10 Things We Loved about Outside Lands Festival 2023

The West Coast fest has grown into a giant

Music Features Outside Lands
10 Things We Loved about Outside Lands Festival 2023

Now 15 years old, San Francisco’s Outside Lands has grown into one of the premier, behemoth music festivals in the country. This past weekend, Golden Gate Park once again played host to the function and 225,000 people flocked to the sublime venue’s collection of meadows, groves and fields across three days.

With a sellout reported ahead of time, crowds were in full force all weekend long. Promoter Another Planet Entertainment (APE) made some concerted improvements this year, which saw more efficient experiential zones arise, multiple new bathroom areas sprouting up and layout rearrangements to make the entire space as comfortable as possible for the endless droves of people (props for the roomier Panhandle Stage layout.) The festival even had to adapt on the fly when people danced so hard on the lone indoor stage, the SOMA Tent, that the floor’s structure was compromised and the area had to be shut down on both Friday and Saturday. No injuries were reported and by Sunday, it had been transitioned into an outdoor stage. Nice work.

It was a daunting weekend at times, feeling increasingly monetized at every turn. But that’s the challenge for music festivals in 2023: Build memories bold enough that the sticker shock of what you actually spent throughout the weekend stays in the back of your mind. And there was certainly a whole lot to love about the San Francisco festival jewel. Through that classic SF fog, misty evenings and a good deal of sunshine mixed in as well, here are 10 things that marked our weekend at Outside Lands.

Interpol at The Independent

On the eve of the festival’s weekend, Outside Lands’ marquee night show featured Interpol playing their now 20-year-old album, Turn On The Bright Lights, at the 500-person capacity venue, The Independent. Interpol can pack a venue more than 10 times this size and the magnitude of the underplay was not lost on the nostalgic crowd.

This was the hottest ticket in town, with a total old-school scene outside with lines down the block and people chomping at the bit to get in before the set began. The Independent was the perfect place for what successfully recreated the hype surrounding bands from New York City’s Lower East Side in the early aughts—the Meet Me In The Bathroom era, if you will. Interpol were tight, forceful and deadpanned as always. And as special as it was to hear the classic album in full, “Evil” (off of Antics) brought the house down like no other.

The New Dolores Stage

If there was a lesson learned from the SOMA Stage debacle, it’s that perhaps an indoor stage isn’t the move at “Outside” Lands anymore. With that, the brand new, queer-centric Dolores Stage showed how the best vibes here are definitely outdoor ones. On the back part of the Polo Field by the main stage, the open-air Dolores stage was curated by SF queer institutions Fake & Gay, Hard French and Oasis. You couldn’t help but be pulled into a hella gay dance party every time you walked by and it was refreshing programming among the glitz and household names on the primary stages. The Britney Spears remixes were as plentiful as scantily-clad dancers and drag queens. And at the very least, Dolores showed that APE understands queer programming as they prepare to renovate and fully operate SFs legendary Castro Theatre.

Janelle Monáe Returns

Ahead of the The Age of Pleasure tour kicking off at the end of this month, Monáe returned to the same Outside Lands main stage that she stole the show on in 2018. The production value here was high-end, with a swimsuit-clad Monáe flanked by a band of lifeguards and synchronized swimmer dancers, before eventually donning her signature vagina pants. There were subtle similarities to sets by previous headliners in SZA and Lizzo, with Monáe flashing arguably more pure moxie and a decade-plus of earned cred in her performance. At times, she channeled Prince and James Brown with class, closed with early hits in “Tightrope” and “War of The Roses,” and could have easily headlined the festival if tasked with it (she played just before Kendrick Lamar.) “To be black, to be queer, to be non-binary, to evolve and to have family like you? It’s impressive,” she told the crowd, feeling right at home and absolutely beloved in San Francisco.

The Stellar Indie Slate

This year’s collection of indie-rock acts was especially well put together. Alex G is such a sharp songwriter and producer who showed that he understands the power of the guitar with his blissful Friday afternoon set; “Miracles” was a gorgeous standout track on the Sutro Stage.

I had my reservations about how Wednesday would fare on the main stage at 1pm on Saturday, but no sooner than they began did those go out the door. There aren’t many bands doing it as well as the Asheville rock outfit right now and singer Karly Hartzman is a fucking powerhouse.

It felt like just another day in the park for Alvvays, who breezed through their afternoon main stage set. But it lacked a feeling of intimacy that would’ve taken it to another level on the Sutro Stage instead. Boston’s Crumb got the benefit of that placement and have grown so much as a band since 2017’s Locket EP. It’s fun to see a band taking stylistic risks that push conventional boundaries of the indie pop formula (Alvvays wrote the book on that with Blue Rev fwiw) and Crumb singer Lila Ramani flashed a distinct coolness on stage.

On Sunday evening, Soccer Mommy closed out the Panhandle Stage with a thick layer of SF’s heavy fog resting above the canopies of the Speedway Meadow cypress trees; a beautiful setting for a memorable performance. Sophie Allison & co. put down a set of polished rock and roll that felt more contemporary to 90s alternative greats like Liz Phair, Sheryl Crow and Natalie Merchant than ever. Meanwhile, the Bay Area born slate of early sets from Sour Widows, Fake Fruit and No Vacation, rounded out the comprehensive indie slate that was a major strength of the weekend.

The Food Offerings

Outside Lands always does a fine job of incorporating San Francisco’s upper echelon food scene and the Pali Cali Wrap from Mission District Mediterranean cafe, Reem’s, was a clear winner for me. Fresh-baked flatbread was pulled right out of an oven before being stuffed with sumac chicken, caramelized onion puree, arugula and pickled onion. It was simple, substantial, well-executed and I’m still dreaming about it.

New in town, SF’s Sandy’s Muffulettas makes their NOLA-inspired sandos on a round, sesame seed-studded loaf that gets sliced like a pizza and pressed like a panini. Both the classic Muff with mortadella, prosciutto, soppressata, provolone, spicy olive spread and Duke’s mayo and the similarly-style roasted mushroom Muff were bangers.

Finally, two modern-day SF classics did their thing again in Señor Sisig and Bini’s. The former, a proper Filipino food truck and Mission brick-and-mortar who often collaborates with E-40 and P-Lo, styled out their classic sisig burrito in top form. As for Bini’s, there’s hardly been a more consistent Outside Lands food staple over the years than their Nepalese momo dumplings stuffed with lamb, turkey or tofu and veggies, along with warm chicken curry and rice.

Kendrick Lamar

It’s hard to not get totally hyped for a Kendrick Lamar headlining set. He’s the apex predator of hip-hop festival headliners, and he delivered a more-than-20-song assault on Friday night. He was followed by a shadowy synchronization of interpretive dancers who all donned eerie form-fitting Kendrick masks and his delivery was stoic, emotional and supreme. It’s surprising that it took him eight years to come back to the main stage after his much-hyped and bursting-at-the-seams-crowded 2015 tour de force on the smaller Twin Peaks stage. But his career has soared to the top since then, and a revue of all of the music that got him there was in order.

The mist drifting overhead during “Count Me Out” made for one of the best sensory moments of the weekend and closing with “Savior” left the crowd with a clear message to marinate on. But this could have been an all-time performance if Kendrick would’ve been backed by a full live band on stage a la the rare 2015 To Pimp A Butterfly sessions. The beats hit hard behind a screen, but there’s really no reason why this live show shouldn’t lean deeper into live instrumentals.

A Sea of Humanity for L’Imperatrice at Sutro Stage

Pound-for-pound the busiest set of the weekend was French disco pop L’Imperatrice’s early Saturday evening romp on the Sutro Stage. This was that proverbial “sea of humanity” that we hear about when festival crowds stretch out for days and stretch the limits of a venue’s footprint. But there was harmony in this on-the-surface chaos, with singer Flore Benguigui leading a massive dance-party collective without the vapidity of Outside Lands’ EDM acts. People never stopped flowing into the crowd and it was a beautiful sight to behold.

Invisibl Skratch Piklz + Guests

Smack in the middle of a styled out row of pop-up bars known as Cocktail Magic, DJ’s Q-Bert and D-Styles of famed Bay Area native turntablist crew Invisibl Skratch Piklz, set up camp on a small stage early on Saturday and Sunday evening. On Saturday, Dan the Automator and Cut Chemist were announced as special guests for a marvelous display of elite old guy hip hop shit. On Sunday, Del the Funky Homosapien freestyled for ten minutes straight over beats and scratches from the Skratch Piklz and then peaced out like a boss. While out of place to some, it was a breath of fresh air necessary to maintain one’s sense of sanity in this insane playground at the park — not to mention a well-deserved tip of the cap for a crop of oft-underappreciated hip-hop legends in the wake of many other 50 years of hip-hop celebrations.

Gabriels Make Their Mark

In March of last year, emerging LA R&B trio Gabriels were set to perform at San Francisco’s Rickshaw Stop. For one reason or another, the gig got canceled and a year and a half later, they finally made their SF debut at this weekend’s Outside Lands. That’s a bit of context for how highly-anticipated this performance was for the city and led by enchanting singer Jacob Lusk, this was nothing short of one of the weekend’s best sets. Lusk is the scepter here and embraced the limelight with grace and panache as the group played songs off of both the revelatory Bloodline EP and the recently-released album Angels & Queens. With a gold mic in hand, Lusk turned the Sutro Stage into the “Outside Lands Missionary Baptist Church” at one point, with fans worshipping his glorious voice and legit stage presence. Look, Outside Lands isn’t necessarily about discovery as much as it’s about showcasing today’s prevalent stars. But considering the lighter-than-expected attendance for Gabriels’ 3pm set, it’s time to place them firmly on your radar as the group’s inevitable rise takes shape.

Megan Thee Stallion In Complete Control

Shortly after Lil Yachty bombed on the main stage, Megan Thee Stallion put on a straight-up clinic. The Houston rapper showed a complete understanding of the current mainstream rap landscape with the balance in how she worked the crowd and delivered her bars. Rapping over a backing track has become the norm at festival hip-hop performances, but Meg seemed to know exactly when to attack the mic, or to just simply strut (and twerk) for the crowd while the backing track did the talking for a moment. “Fuck all my haters. None of that shit y’all were doing broke me,” she said, lowkey referencing the recent verdict that saw rapper Tory Lanez sentenced to 10 years in jail for firing a gun at her feet. After countless male rappers have dominated the scene for far too long and have gotten so lazy that they can barely punctuate a backing beat properly, Meg has taken their place by the horns. She does it all with pristine confidence and presence, and is as commanding in the exercise as anyone else doing it in pop music.

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