Drawing upwards of 180,000 people this year to the bowels of Golden Gate Park, Outside Lands has officially graduated from the realm of festival infancy. It now stands proudly on two feet, having resolved some basic internal issues with transportation, crowd control, easy access to provisions, and how to not kill the sound in the middle of their performers’ sets. OK, so there are still some problems with the sound (particularly at the Twin Peaks stage), and the schlep-factor is still a major concern with no camping available, but festivals, like people, get their character by dealing with challenges such as these. And Outside Lands has a lot of character.
As “the world’s only gourmet music festival,” the Outside Lands experience becomes more involved in the side attractions each year. This installment of the festival boasted of 54 restaurants and 30 wineries set up throughout the park, with new additions like the Food Truck Forest and Chocolands areas. While it certainly is a relief to take a break for some fried pickles and ranch, the culinary aspect will not appeal to the average fan who comes to a music festival for the music—there’s simply too much to see, and paying upwards of $10 a plate becomes less appealing when you can bring in your own snacks. There lies the rub of Outside Lands, whereby one seems to trade a closeness with the music for indulgence in food and drink. That the festival is advertised as “A Taste of the Bay Area” is perhaps more revealing about the nature of San Francisco than originally intended.
But there was another story happening in Golden Gate Park last weekend, one that is not necessarily unique to this festival, but that is symptomatic of the festival experience in general: the story of distance. I suppose the greatest irony of the modern festival experience lies in the fact that uniting 60,000 people with music can often weaken the connection individuals feel between one another. True, there were no beautiful public paroxysms like last year, when the crowd toppled a section of the fence to descend upon Chromeo’s dance party, and the masses may have been more sedated this year on the whole, perhaps due in part to the odd mismatch of bands on the bill. Nevertheless, the sun was shining (at least on Saturday and Sunday), and often where challenges were met, a reward was found close by, such as when the crowd was treated to an appearance by Dave Chapelle, who showed up to give thanks to the Bay Area in lieu of Big Boi, who completely no-showed on his primetime Friday night slot.
In the end, Outside Lands 2011 was a convergence of bands from all over the world, some of which were able to bridge that inexorable gap between them and their subjects below, and others for which the distance proved too great. Read on to find out who built the bridges, who burned them, and who stayed idle on the other side of the bank.
Perhaps it was the awkward late afternoon time slot, or the odd light bending through the overcast skies, but MGMT sadly fell short of fusing ends with the masses at the Main Stage. Of course, one is always in thrall upon hearing unassailably sexy songs like “Electric Feel,” and “It’s Working,” and there is certainly no place more historically appropriate than Golden Gate Park to hear the neo-hippy chorus of “The Youth.” But somewhere after their cover of England’s Glory’s “Broken Arrows,” the set seemed to lose the driving bass-heavy momentum it began with. MGMT have never been ones to lose their posture on stage, but this may have been precisely their downfall: if you can’t lose yourself up there, how can you expect the less elevated to forget their troubles? “Thanks for shouting out,” said Andrew VanWyngaarden to the crowd, almost as a plea to keep people from straying to Big Boi — or, rather, the empty stage where Big Boi should have been.
Everything I knew about Little Dragon before their early evening set on Sunday was hearsay, but when Yuki Nagamoro, the eponymous Swedish-Japanese little dragon herself, sauntered on deck to an ecstatic, swelling crowd, I knew almost immediately that this was the real deal. The ensuing hour was a totally absorbing, ‘80s-infused display of the band’s patent electro-pop, as Nagamoro traded off between graceful moments in the spotlight and abandoning the microphone to embrace the dance party. Although the name of the Swedish quartet is inspired by the nickname Nagamoro earned due to the “fuming tantrums” she used to throw in the studio, Little Dragon’s greatest weapon might be her ability to back off and let the band do their thing on the drums, bass, and keys. The result was a properly sexy performance — easily one of the best of the weekend.
In four years of attending this festival, Major Lazer’s performance was the most hilariously bad thing that’s ever happened to me — and I once had to walk home 20 blocks through the Castro with an Argentine dude on acid who was trying to seduce me. As deejays, if you want to call them that, there is simply no coherence to their performance. As producers, their music is somewhere in between reggaeton and the Swedish House Mafia. To make matters more confusing, there is a very elaborate bio about the character of Major Lazer, who is a Jamaican commando who lost his arm in the Zombie War of 1984, etc. Diplo and Switch, the producers behind Major Lazer, have probably the worst stage presence I have seen of most amateur deejays, let alone those that are allowed to play stages that size. This explains why they enlist the help of hypeman Skerrit Bwoy, whose job is to pace back and forth and tell people when to put their hands in their air. There was also another girl aimlessly running around without a microphone. I’m really not sure why people would subject themselves to Major Lazer when there were four other stages worth of acts to see, but when the spectacle lost its hilarity, it was on to the next thing.
Certainly no band received a more regal introduction than the Black Keys, who were welcomed on deck by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee after he made an address to the capacity crowd: “Great citizens of the Bay Area,” he proclaimed. “Outside Lands is here forever!” With that, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney manned their battle stations and made a raucous return to the Main Stage — the very same stage where they opened for Radiohead during the inaugural festival of 2008. With a massive dream catcher looming overhead, the Ohioan duo began with “Thickfreakness,” “Girl is on My Mind,” and a throwback to their 2002 debut album with “The Breaks.” When they finally pulled out the most recent material from last year’s Brothers, Carney and Auerbach were joined on stage by a backing band for “Everlasting Light” and “Next Girl,” and I believe it was at that point that I lost my mind. When things were finally over, my Wild Turkey was empty, my backpack was gone, my neck hurt like hell, and I had written a lot of incoherent notes. Definitely one of my favorite performances of this year.
When Josh Hodges of STRFKR told the Independent the other week that “people being genuine and having fun doing whatever it is they do becomes contagious,” he was not kidding — their Saturday afternoon set was exactly that. With synthy leads, percussive interludes, and feel-good build-ups, their music can go for miles without any need for him to speak to the audience. Not that there is anything important to say anyway, as the sincerity of STRFKR’s music is evident in the very movements of he and his four fellow Portlandians. The vocals were not quite as assertive as I would have hoped, perhaps due in part to the patent sound problems of the Twin Peaks stage, but when Hodges did make himself heard on the mic, a happy audience hailed him in kind. “This song is for my grandfather, who just died,” he proclaimed before launching into “Reptilians,” leaving listeners to ponder the nature of his bouncy, death-obsessed dark-pop. When they brought out their crowd-pleasing Cindy Lauper cover, it was truly a testament to the STRFKR philosophy that five dudes should jam their minds out to a song called “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Their set was the most pleasant surprise of Saturday.
Fortunately, no measure of distance could sever the connection Arcade Fire has with their audience. Though there were no major aberrations from their usual routine, their set was a triumphant, orchestral reign over the final hours of the weekend, resounding clear across the Polo Fields with mostly selections from the third and most recent album, The Suburbs. The choice that night between seeing the Arcade Fire or Deadmau5 yielded no clear winners or losers, but I can say that this band was nothing less than liturgical — perhaps an oddity considering their anti-religious lyrics. Surrounded by ancient-looking instruments and huge, distorted images of home movies, Canadian cantor Win Butler and his family had the air of belonging to another time and place, where one is no longer subject to the weaknesses of the mind. As though in affirmation of their connection to the crowd, the band’s visuals showed manipulated images of audience members and distorted them to fit the likeness of their own world. When at last they reached the encore of their performance, the northerners parted ways with the always-epic “Wake Up,” and a climactic lead-in to “Sprawl II,” as Win Butler uttered a few lines from LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends.” Last Sunday was proof that Arcade Fire transcends space — now we will wait to see if they can withstand time.