Openers Janelle Monáe, Willow, Alex G and Ethel Cain filled Golden Gate Park with splendent soul before headliners Kendrick Lamar and Zedd took their stages on the exhilarating first night of the music festival.
Most show stopping: Kendrick Lamar
Highlights: “m.A.A.d. city,” “HUMBLE,” “Alright”
Kendrick Lamar’s catalog has always found a balance between exalting the value of language and celebrating the expressive grammar of music. He’s long been lauded for his auditory universe — a singular collection of sounds that define the texture of his music. At the same time, his commitment to language crafts “affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life,” as the Pulitzer committee put it.
At Outside Lands, Lamar’s set emphasized the rapper’s presence: Often illuminated by harsh white lights, the artist had nothing to hide behind onstage. Aside from a few murals that unfurled behind Lamar throughout his set (and some fireworks, to put an exclamation point on his set) there were no obtrusive pieces to take the audience’s attention off of the rapper. The message was clear: Lamar, and only Lamar, was there to put on a show.
That’s exactly what he did. Lamar’s career is filled with songs that have backed a majority of the crowd’s coming of age, and his audience stuck with him right through the set. He started off with material from Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers and some of his less popular tracks, building the pressure until the crowd let loose with “Backseat Freestyle,” his first “classic” of the night. The rest of the set was a slam dunk, and a reminder of why Lamar’s fans belt his lyrics like prayers to a prophet.
— Dominic Marziali
Most adrenaline-inducing: Zedd
Highlights: “I Want You To Know,” “Clarity,” “Daisy”
On day one, Twin Peaks pulsed with palpable energy as fans waited eagerly for Anton Zaslavski, known professionally as Zedd, to take the stage. The German DJ entered on an elevated platform to perform a set that resounded from the corners of Golden Gate Park into the city.
Smoke and psychedelic lights stirred in the evening fog — a misty but promising start to a vibrant show. At his podium, Zaslavski jumped with exuberance, maintaining his energy throughout the entire performance. His spirited movements were infectious, motivating the audience to bounce in sync to the reverberating beats.
“If you guys are ready to party, let me see your hands,” Zaslavski yelled right before the beat drop of “I Want You To Know.” Awash in an erratic array of red and blue lights, festival-goers responded with enthusiasm, hands held aloft.
Dynamism defined Zaslavski’s concert. During fan favorites like “Clarity” and “Daisy,” the stage emitted entire columns of vapor. At another point in the set, Zaslavski performed a Squid Game-inspired rendition of “Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It” by DEM Franchize Boyz.
Jagged lightning bolts sparked from the center of the screen, as if Zaslavski himself was being electrified by the forcefulness of the crowd. And that’s what his show was — shocking to the max.
— Anne Vertin
Most ‘Haute’: Janelle Monáe
Highlights: “Champagne Shit,” “Yoga,” “I Like That”
In 2011, Prince welcomed Janelle Monáe and her debut album, saying, “She is so smart.” 12 years and three albums later, that sentiment rings true, but it seems to have been lost on Outside Lands’ day one crowd.
Earlier this year, Monáe released The Age of Pleasure, a summery album of provincially queer themes, but this feat proved to be of little interest to an audience biding its time before Kendrick Lamar. Yet, as Monáe described in her opening song, all she does is “Float,” and she gave Outside Lands a show.
Monáe’s set worked from her most recent album’s hits back through the music that established her. She decked the Lands End stage with an ’80s beach bum look — zebra stripes, beach balls and a wood-paneled speaker system looming from behind — while she herself emerged in a tasteful two piece swimsuit.
Partway through her set, Monáe swapped her cut off biker shorts for Georgia O’Keeffe-inspired pants (white tulle with a whole lot of red happening between the legs), and told the crowd to forget about Karl’s “cold ugliness” — this is her age of pleasure. And as she warmed up the crowd, it was hard not to join her on her holiday. That’s just the way she makes you feel.
— Dominic Marziali
Most dynamic: WILLOW
Highlights: “transparent soul,” “hover like a GODDESS,” “Marceline”
It would be difficult to pick a standout moment from WILLOW’s set, which was just as explosive and jubilant as her musical catalog. With an impressively diverse range of talent, each song felt like a new apotheosis — not just a song, but a multifaceted performance.
Coasting on a boundless wave of energy, WILLOW never tired, ebbing and flowing on a sparkling, spunky high. Endlessly entertaining and filled with god-like empowerment, it was clear her artistry was more than an act — she was genuinely enjoying herself.
WILLOW’s flair is rooted in her ability to fully immerse herself in the emotional core of her music. Switching abruptly from beautiful, ethereal vocals, to high-energy dancing, to shredding on her spiky white guitar, to screaming intensely into the microphone, she never paused in her fast-paced performance, even to take a breath. “Hover like a GODDESS” was full of these quick transitions: as she jumped around, she seemed to completely embody the music, which flowed out from her like air.
After so much intensity, her a capella rendition of slow, soulful “Marceline” felt close to holy. The crowd held their breath as Willow’s deep, angelic voice echoed audibly throughout the park, which seemed to fall silent to hear her.
“Wait A Minute!” acted as the perfect closing song — as Willow let go, dancing and singing, the crowd followed suit.
— Vivian Stacy
Most pretentious: Alex G
Highlights: “Runner,” “Mission,” “Forgive”
Alex G’s performance style matches his music: low-key, indistinct and serious — but nonetheless, with a pull.
Not one for working the crowd, the indie-rock performer let his music speak for itself, standing in largely the same spot behind the microphone for his entire performance, unsmilingly cycling through the setlist. Morose attitude and lo-fi fuzziness aside, his talent kept the crowd afloat, who hung on his every word as he grimaced into the microphone and moshed loyally along to his long, drawn out guitar riffs.
The highlight of his performance was undeniably “Runner,” his most mainstream hit due to its catchy refrain and singability. Songs like “Mission” and “Mary,” though less well known, also got the crowd singing along.
A bare tree with parrots dotting its branches acted as his backdrop, a visual reference to his most recent album God Save The Animals. A fan’s toy parrot bobbed along in the audience — as the crowd jostled against each other and it rose up and down, it almost seemed to gain wings.
Finishing his set with the cathartic, catchy “Forgive,” Alex G proved that even mumblecore can be moshable.
— Vivian Stacy
Most spiritual: Ethel Cain
Highlights: “A House in Nebraska,” “Gibson Girl,” “Crush”
At 2:30 p.m on Friday, Hayden Anhedonia — performing as Ethel Cain — transformed the Sutro stage into a bonafide house of worship.
Dressed simply in a sweatshirt and jeans, Cain looked unassuming, but her soulful voice captured the attention of every concert-goer. Opening with fan favorite “A House in Nebraska,” Cain took the crowd on an Southern Gothic journey nothing short of cinematic. As she blessed Sutro with sonorous vocals, an unsettling montage of sprawling fields, abandoned barns and winding creeks played on the screen behind her, an expert execution of her haunting artistic vision.
“I know we’re in California, but before this next one, can you give me as loud of a ‘yeehaw’ as you can manage?” asked the alternative rock and gospel musician, lightening the mood of the audience midway through the set.
Evident with songs from “Family Tree” to “Sun Bleached Flies,” Cain doesn’t shy away from painful themes like generational trauma and domestic violence. In spite of — or perhaps, because of — these vulnerabilities, she also possesses the ability to connect with fans on an individual level. Moving offstage and pressed against the barrier for closer, “Crush,” she leaned in to sing along with her devotees. As Cain departed the stage to cries and protests, it was clear she gained many disciples on Friday.
— Anne Vertin
Most tacky: Dolores’
Music festivals are less venues of curation than commercialism, so it’s always precarious when one tries to tap into a genuine artistic sensibility. In its fifteenth year, Outside Lands introduced Dolores’, a dance space that was an homage to queer artists. But calling it a specifically queer dance space is a stretch.
Dolores’ was sold as an “open-air dance club celebrating the queer and trans communities and the DIY spaces that are vital to San Francisco nightlife and culture,” claiming to be a stage and scene that “pays homage to the rich history of queer parties, performances, and activism.” But this is a picture that’s incongruous with the reality of the festival, which saw audiences filled with tech bros and high schoolers too young to pull off linen button ups. Outside Lands’ organizers must have realized that a catch-all, vaguely described space would be just ambiguous enough to be ghettoizing for the community it aims to uplift and a voyeuristic distraction for straight girls in Van Gogh-inspired sheer waiting for JID’s set to start across the lawn.
It’s confusing why the space wasn’t introduced last year, when Honey Dijon was bringing an actual scene to seemingly every North American music festival, and could’ve given the dance floor an ABBA-free ballroom edge as its marquee name. As Dolores’ stood, it was all pastel plastic — cheap and commercial.
— Dominic Marziali