Years from now, I suspect it will be impossible to contextualize the 10th anniversary of Outside Lands without mentioning another number that comes with fewer bragging rights: two. That’s how many acts dropped off the top of the lineup in the weeks — and hours! and minutes! — leading up to the fest, with Queens of the Stone Age canceling “due to injury” and A Tribe Called Quest simply not showing up for several days in a row. Both events forced the organizers of the San Francisco festival to think quickly, turning what was supposed to be a victory lap into a hurdles race with little room for error.
The good news is that the last decade has prepared co-founders Allen Scott of Another Planet Entertainment and Rick Farman of Superfly for just this sort of scenario. As my colleague Zack Ruskin recently touched on in his chat with the pair, Outside Lands has been on the brink of disaster, more or less, since it debuted in 2008. The festival has weathered last-second cancellations (the Beastie Boys in 2009) and more serious recalibrations (a pared-down two-day format in 2010) in years past, and never has it been more prepared to do so than in the present. Recent additions such as Wine Lands and the Barbary comedy tent all but ensure that a diverse crowd makes its way through the gates, and the festival now wields enough clout to lock down a top-tier rock act like Cage the Elephant on short notice.
Still, it was difficult to look upon the foggy fields of Golden Gate Park this year without the sense that something was missing. The festival’s blueprint was basically unchanged, its vendors offered more local food options than could possibly be sampled in a weekend, and its generation-spanning headliners all performed with admirable spunk. So what was it? Perhaps it was the discernable lack of women — even a single woman, really — at the tip-top of the lineup, even though Lorde appears to be as ready as anyone for that spotlight. Or perhaps it was the general lack of cohesion amongst the smaller fonts, many of whom killed it individually (see: Mondo Cozmo, Swet Shop Boys, and Kamaiyah) but failed to contribute to any sense of a narrative playing out over the course of the weekend. Then again, why overanalyze it when the answer — a hole the size of A Tribe Called Quest — is staring us straight in the face?
Whatever the case may be, and despite such relatively minor quibbles, what’s important is that Outside Lands will endure. The hordes of young people sprinting toward the stage to catch Bleachers or Tove Lo or ScHoolboy Q make that seem clear enough, as do the rich old folks camped out with their chardonnays in the VIP lounge. This is a festival that’s grown to be bigger than any one act or demographic, and future iterations will undoubtedly scratch any itches this one couldn’t quite reach. And besides: If all we’re left with after a long and misty weekend is a couple of transcendent performances from the likes of Gorillaz and Solange, that isn’t half-bad.
In the following pages, we’ll run through those performances and other notable moments we experienced at Outside Lands 2017. In return, all we ask is a simple favor: Remind us not to forget our heavy coats next year.
S U R V I V E
The soundscapes created by the four members of S U R V I V E were dazzling, synth-laden journeys into eerie netherworlds that bubbled and boomed. Unfortunately, the spectacle was dampened substantially by the fact that watching the performance unfold entailed looking at some dudes standing still behind their rigs and occasionally twisting a knob or two. No one faults S U R V I V E for being a band without guitars or drums or a charismatic lead singer, but if the entirety of your live act is the concert equivalent of watching paint dry, why not try amplifying the experience with some trippy visuals or at least a few flashing lights? S U R V I V E’s set had neither, and while the work of members Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein on Netflix’s Stranger Things produced one of 2016’s best scores, that hardly excuses the band from making literally no effort in their live performance. Eleven would be ashamed. –Zack Ruskin
Worst Crowd Reaction
No matter the festival, no matter the artist, at some point during the weekend someone will fall prey to being on the wrong stage at the wrong time. For the 2017 installment of Outside Lands, the dubious honors went to bass maestro Thundercat. Helming a mid-afternoon slot at the sizeable Twin Peaks stage, the Kendrick Lamar collaborator and insanely talented instrumentalist fell victim to an ambivalent crowd that seemed more concerned with staking out spots for the A Tribe Called Quest set that would later be cancelled (again) than appreciating the performance on stage. Playfully blending jazz, R&B, and soul into a robust concoction, Thundercat and his bandmates stayed the course. As good humor has always been part of the deal with Thundercat, he appeared to take the lackluster reception to his efforts in stride, but it’s truly a shame that more eyes and ears didn’t turn their attention to his delicious bass lines and revel in the bounty of his musical gifts. –Zack Ruskin
Stankoni-est Case of Déjà Vu
Perhaps it’s just brand fatigue — all of those Heineken signs can get a little overwhelming — but haven’t we seen this before? Rapper and proud ATLien Big Boi popped by the Heineken tent on Sunday afternoon for a “surprise” performance that wasn’t much of a surprise, seeing as how he did the exact same thing last year. He brought along some new tunes this time courtesy of his latest release Boomiverse, but the swelling crowd didn’t lose its shit until he trotted out Stankonia hits “B.O.B.” and “Ms. Jackson”. We would’ve liked to see a little more from Big Boi’s workmanlike 30-minute set, but it wasn’t a bad way to pass the time while waiting for Lorde to take the Lands End stage. –Collin Brennan
It’s not Little Dragon’s fault that A Tribe Called Quest pulled out at the last minute, but try telling that to a crowd hungry for some old-school hip-hop and forced to settle for … well, pretty much the diametric opposite. Confused expressions were a common sight in the vicinity of the Lands End stage when Yukimi Nagano and her synth-happy band of Swedes opened the slot formerly reserved for Tribe, but give Nagano some credit for being her usual bombastic self.
Sporting a garish neon cowgirl hat and white veil, the frontwoman acknowledged the situation by dedicating the blippy Season High single “Sweet” to the absent rap group, and from there she was all systems go. Alas — and in spite of a lively performance — Little Dragon was met mostly with a palpable air of indifference, partly owing to the last-minute lineup change, but also to the fact that the group simply doesn’t have much traction among Stateside festivalgoers. It was an odd booking to begin with (one suspects the connection to Gorillaz had something to do with it), but the circumstances didn’t help matters. –Collin Brennan
Best Neil Young Impression
For Upright Citizens Brigade co-founder and Improv4Humans podcast host Matt Besser, Outside Lands has became a second home. He’s performed with his improv pals in various incarnations at the festival for a number of years, and actually was inspired to invite Dan Deacon onto his podcast as a musical guest after catching his set in Golden Gate Park in 2015. This year he opted to trade in his buddies for strawberry ice cream with a set at GastroMagic, a stage unique to Outside Lands in which musicians and culinary creators join forces to do … basically whatever they want.
In this case, that meant Besser telling weed jokes and local ice cream mavens Humphrey Slocombe giving samples to the crowd. The highlight however was a song about spilling bong water delivered by Besser in a pitch-perfect impression of Neil Young. Whatever Besser cooks up for 2018, let us hope he finds some reason to return. If not, perhaps he can look into adapting his Young performance to bring back the Bridge School Benefit. –Zack Ruskin
Longest in the Tooth
The Who’s closing set at Outside Lands was as much history lesson as performance, as guitarist Pete Townsend was quick to remind the massive crowd that braved the rain and fog until the bitter end. “Way back in 1967, this is kind of where we started,” he reflected. “It was a great city then, and it’s a great city now.”
Of course, as with The Who themselves, the two versions of San Francisco he was referring to could hardly be more different. The observation that Townsend and singer Roger Daltry — the only two surviving members of the band’s original lineup — have lost a bit of their edge should come as a shock to no one. Sure, Townsend can still bust out the windmill trick a few times per song, but it’s difficult to hear Daltry sing “I hope I die before I get old” without getting a bit depressed at where old age has dropped him off.
Give both legends credit for keeping up some legitimately humorous banter and getting in a couple anti-fascist quips, but they no longer have the bite you’d expect (perhaps foolishly) from one of rock ‘n’ roll’s seminal bands. –Collin Brennan
Best Pairing of Band and Stage
The organizers at Outside Lands seem to know what they have with the Sutro stage. Year in and year out, they reserve the (relatively) secluded, (relatively) intimate venue for acts that do their best work in front of a crowd that prefers sprawling on blankets to rushing the barricades. Low-key rockers Real Estate certainly fit that mold, and their Saturday afternoon set is best described in terms that have stuck with the band through several albums: pleasant, dreamy, lacking in anything one could deem remotely offensive.
That’s certainly not a bad thing, especially for the casual festivalgoer looking to chill out for an hour on the grass. And it’s not as if Real Estate have no depths to mine; on the contrary, songs like In Mind single “Darling” and the jangly “Crime” hide more than meets the eye in their interlaced harmonies and guitar melodies. It’s just that Martin Courtney, Alex Bleeker, and co. don’t demand anything from their audience. You’re free to drink in their extended instrumentals or strike up a conversation with the drunk sitting next to you, the latter of which seemed like the slightly more popular option this time out. –Collin Brennan
Timeliest Response to the Nuclear Apocalypse
One could be forgiven for forgetting Nick Kroll is a stand-up comic. Instead, he’s been caking on make-up to play old man Gil Faizon to John Mulaney’s George St. Geegland on Broadway, making films, appearing on all the podcasts, and completing three seasons of Comedy Central’s Kroll Show. Fortunately for us, Kroll found time to hit The Barbary comedy tent and deliver some painfully timely jokes about Donald Trump, nuclear war, and the finer points of dog intercourse (you had to be there). Later he called on surprise guests Jason Mantzoukas and Seth Morris for some delightfully bizarre improv scenes. The improv itself was half-baked, but the crowd banter that preceded it was priceless. While ideally the nuclear war bits won’t be relevant when it comes time for Kroll to tape his next special, we can rest assured that if the apocalypse is upon us, we’ll have a few zingers to ease the blow. –Zack Ruskin
Closest We Got to a Legit Rap Show
Sunday bore the distinction of being the only day A Tribe Called Quest didn’t cancel a scheduled performance, so hip-hop fans could find a bit of solace in that. But their real treat came late in the evening courtesy of Los Angeles rapper and Top Dawg Entertainment flagshipper ScHoolboy Q. It was probably too much to ask for Kendrick Lamar, SZA, or another high-profile TDE artist to stop by for a guest appearance, but ScHoolboy Q obliged the crowd with a couple of his own features, including a performance of Lamar’s “Humble” that sent the front rows into various states of catatonic arm waving. The energy remained at peak levels throughout the set, and it finally felt like folks got the rap show they’d been promised two days earlier. While far from transcendent, ScHoolboy did enough to take everyone’s mind off the cold and rain, especially when he trotted out fan favorites “Collard Greens” and “Studio”. –Collin Brennan