Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival 2018’s driving force was female.
The top acts at the San Francisco fest easily came down to the sass of Lizzo, the enigmatic energy of Tash Sultana and her musical playground, the artistic dedication of Janelle Monáe and the festival’s first female headliners, Florence + the Machine and Janet Jackson.
We rocked, we cheered, we even took an impromptu twerking lesson on the grounds of Golden Gate Park to bring you our rundown of some of the best performances at the festival’s 11th year.
Outside Lands 2018 in Photos
The costumes, the choreo, the sets, the music: Janelle Monae took live performance to the next level. Although two sets before Sunday headliner Janet Jackson, Monae easily stood out this weekend for her dedication to making every song a riveting sensory experience. She opened with the first two songs of her latest album, the title track “Dirty Computer” and “Crazy, Classic, Life.” At points in her set, she sang from a throne, grooved across the stage with her back-up dancers and posed in checkered pants and a sleek, militant red coat.
The show was a celebration of identity -- queerness, blackness, pansexuality, femininity -- and much of its fluidity, which felt especially true when hearing Monae rap this line in “Q.U.E.E.N.”: “March to the streets ‘cuz I’m willing and I’m able / Categorize me, I defy every label.”
But the most surprising testament to Monae’s dedication to her art was her confession towards the end. “I was throwing up [because] of a food poisoning before I came on stage,” she said. “But the energy that you’ve shown me gave me the strength to go on.”
Florence + The Machine
“Cosmic Love” was more than a song title -- Florence Welch wanted us to feel this all night. Between songs, she called for us to all hold hands, and during “Sweet Nothing,” ushered us to sit on each other’s shoulders so she could see us. Both her ways to connect with the audience and the personal songs from her latest album made the night one for breaking down barriers and appreciating the love in our lives.
Florence + The Machine’s percussive harp, thundering drums, soulful keyboard strokes, and the singer’s unmatched vocal power shook Lands End Stage under the clear night sky. Welch’s flowing white gown recalled the image of an angel, but not one looking down on us. She ran and twirled across the stage, her red hair beaming in the lights. She hit many of the latest album’s heartfelt songs - an homage to her homeland, “South London,” a tribute to her idol Patti Smith in “Patricia” and popular hits “Hunger” as well as one from her first album, Dog Days Are Over. Towards the end, she joined all of us by walking fifty feet into the middle of the crowd. Her encore songs, “Big God” and “Shake It Out,” filled the air long after the set ended.
The wall between the crowd and performer crumbled during the misty Sunday sunset at the Sutro stage as Tash Sultana took the stage alone.
The first chord was struck and we had all entered Tash Sultana’s world: a world of the raging mandolin strings; of the beatboxing pan flute; of guttural bursts as the reverb guitar swept across the grassy hillside; the groove as Sultana plucked away or looped in layers of booming bass, percussion and harmony; of movement as Sultana bounced from pedal to drum pad to keyboard while making sure her beanie stayed in place; a world of the guitar solo.
All in all, her world is a very inclusive one, but the 23-year-old Australian had a few explicit rules:
“So one, number one: if you’ve come here to see my show and you’re a homophobic can you get the fuck out of here, please?” Sultana said as the crowd roared its approval. “Two: If you’ve come here and you’re a racist, you can get the fuck out of here mother fucker. And number three, if you’re like me and you’re kind of in the middle and you don’t know what the fuck you are, if you’ve got those transphobic vibes you can get the fuck out of here man.”
Outside Lands was her last performance before heading back to Australia for a reprieve. She left us something to think about, especially with first full-length album Flow State (Lonely Lands Records) set to drop on Aug. 31.
Lizzo brought enough sass for all the acts Saturday afternoon with what she announced was the world’s largest twerk tutorial, aided by her two stellar dancers. Dressed in a yellow outfit “like a cupcake with frosting,” in her words, she was the color of self-love and sunshine grooving into her hits “Boys,” “Water Me” and “Good As Hell.” And for those hits, the crowd was more than happy to sing along. She even spun into a fun rendition of T-Pain’s “Snap Yo Fingers.” And when Lizzo belted what sounded like a romantic love song at first, “En Love,” the lyrics quickly did an about-face for an empowering, comedic effect: “I think I’m in love…with myself.”
Early into her set, she called out, “Where my big girls at?” Cheers ensued. Body positivity runs deep in her blood and lyrics, and her bubbly charm made the crowd feel comfortable and entertained. “Love your goddamn self!” was her rallying cry and the soul of her set.
Having over thirty years of music means that the pop icon could take us backwards and forwards in time. In the early part of her set, Janet Jackson performed “Burn It Up” from her 2015 album right beside the 80s funk of “Nasty,” sporting a white hoodie against a black background on stage. Like Janelle Monae, she changed outfits as part of the performance. An interesting addition was some of her music videos playing on the screens, creating a visual contrast to the present.
Some favorites of her set included the irresistible groove of the appropriately named “All Nite (Don’t Stop)” and the slow, snap-heavy rhythms and smooth vocals of “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun).” In “Anytime, Anyplace,” Janet sampled a line from Kendrick Lamar, “poetic justice, put it in the song, all right,” as a nod to Lamar once sampling this very song, “Anytime, Anyplace.”
The high energy, the slow grooves, the fast hits, the rush of music history all came to life seeing the youngest member of the Jackson family bring the eleventh year of Outside Lands to a close in a way that only she could.
Tight smile and head bopping, Jamie xx got the party started with the euphoric beats from “Girl,” the last track on his debut solo album. Then, because he can do whatever he wants and make it work, he moved into a sample of some 80s gospel funk, “All I Gave Him Was My Heart,” by D.J. Rogers, before bringing in a cheerful horn melody with a strong cascade of beats. He later closed with the crowd-pleasing “Gosh,” as the color spectrum -- recalling to mind his album title In Colour -- reflected off the giant disco ball on stage.
Berkeley-based rapper Caleborate tore up Panhandle Stage early Friday, culminating with “Bank Robber” from his latest album Real Person. Authenticity is something he wears proudly: he performed shirtless to the hands-over-head crowd for his well-attended Outside Lands debut. A testament to this rising star’s work ethic, he closed by saying he was going home to finish some new music. He left the screaming fans saying quietly, “Peace and love, y’all.”
Some may refer to Beck’s third Outside Lands appearance as being his charm, but the charm was always there.
Those who missed the Friday headliner The Weeknd for Beck were rewarded, with the 48-year-old GRAMMY Award-winning artist bringing along a full band -- shout out to his amazing drummer Chris Coleman -- and a kaleidoscope visual setup.
Beck mixed his set from songs across his catalogue of 13 albums, with standouts being “Where It’s At” (and a reprisal), “Girl,” “Loser,” “E-Pro” and a set of band introductions that teased several songs including a cover of “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads.
As far as we’re concerned, Outside Lands should welcome back Beck anytime.
The Weeknd played off the crowd’s energy as it opened with two of his latest hits, “Pray For Me” -- part of the “Black Panther” soundtrack -- followed seamlessly by “Starboy.” As dozens of spotlights filled the stage, these two songs sounded just as great live as recorded. Soon the cold San Francisco air crept in, which made hearing the crowd sing “Can’t Feel My Face” a much more literal experience. The beginning of the set was easily the highlight, as the middle dragged a bit and didn’t have a variety of visuals to boost it.
“It’s good vibes, good people, lots of pretty trees,” Amen Dunes’ Damon McMahon told Magnetic Magazine about his thoughts on his Outside Lands debut.
The New York-based indie group rung in the most impressive day of the festival on Saturday with several songs off one of the year’s best albums, Freedom.
McMahon began with “Blue Rose,” with the droning synth and McMahon’s distinct vibrato drawing in the early festival goers to the Sutro stage like a magnet. With the sun shining strong, the diverse set gave the crowd the freedom to relax and bask in the sunshine or dance around with a corn cob (yes, we saw you).
Occasionally pausing to talk to the crowd or admire the eucalyptus trees, McMahon weaved through other tracks on what has been his most stand-out album, from the more playful “Calling Paul the Suffering” to the buildup of his guitar-heavy jammer “Believe.”
McMahon did briefly return to his folkier roots on stage when he picked up an acoustic guitar and played “Lonely Richard” off Love (2014). But the rest of the show was dominated by reverb guitars, powerful synth backing and the more prominent pop presence of Freedom.
“I change it on every record,” McMahon told Magnetic Magazine about changing styles. “And yeah, I’m a big fan of electronic music and pop music in general, so this was my version of that.”
“I do a lot of self inquiry so it comes out in the music,” McMahon said.
Before hopping into his tour van to continue what will be another two months of touring on Freedom, McMahon said he is will be working on a new album later this year. Something to look forward to for sure.
With perhaps the most stunning use of screen visuals paired with music at the festival, ODESZA’s electronic magic dazzled the audience Friday night ahead of The Weeknd. The band’s well-known symbol, the twenty-sided icosahedron, glowed prominently above the stage like a third eye. Toward the end of “La Ciudad,” the side screens flashed with images of giant Titan men with red glowing centers stomping under a pink sky. Much of the band’s 2017 album, A Moment Apart, flowed from the stage to create a night of ambient wonderland.
As Mac DeMarco stood shirtless, sweaty and occasionally taking a swig from a bottle of wine with a video of Earthbound gameplay in the background, you’d think you’d walked into his apartment during a hot summer afternoon.
Things were just comfortable during the 30-year-old Canadian’s return to Outside Lands, despite the fact that he now had a more prominent spot in the line up closing out the Sutro Stage on Friday evening compared to his much earlier set time in 2015.
Most songs turned into a sing-along, from a jazz lounge rendition of “My Old Man” to the indie rock artist’s hit “Salad Days” to the synth-driven ballad “Chamber of Reflection.”
For his laid back nature and goofy asides, DeMarco and the band amped up the energy of the set, especially with throwbacks from his second album 2 with songs like “Freaking Out the Neighborhood,” “Cookin Up Something Good” and “The Stars Keep Calling My Name.”
As the packed crowd at Twin Peaks stage headed back from a soulful performance by R&B crooner Daniel Caesar, many were drawn in by the sheer technological prowess of GoGo Penguin as they passed the Panhandle Stage on Saturday afternoon.
Nick Blacka’s fingers flew across his double bass. Pianist Chris Illingworth sat stoically at the grand piano blasting ethereal chords and progressions. Drummer Rob Turner seemed at ease, with eyes closed, as he laid down beats that would have many drummers sweating.
The movement didn’t stop, from the opener of “Raven” off the group’s latest album A Humdrum Star to old favorites like “Hopopono,” the minimalist mixture of acoustic and electronica-style songs brought a much needed uniqueness to this year’s lineup.
Brass didn’t make much of an appearance at the festival, but Bon Iver made up for it in full force Saturday by bringing in the majesty of Trombone Paradise, a five-set ensemble from Richmond, Virginia. There was some fun to hear the collaboration, and the band opened with the soulful “Perth,” a song from Bon Iver’s second album, but “Skinny Love” was noticeably missing from the set.
And finally a smoke break (kind of)
While many a joints have been passed around the crowds of Outside Lands since day one in 2008 -- this reporter even remembers one festivalgoer in 2011 who snuck a full-sized bong into the grounds -- cannabis has been a kind of bastard child of Outside Lands’ food and vice scene.
This is not to say that we don’t appreciate the traditional Wine Lands and Beer Lands. Taking swigs of Barebottle Brewing Company’s Golden Coffee Ale while listening to Wes Anderson movie soundtrack covers by Red Room Orchestra the at The Barbary on Sunday was definitely a good call.
But after California legalized cannabis for recreational use in 2016 and the market opened for business in January, the festival took the step to recognize it’s forlorn flower friend with its own Lands: Grass Lands.
It was a baby step. No cannabis was allowed to be sold, but vendors like Mendocino County’s Flow Kana made the most of it with a “Build Your Own Bong” booth where people could make a bong or pipe out of local vegetables and fruits. The bongs were then judged on the Gastro Magic Stage and tested for functionality by how far they could blow glitter out of the bowl.
Flow Kana’s Events and Marketing Coordinator Zach Carson said Grass Lands presented a chance for cannabis connoisseurs to interact with and educate customers for the first time at the festival.
“I think ultimately we’re going to see Grass Lands eventually being a lot of people getting high,” Carson said.
He said legalization of cannabis hasn’t been about building just a company for them, but being part of a movement.
“We’re carving bongs and I’m going on stage every day doing a live judging panel and I get to say in front of all the people on stage ‘Hey this is Johnny, he’s been growing cannabis in the hills of Mendocino for 45 years,’” Carson said. “And now he’s on stage and I’m telling you he’s been growing cannabis for 45 years. You know, last year the feds would be up here because of that and now we’re celebrating that.”
By Spencer Tierney & Will Houston