Another Outside Lands is in the books and what a year it was. There are few festival settings as hollowed and beautiful as Golden Gate Park, and each year the organizers do a great job of adding new surprises and tweaking the festival layout to maximize the natural surroundings. While the 2015 edition probably won’t go down as the best of the bunch, it certainly inserted itself into the conversation as a contender. Mother Nature cooperated for the most part (especially on Friday), there were no sound outages or horrifically long lines to get into the festival, and this year featured the first ever complimentary water refill stations (thanks Corporate Sponsors!). One of the biggest game changers this year: moving the soundboard at the Sutro stage off the center and to the left so it didn’t block nearly as many sightlines. It’s changes like these that show the promoters truly care about more than just packing the crowds in — at the end of the day it’s the overall experience that keeps people coming back. It’s really no surprise that all three-day passes sold out within 45 minutes this year.
We’ve now had a few days over here at LIVE HQ to digest all the sights and sounds from this year’s edition of the Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival, and it’s finally time to divulge our 10 favorite sets and moments. Quick Disclaimer: there were a few acts that we missed which unanimously received high praise: Chet Faker, Glass Animals, Hot Chip, First Aid Kit, Twin Peaks, and Strand of Oaks. Sadly we still haven’t figured out that whole be in three places at once thing.
Now, without further adieu, here are our highlights in chronological order:
Outside Lands doesn’t just happen within the confines of Golden Gate Park: there are late night shows at venues across the city aplenty, and 500 lucky fans got to start their festival weekend a day early with a Thursday night pre-party. Mysteriously billed as The Notorious Wilco Brothers accompanied by a promo shot of the band in the same pose as The Notorious Byrd Brothers’ cover art, it was anyone’s guess what was going to happen at this show: would Wilco play the entire Byrds’ 1968 album, or was something else afoot? Upon walking into the cozy confines of The Independent, one immediately saw the stage was was pretty bare bones. Sure enough, it was an acoustic set, but save for one Byrds cover early on, this was a Wilco show through and through.
Having never seen an acoustic set from Wilco before, let alone in a venue this size, this was an absolute thrill. The audience was (for the most part) extremely respectful; so much so that whenever Jeff Tweedy stepped away from the mic, you could still hear him talking to the crowd. As opposed to being intimidated by the intimate proceedings, the whole band was loose and clearly enjoying themselves, cracking jokes and interacting with the audience more than usual. Of course the set featured a lot of the material from Star Wars, the surprise new album which Wilco offered up to the Internet for free a few short weeks ago, but it sounded right at home with their older material.
The stripped down arrangements helped accentuate the brilliance of Wilco’s songwriting throughout the night, and depending upon what each song called for, allowed Nels Cline to tear through the varied instruments at his disposal, which included a dobro, a steel pedal, and a mandolin. Needless to say he ripped it up on each of these instruments throughout the 30 song set, just as he would with his electric guitars the following day at their Main Stage spot. Over these combined two sets, which lasted over three and a half hours, Wilco proved once again that they are one of the best and most versatile rocks bands today.
This was one of the acts we mentioned in our Outside Lands preview, and we were not disappointed at all. Apparently the secret is out though, because despite his early afternoon Friday set, the Sutro Stage rarely got as crowded as it was for Leon. Dressed in a super snazzy outfit and with a six-piece band in tow, which included half of White Denim (who discovered and recorded the singer’s debut album), Leon had full command of the crowd from the very first soulful note of his voice. Over the course of his set, I kept thinking to myself how rare it is to see a 26 year-old with such stage presence; the sky’s the limit for this gifted young talent.
Simply put, Annie Clark is not of this earth. She’s equal parts guitar goddess, post-futuristic android, and punk rock riot grrrl all rolled into one. Playing songs mostly from her latest album, St Vincent wowed the crowd with her fearless intensity, sizzlingly angular guitar solos, jittery choreographed dance moves, and subversive stage banter. This was the most well oiled set I’d ever seen her perform, with nary a moment wasted; every step and note was meticulously plotted out. A chameleon for our generation, she showed that she fully deserved her primo afternoon slot on the Polo Field’s main stage. “This next song is dedicated to the dominatrixes and the dominated” she declared at one point, and I for one certainly felt on the dominated end of the equation.
D’Angelo & the Vanguard
After D’Angelo brought the Fox Theater in Oakland to its knees earlier this summer, I knew this was going to be the set of the weekend, and it more than lived up to my expectations. If you haven’t already, add D’Angelo to the short list of all-time master bandleaders, for his show is truly a soul-funk workout in the tradition of James Brown and Prince. Even with just an hour to work with, D’Angelo managed to create a massive non-stop dance party where the 11-piece band fluidly jammed from one song to the next. If he wasn’t sitting at a piano or holding a guitar, he was flying all over the stage, working the crowd up into a frenzy and controlling one of the tightest bands ever assembled with just the slightest move of a finger (it never hurts to have Pino Palladino and Chris Daddy Dave as your rhythm section, that’s for sure). By the time they got to the closing number “Brown Sugar”, I’m pretty sure half of the entire crowd was pregnant. Needless to say, if you haven’t seen him yet, make it priority number one — your ass will thank you, and there’s no guarantee he’s back on the road for good.
Brunch and Beignets with Big Freedia
After she destroyed the GastroMagic stage last year, the queen of New Orleans bounce didn’t need any introduction on Saturday afternoon. The stage, which features programming where food and music intersect in strange way, was packed half an hour before a single beignet was powdered in sugar. In fact, Freedia became the first artist ever to be invited back to the festival in back-to-back years, no small feat! Once the set began, all pandemonium broke out as Freedia blazed through her hits like Azz Everywhere, Victim, and Excuse, and audience members twerked for beignets. Turnips, pirates, giraffes, Minions and other colorful costumed characters all got in on the fun, and Freedia was the ringleader of it all. The crowd was so dense that I imagine at least 75% of the people in attendance couldn’t even see the dancers on stage, but in the end it didn’t matter because they were all too busy dancing themselves.
Tame Impala’s latest album is a pretty serious departure from the psychedelic rock they mastered so well on their previous two efforts, so it was interesting to see how the dancier vibe would integrate with the older material. There was no cause for alarm though: the band effortlessly slid between songs new and old, and the crowd ate them up with equal abandon, trippy visuals and all.
Between his incredibly ambitious album To Pimp A Butterfly and his long absence from playing the Bay Area, King Kendrick’s set was perhaps the most anticipated set of the weekend by many, and it was definitely the most crowded. Even those who showed up a full half hour before the set started were relegated to the very back of Hellman Hollow — it was some serious Lord of the Flies action, something that was all the more surprising since there weren’t really any other hip-hop acts on the bill. Some people were clearly at the festival on Saturday just for Kendrick. All the effort and crowd claustrophobia were worth it though, because Kendrick Lamar is on top of the world right now and doesn’t seem to have any interest in resting on his laurels. The massive audience was dialed in from note one, and I seemed to be the only one in the sea of people that didn’t know every single lyric. Interestingly enough, he only did three songs off the new album, but no one seemed to mind one bit. I also don’t think a single person left early; in fact, the crowd was giving him so much love that Kendrick was visibly taken aback and humbled at various points through his set. The closing duo of “King Kunta” and “Alright” sent the adoring multitudes slipping off into the night with huge smiles.
Alex Bleeker & The Freaks: Play Dead
Sunday was the 20th anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death, so having some indie kids from Brooklyn play a handful of Dead covers seemed like a very fitting Outside Landsian style way to pay tribute to the big man. Interest went from moderate to sky-high, however, when Grateful Dead drummer Billy Kreutzmann hinted over social media late Saturday night that he was going to be in Golden Gate Park the next day. Apparently, not too many people got the memo because the Panhandle stage was pretty deserted at high noon when the band ripped into the “Scarlet Begonias” opener. In true Dead fashion, the band was a little rough around the edges for some of the trickier musical sehments and vocals, but those of us who knew what was coming didn’t mind one bit. Sure enough, halfway into the set, Billy sat down at the second drum kit which had been set up on stage and took a quick solo before leading the band into a galloping rendition of “The Other One” which eventually led into “St. Stephen”. With that, Billy grabbed his sticks, took a quick bow and left the stage as The Freaks returned into the version of “He’s Gone” that they had started earlier in the set. All in all, it was a lovely tribute to his fallen comrade, and a perfect start to the last day of the festival.
Without a doubt Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe was the MVP of Sunday’s festivities. The soul/funk band played an early afternoon set on the Twin Peaks Stage, and hosted this year’s annual late-night Superjam at The Independent, where they brought out a steady stream of guests, including members of Slightly Stoopid, Nicki Bluhm, Alex Bleeker, and Paul Janeway of St Paul & the Broken Bones fame for a show-stopping cover of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” that brought the house down.
However, the highlight of KDTU’s day of heavy lifting was definitely their set billed as Sexual Chocolate, the fictional band from Eddie Murphy’s classic film “Coming to America” which — FUN FACT — features a young Karl Denson on saxophone. Of course, this being the GastroMagic stage, they had the master chocolatier from Guittard Chocolate Company making a custom chocolate sculpture of festival mascot Ranger Dave. Dressed in ridiculous matching light blue suits, Tiny Universe slow-jammed through several songs featured in the movie, including “The Greatest Love of All”, the movie’s theme song, and yes, even the “Soul Glo” commercial. To hit those Whitney Houston and “Soul Glo” high notes, the band enlisted the help of Ziek McCarter from Bay Area favorite Con Brio, who absolutely crushed. Between the 80’s song choices and the hilarious outfits, it felt like we were all back at a high school prom in all of the best ways. This was definitely one of the most surreal half hours of the festival, and certainly something that couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
Last but not least, it was finally time for the only performer on the bill who, at least to the best of my knowledge, has been knighted by Her Majesty herself. The powers that be have always done a great job of having at least one living legend on the bill (Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty), and this year it was Sir Elton’s turn to lead tens of thousands of people in a festival capping 2 hour sing-along. Decked out in a Captain Fantastic sparkly blue suit, Elton was a consummate showman from the very first note of the opener “The Bitch Is Back”, and he riled up the crowd every chance he could get. His still-nimble fingers kept flying up and down the piano, and the hits just kept coming: “Bennie & the Jets”, “Tiny Dancer”, “Rocket Man”, “Philadelphia Freedom”, and “Daniel” helped the crowd sway and keep warm as the sun went down. The one-two closer of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” and “Crocodile Rock” ended the weekend on a glorious note– the perfect way to send the crowd home satisfied.
All in all, it was another great year for Outside Lands, which somehow keeps finding new and outside-the-box ways to improve the overall festival experience. We can’t wait to see what Ranger Dave has in store for us next year!