Photo of Pusha T & Gorillaz's Damon Albarn performing at Outside Lands 2017, by Dan DeSlover
San Francisco knows how to put on a good festival. But when you hit a milestone year, like Outside Lands’ 10th anniversary, held this past weekend, Aug. 11-13 at Golden Gate Park, everyone expects something special: bigger, grandeur, yet poignant.
For example, if Radiohead, who kicked off the festival in 2008, its inaugural year, was returning this year, that would have checked all three boxes. Alas, the band was on the bill last year. Such are the vagaries of tour schedules, album launches and comebacks; the stars don’t always align. But could co-organizers Another Planet Entertainment and Superfly Productions have done better?
In the decade that APE and Superfly began Outside Lands, they have set some remarkable standards that up the bar, for festivals around the U.S.—and arguably, the world. Firstly, on what it means to be a “green festival,” a virtually unheard concept back then. Outside Lands today has a 91% waste diversion rate, meaning nearly 318,000 pounds of waste are diverted from a landfill.
Secondly, it has completely redefined the festival experience with gourmet-dining options, and vendors that place locally sourced produce at a premium. To that end, it was also the first to launch a concept like Wine Lands, pouring sommelier-approved grape varietals at a music festival. And instead of warm beer in red plastic cups, behold Beer Lands, where local brewers and craft beers are the order of the day.
Thirdly, it also offers a complete experience with street art (the backdrop of most instagram pictures) in partnership with the city’s Juxtapoz Magazine; and a popular comedy tent, as Bay Area folks tend to like tempering moments of loud music with quiet laughter.
Crowd at Outside Lands 2017, by Dan DeSlover
However, for all it’s achievements, this year’s festival lacked that merriment of a big birthday party or a razor-sharp focus; a theme to rally around. None of the bands we saw made significant mention that Outside Lands was now 10. Perhaps, it was having to deal with the ongoing spectre of A Tribe Called Quest’s postponement on Friday. Then its eventual cancellation of their already delayed Saturday set merely an hour before they were scheduled to perform. Maybe, it’s the political climate we now find ourselves in; the San Francisco fog, we are accustomed to, but the dark cloud that is Trump in the White House, has been much harder to shake.
Often, the difficulty of landing a rarely-seen headliner is concomitant to their value, and a good way to gauge how noteworthy. This year, Sunday’s heritage headliners, The Who, have played the Bay Area arenas several times in the past five years. In 2013, they played the Oakland Arena for their Quadrophenia Tour and 2015, which marked the British Invasion legends’ 50th Anniversary saw them return again. Saturday’s headliner, Metallica may be well-loved local favorites but they have also done several large-scale hometown gigs. These bands did not seem like particular coups. Though to their credit, both were wildly popular with fans, and neither disappointed. The Who were nothing short of spectacular.
In terms of headliners, Gorillaz was perhaps the jewel in the crown. This was one of their first North American festival dates to be announced. Prior to their latest album Humanz, the band had not released an album in seven years. And APE’s Allen Scott revealed how much time, planning and coordination had gone into getting all the guest vocalists.
And, boy, did they deliver one for the books. From De La Soul’s Maseo cracking that iconic laugh on “Feel Good Inc.” to smouldering, up-and-coming Colombian singer Kali Uchis on “She’s My Collar”; and Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano on “Empire Ants,” a song that hasn’t been heard live since 2010.
So without further ado, here’s to 10 years of Outside Lands, and 10 acts we absolutely loved.
Damon Albarn performing at Outside Lands 2017, by Dan DeSlover
Albarn and company eschewed the title of virtual band and dispensed with any gimmickry, in favor of a pitch-perfect live performance and a career-defining setlist. Albarn launched the animated band almost 20 years ago, with Tank Girl creator and illustrator Jamie Hewlett, as an alternative outlet to Albarn’s Britpop status in Blur. Unlike previous incarnations, there was no artifice involved with characters 2-D, Murdoc, Russel and Noodle. They made appearances on the screen when they needed to; otherwise, all eyes were on the humans onstage.
There was a chorus of soulful back-up singers; a hard-working rock band; and a bounty of guest vocalists and rappers with Albarn firmly at the helm. One highlight was “Sex Murder Party,” featuring Jamie Principle and Zebra Katz, the latter of whom wore a silver jumpsuit with a veil over his face. Another standout was “Let Me Out,” which featured Pusha T rapping alongside Albarn, as Mavis Staples sang on the big screen. “We Got The Power” featured Brit rapper Little Simz instead of Savages’ Jenny Beth. And of course, “Momentz,” with longtime collaborators De La Soul was nothing short of ebullient.
About 20 minutes before their set ended, Albarn mentioned that he had been told they were almost out of time, but he would keep playing till they cut out the music. Unlike Radiohead from the year before, who had denied fans an encore because of earlier deep cuts that overran, Gorillaz made it through to their two most-loved hits “Feel Good Inc.” and “Clint Eastwood,” which featured the OG, Del the Funky Homosapien. The dizzy highs the crowd felt singing along to every word on those songs remained unwavering even when the music eventually cut out on final song “Demon Days.”
Hamilton Leithauser performing at Outside Lands 2017, by Celine Teo-Blockey
2. Hamilton Leithauser
Those who heeded good advice and came early in the day were rewarded with an unforgettable performance by Hamilton Leithauser. On hiatus from his Boston punk band The Walkmen, Leithauser collaborated with ex-Vampire multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij for the album I Had A Dream That You Were Mine, released last October.
Used to yelling over buzzsaw guitars, Leithauser showcased his best Sinatra on the gorgeous “A 1000 Times.” He began in his effortless croon, “I had a dream that you were mine / I’ve had that dream a thousand times.” Two lines later and he punked it up with a raspy yell straight from the gut. The melody and title have the whiff of a Dylan protest song, and brought to mind the folk classic “500 Miles (Away From Home).” Just what we need in these troubled Trump times.
Another highlight was “1959,” which was released as a duet with Wet’s Kelly Zutrau. He said: “This was a duet on my record, but originally it was just me, so I am going to give you, just me.” He then delivered a most searing rendition of it, hitting insanely high notes and winning everyone’s heart as he parted with “Don’t trust the moonbeams, moonbeams are off the record. Don’t count your heartbeats, your heart won’t beat forever.”
Noname performing at Outside Lands 2017, by Celine Teo-Blockey
Chicago rapper Fatimah Warner (aka Noname) was featured on Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap mixtape, but it is on Telefone, her own debut mixtape, that her talents shine. She managed to pull a large crowd to the smallest of Outside Lands’ four main stages. Possessing the sweetest demeanor, she went on to encourage the audience to stick up their middle finger to anyone who did them wrong.
With her girlish vocals, Noname delivered some sobering stories with songs like “Casket Pretty,” in which she rapped: “All my niggas is casket pretty / Ain't no one safe in this happy city / I hope you make it home," referring to the scourge of gun crimes and the deaths of young black men at the hands of police. It’s the flip side of gangster rap, as told by a female, and hers is a timely and refreshing perspective.
Royal Blood performing at Outside Lands 2017, by Dan DeSlover
4. Royal Blood
The Brighton duo, bass guitarist Mike Kerr and drummer Ben Thatcher, come from a rock tradition of two-pieces that make as much noise as a four-piece. Kerr, who is also the vocalist, creates a bigger sound on his bass with the help of effects pedals. As a rhythm section they create some powerful Black Sabbath-like riffs, with a dose of psychedelic rock and blues, all imbibed with the attitude of a youthful, garage-punk band.
They thrilled the Polo Field with “Out Of The Black” and “Figure It Out” favorites from their self-titled debut album, as well as “Little Monster” and the sexy “I Only Lie When I Love You,” from their recently released record, How Did We Get So Dark.
Cage the Elephant's Matt Shultz performing at Outside Lands 2017, by Dan DeSlover
5. Cage The Elephant
When Queens of The Stone Age cancelled their performance due to injury, Cage The Elephant stepped in. The young band, originally from Bowling Green, Kentucky, but now call Nashville home, are not known for doing things in half measures. As such, frontman Matt Shultz wasted no time, jumping on stage and pouncing on the mic to sing “Cry Baby” and quickly raced through hit after hit from “Spiderhead” to “Trouble” and “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked.”
At one point, in reference to unfolding news about Charlottesville, Shultz said: “Last time I checked there was only one race. All these beautiful colors I see out here, I am so glad music can bring us all together. I'm going to celebrate it.” He then went on to sing "Punching Bag” off their 2015 studio album Tell Me I’m Pretty.
The last time they played Outside Lands was in the festival’s second year, when Shultz lost his shoe as he surfed through the crowd. This time, he had Metallica’s U-shaped, snake-pit, set-up, bringing him right to the audience. It appeared that his feet barely touched the ground anyway. His Jagger game was high, but when he took his leopard print jacket off for “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicket,” he cut a figure more like Iggy Pop. As always, the lovely ballad “Cigarette Daydreams” was our favorite.
Mondo Cozmo's Josh Ostrander performing at Outside Lands 2017, by Dan DeSlover
6. Mondo Cozmo
If you haven’t heard of Mondo Cozmo yet, you will! The musical alter-ego of Josh Ostrander is now also a fully-formed band. Earlier this month, Mondo Cozmo released their much-anticipated debut record Plastic Soul.
Relishing the spotlight, Ostrander delivered his hit “Shine,” to a chorus of fans that sang along. He also did a winning cover of the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” his Bowie-inspired track “Plastic Soul” and closed with dancey, latest single “Automatic.”
Before he ended his set, Ostrander took his phone out and told the audience he wanted a photo of them. He said: “Give me something good,” and the two girls beside me gamely lifted up their shirts, one revealing bare breasts. I guess everyone is now taking a leaf from Tove Lo, who had shown her breasts to the audience the day before. “I think he saw us,” one of them giggled, pointing to either the guitarist or keyboardist.
Lemon Twigs' Brian & Michael D'Addario performing at Outside Lands 2017, by Dan DeSlover
7. The Lemon Twigs
Michael D’Addario, shirtless and face painted white in honor of Metallica, pleaded: “Where's everyone going? I can't do this without you!” People had started to decamp the Panhandle Stage for the bigger Twin Peaks Stage, where Thundercat was about to start. Such are the trials of festival life that you have to tear yourself from a band like The Lemon Twigs, where energy, charisma, revolving instrument changes and a penchant for high kicks rule.
The duo is made up of brothers Brian and Michael D’Addario. They are fans of ‘70s fashion and singer-songwriters such as Harry Nilsson and Todd Rundgren. Their debut album Do Hollywood was produced by Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado and here, they performed some of the standouts, including “I Wanna Prove To You,” “These Words” and “As Long As We’re Together.” There was something shambolic about their performance but they have perfectly-formed, if somewhat unpredictable pop tunes. Definitely ones to watch.
Lorde performing at Outside Lands 2017, by Dan DeSlover
Make no mistake, New Zealand wunderkind Lorde is on top of her game. Her confidence was palpable. It showed that she had been touring festivals the last three months. Her set was polished, she looked stunning and delivered the big hits and quiet ballads with equal gusto. In between, she indulged in intimate banter with the packed-out Polo Field as she sat on the lip of the stage.
Before singing “Supercut” she revealed, “This song is about all the emotions you feel as a newly turned adult.” “Greenlight” got everyone dancing, “Royals” and “Team” got everyone singing, while “Liability” brought us to tears. She shared a sweet moment with Jack Antonoff, who sat on stage with her and did a duet of Paul Simon’s “Me and Juilo Down by the Schoolyard.” Singing acoustically, Antonoff tweaked his last line to sing, “ Me and Ella, at Golden Gate Park.” Priceless.
Swet Shop Boys performing at Outside Lands 2017, by Dan DeSlover
9. Swet Shop Boys
What sounded like a call to prayer, like you might hear from an Islamic mosque, echoed around Hellman Hollow just before 1 p.m. on Sunday. It was announcing the start of the Twin Peaks stage’s first act of the day: Swet Shop Boys. The trio is comprised of British actor Riz Ahmed (aka Riz MC); Queens, New York rapper Heems, formerly of Das Racist; and North London producer Redinho.
They kicked off with “Zayn Malik.” Rapping, “Zayn Malik's got more than 80 virgins on him / More than one direction to take to Paradise.” Their iconoclastic hip-hop gave voice to the ‘brown-skinned experience.’ Unfortunately, that includes being racially profiled at airports, and as an actor, often being offered the role of terrorist.
Riz and Heems don’t whine about their plight but use it as fodder for the sharp political commentary they spit out on their rhymes, set to Grime beats, Bollywood hooks and flourishes of Bhangra. They got everyone rapping with hands in the air to “T5” off their Cashmere album. “Oh no, we're in trouble / TSA, always wanna burst my bubble / Always get a random check when I rock the stubble." It was one of the festival highlights and stayed true to the city’s storied political roots. More please.
Solange performing at Outside Lands 2017, courtesy FilmMagic for Outside Lands
As the last set for the festival, scheduled to start almost an hour after The Who, it meant folks could catch the legendary band before making their way to Solange. The singer, who has taken her time to cultivate a career and persona, outside of her sister Beyonce’s shadow, did not disappoint. Solange delivered the most poignant performance of the festival. With stunning choreography, a staged bathed in warm red and orange hues, and songs like “Rise” and “Cranes In The Sky” off last year’s A Seat At The Table, hers was a welcome and much needed change of pace. It served as a soothing balm to all rattled, shocked and saddened by news of Charlottesville’s violent protests, which had ended in a death and many injured.
She called out to her black brothers and sisters, her LGBT friends and to all present. She said: “I know it’s been a rough couple of days but you all matter; you all belong.” She also urged everyone to remain awake to events but noted, “When things get so bad, I go to my room and just fucking dance it out.” Tonight, the Sutro Stage, flanked with eucalyptus trees, was her room. ■