Outside Lands is feverishly exalted. Thousands throng to Fulton Street, coming from locales as far apart as Australia and San Jose — all in daisy dukes despite the cold, with fringe trailing from their jackets and lavender glitter streaked across their cheekbones. It’s a rapturous, wind-whipped and, at times, cloying celebration of music, fashion and food — for a hefty price. It stacks up like this: For $375 (plus fees), you can attend the three days of festivities (parking and shuttle costs not included).
But there’s a trade secret, or perhaps this will just seem like the advice of a jaded concert critic: The big names grandstanding at the top of the lineup don’t always play the way you want them to (or at all), and the little, pebble-sized bands clinging to the bottom of the pyramid can put on some of the most rousing shows you’ll ever see.
So, here it is — one jaded concert critic’s take on the lineup for San Francisco’s 11th Outside Lands.
Rainbow Kitten Surprise is the last of the lineup’s names in medium-sized type. The band has its Spotify hits — “Devil Like Me” and “Cocaine Jesus” — alongside modest successes — “Mr. Redundant” and “All That and More (Sailboat).” Maybe all the names sound goofy, as though the band isn’t creating art in the high and mighty sense of the word. But the off-kilter pop that emanates from behind the childish, neon name is jazzily infectious and sometimes surprisingly weird. It’s just the stuff to get you moving, especially when you can start to feel your joints seizing up from the San Francisco chill.
The Mountain Goats pay homage to the goth scene with the warm familiarity exuded by a bespectacled lead singer. When said lead singer, John Darnielle, and his bandmates performed at The Fillmore in early June last year, they roused the mishmash of Bay Area personalities residing on the crowded dance floor. This summer, waxed golden floors will be traded for trampled grass, but Darnielle’s punk-rock dad vibes won’t waver — he’s going to make it through this festival if it kills him.
Mike Hadreas, known on the stage as Perfume Genius, imbues his life deep into his music, capturing a tone reminiscent of the Antlers. Monochrome self-portraits serve as album covers, their watery colors a gateway into Hadreas’ heavy undertaking to sing of Crohn’s disease, domestic abuse and contemporary LGBTQ+ society. In the midst of a large, commercialized celebration such as Outside Lands, Perfume Genius will be a stage act to fill the nooks of Golden Gate Park with heart and harmonics.
Gang of Youths is a classic rock band hailing from beachy Sydney, Australia — and that is a statement that more or less speaks for itself, as demonstrated by their warm rock show at Bottom of the Hill last summer. From the front mic, David Le’aupepe spills a warm lyrical core as his bandmates bang out funk rock bass lines. The music that meets your ears is invitingly danceable, buoyant music to rock your hips to (the way Le’aupepe does, winking at you all the while), but it might make your eyes water — from the wild San Francisco winds, you’ll tell yourself.
Chicano Batman melts away office linoleum with its pan-Latin music, giving listeners a respite from their day-to-day lives. Whiny synths and staccatoed electric chords possess the effect of horns and acoustic guitars, transporting you to a palm tree beach situated beneath a disco ball. Chicano Batman is sure to have the same effect on the gloomy Bay Area weather, making a tropical sun pop up to dissolve the crotchety mist. Before you know it, the cool afternoon will disappear behind a synchronized kind of swagger, confidence exuded with jazzy ease. And underneath it all, you’ll find themes of rebellion and love, politicized lyrics to jibe and groove to.
The Weeknd is reserved for the cliched party playlist. Sure, his music is smooth listening, but maybe that’s its problem — it possesses no texture. Everything is silky, without grit or grunge or open hearts, and that’s nice at 11 p.m. when everyone is just getting high at a house party. But at a large-scale music venue, as you’re jostled by more elbows and knees than should be physically possible, the intimacy the music demands to be paired with is absolutely absent.
Portugal. The Man is the stuff of a mixtape left in your locker in high school imbued with a twang of modernity. But the push and pull of nostalgic and contemporary elements is lost on stage. When the band performed at The Independent in March of last year, John Gourley left his lead singer position to wallow in the shadows and low lighting. The audience carried that performance, as it undoubtedly will again when the band steps out at Outside Lands, meaning its show won’t be entirely lackluster. But from a perspective of musicality alone, Portugal. The Man is better on vinyl.
ODESZA is stylized in all caps and that is how its music is received: a blast of autotune and vocal splicing. While its music might be able to rile up some of this year’s park-goers, it wouldn’t do this job more than it would when played at an ungodly decibel at a nightclub to accompanying strobe lights. So then, why use your expensive ticket to hear what you so easily could from a rave venue’s stereo system? An over-reliance on production and flashy costumes can’t ensure an audience’s already unlikely connection to ODESZA’s live music.
Mac DeMarco himself is undeniably charming — his surftown vibes and his congenial attitude with audiences makes for a lively set, as at the Hearst Greek Theatre in September — but his music is overplayed. In short, his mischievous personality can’t keep his slow rock ballads and twangy serenades relevant. Therefore, DeMarco’s appearance at Outside Lands will undoubtedly make up a fun hour of your life, but still be nothing special.
And of course there are the bands that are just rated — rated high and rated well — Børns, Bon Iver, Chvrches, Florence and the Machine, and Janet Jackson. This list will plague you. You will hedge constantly; it will be impossible to decide who to see in the face of the inevitability that time slots will overlap, and favorites will play back to back on stages across the width of Golden Gate Park (which, I might add, is only made more difficult to traverse given the massive volume of festival-goers). That is the curse inherent in the gift of a ticket to see all of the bands you’ve always wanted to see, all at once.
Serving as direct contrast, there are two bands whose presences at Outside Lands will likely not be snubbed by competing powerhouses: Caleborate and SOB X RBE. Both are Bay Area natives and wholly worth watching.
Caleborate is a Berkeley rapper — you might recognize the semi-permanent beanie atop his head. His raps and his quotes comprise a raw personality and a pulse that will be a breath of relief from Outside Land’s occasionally heavy-handed performances, over-rehearsed into their polished non-perfection. SOB X RBE is a rap group hailing from Vallejo, California — its music is dredged in emotion, at once punishing, joyous and meditative. Their presence preserves Outside Lands as a space to represent the talents of San Francisco and the Bay Area.
While your experience at Outside Lands is largely what you make of it, and you are free to customize it at your will, my advice is to prioritize smaller talents. It will not only lead to a more enjoyable experience, but it’ll make your ticket worth its price — much more than spending all day pushing closer to the front of a large stage to see one headliner will.
Ranger Dave might try to convince you of the contrary, but at the end of the day, he’s overrated, too — you’ll think as much after two hours in line to take a picture with him. I did warn you I was jaded.