(Photos by Parker Evans)
By Parker Evans
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San Francisco doesn’t need to answer to Coachella. The character of the Bay pushes brightly enough through the fog without having to borrow from its more popular Southern California sister and, for one weekend in August, it’s San Francisco’s time to shine on the music stage. With Outside Lands, the city does so effortlessly.
Golden Gate Park provides arguably the most gorgeous backdrop for any large outdoor music festival (with the notable exception of Sasquatch in Central Washington). The two smaller stages, Twin Peaks and Sutro, are nestled in the trees, and it’s only a short walk into the woods to find Bay Area food trucks or the sweet, sweet Choco Lands. More important is the impressive sense of calm that surrounds the festival. Maybe it’s the haze that hangs over the main stage in the Polo Fields, but in the three years I’ve been to Outside Lands, I’ve never seen even one fight break out. Astounding, given the number of people in such close proximity.
Even though the festival didn’t expand the grounds this year, Outside Lands bumped its daily capacity from 60,000 tickets to 80,000. The extra bodies were certainly noticeable, especially at the main stage. Those extra 20,000 people to push through made it a less enticing option, for example, to leave a fantastic Nine Inch Nails show to catch the end of Phoenix’s set.
On the whole, the music was able to keep up with the expanded capacity throughout the cloudy weekend. A foggy Friday started a little slow with funky rockers The Heavy unable to electrify the Sutro crowd and the Smith Westerns doing their mid-tempo routine. But things unexpectedly picked up on the main stage with a set from Band of Horses infused with much more energy and soul than the Southern-tinged rock its studio albums would suggest.
Friday night’s lineup was the most stacked, featuring my most anticipated band, The National, before giving way to Paul McCartney. The Cincinnati downer-rock group did not disappoint. Lead singer Matt Berninger drank his requisite bottle of wine while he led a memorable set heavy on their brilliant new album, “Trouble Will Find Me.” Berninger seemingly gave concert security a surprise as he waded further into the crowd than most for the tense rocker “Mr. November.”
McCartney, of course, was the main attraction of the weekend. Even though a few thousand of the younger set left for Pretty Lights, it felt like the whole weight of the festival was there for Sir Paul. Given the traditionally long Friday night set, McCartney filled the whole three hours moving from bass to guitar to piano dozens of times over an impressive 39-song set with two encores. Although at 71 years old his voice isn’t quite what it used to be, he remains one of the most charismatic figures in rock. When he told stories about Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, or meeting the starstruck Russian defense minister after playing the Red Square, the audience couldn’t help but listen in awe.
Nine Inch Nails aren’t the kind of band you would generally associate with Outside Lands, but you didn’t have to be a fan of the emo-aggro music to appreciate frontman Trent Reznor and the impressive, award-winning light and set design that went into the band’s show. On Sunday night, I decided to pass on the Red Hot Chili Peppers and make my way to Twin Peaks, where I had a surprisingly great time, and was probably the only sober guy, at Bay Area DJ Kaskade and his soul-rattling bass.
The headliners nearly always impress, but the early shows are great opportunities to check out some smaller bands or find some diamonds in the rough. Saturday afternoon, Gary Clark Jr. absolutely shredded a sparsely attended main stage and validated the first rule of Outside Lands – when in doubt, go see the loud, bluesy rock acts. Sunday afternoon belonged to the Kopecky Family Band, who put on the best show I’ve seen at the tiny Panhandle Stage since Grouplove in 2011.
Even though headliners may get the long sets and early shows may be viewable at close range, the best show of the festival might have been Vampire Weekend on Sunday. The performance was surely wasted on way too many impatient Red Hot Chili Peppers fans, but lead singer Ezra Koenig clearly got a kick out of thousands of people dancing and singing along to his existential meditations on faith on tracks such as “Step” and “Unbelievers” from the band’s fantastic new album, “Modern Vampires of the City.”
Aside from the music, the food from local vendors was great as always. The best item I had for the third consecutive year was the Gilroy Garlic macaroni and cheese at the booth from Oakland’s Homeroom restaurant. Being 20 years old, I was unable to check out the bumping Heineken Dome, Barbary Coast, Wine Lands or the new Beer Lands (next year!), but they were fantastic by all accounts.
For those who haven’t been to a music festival, or for Coachella-goers tired of shirtless bros in the desert, Outside Lands is a must-see. I’ve already marked my calendar for the second weekend of next August for Outside Lands 2014.
Parker Evans is an economics senior and Mustang Daily music columnist.