welcoming start and undeniable to embrace. (Kudos to the guy up front who had a neck brace but was still bobbing along.) Nothing was going to quell these good times.

Brijean Murphy kept her comments limited but announced that she designed the exquisite stage décor for the Panhandle Stage: Dual banners bordering the stage displaying graphic illustrations of colorful characters on each other’s shoulders.

Outside Lands 2021
Dr. Dog / Photo: Outside Lands 2021 / Courtesy of Grandstand Media

Over at the Sutro Stage, Dr. Dog proved that no band is a monolith. Their audience swelled to fill the meadow and covered the entire age spectrum. Not just a band for the indie heads, Dr. Dog’s songs like “Shadow People” and “Nellie” resonated strongly with full singalongs. I saw several members of the Snapchat generation cling tightly to their phones to film boisterous concert videos.

Last summer, the Philadelphia band announced that they were retiring from touring (but not disbanding), and this would be their final tour. San Franciscans embraced their ephemeral Dogs.

The sun sank with Angel Olsen, which coincided nicely for the Asheville, North Carolina songwriter as she called for a “spooky set.” Backed by a small string section to help elevate her lush ballads from 2019’s All Mirrors, Olsen projected occult cool but wasn’t enamored in the gloom. She busted out an unexpected cover of the Italian wedding staple “Gloria” by Umberto Tozzi and let her guitar do all the talking during “Shut Up Kiss Me”.

Vampire Weekend / Photo: Outside Lands 2021 / Courtesy of Grandstand Media

Returning to the main stage, Vampire Weekend have fully reestablished themselves following the departure of Rostam Batmanglij, adding three quirky musicians to enhance their sound. Their set was almost perfectly split between their four albums, with the new band members adding extra rhythmic flavoring to younger tracks.

Singer Ezra Koenig let loose on his guitar during the tender “2021” and ended the song by reminding us that this was the band’s sole tour date for the entire year, meaning that this crowd is the only one to have heard “2021” in the year 2021.

For Saturday’s headline event — surprising to no one — Lizzo reigned supreme at the Lands End main stage. She appeared with a dozen backup dancers who dazzled with choreography while a live band took her feel-good hits to such great heights.

Starting with her latest banger, “Rumors”, Lizzo didn’t lose a gaze. The Detroit-born, Minneapolis-made singer possesses the rare quality to genuinely receive adoration from her fans and then immediately redirect the light and love back to them. Like a preacher giving a sermon, the reciprocal motion means her shows are as fulfilling as they are fun.

Lizzo / Photo: Outside Lands 2021 / Courtesy of Grandstand Media

She racked up her hits like “Good as Hell” and “Boys” (even tossing in a cover of Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman”) before ramping up to “Phone” by asking the entire audience to join her in filming a Tik ok video from the stage. After nailing the clip, she and her dance troupe dressed as characters from Squid Game and proceeded to do a faithful rendition of the “Thriller” dance. This was the eve of Halloween, after all.

Concluding with an appearance from her trusted “Sasha” flute for her song “Juice,” Lizzo let her guitarist play out the show with a roaring solo that exploded alongside an extensive firework display. It was easily the largest spectacle of the weekend.

The final day on Sunday, Halloween 2021 in San Francisco, was reserved for Ted Lasso. Visors and mustaches for the hit character were in abundance alongside Squid Game tracksuits, astronaut suits, and a wealth of Where’s Waldos.

Caroline Polachek / Photo: Outside Lands 2021 / Courtesy of Grandstand Media

Heeding the call to don an outfit for the occasion, Caroline Polachek appeared on the Twin Peaks stage early Sunday afternoon dressed as Marie Antoinette with a French neoclassic dress and wig — plus a grim red slash across her neck.

The electro-goth songstress performed cuts from her latest album Pang alongside an unreleased track titled “Sunset” that features flamenco guitar. She reimaged the Y2K-era favorite “Breathless” by The Corrs and ended alone on stage with her harpsichord to perform “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings”.

Over on the main stage, Nelly summoned a massive crowd to his mid-afternoon set that was bedazzled in hits. The rapper appeared self-aware that he’s somewhat of a relic — asking the crowd if we remembered the band-aids over his eye — but the mayor of Nellyville was visibly humbled by the outpour of love.

As he ran through Number 1s like “Hot in Here”, “Ride wit Me”, and “Over and Over”, it became clear that Nelly is a lasting legend for the Millennial generation.

The festival began to wind down gently with Brittany Howard whose solo soul eased us into Halloween night. She’s effectively distanced herself from the Alabama Shakes and sustains on charisma alone.

Outside Lands 2021
Brittany Howard / Photo: Outside Lands 2021 / Courtesy of Grandstand Media

To support her outstanding debut solo outing Jaime, Howard included several covers such as “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” by Jackie Wilson, “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks” from Funkadelic and ended with Nina Simone’s “Revolution”.

Before the final show of the festival began, an unexpected update came through the speakers. Unfortunately, there were a couple of cancellations over the weekend from loops master Marc Rebillet (who smashed his ass in an accident on his electric unicycle) and Young Thug, but a last-minute change occurred just before the Sunday headliners were about to go on.

It was announced that Tame Impala had been eliminated after playing in the Squid Games and they were now replaced by The Wiggles.

Seconds later, the band appeared on stage in primary color garb while strutting in goofy steps. It was a hilarious embrace of the holiday (and a nice nod to their fellow Australian compatriots who once covered “Elephant” for triple j’s Like A Version) and before the laughter could die out, the band ripped into “Endors Toi”.

The Wiggles this was not.

Touring on their new disco-laced The Slow Rush, Tame Impala opted to service the fans and only played two cuts from this polarizing album. Instead, their state-of-the-art light show was perfectly aligned with psychedelia from Lonerism and Currents.

The band closed out their main set by dusting off the forgotten “Runway, Houses, City, Clouds” from their Innerspeaker debut album and it was the only moment Kevin Parker unleashed on his guitar, adding an extended outro as the large, swirling light display circling above the band descended like a space ship to whisk them (and us) back to reality.

As usual, Tame Impala were all business on stage and rarely addressed the audience, except for a final more moment of gratitude before they disappeared behind the lights. Thanks were given, and thanks were received, as Outside Lands closed out on All Hallows Eve.