Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival
August 10–12, 2012
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA
Outside Lands is a three-day festival set in the outer reaches of Golden Gate Park, just blocks from the Pacific Ocean. It’s named after the surrounding neighborhood: In the early 19th century, the Sunset district was all sand dunes, and locals referred to it as the outside lands, because no one ventured out that way. If you come to the festival, or if you came this year, you may be able to figure out why. The weather isn’t exactly desirable. The fog is thick, the wind bitter, and the dampness sneaks into your clothes, only helped by the slight sweat you work up while dancing in the crowd. Hopefully, the out-of-towners got the message to bundle up before the weekend began, because even us native San Franciscans were freezing.
Outside Lands is a young festival, celebrating its fifth birthday this year. It’s still growing up, gaining recognition, and deciding what it wants to be. At its heart, it truly is a San Francisco event that caters to our Northern Californian indulgences: gourmet food, wine and beer, and both classic and underground music. Yet, it is clear that Another Planet Entertainment (the production company) is trying to gain attention at a national level, so they are setting out to make each year bigger and better than the year before. In a city that is only 7 square miles, bigger doesn’t always mean better. A lot of the time, the unique culture of an event can easily become overshadowed by the sheer mass of people. Unfortunately, it seems that Outside Lands is heading in this direction. It’s not at that point yet, so this weekend managed, barely, to retain its original charm. Perhaps it was the fog.
For me, Friday began with Beck on the main stage, which was underwhelming. Before his set began, I overheard someone wondering whether Beck would be able to fill the main stage with his presence—“Some people just can’t pull it off,” she said. This lady turned out to be completely right. Although Beck played a standard festival-appropriate set (all of the hits!), it was lackluster and lacking in energy. We walked out to “Where It’s At,” which, in any other setting, I would not leave.
I ended up being glad that I left for Die Antwoord, because they put on the most fun show I’ve ever seen them play. It was packed with people just going apeshit. Die Antwoord is one of the weirder sounds I’ve heard, and it’s not for everyone—but damn, is it catchy, and those beats are seriously destructive.
We headed over to the Heineken dome to catch Justin Martin, waited in line for 20 minutes, and walked in only to notice that this short, Asian man did not look like Justin Martin, whose plane was apparently canceled last minute. That was a big disappointment because Martin was one of the few electronic artists worth his salt at the festival.
We grabbed some food from Asqew Grill, a holy place where dreams come true in the form of skewers. Outside Lands may have the best food at any festival. It’s pretty tough to beat San Francisco’s greatest restaurants, food trucks and pop-ups all in one place.
We headed over to Justice along with about 10,000 other people. They played a set similar to their Coachella set this year: a mix of songs from Cross and Audio, Video, Disco, some mashed into each other stylistically. They drew out their biggest hit, “D.A.N.C.E,” into an eight minute ride, slowly building up the beat and dropping out and building up in a way that was skilled and creative, if a bit overwrought. They played the hits, they kept the new songs short, and kept everyone warm until the night was over.
My Saturday officially began with Portugal. The Man, who put on a fun, spunky show, perfect for the early afternoon. There were some sound issues at first, but they managed to power through and got everyone up and dancing for the first time that day. We left a bit early to head to MiM0SA, who turned out to be the biggest surprise of the weekend. The stage was packed. Last year, he would not have had half the size of that crowd, and he performed like a champ. He’s a local boy, and his mom was in the crowd, so it was pretty evident that he was throwing down everything he had, and it was excellent. He has a pretty unique style of hip hop-influenced, “bass in your face,” glitchy, dirty and technical music, and ended up being one of the best sets of the weekend.
One of the most anticipated acts of the weekend, Explosions in the Sky, was up next, so we trekked the 10 minutes back to the main stage. They, like Beck, had a bit of trouble “filling” the main stage, and while still a good set, it didn’t compare to their set in San Francisco last year at Treasure Island Music Festival. The Kills, next on the main stage, were pretty underwhelming, and we wandered off, bored, after about half an hour.
The highlight of Saturday was Sigur Rós. It’s worth mentioning that Another Planet Entertainment did an excellent job at scheduling, and one example of this is putting Sigur Rós against Metallica. Generally speaking, people who want to see one don’t care about the other, so it divided the crowd pretty evenly. Sigur Rós played a lot of well known songs to appease the festival crowd, playing against a screen backdrop that showed abstract, cloud-like images, and the effect of the screen, the colorful lights splashing on the band, and the fog glowing with color all around the stage and above created a dream-like, extraordinary experience. The crowd was hushed and everyone watched the stage with rapt attention, careful not to miss a thing. I could tell by the energy of the crowd that everyone else thought it was just as special and precious as I did, one of those shows where, for a moment, time is suspended, the world around disappears, and all that remains is the music.
When we arrived the next day, we headed to Big Gigantic, a duo reminiscent of early Pretty Lights, except with the noted addition of saxophone! One of them was drumming and the other would switch off between DJing and playing the sax, which was pretty impressive. They got the party started for the day with a huge crowd going nuts in the early afternoon.
Regina Spektor was absolutely stunning, another highlight of the weekend. She was also adorable, humble, and kept thanking the audience over and over for watching her. It was a mesmerizing performance that sounded as good or better than her studio work, which is obviously rare, especially when the music is so dependent on vocals.
Dispatch filled out a good sized crowd of fairly diehard fans, especially considering they haven’t put out a new album in 12 years. That definitely made us feel really old. They were spot on, and rocked their way into my favorites list for the weekend.
Stevie Wonder closed out the night for us. It’s amazing that someone as old as he is can still rock a crowd of dozens of thousands, but I guess that’s why he’s Stevie Wonder. He played all of the favorites, bantered with the crowd, and played us out as the fog consumed the polo field, and the festival wound down. Until next year.