Music festivals are great in concept, but they always come with a catch: the often enormous price tag latched onto coveted multi-day passes. Live music junkies like myself will always try to legitimate the cost by looking at these events logically; in one day, you could theoretically see up to nine artists’ full sets. Multiply that by the three days you’d spend at the festival, and you’d see 27 artists. Divided evenly, that puts a $200 ticket at roughly $7.41 per artist. Good deal, right?
People in San Francisco seem to think so, as about 180,000 people poured into the city’s infamous Golden Gate Park from all ends to attend this year’s Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival.
The festival spanned across six stages, each secluded enough so that one band’s playing wouldn’t interfere with another band’s sound. Just to be safe, though, each night whittled numbers of simultaneous artists down to just two at the most substantial stages.
Of the six stages, the largest and most attended was situated at the west-most end of the festival and was called Land’s End; here, main-stage acts like the Black Keys, MGMT, John Fogerty and The Decemberists all performed to crowds that often stretched so far back that they interfered with growing lines from food booths.
Heralded as not only a music festival but also as a fine dining experience, Outside Lands featured a myriad of culinary selections that set it miles away from other festivals. One might have expected barbecued chicken skewers and everything being fried, but festival-goers were instead met with Italian porchetta sandwiches with fresh, locally grown arugula.
Among the various gourmet munchies offered by the festival were Korean “tacos” from local Korean fusion (so-called “New California”) restaurant Namu.
“For some reason, besides that they taste really good, I think the word ‘taco,’ for drunk people, triggers something primal,” Namu co-founder and chef Dennis Lee said in a press conference held on Saturday at the festival.
It does. They reportedly sold over 10,000 tacos, and while keeping the namesake, these upscale versions of the recent fusion taco culinary fad proved to subvert the trend with a twist of authenticity.
“We’re really happy because the whole reason why we did the Korean Taco was kind of like a ‘fuck you’ to the whole taco trend. Our taco is not a taco. There’s no tortilla.”
Even with all of the culinary diversity, people somehow managed to focus on the music being played. Of Friday’s lineup, the first artist to grace the Twin Peaks stage (the second largest, opposite the festival from Land’s End) was a female rapper named K. Flay. Going on stage with no backing save a drummer to accentuate her tracks, she says that she likes to keep it simple.
“There’s something that’s special to me about keeping it kind of raw and small,” she said in our interview with her.
“Festivals are tough in some ways because there’s so much music,” she said, “but it’s really a great way for people who don’t know about you to find out about your music.”
Though her performance was relatively early in the day, people still flocked to see her throw down lyrics and fly around the stage in a seemingly tireless flurry of words.
Though Friday certainly kicked off the festival with an audible and proverbial bang (Land’s End headliner Phish played for an impressive three-and-a-half hours), the weather didn’t tell the same tale; San Francisco’s famous wind chill and overcast skies took hold and stayed for the entire day, only getting colder as frigid festival-goers wrapped themselves in picnic blankets, billowing in the wind as they headed to and from different stages and hoped for better weather.
Saturday fulfilled those hopes. With the sun barely peeking out of morning clouds, the Stone Foxes took the Sutro stage and rocked the festival into a bright, intense sunlight.
“I get super nervous before big shows like that,” drummer Shannon Koehler said in our interview after their set, “but man, it just felt so good out there. It’s an honor to get to play here.” If the Stone Foxes were indeed honored to be playing, it showed in spades with their music. “While Outside Lands was going on last year, we’d be recording in our house … The bass would be too heavy for us to record, and we’d have to stop.”
Smashing jams through red, sunburned faces, they repaid the favor to the festival with interest. Theirs was arguably a set to rival intensity of the similar-sounding Black Keys, who at Land’s End slammed through buzzed-out blues riffs and a sweaty sunset.
While the music was for the most part extremely well-done and apparently flawless, quality may have hit a relative low point with famed treadmill dancers OK Go; while their music was played spiritedly, a general lack of interest in the crowd was piqued with a mid-set taunt. After comparing the crowd’s unexcited chanting with other cities, first favoring Portland over the City by the Bay, some slightly more exaggerated cheering, finally incited frontman Damian Kulash to admit that the crowd “was way better than Portland. That was the best I’ve heard north of, say, LA.” Knowing the intense rivalry existing between the two cities, the largely San Franciscan crowd took their next song, “This Too Shall Pass,” as less of a hit single off their latest album and more of a sign that they wouldn’t have to deal with OK Go’s strangely infuriating stage banter for very much longer.
Other problems with OK Go’s set included malfunctioning microphones in a handbell rendition of the song “Return.” While great in concept, the entire band’s handbelled efforts were shattered by inconsistent audio; later, a faulty wireless transmitter shut off Kulash’s guitar when he walked out into the crowd to sing the song “Last Leaf.”
These few technical issues weren’t inherently the band’s fault, though, nor were they isolated to OK Go. For about the first 30 seconds of Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band’s set, both Ritter’s vocal microphone and acoustic guitar were shut off. Unlike OK Go, however, Ritter and Royal City seemed to recover with zeal, launching into an interpolated cover of Talking Heads standard “Once in a Lifetime.” As the Royal City Band crashed cymbals to accentuate a chorus of clacking drumsticks, Ritter seemed to be in a state of absolute bliss — a blushing, infectious smile crept across his face from the first song and stayed there for the remainder of his set.
Though the big headlining act of the festival was, of course, Arcade Fire, eager fans got a sneak peak when lead singer Win Butler came on stage during R&B artist Mavis Staples’ set to help cover “The Weight.” Later on, during Arcade Fire’s set, Deadmau5 played the opposite end of the festival and the crowd seemed more than ever to represent a dichotomy of music listeners: those who came to see Arcade Fire, and those who came to see Deadmau5.
As the two artists finished up their sets in their own sequestered corners of San Francisco’s grand festival, it was with an almost unrestricted but longing joy that Arcade Fire multi-instrumentalist and co-founder Régine Chassagne stopped waving streaming ribbons she had been dancing with at the end of their last song. The last cymbals crashed, the band waved goodbye, Chassagne’s ribbons fell, and as the last sips of milky white air spilled into the sky, Outside Lands was over.