Outside Lands is now in its sixth year– a nice time for the event, because they’ve worked out a lot of the idiosyncrasies of holding an enormous festival in San Francisco’s stunningly beautiful Golden Gate Park. They’ve had years of experience to iron out the difficulties, the surging crowds and to handle expectations, and quite frankly, exceed them. Outside Lands is an incredible combination of music, food (all local to the Bay Area), wine and beer. This is not an affair catered by Sysco and with weak Bud Light at inflated prices as the fare; nope, Outside Lands brings together the best of the area with crowds that appreciate the extra flair that Another Planet Entertainment, Superfly Presents and Starr Hill Presents bring to the weekend.
Nearly 60,000 people show up each day for the festival, and while it can feel overwhelming in size at times (mostly when going between stages), there are always a wide variety of musical acts to take in. Last year, Jack White did an impromptu performance with the traveling Third Man Records van in the woods between the Sutro and Twin Peaks stages, and that’s typical for Outside Lands. It fits the San Francisco aesthetic, and gives festival-goers that special spark that makes OSL a weekend worth returning to every year.
Early day favorites from Saturday were The Lone Bellow, James McCartney and Youth Lagoon, who kept the afternoon rolling with a good mix of rock, electronica and folk- like an intersection of Americana and Los Angeles, which is perfect for a California festival. Then, SF-based darlings Thao and the Get Down Stay Down gave an impassioned performance, off of their fabulous new album We The Common. While Thao’s onstage vocals often waver pitch-wise, she has a really captivating stage presence, and the songs are so well-crafted that it’s hard not to have a fantastic time while watching her and her band play.
The Tallest Man on Earth is not necessarily what you’d expect for a festival like Outside Lands, where the emphasis is less on the singer-songwriter and more on bands making an experience- it’s why the indie-rock options tend to skew away from straight-up rock to include more dance elements- bands like Toro Y Moi, Geographer and Disclosure is more what you’re used to at Outside Lands, so to have Tallest Man is a nice break from that usual type of programming. His music is wholly affecting- thoughtful lyrics, well-honed melodies and impassioned performances all make his songs a real moment for audience members. It’s a bit awkward to be singing “1904” and “The Gardener” next to your neighbor, given the subject matter, but modesty is thrown out pretty early in favor of being a part of the Tallest Man experience. He put on a really great set, and it was a fantastic end to his North American summer tour.
One of the greatest things to ever experience at a festival is quite possibly Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. To call her a force of nature is pretty much selling her short. She’s other-worldly: enchanting, captivating and mercurial, with a good dose of punk rock whimsy. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ hourlong set was one of the major highlights of the festival’s history, in our minds, because here’s this band that can take a hugely varied audience and hold them in the palm of their hands, getting them to jump around, shriek and sing at the top of their lungs. Tracks like “Sacrilege,” “Gold Lion” and “Date With The Night” were met with huge applause, but two of the offerings from It’s Blitz! – “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll” – had everyone in rapturous bliss. Karen O led everyone through joyous bouncing along while screaming the words with everyone. It was a sight to see. Not a moment of their entire set felt wasted, and it only became clearer that they deserve the headline spot as much as anyone.
Nine Inch Nails brought the house down on Saturday night with their 90 minute closing set. Frontman Trent Reznor has always had huge appeal since the band’s debut in the late 80’s, and to sustain that type of connection with the audience is commendable, but after seeing NIN live, you realize what it’s about- incredibly crafted songs, stunning visual components and a live presence that just drips with authenticity and vigor.
NIN opened with three songs from their new album Hesitation Marks, which is out this fall. It was an interesting choice, certainly, because it didn’t really set the tone for a night of all new material and/or production; however, it was a nice peak into what’s to come, and lead single “Came Back Haunted” was delightfully wicked on stage. With “March of the Pigs,” though, the audience really started to get into the set and respond. While it was a considerably thinner crowd than for Paul McCartney (Phoenix was playing at the same time as NIN), those who were there were completely invested in the performance, and sang along with Trent’s wails.
It was a tight, lithe, powerful and hugely affecting set, packed with fan favorites. With NIN’s revamping, Reznor has really brought together a totally fantastic band, and the visuals are absolutely stunning. With huge video screens projecting the band’s shadows, static backgrounds, and deep blues and reds, it was a brilliant display to watch, and made the set that much more potent. And the final run of “Wish” > “Only” > “The Hand That Feeds” > “Head Like A Hole” was absolutely inspired. With each subsequent song, festival goers got even more excited, until catharsis came in the form of an encore of “Hurt,” which was the perfect end to a wildly entertaining night.