Some of the wine selections at Outside Lands. Photo: Film Magic Inc.
This year was a return to form for San Francisco's biggest summer music festival. With the return of a three-day lineup and some of the biggest names on the summer festival circuit, Outside Lands pulled off one of their best years yet. One of the more unique aspects of this festival is their dedication to food and wine. Around 50 restaurants from around the Bay Area were represented, proving there can be more to festival food than just burgers, hot dogs and pizza (everyone's favorite pizza from Coachella, Spicy Pie, was at Outside Lands this year, something I consider a huge accomplishment). Wine fanatics were not left out, either. This year featured an attraction called Wine Lands, a large tent with around 25 different wineries providing tastings. One of the strongest aspects of Outside Lands is that they support and uphold their local community, and an important part of the Northern California community is food and wine. Outside Lands knows their neighborhood, and their audience. I arrived on Friday just in time to catch Foster The People, a fun new band that has been everywhere this summer with their song "Pumped Up Kicks." They have a great festival sound: light, sunny, dancey, with a touch of substance. After that, we went over to the main stage to watch MGMT and grab some food from Askew Grill, a BBQ kebab place that is one of the most popular restaurants in San Francisco. It's refreshing to be able to purchase a healthy, well-balanced meal at a festival. MGMT played their standard festival set, which has barely changed in the past two years, a mix of songs from their first two drastically different albums. We headed over to the Twin Peaks stage to see Clap Your Hands Say Yeah play a great, late-afternoon set. It was dancey and lighthearted, with a mix of old favorites and new material. "The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth" officially kicked off the weekend-long dance party, also known as the Twin Peaks stage.
Phish was next, and I finally got to understand just why my friends follow them around the country. We danced our asses off: a sloppy, colorful, happy, obsessive dance party. We took a Phish break to go catch The Shins, who blew me away. I saw them once at In The Venue and ended up leaving early because it was such a boring show. Well, this was not boring. They rocked the Twin Peaks stage and completely justified the huge turnout with a diverse set comprised of songs throughout their entire discography. Saturday started off with a glance at Ok Go playing the main stage in the early afternoon, which only made me want to see them again. STRFKR played next on the Twin Peaks stage with an absurdly fun set. A great mix of diverse and unique dance music. Arctic Monkeys on the main stage was a good time, although most of the crowd was just waiting for The Black Keys. We ran over to the tiny, completely solar-powered Panhandle stage to catch Eskmo, a glitch/bass/dubstep producer who is worth checking out. He can destroy the studio and the live set. Then back to the main stage to catch The Black Keys. What a set! They are the perfect festival band. There's nothing like some grungy blues in the late afternoon with a Newcastle in hand. We left a bit early to catch The Roots (who schedules The Roots and The Black Keys opposite each other?), who really got the Twin Peaks going and played a great mix of crowd favorites, stylized covers and more obscure songs. Paper Diamond was just after at the Panhandle stage. From Colorado, he is on the Pretty Lights Music record label, and deservingly so. I recommend checking him out, as you'll be hearing this name more and more in the next few years. He has a similar approach as Pretty Lights, but the sound is harder and definitely headed in a different direction, so don't hold that against of him if you're sick of Pretty Lights by now, as a lot of people are.
The two headliners for the night were Muse and Girl Talk, who seem to have played every single festival in the West for the past two years. They had standard sets. Good, but exactly what was expected. Sunday we caught !!! (pronounced "chk chk chk") jamming on the Twin Peaks stage. They played a great set, leaps and bounds better than their set at Treasure Island Music Festival, which was meh. It was a bit more experimental, a lot more jam-band, overall a fun and diverse mix of songs and sounds, and it was evident that they've learned how to work with the crowd better since last October. We hung around for Major Lazer, which was a disappointment. You'd think that with Diplo on board, their DJ sets would be a ton of fun, weird stuff that somehow mixed together really well. This is not the case. They played a standard set of 2011's biggest hits in electro, house and dubstep, along with some of the same old reggae and reggaeton that's been played thousands of times before. Nothing new, nothing different, nothing weird. Boring.
Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9) was after a long set change, and it was the set we were waiting for all weekend. They played an amazing one-hour set that got everyone in the crowd (many of whom were just waiting for Deadmau5) bouncing up and down and dancing to their heart's content. Usually their songs go on for 10 to 15 minutes live, but since their set was less than half the usual length, they were playing short bursts of tracks only five to eight minutes in length, moving the audience rapidly through a wide array of classic STS9 sounds and movements. Unfortunately, there is the standard STS9 backlash afterwards, where you become extremely depressed that it is over and they are not playing all night long. Deadmau5 finished off the Twin Peaks stage for the night, complete with his famous chunk-of-cheese LED stage, debuted at Coachella 2010 and seen in the Bay Area for Treasure Island 2010. It's cool to look at, but his live performances always disappoint, and he just doesn't know how to get people going like other, better DJs.
Even though Outside Lands gets the standard summer festival artists, bands, and DJs, it is all arranged in a way so that you get to see those bands that you missed at the other festivals in favor of your must-see artists. It's kind of like a backup festival. Their focus on art, wine and food in addition to music is what really rounds this festival out. All in all, it is a cohesive experience, and a truly San Francisco one at that. Laid back, accepting, open and free, with a lot of partying and dancing is what makes San Francisco fun, and it goes the same for Outside Lands. It doesn't need to strive to be bigger, better or more expensive. It's perfect just the way it is.