The Best of Outside Lands 2015
There is perhaps no better event to epitomize San Francisco culture than Outside Lands. Set in the picturesque grounds of Golden Gate Park, the festival offers three days of craft beer, local art, comedy, food trucks, and of course, top-notch music curation. For its eighth year running, the event attracted an estimated 70,000 attendees to see acts such as Elton John, Kendrick Lamar, Tame Impala, Amon Tobin, Porter Robinson and more.
Porter Robinson succesfully translates his ambitious Worlds show to a festival setting
Anyone who’s seen Porter Robinson’s Worlds tour can verify that his new live show is indeed extraterrestrial to our own world. San Franciscan devotees of the Carolinian prodigy were granted access to his vision in its full glory at his September visit to the Bill Graham auditorium. There was an air of uncertainty, however, surrounding his ability to transcend reality to the same degree in broad daylight with a truncated set length.
Needless to say, in spite of all obstacles, Porter Robinson pulled out all the stops to achieve his vision successfully. Gentle breeze, towering trees, and a mauve-toned sky complimented the visual story told by Porter’s commissioned designers, the Invisible Light Network, endowing the prismatic, anime-infused production with an almost psychedelic character. Porter himself stood like a maestro behind his plexiglass alter, hopping hyperactively between his varied roles of DJ, drummer, and modulated vocalist. Attentively addressing every musical responsibility required, Porter returned to his older “ADD” methods to ensure that his shortened set would not be deficient in quality from his full production.
As with all Worlds shows, Porter defied DJ conventionality by putting forth only his original tracks – and only his World live edits of said original tracks. While melodic enthusiasts were entranced by edits of classic high-octane tracks like “Unison” and “Say My Name,” bass-craved hedonists reveled in his gnarled live re-imaginings of “Flicker,” “Fellow Feeling,” and the deranged “Fresh Static Snow,” better known to some concert-goers as “that crazy fucking track with fire and a deer skull.”
Amon Tobin delivers his last ever ISAM 2.0 performance
Amon Tobin’s live show has taken on a near-mythic quality. Stories of his complex audio-visual arrangement, ISAM, have trickled down from festivals like Mutek and Sonar while firsthand footage of the show permeates the web. The Brazilian musician was a late addition to Outside Lands, and his announcement came with the caveat that this would be his last-ever ISAM 2.0 performance before he destroyed the stage setup.
As the curtain unveiled the monolithic structure on Friday night, one could faintly make out the figure of a human standing inside the behemoth construction. The curious trails of “Journeyman” introduced the set, while the stage became illuminated in cloud-like layers of visuals. Over the course of the hour, Amon Tobin presented his formless creations to the audience. From dark, neuro-tinged originals to more blissful, ethereal soundscapes, his masterful grasp on sound design was readily apparent. Sadly, the response to the set was a bit lackluster. Call it misguided expectations, but more often than not, the crowd seemed to be anxiously yearning for a steady beat instead of appreciating the conceptual level of the show.
Photo Credit: Jorgenson Photography
Dan Deacon provides an engaging spectacle
Dan Deacon’s name doesn’t tend to make the rounds in the dance music world, and sensibly so. The 34-year-old Baltimorean is less a DJ and more an abjection of electronic music’s current state. Novice fan appraisals of his music ranged from “Rage Against the Machine on acid” to “a musical interpretation of the magic school bus.” Preferring a moog synthesizer, intricately vocoded microphone and live drummer to a set of CDJs, Dan Deacon performs vibrantly lo-fi psychedelic electronica with contagious vivacity. Though Deacon’s appearance is that of a ginger James Gandolfini, he jumps around the stage like a six year old on a trampoline, and the small cadre of fans gathered around him follows suit with equal fervor.
Dan Deacon’s crowd interaction is unparalleled by other musicians who take the stage. While any litany of DJs will entreat the audience to put their hands up, jump, or invoke any other number of now clichéd crowd commands, Dan Deacon strives to instill a sense of community, in order to turn his spectators into participants. Deacon began his performance by engaging the crowd in a massive dance circle – a staple of his sets.
As it went, Deacon bookended his Outside Lands performance with a more emotionally charged iteration of audience participation than his standard fare. Before leaving the stage, he instructed each member of the audience to join hands with the person next to them, close their eyes, and think of three people: First, the person they miss the most, next the person they love the most, and third the most recent person they know of being killed by an authority figure. This exercise ended with a short speech addressing the racial controversies ongoing in current American culture – something close to Deacon given April’s Baltimore riots. Rather than launch into a soapbox rant for the rest of the set, he poignantly culminated his exercise with a reminder that we are all human, and a call for unity. Deacon’s speech ended with a powerful rendition of his latest single “Feel the Lightning,” and left concertgoers with an experience more enriching than a party-driven concert.
RL Grime’s set fell flat by no fault of his own
The “less is more” mentality of RL Grime has always been one of his more charming assets. Henry Steinway’s magnanimously simplistic production under the Goosebumps-inspired moniker has always provided a perfect foil to his Clockwork project, and he tends to successfully recreate this quality in his live sets. Unfortunately, less wasn’t more in Steinway’s Outside Lands set, which was ultimately a bit of a let down. Fans weren’t treated to the Sus Boy visuals that set the stage for RL Grime’s set at HARD Summer a week prior, instead receiving a stoic backdrop of the RL Grime logo for the entirety of the performance.
Of course, the absence of a visualizer doesn’t detract upon the skill of a performer, particularly during a daytime set. Steinway’s mixing itself was respectable, as he comfortably traversed a variety of genres spanning trap, drum and bass, jungle terror, and more. He also managed to strike a fair balance between his set mainstays and performance surprises, notably closing his set with an unreleased Djemba Djemba collaboration. Unfortunately, the positive facets of Steinway’s mixing were overshadowed by the glaring failures of the Twin Peaks stage’s sound system. Barely audible near the stage, and drowned out by subwoofers from afar, it was difficult to adequately appreciate the highlights of Steinway’s performance.
Kendrick Lamar champions the weekend
An anomaly among a list of electronic musicians, Kendrick Lamar receives a nod for two reasons: firstly, Lamar’s presence is inextricable from the electronic community — countless trap songs feature the famous guttural vocals from “Maad City,” and Skrillex includes “Collard Greens” in practically all of his sets. Secondly, in purveying the most aggressive and danceable set of Outside Lands’ Saturday lineup, Kendrick Lamar proved that non-electronic musicians can straddle the line between EDM performance and ‘Win Butler philosophy’ to culminate in a performance that unites all concertgoers with enthused satisfaction.
Lamar defies the live hip-hop archetype of rapper and DJ, opting instead for a full band, supported by an optically impressive and meticulously narrative visual backdrop. Onstage, Kendrick is Bob Dylan, removed from Highway 61 into the ghettos of Compton. He traverses his musical catalog with live performances that are almost indistinguishable from their recorded counterparts.
While the lyrics of “King Cunta” remain the same, his vocal cadences and the band’s live interpretation transform it into an entirely unique track. “Maad City” doesn’t include metal guitar riffs or a Hendrix-esque solo in its initial incarnation. However, seeing Lamar gyrate onstage to these orchestrations highlights the song’s inherent pain, anger, and fear in such a way that a recording could never succeed.
As Kendrick and his band retell his albums’ narratives, the stage surrounding them complement the story, with footage of his Compton days, his era of success, and frenetically arranged shots of his album artwork. At the height of the set’s aggression, the screen is simply red and rife with strobes. Ultimately, in a day focused away from the electronic scene, Kendrick delivered a set with electrifying fervor.
The Knocks and Jonas Rathsman provide the perfect afterparties
Outside Lands isn’t exactly a house head’s paradise — then again, it was never meant to be. With that said however, the annual Heineken Dome offered up a pretty fine selection of artists throughout the weekend, from Jimmy Edgar to Kidnap Kid and Wolf + Lamb. Getting in to the Dome, unfortunately, was a whole different story due to its small size and long line.
Thankfully, there were no shortage of amazing Outside Lands after parties. Friday, for instance, featured a headlining set from The Knocks who packed the Mezzanine after the festival. Hot of the success of their So Classic EP, B-Roc and JPatt are finally receiving their long-deserved moment in the sun. Saturday featured the likes of Jonas Rathsman and Moon Boots at Audio who utilized the venue’s Funktion-One system to its full potential, going back-to-back into the late hours of the night. Seeing as how the festival ended just short of 10:00pm each day, the after parties proved the perfect complement to the daytime fun.
All in all, Outside Lands continues to be a worthy counterpoint to events like Coachella and Lollapalooza — albeit a more chilled-out experience. The earlier sound curfew equates to more time in the sun, less rowdy party-goers, and an altogether more relaxing festival environment. With that said, the hype behind the festival can still be felt throughout the entire city. As one Uber driver mentioned, it’s the second busiest weekend of the year for San Francisco after New Year’s Eve.
With an engaging mix of bands, DJs, and live electronic acts, Outside Lands has cemented itself as a premier festival experience and an ideal summertime destination. Those looking for an alternative to the hectic, hedonistic fare of standard festival culture should assuredly invest in a trip to the Bay Area next August.
Words by Michael Sundius and Will McCarthy