Highlights, Lowlights and the Three Best Sets at Outside Lands Festival

The ladies stole the show.

Music Features Outside Lands
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Highlights, Lowlights and the Three Best Sets at Outside Lands Festival

In many ways, San Francisco’s Outside Lands Festival represents the convergence of old San Francisco and whatever it is that the city has become. The festival’s hallmark is its venue, Golden Gate Park, a place larger than New York City’s Central Park and as idyllic and accessible of a green space as you’ll find within a big city’s limits; it’s truly a privilege to be there for a music festival. But with a $400 3-Day general-admission ticket, the festival’s population skews affluent and with a different sense of privilege. Yet there are still people on the park paths by the entrance “covertly” selling joints out of a gallon sized ziploc bag, $5 ganja edibles or holding up a makeshift drawing of a mushroom to indicate that they are indeed, selling mushrooms, thus preserving the San Francisco ethos that Haight Street hippies worked so hard dropping acid for the past 50 years to maintain. It’s that classic SF charm that has always lived strongly within Golden Gate Park and in turn, at Outside Lands Festival.

Now in its 11th iteration, Outside Lands has finally begun to establish a semblance of an identity. As the mass of silly festival totems seems so have dissipated, people magically seem to have a better sense of where they’re going throughout the weekend. Maybe it’s because we’ve all done this before? The festival experience isn’t necessarily a new thing for everybody and many festival-goers are simply becoming better at the experience. Heck, this year, the festival even booked a female-fronted headliner for the first time! (Two of them in fact, Janet Jackson and Florence + The Machine.) And there’s a different experience to be had for every age group, far better than in years past. This year, Outside Lands did a remarkable job of booking enough in-demand young artists (think Billie Eilish, Rex Orange County, ODESZA, Daniel Caesar, etc..) that three-day passes, as well as Saturday and Sunday passes sold out too.

At Outside Lands, the walks can be long sometimes, but there’s so much to see along the way: Murals, multiple food courts made up of local restaurants (Dumpling Time! Woodhouse Fish Co!), Gastro Magic, Cocktail Magic, Beer Lands, Wine Lands, Cheese Lands and now…even Grass Lands (a very large cannabis education experience; $$$). The weather is always a part of the show (just when you thought the fog wasn’t coming this year, Sunday was covered in it from start to finish) and at such a pleasant place, it’s ultimately not hard to spot which artists shine and which ones don’t. So this is where we find ourselves, with highlights, lowlights and the three best sets of the weekend (spoiler alert: all three are women. BOOK MORE WOMEN!). Shouts.

Highlight: Perfume Genius

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Perfume Genius’s Mike Hadreas moves like a sonofabitch. His vocal range is nearly eclipsed by his visceral dance moves on stage and while he’s joined by a band, it’s hard to take your eyes off of anyone but PG’s singular force. While the material from last year’s No Shape was well-executed, nothing resonated quite like “Fool” and the set-closing queer anthem, “Queen,” both cuts off of PG’s 2014 breakthrough Too Bright. The Friday afternoon set was the first must see set of the weekend for us and also the first of many fine acts that resonate hugely with LGBTQ fans. This is especially appreciated by a San Francisco crowd.

Highlight: Lucy Dacus

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Before her stellar performance on the Panhandle Stage later in the day, Lucy Dacus and her band played an additional intimate set at a new stage in the “Cocktail Magic” area. While this seemed like a clever ploy by Outside Lands to get folks over to the $16 cocktail bar (All by local SF bars, mind you), Dacus took this as an opportunity to play a totally different set including B-Sides and rarities that would not be heard later. The sweeping seven-and-a-half minutes of “Map On A Wall” were deeply affectatious and a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark” showed Dacus’s whimsical side. But it was when the band stepped off the stage and let the star enact an elegant version of “La Vie en Rose” that melted hearts and masterfully set the mood at the small stage nestled among the trees in one of Golden Gate Park’s meadows.

Lowlight: Mac DeMarco

I really expected a larger crowd for Cali festival darling Mac DeMarco. Considering the massive number of millennial slackers that DeMarco draws every year at LA’s FYF Festival, it was a bit surprising to see so many of said slackers walking away from the Sutro Stage well before the set was over. Maybe it was DeMarco’s quasi-yacht rock that wasn’t landing before giving the crowd the hits like “Viceroy” and “Chamber of Reflection” that they were quitely begging for? Or perhaps it was the 8pm time slot on a sparsely-attended Friday that didn’t fit DeMarco’s typical sun-soaked tunes? Whatever it was, it didn’t land and ended the night early for many.

Highlight: Caleborate

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You gotta love seeing an artist who relishes being on a considerably sized festival stage deliver a set like their life depends on it. Bay Area rapper Caleborate did exactly that and then some. Generally, local acts of his stature play the noon or even 1pm slots, but the Berkeley rapper was tasked with the Panhandle Stage at 4:30pm, and he seized the moment with fierce bravado on the mic, playing cuts off of 2017’s excellent Real Person and more. His style is woke, if not conscious and bars like “I don’t stress over these hoes/ I obsess over these flows” (on “Soul”) are about as repeatable as it gets. He told the audience that this was the biggest crowd he’d played in front that was explicitly for him and it felt like nothing short of a coming out party. Recognize.

Lowlight: SOB x RBE

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The Saturday mid-afternoon Twin Peaks Stage was as big as I’d seen all weekend following Daniel Caesar’s typically clean set, and a well-styled crowd was in an anticipatory frenzy while SOB x RBE’s DJ warmed them up with everything from Too $hort to Miley Cyrus. But when the young and talented Bay Area hip-hop foursome took the stage, the energy level noticeably dipped from the get-go. The Vallejo natives have a cult following to say the least (they were even featured on the Black Panther soundtrack), and I was pumped to see the local boys in front of thousands. But they were clearly singing over a backing track, and it was disappointing. Rapper DaBoii was the standout of the four early on, but it just felt like they had seen bigger stages than this and sorta phoned it in.

Highlight: Amen Dunes

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An apt Saturday starter, laying on the short hillside in the Sutro Stage sunshine for Amen Dunes’ performance was a hangover buster if there ever was one. Damon McMahon’s latest Amen Dunes record, Freedom, has the right blend of folk and pop for a Golden Gate Park afternoon. The rambling drums, jangly guitar and thick bassline of set closer “Miki Dora” was the standout of a set that even saw a song called “LA” resonate with the SF populous.

Lowlight: Beck

Look, Beck is a wonderful performer, his band is talented and he’s made a lot of hits over the years. There’s no denying that. But to expect him to ever step out of the shimmering music industry bubble he’s created for himself is unreasonable. He has a high profile, a giant platform and a real opportunity to make sense of music as a unifier of people, but he just won’t ever dare comment on the state of the world around him. And that’s problematic for a top-billed act in 2018.

Watching Beck on Friday night close out the Twin Peaks stage in front of thousands, I couldn’t help but think of the 2015 Grammy moment when Kanye West jumped on stage to protest Beck’s Album of the Year win over Beyoncé. I thought about how Beck just sorta chilled there politely and has always passively smirked at the whole situation. And for as batshit crazy as Mr. West has proven himself to be, he was definitely onto something. Beck has made a career of jumping from white-guy rap to rock, to gentle folk lullabies and synth-driven pop. As played out as the whole concept of “genre-bending” is, Beck is an OG. But what the heck does he stand for? How does music affect him as a person? Songs like “Think I’m In Love” and “Lost Cause” can make an audience so high, but his vanilla stage banter and general lack of a stance on anything made me so low.

And maybe I’m asking too much of an artist here, but at a music festival with this potential impact, when you’re the final act of the day, you’ve got a chance to impart a message onto people and Beck just continues to opt out of that. If all you want to do is play whatever music makes you feel good and not speak to where your creative output fits in with the world around you, then you’re just devouring the spoils of the music industry for your own benefit like Post Malone.

Highlight: Broken Social Scene

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“Hey we’re Broken Social Scene, we’ve been around for 18 years and were still here!” BSS frontman Kevin Drew shouted as the band took the stage. And dammit if the Canadian megagroup has not fallen off one bit. Just as their star shined at the first Outside Lands Festival in 2008, they did once again on Saturday’s Main Stage opening their set with decade and a half year old classics “KC Accidental” and “7/4 Shoreline.” A horn section on stage was firing on all cylinders alongside the band, Drew and singer Ariel Engle.

“This is for your country!” Drew said before playing “Protest Song.” “We like to write songs about the struggle,” he added. “Because we’re living in it. We live the struggle!” And then they played “Cause=Time” and then they later closed with “Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl” and it was just amazing. Bless this band.

Lowlight: Jamie XX

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Donned in a full Canadian tuxedo, Jamie XX stepped to the decks, dead-panned (as usual) and opened his Saturday evening Sutro Stage set with The Animals’ “San Francisco Nights” into his own track, “Girl.” It was a clever way to begin a set in SF, which led into an hour-long masterclass on electronic styles: Wildchild, Daphni, La Tour…it was typical Jamie XX turntable brilliance. Trouble is, this is a really hard sell on an outdoor stage like Sutro, where the volume doesn’t project like it should in a club. On more than one occasion, I could hear “it’s just a DJ set?” emanating from the gigantic, drug-riddled crowd. Of course it is, that’s what he does and he does it well, but Jamie doesn’t do himself any favors in his emotionless display. He’s the type to let the music do the talking and is the antithesis of the fist-pumping DJ bro, but this was not the ideal place for his art. San Franciscans barely dance enough as it is and Outside Lands would serve themselves well to host these types of performances in an indoor stage, which is entirely counterintuitive to the vibe of “Outside” Lands. In the end, it just came across like the message he sought to convey wasn’t just entirely lost on the detached crowd, it never had a chance.

Lowlight: Portugal, The Man

Where to begin? Pretty sure Pink Floyd didn’t give these guys permission to open their set with a butchered cover of “Another Brick In The Wall, Part II.” Much like The Marvelettes didn’t give them permission to take the elements of “Please Mr. Postman” for their breakthrough single “Feel It Still.” Portugal, The Man can defend themselves all they want, but they never made it big until they started taking music from other artists. And I’d be more forgiving if these guys weren’t such assholes. At one point, their self-righteous screen display said “F* Rock Critics, They Can Kiss My Whole A Hole.” A nod to Jay-Z, of course. Cause they can’t even write their own takedowns. I couldn’t walk away from their main stage performance fast enough.

Highlight: Sabrina Claudio

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Wow. Look no further than Ms. Claudio for the weekend’s revelation act. The Miami neo-R&B singer was dashing on the Sutro Stage, looking like the human embodiment of the dancer in a red dress emoji and her voice was magnificent. Songs like “Unravel Me” and “Confidently Lost” came with a distinct sensuality from Claudio, who was beyond grateful for the response she got from the elated crowd. Her drummer was a savage, and her Sunday afternoon set wins for best use of a fog machine; you couldn’t tell if it was actual San Francisco fog or a lightly-machinated waft that breezed through her hair and across her body. Bubbly and extremely charismatic, Claudio was a perfect fit between Kelela and Janelle Monaé. Definitely one to watch.

Lowlight: The Internet

Their set was delayed 30+ minutes due to “technical difficulties,” and when they finally played, it was for a meager 25 minutes (albeit well-received by patient fans). The victors opted to go see Janelle Monaé instead, in what was the most head-scratching schedule conflict of the fest. There was no word on what specifically led to the delay, but perhaps The Internet should’ve tried resetting their modem?

Highlight: Janet Jackson

Eleven years. That’s how long Outside Lands festival has waited for a female headliner. Nevermind that Florence + The machine technically was the first the night before, Janet was the main event and she brought HITS. “Miss You Much,” “Runaway,” “Got Til It’s Gone,” “That’s The Way Love Goes,” “All For You”...if you wanted it, you got it. “Alright” with the Heavy D video projection? Check. “BURNITUP” with the Missy video? Check. There were tightly choreographed moves by Janet and her dancers, interpretive dance numbers, a video tribute to her recently departed dad Joe Jackson, callbacks to dance moves to her brother Michael…at one point, Janet walked through the crowd to a raised platform, sat on a chair AC Slater style and sang “I Get Lonely,” “What’s It Gonna Be?” and even “Any Time, Any Place” with Kendrick Lamar’s “Poetic Justice” bars playing underneath.

“It’s a lot of hits, huh?” she said to the crowd with an enormous smile across her face as she breathed heavily from the dancing. I mean, there’s hit parades and then there was this. The set didn’t come without it’s tiny shortcomings, but we forgave them all. We forgave the lip synching, cause the dancing was so on point. We forgave the mid-set break, cause damnit if she didn’t need to breathe. We forgave her calling it “San Fran” cause nobody from out of town ever knows any better. And we even forgave the pre-show ads on screen to pre-save her new single with Daddy Yankee on Spotify, cause who fucking cares. IT. WAS. JANET! As exhausted as everyone probably was from three days of partying, we all had a shit-eating grin on our face. Janet could do no wrong.

The 3 Best Sets of The Weekend

3. Carly Rae Jepsen

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The best pop star in the business put on the weekend’s best dance party. Friday afternoon at Twin Peaks Stage was vintage Carly Rae and her set was delightfully heavy on tracks from 2015’s Emotion. She set the tone with set opener ”Run Away With Me” and it just never calmed down for the next 50 minutes, where everyone within an earshot was in a blissful state. Even Lucy Dacus, playing immediately after Jepsen on the nearby Panhandle Stage, commented how cool it was to hear Carly Rae while they were setting up. Carly Rae is just so damn fun…and real. She writes her own songs, and delivers them with such genuine exuberance. It’s what upper echelon pop music is all about. How she turns around, back facing the crowd during a song’s instrumental break and then then turns her head around snappily to sing again and everyone goes wild. It’s how she’s always appealed to a queer audience and closed her set with “Cut To The Feeling,” the weekend’s most prideful celebration, as dancer Mark Kanemura delivered his viral dance, complete with rainbow flags to match his speedos and seven-colored wigs that he removed to the beat of the chorus. Three years ago, Carly Rae Jepsen made me fall in love with pop music again. She’s still the best.

2. Kelela

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Sunday was the best day at Outside Lands, bar none. And for us, it started with Kelela’s 2pm set at Twin Peaks stage, a slot that SZA notably occupied two years ago. Kelela put on a clinic, straight up. Dressed in a shiny silver spaceage Calvin Klein dress with matching gloves, her precision dreads hung across her face; the phrase “looks to kill” came to mind. There was nothing casual about this performance; Kelela was serious and oozed mystique. Flanked by two backup singers/dancers, the trio moved in symmetrical modernity on cuts like “LMK” and “Frontline,” before giving way to the diva on her own.

There was something in the way Kelela made every single audience member feel like she was singing directly to them that was enchanting. This was pop music at its finest, but when she spoke, she was commanding, but benevolent and compassionate with authority. Towards the end of the 40 minute set, she played “Bank Head,” the 2013 hit that effectively put her on the map as a future R&B trailblazer. The downtempo drum and bass hit alongside the track’s defining clapback, created dance moves in the modest, but stylish crowd, that made this experience and otherworldly one. “If I weren’t brown, I’d be blushing,” Kelela said with a stoic smile as she finished off a quintessential festival performance.

1. Janelle Monaé

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Welp…here’s your winner. By a wide margin, because Janelle Monaé put down one of the greatest sets in the history of Outside Lands. There were shades of St. Vincent’s epic set on the same Lands End Main stage in 2015, the moment where an artist cemented their role as one of the greats. As “Dirty Computer” played, Monaé appeared atop an Aztec pyramid-shaped stage addition, two-toned checkered tights, red and white vinyl jacket with matching boots, mirrored shades, pyramid earrings, highlighter yellow nail polish and conductor cap on, as she and four dancers went through a fantastic routine for “Crazy, Classic Life.” For “Screwed,” Monaé took off the shades and grabbed an electric guitar. For “Django Jane” she shed the coat and changed her cap to match her now black and white suit with red highlights as she sat on a gold throne through “Django Jane,” arguably the best rap cut of the year. And that was just the first three songs.

She played guitar and contorted like Prince. She owned the stage like Beyoncé. At one point, she put on “vagina pants” with large labia tassels, one of many costume changes that would’ve made Björk proud. Every person on stage with her was a woman and this was a fierce performance from the next heir to the musical throne. “Love whoever you want!” she shouted to the crowd. It was a simple and perfect message that she delivered without breaking stride of her flawless performance. As the set came to a close, the hypnotized crowd was screaming in approval and Monaé disclosed she’d been sick and throwing up before the set, which made the incredible tour de force we’d just experienced even more impressive. Go ahead and file Janelle Monaé as one of the finest, most important artists and entertainers of today. This left no doubts.

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