Sufjan Stevens, Outside Lands 2016 (Photo credit: Jack Gorlin)

The Wonderland-like Experience of the 2016 Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival

There’s something special about experiencing live music in this place, where the trees are lit up in psychedelic colors. It makes feel like one has gone down a rabbit hole into "Wonderland".

The 9th annual edition of Outside Lands arrives in San Franciso with perhaps less fanfare than usual, what with the rock ‘n’ roll crowd finding less bang for the buck in the lineup than most years. While the lineup may be a little more eclectic this year, with a heavier emphasis on electronic music, pop and even comedy, there’s still a little something for everyone (save perhaps for metalheads). There’s also one constant ace that Outside Lands always has up its sleeve, which is that Golden Gate Park is one of the premier festival sites in the world.

From 1967’s groundbreaking Human Be-In to modern times, there’s a long and special history of live music in this park. There’s a vibe in the air that conjures that counterculture history and spirit. San Francisco’s music scene may be in something of a downturn due to the city’s existential housing crisis that’s driven music fans to seek more affordable pastures, but Outside Lands still draws from all over. Festival producers have tricked out the park with great art installations and majestic lighting as usual, with great effect on the senses. There’s something special about experiencing live music here, with the trees lit up with psychedelic colors, that make it feel like one has gone down a rabbit hole into “Wonderland”.

There’s also an endearing sense of using music to support the park and community, with a portion of festival profits going to help take care of the park and to regional non-profits working on music and arts education. The city’s need for extra park funding is part of what led to allowing the festival in the first place, in 2008, and it’s been a win-win scenario for both the park and music fans.

Friday 5 August

The music starts at high noon each day, although many attendees are challenged to arrive that early. Others who could come early still don’t, because they don’t care to spend a full ten hours in the park, preferring to save their energy for the latter half of the day’s schedule. But it’s encouraging to know that one could in fact catch ten straight hours of music for three consecutive days, if so inclined.

Vulfpeck from Los Angeles help get the party into high gear in the 3PM hour with a funky set at the Panhandle stage. The band has been building a rising buzz in the City of Angels and they show why here, with a soulful rhythm and blues sound that puts the crowd in a truly festive mood. British indie rockers Foals draw a large and enthusiastic crowd to the Sutro stage, where the band is challenged to lift the mood on what has become a typically cool and overcast summer day in San Francisco. The band’s sound at times seems too washed out with reverb and delay, somewhat masking the impact of the songs. But the group rallies down the stretch, closing the set with dynamic rockers “Inhaler” and “What Went Down” to show what they can really do.

Outside Lands used to pride itself on having strong representation from the local music scene, which is surely more challenging now that San Francisco’s housing crisis is seeing many musicians and music fans moving to Denver, Austin and other towns with more affordable housing. But one of the region’s longtime mainstays gets the home cooking going as bassist Les Claypool and The Claypool Lennon Delirium hit the Sutro stage.

This is where the classic psychedelia starts to kick in, with a little help from Claypool’s new friend Sean Lennon. That’s a pleasant surprise for those who might not have known that John Lennon’s youngest son can shred some hot guitar. The band’s sound mixes some of Claypool’s typically strange off-kilter alt-funk with some of that late ‘60s Beatlesque melodic psychedelia, the era when the Fab Four was exploring new forms of rock that continue to influence the modern scene in an incalculable manner.

“Mr. Wright” features this influence with a distinctively “Taxman” style bass line from Claypool to get the crowd grooving. The band’s buzzworthy cover of the “Tomorrow Never Knows” fails to materialize, but a soaring rendition of King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King” provides satisfaction for the classic rock crowd. The band goes big at the end with a psychedelic blast from the past in Pink Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine” to close out their set in senses-tingling style.

Duran Duran draws a big throng to the main Lands End stage with their ‘80s new wave rock, delivering a sound with surprising staying power for those who may have written off the group years ago. Original guitarist Andy Taylor sadly split the band ten years ago, but bassist John Taylor and drummer Roger Taylor still provide the sonic punch for singer Simon Lebon.

When the band launches into “Hungry Like the Wolf”, an energetic synergy takes over as the crowd revels in the classic groove from MTV’s ‘80s heyday. “The Chauffer” also delivers, as does “Planet Earth”, which features a crafty segue into David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. The band goes into overdrive on 1995’s “White Lines”, conjuring a spontaneous dance party with the rocking ode to the highs and lows of cocaine. “Girls on Film” keeps the dance party going and there can be no doubt this set is a crowd pleaser.

Things are mellower back at the Sutro stage with Beach House, but the Baltimore dream pop band provides a restful ambient interlude. French singer Victoria Legrand strikes a compelling presence with a sparkly hooded cloak that makes her seem like a warrior princess from Middle Earth. She even speaks of enjoying an afternoon of “peace, love and mystical trees” as the fog starts to seep in. The trees in Golden Gate Park do indeed have a mystical vibe, and Beach House earns points here for tapping into it.

It’s soon time to head back to the main stage where 2016 festival headliner du jour LCD Soundsystem are closing out the evening. The band was allegedly retiring after their 2010-11 tour, but ringleader James Murphy wrote of how he got the itch to do some recording in 2015, invited some LCD bandmates to collaborate just for kicks, and now their 2016 tour is advertised as “Back From the Dead”. LCD was also the Friday night headliner at Coachella, where they delivered a fun set that had the desert denizens dancing up a storm. Could they bring as good a show on a cool crisp night in Golden Gate Park? It’s more of a challenge, but the crowd is ready to party and the band comes through with an energetic set.

Murphy comments on the cold before the uplifting “I Can Change”, suggesting “It’s not so bad, right?” and indeed the band’s infectious sound is a perfect panacea to warm things up since it’s next to impossible to stand still during the groovy jams. Murphy and company bring some of their deepest mojo on “Losing My Edge”, a great tune about music history with a transcendent groove that builds in compelling fashion. Between the polyrhythmic percussion, the analog synth sounds and edgy yet funky riffs and vocals, the band layers their sound with an expert sonic touch that few can match.

Saturday 6 August

One of the lesser known treats of Outside Lands is the intimate Gastro Magic stage, a smaller stage surrounded by trees in McLaren Pass where organizers combine musicians with culinary artists for a unique experience mixing music and food. One of the more intriguing bookings occurs here with the Electric Beethoven Acid Test, featuring local virtuoso bassist Reed Mathis and friends playing classical Beethoven compositions arranged in a jam rock style. Mathis outdoes himself here by transforming the symphonies into groovy psychedelic jams with the help of drummers Jay Lane and Cochrane McMillan, guitarist Clay Welch and keyboardist Todd Stoops. The band starts out with a warm-up jam that sounds like it’s from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew era before proceeding. The band then delivers one stellar jam after another for one of the weekend’s most unique sets.

“For all you folks that never paid attention in music class, that was Beethoven’s 3rd”, Mathis informs after a great prog-rock jam that would be hard to identify as classically based for those unfamiliar with the work. It’s all testament to Mathis’ skills at both arranging and performing. ”We’re taking it for a ride instead of leaving it at home,” Mathis says. The “acid test” occurs in the middle of the set when boxes of culinary treats are handed out, with “miracle berries” that have a citric acid of some sort that changes on the taste buds. It’s an interesting experiment, even if only a handful of people can get the boxes. The 40-minute set is musical magic all the way though and Mathis is set to release an Electric Beethoven album with an all-star roster of special guests, so the project is just taking off..

Another supergroup of sorts in the form of Big Grams hits the Lands End stage with a big crowd looking on. The combo features Outkast rapper Big Boi with Sarah and Josh from Phantogram. The set has a predominantly hip-hop flavor though, somewhat disappointing for those more into Phantogram’s alt-rock sound yet not surprising since Big Boi reached out to them. The sound seems a bit forced and the set fails to ignite, but one has to credit the artists for stepping out of their comfort zone to experiment.

Over at the Sutro stage, The Last Shadow Puppets deliver a bravura set mixing bluesy indie rock with some retro vibes and orchestral accompaniment for a dynamic sound that electrifies the meadow. It almost seems like a soundtrack for a crossover tale between James Bond and Don Draper. A cover of David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” ups the psychedelia and there’s little doubt the crowd would dig a lot more than just 45 minutes from this outfit.

Then it’s back to the Land’s End stage for renowned French electronica duo Air. This is good scheduling, as both the Last Shadow Puppets and Air have a dynamic songwriting style that just feels like a good appetizer for headliners Radiohead. The band’s dreamy psychedelic sound is a great fit for Golden Gate Park, yet they aren’t just an ambient act. Air also mix in some great dance grooves, such as the set closing jam on “La Femme d’Argent” with its strong bass line, solid beat and swirling synths.

There’s no doubt that iconic British alt-rockers Radiohead are the main attraction of the weekend, particularly since they don’t tour much. This is confirmed when the crowd goes nuts just for the band walking onstage, after a sound bite where the question of “What’s freedom mean?” is asked and a woman answers, “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear.” It’s a timely sentiment in a contentious American election season.

Frontman Thom Yorke looks like he’s having a blast, rocking the guitar on “Bodysnatchers” and letting it all hang out. Some of the dreary ambient songs don’t go over quite as well with a big Saturday night crowd that’s ready to rock, but that’s Radiohead. Yorke is soon dancing with maracas on “Lotus Flower”. It’s getting dark now, which helps kick the vibe in with the band’s multi-dimensional light show. Then Yorke is dancing around in the band’s green Matrix-like lights during “The Gloaming”, with its off-kilter beat that distorts the senses.

“Weird Fishes” is greeted with joy by those who like to see Radiohead rock out, for this is one of their most dynamic tunes. “Paranoid Android” has a similar effect during the encore, followed by an impassioned “Karma Police” with the crowd singing along. In the end, the band’s set feels like it contains a few too many slow songs and is not quite as electrifying as their Outside Lands appearance in 2008. But it’s still a damn good time in Golden Gate Park on a Saturday night and the psychedelic mystical trees look amazing while exiting the polo field.

Sunday 7 August

It’s a shame that rising jazz star Kamasi Washington was scheduled for high noon, a challenging start time for anyone who went all in for Radiohead and was up late into the evening. Washington delivered a triumphant Sunday set at Coachella at a more reasonable 3PM start time, showing he’s a force to be reckoned with in the space jazz realm.

Anyone who grew up watching the Muppets certainly has to be on the scene at the Lands End stage at 2:30 for Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. After a grey start, the sun is finally out and the Muppet band featuring the legendary Animal on drums deliver a short but fun set that emphasizes a San Francisco love theme. “Can You Picture That” opens with a rollicking soul and rhythm revue type of sound that conjures a Blues Brothers vibe, although the set is up and down from there. The Mowglis’ “San Francisco” is appropriate, although “Home” from Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes seems a puzzling choice. The band is joined at the end by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir for a Joe Cocker style version of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends” that goes up-tempo at the end to provide a spiritual lift for all.

Over at the Panhandle stage, British alt-rock band Haelos are throwing down a compelling set as vocalist Lotti Benardout gets her mojo working. The band takes a rock foundation and blends in electronic synth pop that mixes psychedelia with a darker melancholia for a uniquely cathartic sound. It’s no surprise to see a good size crowd fully engaged in the band’s set. It’s easy to see that Benardout has some genuine star power and the boys in the band are skilled at giving her an alluring sonic platform to step out on, making Haelos a band to keep an eye on.

Third Eye Blind help up the Bay Area music quota and draw a massive throng to the main stage for their mid-afternoon set. Some hipsters look down on the band as too pop, but the fact of the matter is these guys write catchy heartfelt tunes that rock. Tunes like “Never Let You Go” and “Graduate” have the crowd jamming out as singer Stephan Jenkins presides over what has to be one of the larger crowds the band has ever played to.

“Jumper” strikes a chord with the masses as well, an emotional tune that has to hit home with anyone who ever had a significant other with suicidal tendencies. The new “Cop vs Phone Girl” shows more of the band’s socially conscious side, with Jenkins proclaiming it to have a controversial message that won’t go over on radio. The band also gets on the David Bowie tribute train with a crowd-pleasing “Young Americans / Heroes / Modern Love / Ziggy Stardust” medly before closing their set with a raucous romp on “Semi-Charmed Life”.

Chaos ensues on the left side of the field afterward, as fans try to exit and it’s here that Outside Lands and Another Planet Entertainment still have a wrinkle to work out. The left side of the Lands End stage has become the side for those who want to get closer, due to how the right side has been cut down by fencing off a large area for the VIP section. The left side therefore has more space, but has become too crowded for a broadly-appealing mid-day set like this one. Exiting becomes not just difficult, but downright dangerous as a very tight bottleneck ensues for those attempting to escape by taking the stairway up to the side to try to get around. It’s a claustrophobic sardine can nightmare that takes 15-minutes to navigate, and it’s a good thing the crowd stays calm or someone could be hurt.

This distressing situation recalls a similar one from the festival’s first day in 2008, when Radiohead fans had crashed the gates to enlarge the crowd and a horrific bottleneck developed between the Sutro stage and Land’s End stage. It seemed as if Outside Lands had figured this out and addressed the situation in 2010-11, but now it becomes apparent that there’s still a logistical issue that needs to be solved, perhaps by selling a few less thousand tickets.

The delay erases the chance to catch any of the Sutro stage set from Brandi Carlile, a shame since she ended her set with a gorgeous rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California”. Many seem content to rest up and wait for Jason Isbell to hit the same stage a half hour later. The Alabama native and former member of the Drive-By Truckers has a soul-tinged sound blending rock, blues and Americana. The vibe seems a bit on the soft side at first with the festival in the stretch run, but Isbell and his band keep digging in and ultimately deliver one of the weekend’s top highlights when Ryan Adams joins them for a scintillating version of the Rolling Stones’ deepcut “Sway”. Isbell and Adams make a dynamic duo on the outro jam, trading off hot licks on a great jam.

Ryan Adams & the Shining hit the Sutro stage a half hour later to deliver one of the weekend’s best sets. Like Isbell, Adams specializes at mixing rock, blues and Americana, but Adams brings more of a freewheeling rock edge, although he too can also specialize in heartfelt ballads. Adams displays his trademark wit early on, after asking the crowd “How’s everybody doing today?” and getting a big response. “You guys are fucking blazed, you don’t know,” Adams says, speculating that we’re thinking about eating cereal and so is he. Adams then dedicates the next song, “New York New York” to Cocoa Puffs. The band dials in a great sound here with Adams rocking on guitar and harmonica on the up-beat hit, while the keyboardist adds some great organ work.

With a stage setup that features vintage video games like “Asteroids”, an American flag with a peace symbol and larger than life Marshall stacks, Adams wears his heart on his sleeve, ever one of Gen-X’s most sincere rock ‘n’ rollers. He offers some deep Fender Strat riffage on “When the Stars Go Blue”, then keeps going deeper on “Let It Ride”, a signature number from his 2005 double-album masterpiece Cold Roses. The title track and “Magnolia Mountain” are two more winners from the album and another highlight occurs with a sparkling rendition of “Everybody Knows”.

There’s something about hearing these songs outdoors in the park that seems to add an extra sonic gravitas. Jason Isbell returns the guest spot favor by joining the band for “Sweet Carolina”, with Isbell adding some sweet bluesy licks. Adams & the Shining go big at the end for an extended jam on “Peaceful Valley” that shows off Adams’ jamband influence for a cathartic conclusion to the set.

Lettuce, meanwhile are throwing down a super funky set at the Panhandle stage that has the party people getting down. For the rock crowd that’s less than thrilled about Sunday night headliners Lionel Richie and Lana Del Rey, Lettuce provides a remedy of psychedelic funk to close the weekend in style. The band is full of pros and witnessing guitarist Eric Krasno and drummer Adam Deitch do their thing is always a treat, especially with Lettuce’s three-piece horn section adding extra jazzy funk to the jams. This is feel good music, a sort of New Orleans style jazz filtered through New York hip-hop and classic rock. The band has been around for awhile, but have been building increasing buzz in recent years as the members devote more time to what used to seem more like a side project.

In the end, Outside Lands is still one of the best festivals in America with Golden Gate Park offering an unparalleled combination of scenic beauty and excellent rock concerts.