Outside Lands 2023 windmill installation
Photo: Alive Coverage

Outside Lands Celebrates 15 Years with Fiesta in Golden Gate Park

The Foo Fighters help San Francisco’s biggest festival Outside Lands celebrate with its biggest party yet, as 225,000 revelers fill the park over three days.

Summer has reached mid-August, so it’s time again for the Outside Lands Music Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The festival turns 15 here in 2023, leading some to look back down memory road with nostalgic reverie due to how much San Francisco has changed since 2008. A tech boom that started circa 2009 led to an existential real estate crisis in the city, with skyrocketing housing prices that altered the cultural landscape of San Francisco. Outside Lands has changed, too, with a more pop-oriented lineup aimed at a younger demographic, but it’s also kept growing and seems to draw more attendees each year (with this year’s attendance estimated at 75,000 per day.)

San Francisco was still ground zero for the rock ‘n’ roll counterculture in 2008, which meant that Outside Lands featured a number of jam-rock and alt-rock bands in its early years. But as rental costs soared and Colorado beat California to the punch on legal cannabis, the hippie kids started moving to Denver, where housing could be had for half the price of the Bay Area. Then came the advent of the Bottlerock Music Festival in Napa over Memorial Day weekend, which seemed to compete for many of the same bands. The rock ‘n’ roll crowd might feel they’re getting the short end of the stick at Outside Lands, but the times are changing as the years keep sliding by.

Golden Gate Park has always been a special place to see live music, though, at least since the Human Be-In of 1967 that catalyzed San Francisco’s fabled “Summer of Love”. Such big gatherings helped propel the rock ‘n’ roll counterculture to a broader audience, so there will always be some of that vibe at a festival in this park. And while Outside Lands has trended toward pop, electronic, and hip-hop over the past five years, they still traditionally bring in one big rock headliner each year. So it is in 2023 with the Foo Fighters on Saturday night, making it the second of the festival’s three days that provides the most appeal for the genre that put San Francisco on the music map.

Saturday, 12 August

There’s always a question of whether the sun will shine in Golden Gate Park on an August afternoon or a classic summer fog will roll in. But it’s a mild afternoon for starters, with the sun fighting to try to shine through. The music starts at noon for the most dedicated festivarians, but attendees will arrive throughout the day, and the 2.30-3.00pm window sees a vast stream of festival goers walking in along Fulton Avenue to the festival’s main entrance.

One of Outside Lands’ semi-hidden treasures is the Cocktail Magic Stage, the smallest stage that’s also positioned adjacent to a plethora of alluring craft cocktail options. Some great moments can occur here, such as in 2019 when Amo Amo delivered a memorable set of psychedelic dream pop with charismatic vocalist Lovell Femme, enchanting an enthusiastic audience with her angelic performance.

The location has since been moved from the narrow McLaren Pass to the wider Lindley Meadow, where San Francisco’s own Smoked Out Soul is throwing down some very groovy sounds in an extended set from 3.00pm to 4.30. Billing themselves as “Old School Taste~New School Bass”, the group puts a full band with a three-piece horn section around a DJ to get a funky dance party going. There’s a James Brown “Get On Up” jam with fans getting down on the good foot and another sweet jam around the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination”

The “Coastal Tides” cocktail from Sonoma-based Grey Whale Gin hits the spot during Smoked Out Soul’s set, a refreshing beverage that mixes the regional craft gin with coconut water, lavender syrup, and lemon juice for a tasty hard lemonade of sorts. Even better is how Grey Whale Gin is made with sustainably sourced botanicals from the migratory path of grey whales along the California coast, then donates at least one percent of profits to the marine conservation organization Oceana and other environmental causes. Moving the Cocktail Magic Stage to Lindley Meadow also opens up more space for extra standing cocktail tables and picnic tables for added convenience. Thumbs up to festival organizers for upgrading the Cocktail Magic area to make it more cocktail copacetic.

Father John Misty / Photo: Alive Coverage

The main stage action at the Lands End Stage in the Polo Fields arrives at 5.00pm with the enigmatic Father John Misty. The artist, also known as Josh Tillman, has carved out a niche as one of the modern era’s great songwriters, though his performances can vary widely depending on mindset and setting, as Tim Leary might say (an attendee at that 1967 Human Be-In here in the Polo Fields.) A cool fog is rolling in now, but the set begins in a melancholy direction. After a few songs, Tillman takes a moment to acknowledge the situation of playing a big festival.

 “I know a lot of you are peaking right now, but about 60 percent of my oeuvre is ballads of despair… This one’s about dead pets,” he says as an introduction to “Goodbye Mr. Blue”. It’s a touching tune about spending final moments with a dying pet, but the set could use more energy as the fog keeps rolling in. Things eventually pick up with “Mr. Tillman”, a memorable tale of misadventures at what sounds like a high-end hotel in Southern California. “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” is a little more upbeat as well, but it’s the raucous “I’m Writing a Novel” that breaks through to ignite a genuinely festive dance party. 

The zeitgeisty song from 2012’s Fear Fun album is a modern-day classic for the psychedelic rock counterculture with its drug references and gonzo vibe, making it a fitting anthem here at Outside Lands. It’s only too bad that it’s over in four minutes. However, it’s not a revelation that Tillman and his band don’t really enjoy soloing (as he informed the audience when they played the Berkeley Greek Theater across the Bay in 2019.) “I Love You, Honeybear” is always a big hit with the ladies, before the decidedly laid back set concludes with one more rocker on “The Ideal Husband” as Tillman goes down into the audience toward the conclusion. “It’s all gonna work out,” he says at the end, always encouraging to hear.

Maggie Rogers / Photo: Alive Coverage

There are two hours to go until the Foo Fighters take the Lands End Stage at 8.00pm, opposite Lana Del Rey on the Twin Peaks Stage at the other end of the festival. The all-star DJs of Invisibl Skratch Piklz & Friends keep things groovy with some inventive turntablism at the Cocktail Magic Stage in the 6.00pm hour, though that cold fog is still rolling in, so the vibe isn’t quite as festive as it was earlier for Smoked Out Soul. 

The French alternative dance group L’Impératrice draws a big crowd to the Sutro Stage at the other end of Lindley Meadow in the 7.00pm hour, and their funky psychedelic disco sound helps warm things up by inspiring people to dance. Frontwoman Flore Benguigui looks like she could have stepped right off the set of an Austin Powers movie in her go-go boots, and a cold night in Golden Gate Park can always use more of this vibe. Maggie Rogers also draws a big crowd to the Lands End Stage in a similar time slot, but her pop star sound feels like an odd fit between Father John Misty and the Foo Fighters.

Excitement builds as the Foo Fighters hit the stage at 8.00pm for an inspiring two-hour set with the younger kids and the older Gen-Xers rocking out all over the Polo Fields. The alt-rock heroes had a rough 2022 after beloved drummer Taylor Hawkins’ untimely departure from the planet, so it’s great to see the band back in action with veteran rocker Josh Freese on drums to help the band move onward and upward.

Foo Fighters / Photo: Alive Coverage

“All My Life” opens the show with a furious blast of classic alt-rock power, while “No Son of Mine” hints at a playful evening as the band injects teases on Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”. The sound system is oddly not as loud or punchy as it should be on the sides of the Polo Fields, which is a shame since there’s a lot of prime real estate on the house left side of the field that winds up going unoccupied as fans cram toward the center to try to get better fidelity. Outside Lands can and should do better than this! But the Foos keep rocking with “Rescued”, the anthemic opener from their excellent new album But Here We Are.

It’s uplifting to hear Dave Grohl sing about learning to walk again on “Walk”, the rip-rocking closer from 2011’s sensational Wasting Light album, and follow it up with the classic “Learn to Fly”. He pauses afterward to note that the band has the task of trying to fit 28 years of music into two hours, then polls the audience on how many are seeing the Foo Fighters for the first time versus how many have previously. It’s interesting to hear the first-timers deliver a louder cheer than the veterans, which shows again how Outside Lands is drawing a decidedly younger audience these days. But it’s also great to see how many of the younger first-timers love this set as they rock out with their friends to songs they’d only heard previously on the radio.

“Times Like These” is another perennial singalong winner, starting off acoustic before blasting off to full rock power. A band introduction medley features bassist Nate Mendel leading a brief jam on the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” before guitarist Pat Smear leads a jam on the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”. A unique moment occurs when Grohl jokingly pulls a fan out of the crowd to sing Michael Buble’s “Haven’t Met You Yet”, and it turns out to be Buble himself, who Grohl says flew in from Argentina today. It’s amusing, but what’s even cooler is when Grohl’s 17-year-old daughter Violet Grohl joins the action to sing with Dave on the funky syncopation of “Shame” and two impassioned new cathartic songs of grief in “Show Me How” and “The Teacher”.

Foo Fighters / Photo: Alive Coverage

It’s also great to see “The Sky Is a Neighborhood” from 2017’s Concrete and Gold album still making the setlist, a rocking tune about Earth’s ET visitors that feels ever timely in the summer of 2023 following the recent Congressional hearing on UFOs/UAP (where people’s champion Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez got to question UAP Task Force whistleblower David Grusch on his knowledge about the Truth that’s out there and the military-industrial complex’s secret grifting.)

Another highlight occurs with the shimmering “Aurora” from 1999’s There Is Nothing Left to Lose album, with Grohl noting that it was Hawkins’ favorite Foo Fighters song and will, therefore, be played at every Foo Fighters show for the rest of time in tribute to the fallen rock hero. It’s a great deep cut, begging the question of what other deep cuts band members might favor. 

The classic “Everlong” closes out the show with another big rocking singalong featuring ace guitarist Chris Shiflett sporting a white Gibson Les Paul with an Ace Frehley sticker on it. It’s become trendy for some hipsters to hate on KISS, but alt-rockers like Shiflett and Grohl are among the many Gen-X guitarists who will testify that the Space Ace was one of their earliest and most significant influences on guitar.

In the (Land’s) end, it’s always great to see live music in Golden Gate Park. Outside Lands, therefore, remains a cultural treasure for the City of San Francisco, regardless of who’s playing. It’s also interesting to hear that promoters are lobbying the City to expand for a second weekend of use for the Polo Fields next year, to hold another event that won’t be as big a festival but would utilize the main stage to host a couple of big headliners. More live music in Golden Gate Park can only be a good thing for San Francisco’s historic reputation as one of the world’s most happening and influential music hotspots.

Photo: Alive Coverage