It’s a strange smell I’m smelling,” Paul McCartney joked. “Something wonderful.”
Thousands of fans in the audience chuckle as they exchanged knowing glances. Beyond the permanent cloud of smoke that enshrouds the crowd of concertgoers, however, there truly was something wonderful in the air at this year’s Outside Lands.
Unlike the ultra-popular massive desert jubilee Coachella, Outside Lands is much more low-key and woodsy. The forested site that housed Outside Lambs, Chocolands and the Analog Zone was like a page out of an old fairytale storybook, adorned with glowing multi-color camp lights, giant hanging art pieces and charming food stands.
As expected, many millennials attended the event, adorned with their ironic mustaches and proudest Goodwill finds. My friend Olivia even joked, “I wonder how many Urban Outfitters it took to dress this place.”
However, these weren’t the normal hordes of wasted and sweaty teens ready to grind to some Top-20 pop hit. Instead, these fans were part of a diverse spectrum of music lovers, including families with young children and even spirited retirees. Outside Lands is not the typical hedonistic bender that typifies most music festivals.
There was definitely a right way and a wrong way to do Outside Lands. Those simply looking to listen to familiar radio jams were clearly out of place. Fortunately, their frowns and stiff bodies represented a minority; most of the concertgoers used their time at the festival to live adventurously. I and many others found bliss during the sets of obscure local bands like The Mother Hips and in the first bites of the exotic Hawaiian ahi poke at the Pacific Catch stand.
It was easy to make friends in such an open-minded festival community. On Friday night, I met Cindy and Diane, two funky and septuagenarian San Francisco natives dressed in multi-colored sweaters. These two grooved more to McCartney than anyone else in the crowd. Their enthusiasm, at times, grabbed more attention from their fellow concertgoers than Sir Paul’s guitar riffs, and amused teenage kids offered them a toke countless times. This didn’t offend either of them—they instead gushed to me about how the crowd would respectfully make an effort to help older fans get closer to the stage.
I caught many firsthand glimpses of this same thoughtful and inclusive community, including once when a man in a wheelchair was hoisted into the air by friends for the entirety of “My Body” by Young the Giant, and again when my own iPhone was lost at the finale of Kaskade’s set and 30 kind strangers got on their hands and knees searching as I desperately yelled out, “purple iPhone!”
I even shared some romantic, albeit fleeting, moments with a German traveler who also attended the event alone just to experience the best SF had to offer. Nobody I met was just simply looking to listen to the radio in person. Instead, they were very much ready to take a walk on the wild side. It was encouraging, liberating and infectious. Soon enough I found myself trying something different for the first time, too.
On Sunday, some Stanford friends drove up for what was arguably the best lineup of all three days of the event. Early in headliner Red Hot Chili Peppers’ set, they introduced me to their friend Molly, a popular girl whom I found intimidating at first. It took about an hour or so for her to warm up to me, but soon enough we began to admire an intensely vibrant sunset together. The pink and purple lights burst out of the sky as if someone had intentionally painted over the park to signal the finale of Outside Lands. During Kaskade’s bold set full of beats and bass drops, Molly taught us how to dance with abandon. Her energy was felt throughout the crowd as free spirits, old and young, shook away their worries. I no longer was concerned with earlier troubles like the money I had dropped on artisan hot chocolate, or being felt up by a pervert on the crowded shuttle. Instead, I was happily engrossed in memories of the new friends and new sounds I was introduced to that weekend.
The whole experience of Outside Lands can’t be compared to any other concert or festival. It was something strange and definitely something wonderful. Even as I write this, phoneless and somewhat penniless, I can honestly say it was all worth it.