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Outside Lands 2017 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

Gorillaz, Solange, and Fleet Foxes redeem the fest's cancellation-heavy 10th installment

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    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.

    outside lands 2017 Outside Lands 2017 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

    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?

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    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.

    –Collin Brennan
    Senior Writer


    Lamest Visuals

    S U R V I V E

    survive 1 Outside Lands 2017 Festival Review: From Worst to Best
    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
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    Worst Crowd Reaction

    Thundercat

    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
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    Stankoni-est Case of Déjà Vu

    Big Boi

    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
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    Biggest Letdown

    Little Dragon

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    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
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    Best Neil Young Impression

    Matt Besser

    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.

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    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
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    Longest in the Tooth

    The Who

    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.”

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    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
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    Best Pairing of Band and Stage

    Real Estate

    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.

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    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
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    Timeliest Response to the Nuclear Apocalypse

    Nick Kroll

    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
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    Closest We Got to a Legit Rap Show

    ScHoolboy Q

    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
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    Most Inventive Disposal of Gum

    Jeff Goldblum

    When trying to describe Jeff Goldblum, you might as well make up a word, because nothing in the English language can accurately describe the man who has starred in a thousand memes as a shirtless Dr. Ian Malcolm. Seemingly unable to wait for his set to start, Goldblum surprised the still-arriving Barbary crowd and asked, by round of applause, if he should swallow his gum, spit it out, or deposit it into the hands of a fan. Of course option three won out, and immediately a girl had her hands cupped, ready to receive the masticated memento directly from Goldblum’s mouth.

    Things gained some normalcy after that, with Goldblum vamping on piano alongside the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, plying the crowd with trivia questions, and consenting to let one eager fan tie his shoe. While fans relentlessly made reference to Jurassic Park, Goldblum was content to leave his filmography at the door and instead take on the guise of gregarious vaudevillian. No word yet on whether a deal with Juicy Fruit may be in the works. –Zack Ruskin
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    Best Home Cooking

    Kamaiyah

    Oakland rapper Kamaiyah is blessed. Not only does she have a sick flow and a discerning taste in track outfits, but on Sunday afternoon, she had thousands of young hip-hop heads chanting her name and jumping up and down in unison. Go Yah Yah, Go Yah Yah, Go! were the only words you needed to know to participate in the love fest, and the queen of the party made clear how much she appreciated the home cooking. “I always say the Bay Area is my best show,” she beamed at one point. “Y’all make me feel at home!” The crowd saved its rowdiest reaction for the hit single “Out the Bottle”, lending their voices to Kamaiyah’s as she shouted what amounts to her artistic ethos: “We live every damn day like it’s Friday!” –Collin Brennan
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    Happiest to Be Here

    MUNA

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    On paper, at least, it’s easy to dismiss Los Angeles electropop trio MUNA as a minor-league version of HAIM. The comparison has some merit, in the sense that both groups craft tight, infectious hooks that hearken back to the softer side of ‘70s electro rock. But to watch Muna captivate the Twin Peaks audience early on Saturday was to understand how much they’ve come into their own in just a few short years.

    It means a lot, at 12:40 p.m. on a cold and foggy afternoon, for a band to make you believe there’s nowhere else they’d rather be. Muna accomplished that non-inconsiderable goal by appealing directly to their fans in the crowd, asking them to match their intensity on single “Everything” and queer pride anthem “I Know a Place”. The latter song is definitely the closest thing lead singer Katie Gavin and crew have to a bona fide hit, but the former speaks to the depth and intensity of Gavin’s lyricism. “Thank you for fucking going there with us,” she told the front rows, but from the looks of it the gratitude was mutual. –Collin Brennan
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    Safest Way to Set Sail

    Hundred Waters

    It’s never a bad idea to start off the weekend with some raucous tunes, but the wisdom of launching the tenth installment of Outside Lands with Nicole Miglis and the moody, piano-driven sounds of Hundred Waters felt fitting as the overcast afternoon got underway. Giving their set largely over to new tracks from their forthcoming album, Communicating, the trio relied on the sterling voice of Miglis to guide cuts like “Particle” and “Blanket Me”.

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    While the band continues to rest on the precipice between electronica and folk, the assembled crowd seemed perfectly content to trade bass drops for the more mellow side of things. While the true shape of Communicating was hard to discern during Hundred Waters’ short set, the subdued, atmospheric offerings of their performance might lead some to believe that they’ve finally found the genre best suited to their talents. –Zack Ruskin
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    Best Sunglasses Commercial

    Hamilton Leithauser

    Hamilton Leithauser oozes cool. Front and center on the Sutro stage with a band bedecked in shades, the former Walkmen singer got down to business in a hurry. Still riding strong off last fall’s I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, he played all but one of the record’s 10 tracks, while also adding “Alexandra” from 2014’s Black Hours. While fans hoping for an appearance from I Had a Dream collaborator Rostam Batmanglij were not to be rewarded, the singular, striking sound of Leithsauser’s sleek growls more than made up for it. Every bit the nuanced, booming instrument it is in the studio, Leithsauser’s pipes were pristine, guiding tracks like “A 1000 Times” and “1959” to their full potential. Performing under a sleepy sun, Leithauser was a welcome shot of gusto as the grounds filled in, treating those at the Sutro to a taste of timeless rock at its finest. –Zack Ruskin
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    Best Hangover Cure

    K.Flay

    “San Francisco, you’re my fucked up SpongeBob!” This was K.Flay’s proclamation after spying a festival totem in the crowd. It was midway through her Sunday set opening the Land’s End stage, and while San Francisco may be a demented cartoon in her eyes, she’s a shining example of indie rap done right. While no longer a resident of the city, K.Flay shared how many of her tracks were written or recorded in the area. Alternating between spitfire verses and bass work, she shot some lightning into the soggy afternoon. Closer “High Enough” was a pure banger, while “Can’t Sleep” was dedicated to her mother. As the landscape for emcees of different shapes and sizes continues to expand, it’s definitely for the best that music has found room for K.Flay, because if her set was any indication, she’s not waiting for around for a damn invitation. –Zack Ruskin
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    Best Twee Dance Party

    Belle and Sebastian

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    Leave it to Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch to imbue his set with a bit of local history. “We have a lot to thank Adolph Sutro for,” he grinned, referencing iconic San Francisco pioneer and namesake of the Sutro stage. To be fair, Belle and Sebastian are from Glasgow, but San Francisco has its fair share of history in the band’s story as well. Sukie of “Sukie in the Graveyard” fame is in fact a girl who once lived in the attic of an art institute in the city. The joy of the band is, however, universal.

    As Murdoch peered out into the crowd to pick two young women in “colorful frocks” to dance on stage for “Sukie”, a full-on dance party seemed inevitable. It came when the stage filled with fans for a rollicking rendition of “The Boy with the Arab Strap,” a charming scene that saw the chosen few trade in their hipster detachment for a few minutes of booty-shaking glee. It’s hard to say what Adolph Sutro would think of the scene, but it was a lovely slice of modern-day merriment. –Zack Ruskin
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    Most Genuine Emotion

    Maggie Rogers

    At the conclusion of her set, singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers was overcome with gratitude. The artist famous for blowing Pharrell’s mind with a demo of her song “Alaska” during an NYC Masterclass has now reached far beyond the limits of being a viral sensation. Touring on the heels of her new EP, Now That the Light Is Fading, Rogers needs no help from Pharrell to prove her worth. That work is now in the hands of tracks like “On + Off”, where Rogers guided a silky vocal harmony over soft guitar. That she closed with “Alaska” was a given, but her reaction as she stood facing a large sea of fans, her hand covering an emotional smile, was not. “This is my first summer playing festivals,” she told the crowd earlier in her set. “Last summer I was a camp counselor.” Hopefully that camp has found a replacement, because they won’t be getting Rogers back anytime soon. –Zack Ruskin
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    Best Pyrotechnics/Worst Dad Jokes

    Metallica

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    At this point, 36 years into a career that began in a cramped garage in El Cerrito, the world should know what it’s getting from a Metallica show. Metal’s heaviest heavyweights have become models of consistency in their old age, trading in the out-and-out fury of their thrash days for something more sustainable and equally impressive. True to form, they didn’t deviate too far from the script during their two-plus hours on the Outside Lands main stage. After opening with back-to-back singles off their new album Hardwired… to Self-Destruct (“Hardwired” and “Atlas, Rise!”), they settled into a career-spanning set that meshed with the newer stuff surprisingly well.

    Sure, every Metallica set these days is going to have its eye-roll moments, and this one was no exception. James Hetfield’s dad jokes remain as corny as ever, and the hippie drum circle that punctuated “Now That We’re Dead” almost makes Lulu seem like a good idea by comparison. But, as a friend remarked while the fireworks blasted off during the inevitable “Enter Sandman” encore, at least Metallica sounded like they wanted to be there — no small feat for a festival that saw two of its top six acts cancel on short notice.

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    Despite the in-fighting and occasional silliness, Metallica’s great strength as a band is the fact that they so clearly love what they’re doing. It showed on Saturday night. Toward the end of their set, they brought out a new stage configuration that was supposed to resemble the garage they spent their earliest days banging away in. It looked nothing like that, of course, but the gesture spoke loudly enough: These guys still have the hunger, and they’ll keep ramming metal up our asses until they’re too old and decrepit to do so. To that I say: “HU-YEAH!” –Collin Brennan
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    Gnarliest Riffs (Non-Metallica Division)

    Royal Blood

    Cage the Elephant were ostensibly tapped to replace Queens of the Stone Age after a late cancellation, but a different band seemed hell-bent on shaking the Land’s End stage with some QOTSA-level riffage. Royal Blood don’t pack a ton of ammunition — drums, bass, and a bevy of effects pedals constitute their entire arsenal — but the English duo were on a mission to out-shred everyone at Outside Lands not named Metallica, and the ringing in this writer’s ears suggests they did their job.

    After strutting out to a laughably sloppy and atonal version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, bassist/vocalist Mike Kerr and drummer Ben Thatcher kept things in lock-step the rest of the way, blasting through recent singles “Lights Out” and “I Only Lie When I Love You” with an energy that alternated between snarling and playful. It was enough to get the pit churning in circles for the first time all weekend, but it also underscored Royal Blood’s persistent weakness.

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    This is a group that can brawl with the best of them, but they don’t yet have the hooks or the songwriting prowess to sustain all that heavy scaffolding. You can satisfy a crowd of Metallica die-hards with a tight kick drum and some nifty hammer-ons, but Cage the Elephant’s subsequent appearance on the same stage proved that, in the festival world, hits still do more damage than punches. –Collin Brennan
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