Outside Lands Festival 2012
Every year, I try to imagine what Outside Lands feels like to a tourist. The three-day festival is a bit like San Francisco Disneyland: from its prime location in Golden Gate Park to its selection of foodie gems, the event highlights some of the finest features of Bay Area living. This year upped the ante, offering an even wider array of local delights (the Mission, Outside Lambs, Beer Lands, and more) and a top-notch lineup. While SF natives don't usually cap their weekends with Stevie Wonder, the festival does an excellent job representing the best of our city by the bay.
Though Friday culminated with sets by Neil Young & Crazy Horse, the always-epic Foo Fighters, and the electro-spectacle of Justice, the great music began long before sundown. One of the highlights of the day was Tanlines, who got the crowd of early-risers on their feet and bumping before you could say 'Wine Lands'. The Brooklyn duo ran through their repertoire of groove-worthy hits from March's Mixed Emotions (including 'Green Grass,' which they rarely play live), and drew the audience in with their enthusiasm. While Eric Emm and Jesse Cohen aren't over-the-top showmen, it's impossible to ignore their pull.
Tanlines set the upbeat tone for the day, which also included downright perky tunes from Jukebox the Ghost (I'd be remiss in not mentioning their incredible, singalong-inducing cover of Whitney Houston's 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody'), and LA's inimitable PAPA. The brainchild of former Girls member Darren Weiss, PAPA played a handful of new tunes, as well as selections from their stellar EP A Good Woman Is Hard To Find. The band's bluesy, confident rock made them one of the gems of the festival and definitely a group to watch.
Saturday began with a powerful performance by Zola Jesus, who commanded the vast expanse of the Polo Fields with her soaring voice and enthralling presence. She glided around the Lands End stage like a moody Florence Welch, ending her ethereal set by grabbing sticks and pounding out a passionate drum solo. It was an energetic opening to a day punctuated by folkier offerings; though bands like Explosions In the Sky and Metallica dominated the main stage, my performance highlights were scattered all around Golden Gate Park.
Crowd favorite (and hometown heroes) Geographer played a strong set on the other side of the field before Father John Misty (Josh Tillman) took over the Panhandle stage. The former Fleet Foxes member captivated the audience with his new persona: the artist formerly known as J. Tillman traded his singer-songwriter signature for something more dynamic and extroverted. Looking a bit like Alex Ebert (but with even more swagger), Tillman delivered debut album Fear Fun with charm and joie de vivre.
I escaped the throngs of soul lovers at Alabama Shakes (I've never seen Lindley Meadow so jammed) to see another up-and-coming soul master: Michael Kiwanuka. The Londoner wooed us at the Panhandle stage with tender, earnest tunes like 'Tell Me a Tale' and 'I'm Getting Ready,' all from debut LP Home Again. In his capable hands, an outdoor stage became an intimate venue—by the end of his (too short) set, we were all "ready to believe" his old-school sincerity.
Sunday was a day of showstoppers, and it began with one of summer's biggest 'it' bands. Whatever your opinion of fun., there's no denying that the anthem-crafting pop group is made for a festival. Crowds crunched in front of the Lands End stage, singing along to every hit from February's Some Nights, from the thumping 'One Foot' to the chart-topping 'We Are Young.' I have to hand it to fun. for performing their pants off—although I don't want to think how many in the audience thought their cover of the Rolling Stones' 'You Can't Always Get What You Want' was a preview of album number three.
Sunday's momentum only grew from there. From the nostalgic dance rock of Glasgow's Franz Ferdinand to pumped-up grooves from Santigold, the day was filled with high-octane sets. Those of us looking for a break in the action may have ended up in one of the smaller, sponsored tents; I was able to catch sets by Geographer, PAPA (acoustic this time), and the dreamy, percussive Caveman throughout the weekend. Sunday even saw a pop-up performance by Jack White in a woodsy spot of the park by the Third Man Records truck (with a bonus appearance by Tom Morello).
It was Jack White's official performance that really took the day up a notch. Filling the penultimate slot at the Lands End stage, the living legend satisfied fans of all stripes (pun intended) by playing selections that spanned his lengthy career. Along with songs from the acclaimed Blunderbuss, White included old favorites like the Dead Weather's 'Cut Like a Buffalo' and the White Stripes' 'I Can Tell That We Are Gonna Be Friends.' He played them all with gusto, and anthemic closer 'Seven Nation Army' was met with roaring applause.
Although Skrillex pulled some festival-goers across the foggy park, nothing would keep me from experiencing Stevie Wonder in all his glory. The two-hour set was more than just the perfect way to end Outside Lands—it was one of those pinch-yourself moments, filled with some of the most legendary songs in music history. Stevie played more than just his own classics, although listeners were treated to 'Superstition', 'Isn't She Lovely', 'Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)', 'Living for the City', and many more. He tackled other musical greats, from Marvin Gaye's 'How Sweet It Is' (the first of several singalongs) to a chills-inducing performance of John Lennon's 'Imagine'. There was dancing and singing as far as the eye could see, and the crowd was utterly enraptured. We all became converts to the Church of Stevie Wonder, and there was no looking back. It was the perfect conclusion to what's become one of San Francisco's most eclectic and inspiring institutions.