The obvious highlight of this year’s Outside Lands weekend was Childish Gambino’s Saturday night headlining set, which felt like the ultimate manifestation of everything that makes the festival great — the loose, improvisational yet sincere atmosphere, the funk/jazz roots of his music, the larger-than-life spectacle of his performance and his earnest love for the Bay Area.
“You always welcomed me here,” he said to an audience of 90,000, the festival’s largest-ever. “I’ll always love you for that.”
While there was certainly room to nitpick his performance (he didn’t play “Telegraph Ave” in the Bay, which almost felt like a calculated troll), the poise and joy made his set feel like a career milestone. It also made the best use of the mega-screens set up at the festival’s bigger stages of any set this weekend — through skillful camera operators and judicious application of film grain effects, the video presentation felt less like a crutch to accommodate the truly massive crowds but more like a well-thought-out cinematic production.
Sunday night closer Paul Simon brought a similar energy to the Lands End stage, albeit one that held more cross-generational appeal, playing pretty much all of his best hits in a 70s-heavy set. The crowd for Simon was thinner than expected for a performance at the festival’s biggest stage — California native Anderson .Paak and his electrifying set on nearby Sutro stage was probably to blame. But the folk-rock legend and one-half of duo Simon & Garfunkel didn’t disappoint. Spanning more than two hours (the longest of any this year), his set had its highs and mellows, from the funky “You Can Call Me Al,” which ended his pre-encore set, to “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and everything in-between, including fan-favorite “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” As always, Simon was backed by his multi-talented band, which he arranged into a half-circle orchestra for a couple of songs. He brought out the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir for part of his encore, a definite nod to the older half of the crowd and the band’s esteemed pan-Bay Area history.
While certain other big names disappointed — Australian DJ Flume’s pre-Gambino set on Saturday was overcrowded and ungraceful, as Flume presiding exhibited little stage presence in front of a huge, energized crowd — Outside Lands included an especially impressive array of non-headlining acts that made up for the festival’s hefty near-Coachella price tag, if you let them.
Some performers were unsurprising in their goodness. Judah & the Lion’s hilarious and playful early-afternoon set — the band donned jerseys and running shorts and put on a coordinated dance number for “Why Did You Run?” — attracted many fans as they trickled in for the festival’s last day. Kacey Musgraves’ vocals were as smooth as ever, though she avoided a lot of pre-Golden Hour songs in favor of the croons like “Butterflies” that launched her into Grammy-winning fame. Hozier didn’t offer Gambino’s visuals or Judah’s energy, but the humble Irish-born singer-songwriter never really needed much impress with his seductive, soulful sound.
But other top performances came, perhaps unexpectedly, from lesser-known acts, especially ones hailing from outside the country. Dutch-Turkish hybrid psychedelic rock band Altin Gün, Congolese Afropop/funk group Jupiter & Okwess and Norwegian synth-pop singer AURORA all wowed on smaller stages, charming the crowd. For international artists, festival performances can be vital to further success, introducing their craft to broader audiences than they can normally expect. For those who performed at Outside Lands, the audition was a success.
If the onslaught of music wasn’t enough for you, Outside Lands had a variety of other attractions. This year was the first that of-age festivalgoers could buy and consume cannabis at the pre-sanctioned “Grass Lands” area of the festival. Outside Lands also had its usual Eco Lands and Flower Lands sections, showcasing local sustainability and environmental philanthropy efforts. The festival showcased a huge flower wall with locally-sourced flowers, in addition to other walls with colorful art displays. Much of the wall art was recycled from previous years, but there was still plenty of good material for the background of an Instagram post.
Outside Lands doesn’t need to try too hard to distinguish itself from the likes of Coachella — it’s already got cooler weather and a chiller vibe, being less overrun with celebrities and social media influencers — but the atmosphere certainly mirrors San Francisco’s tree-hugger culture and love for the environment. After all, Paul Simon came out of retirement to headline the festival, which he only said he’d do if his appearance would help the charitable organizations he’s passionate about. Simon said he’d be donating the proceeds from his performance to Friends of the Urban Forest and the San Francisco Parks Alliance.
If there was one problem during festival weekend, it’d probably be resource distribution. Some lines for food and alcohol could end up jutting awkwardly into performance areas, while others seemed underused even at peak hours. The structure of the park, full of forested areas and narrow paths, also created transit bottlenecks — especially for the festival-goer who wanted to check out two acts with overlapping sets. Even the set times seemed a little off; booking Anderson .Paak at the same time as Paul Simon was maybe the most egregious example, but there were other unfortunately conflicting set times, like those of the similar pop-punk sets of Los Angeles’s Cherry Glazer and Australia’s Alex Lahey.
The truly uplifting spirit of Outside Lands, though, showed when artists broke through the material distractions of the weekend, through the scheduling hassles and capricious weather, and made true connections with the audience. It showed during Gambino’s cinematic glory and Simon’s greatest hits show, Kacey Musgraves’ leading of her crowd in a triumphant “Yee-Haw” call and response and a cover of “I Will Survive.” It showed in Anderson .Paak’s encore performance of “Dang!,” a tribute to the late Mac Miller that sang and grooved with the joy that comes with memory. It showed when rap upstart Tierra Whack was serenaded with “Happy Birthday” by a crowd of enraptured teens. It showed as Ella Mai practically let the crowd sing the entirety of “Boo’d Up.” And it showed as the masses exiting the park Saturday night participated in the joyful tradition of singing Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend,” full of camaraderie and satisfaction.
Contact Jacob Kuppermann at jkupperm ‘at’ stanford.edu and Elena Shao at eshao98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.