Once a year, the Outside Lands festival takes over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and turns it into a music-lover’s playground. This year, big-name acts like Jack White, Beck, and Neil Young graced its several stages, along with a roster of smaller, impeccably chosen indie up-and-comers. Here’s our report on a weekend featuring, among other things, Metallica flamethrowers and Tame Impala’s crusty feet.
DAY 1 — Friday, August 10
Sharon Van Etten
Sutro Stage, 1:15 p.m.
“This song is about moving to New York City for love,” a shy-eyed Van Etten announced to the afternoon crowd who came out to hear her set. There was a brief, tense pause before she continued. “You can throw up now.” What followed was “Give Out,” one of the most pinpointedly achy, heartbreaky songs on her new record, Tramp. No one throws up, but more than a handful are mouthing all the words—an audience of rapt listeners eager to hear her inimitable voice mourn and swoon. But Van Etten isn’t all vulnerability—one of the highlights of her set was the first song she ever wrote on an electric guitar, the standout single “Serpents.” The raw thrash of distortion and Van Etten’s sharp wail flaunt the songwriter’s fiercer side. She should do it more often—the effect left me torn to pieces and wanting more. —Sydney Brownstone
Sutro Stage, 2:35 p.m.
It’s no secret that Reggie Watts’ one-man show puts most entertainers to shame. He’s a quadruple-threat: Comedian, freestyler, beatboxer, and live-looping pro, plus whatever brilliant, improvised commentary bubbles up from the lovable weirdo’s id. Equal parts philosopher and public safety guide—”THC products: Highly encouraged across the board,” he declared after warning us that LSD requires at least an eight-hour commitment—Watts has a knack for rapping about the existential and the absurd. Three-quarters of the way through the set, Watts put the microphone to his crotch and looped a recording of the shuffling sound it makes bumping over his penis. The greatest moment of Outside Lands? Hmm. —Sydney Brownstone
Twin Peaks Stage, 3:50 p.m.
Onstage, Claire Evans and Jona Bechtolt of YACHT get into a performance mode they like to call “throwing shapes.” And watching the impossibly long-limbed, otherworldly Evans jump lithely around in an all-white skintight get up accentuating her white-blond hair and bright blue lipstick, geometry was weirdly all I could think about. Evans and Bechtolt have been making their unique blend of electro-pop meets quirky science futurism—think Devo or Talking Heads—since 2008, but their set-up has since evolved to include a full band and a more dynamic range of sounds. Highlights included their debut of a new track, “Second Summer,” reminiscent of a smiley Ace of Base, and a performance of their cult hit “Utopia”—during which there was such a build-up of energy on stage that Evans looked about ready to blast into outer space. —Azeen Ghorayshi
Lands End Stage, 4:30 p.m.
Beck’s performance on the Outside Lands main stage was pure, frill-less, and arresting. Hardly moving from center stage, where he strummed his guitar and sometimes purred into a harmonica, Beck by and large kept his commentary to the weather and focused on his measured and mellow tracks. The singer opened his set with a lively “Black Tambourine,” and four songs in had the crowd of thousands bellowing “I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?” (On that note, the man has hardly aged since “Loser” days.) One of the highlights of the show included a soulful, tip-of-the-hat cover of headliner Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.” —Deanna Pan
Twin Peaks Stage, 5:25 p.m.
South African rap duo Die Antwoord are notorious for shock value in their sometimes challengingly disturbing music videos, but Yolandi Visser and Watkin Tudor Jones—a.k.a. “Yo-landi Vi$$er” and “Ninja”—so fully embodied their alter egos on stage that their performance hardly suffered from lack of visuals. Visser, like a tiny demonic Tinkerbell, spit her rap lyrics quickly and with self-possessed ease, transitioning seamlessly to her sugar-coated girlish vocals during choruses. Their humor was not missing either; in a moment of particularly Ninja-esque satire during “Zef Side,” the singer, clad only in “Dark Side of the Moon” boxers, whipped out his signature frenetic pelvic thrusts. Highlights included a cover of “This is Why I’m Hot” leading into recent rap-rave hit “Baby’s on Fire,” which led the crowd to erupt into full-fledged insanity. —Azeen Ghorayshi
Of Monsters And Men
Sutro Stage, 5:40 p.m.
“She is so cool—oh, god!”
“That chick is so sick.”
“You f*ckin’ rock!”
Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, co-vocalist and guitarist of the seven-member Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men, is the most badass girl in the world—that was the overwhelming audience consensus at the indie-folk rockers’ rapturous performance Friday afternoon. Hilmarsdóttir’s unique, velvety voice over the troupe’s fully loaded arsenal of deftly commanded instruments (including keyboard, trumpet, acoustic and electric guitar, bass, and accordion) created the otherworldly, sparkling sound that made their breakthrough album, My Head is An Animal, an international hit. The band’s contagious joy rippled through a captivated audience, as they roused their fans in a sing-a-long to “Mountain Sound” among other playful crowd-working antics. —Deanna Pan
Neil Young and Crazy Horse
Lands End Stage, 8 p.m.
During Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s hotly hyped headline act Friday evening, the 66-year-old rocker drifted into 10-minute guitar-solo jams and even fudged one his songs. After wrapping up “Born in Ontario,” a brand new, folk-rock ode to his hometown, Young admitted, “One of the great things when you screw up your own song and nobody’s heard it, nobody knows.” But who cares? In the words of Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl, who played the same stage hours earlier, it’s “Neil fuckin’ Young.” You’re basking in the reverberations of a rock-and-roll legend. Young didn’t waste any time when he entered the Outside Lands main stage, immediately shredding a thunderous rendition of “Love and Only Love.” What followed was a raw, passionate performance from a man who at times seemed lost in the spirit of his own sound. —Deanna Pan
DAY 2 — Saturday, August 11
Lands End Stage, 12:30 p.m.
While watching Zola Jesus perform early in the day at the festival’s main stage, I couldn’t help but feel unmoved by her epically “emotive” music. Singer Nika Roza Danilova has a remarkable voice that she can make deep and powerful while seeming tinny and delicate—but the goth drama of her sound fell flat when unmatched by any performative rigor. The war-drum bass beat on every song quickly grew tedious and the constant ringing of synthesizer statically layered on top could sound vaguely drone-like. Perhaps if Danilova had channeled more of her over-referenced dark forces, and perhaps if it wasn’t one of the first shows of the day, I wouldn’t have repeatedly thought about how she existed better in my headphones. Or maybe not. —Azeen Ghorayshi
Lands End Stage, 1:50 p.m.
There’s only one way to describe Tame Impala’s show at Outside Lands: the stoner Olympics. As puffs of sweet smoke wafted lazily above the packed crowd at the main stage, the Australian psych-rockers woozily ripped through the hits off their critically lauded 2010 album, Innerspeaker. One kid skipped through the sea of bodies blessing and bopping festivalgoers with a sunflower, and the live-cam operator took artistic liberties with fuzzy close-ups of waving pool noodles and frontman Kevin Parker’s crusty bare feet. The overall effect? Meh. This (granted, sober) reporter thought the magic of Tame Impala’s recordings was lost in translation with a low-energy performance, Parker’s nasally falsetto, and a stage too big for a subtler act. —Sydney Brownstone
Thee Oh Sees
Panhandle Stage, 6:05 p.m.
Are you into psychedelic garage rock? Are you from the Bay Area? If you’ve been to a Thee Oh Sees show, well done. If you haven’t…what!? After a stint as a lo-fi home-recording project in the early-ish ’00s, San Francisco-native John Dwyer and his band of manically talented rock musicians (now sometimes including Ty Segall) have put out an absurd number of jangly, abrasive, and inspired records since roughly 2006. An Outside Lands hometown show brings the band’s energy to an entirely new level: At one point I counted four people crowd-surfing at once, while Dwyer stuck out his tongue, whipped his hair wildly, and dangled his guitar in front of the amps for maximum distortion. The band will release its 14th album—you read that right—Putrifiers II, in September. —Sydney Brownstone
Twin Peaks Stage, 6:50 p.m.
If the Boston-bred, electro-pop rockers Passion Pit had settled on dinging a metal triangle to the beat of the wind for their Saturday evening performance, their rabid fans probably wouldn’t have noticed or even cared. Hundreds of concertgoers descended on one of the park’s smaller lawns to trip on the band’s hypnotic, effervescent sound. By the end of their biggest hit, “Sleepyhead,” the amoebic crowd was swirling in a synthpop-induced high. Body surfers blithely careened across the crowd. Boys and girls mixed and matched in very public displays of affection. This infectious, close-your-eyes-and-sing kind of euphoria was as ubiquitous as the small puffs of smoke billowing above everyone’s heads. —Deanna Pan
Panhandle Stage, 7:50 p.m.
Dr. Dog fans (a.k.a. the non-Metallica crowd) came out in full force, filling the area around the fest’s smallest stage with a massive blur of bopping heads and reaching hands. Many in the audience sported the Philadelphia band’s signature beanie, recklessly crowd-surfed, and sang along to recent hits they knew by heart: “Shadow People,” off 2010’s Shame Shame, as well as “That Old Black Hole,” “These Days,” and “Heavy Light,” off this year’s self-produced album, Be The Void. After building a career over the past decade (and change) centered around relentless touring, a die-hard fanbase, and seven albums full of incisive wit and Beatles-y hooks, Dr. Dog shows no sign of slowing down (or working with a producer, for that matter). At a festival full of big headliners on even bigger stages, Dr. Dog may have won with the biggest heart. —Sydney Brownstone
Lands End Stage, 7:55 p.m.
Metallica capped off the night on the main stage with a rip-roaring display of righteous noise and brilliant pyrotechnics that reportedly had show-goers at Sigur Rós craning their necks from the other side of the park for a glimpse at San Francisco’s homegrown thrash band. Fiery explosives and dazzling lasers lit up the sky in perfect synchronization with classic wails like “Fuel” and “Enter Sandman.” Metallica’s boisterous performance was less a music show and more of a force to be reckoned with. Simply put, they ruled; if Metallica didn’t gain a few hundred new fans that night, the multiplatinum metalers definitely had everybody’s respect. —Deanna Pan
Twin Peaks Stage, 8:40 p.m.
On the opposite side of Golden Gate Park from Metallica’s blinding light show and 50-foot flame spirals, something equally spectacular was being staged. But with upward of 11 instrumentalists—ranging from their signature bowed guitar to violins to trumpets—the spectacle of Icelandic band Sigur Rós was all in the music. Their majestically ethereal sound was eerily suited to this arena, shrouded by a forest of trees, and there was a noticeable stillness in the air as spectators listened to lead vocalist Jónsi Birgisson‘s high voice floating out amidst the fog on tracks like “Hoppípolla.” Here, at the Twin Peaks stage, was the real journey “off to Never Never-Land.” —Azeen Ghorayshi
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