Outside Lands Recap: A Whimsical Whirlwind Weekend
As I rushed through McLaren Pass to catch Jukebox the Ghost early Friday afternoon, I was compelled to stop and admire the scene in front of me. There, in the middle of the woods, was a large sign, made out of gumdrops, licorice, and chocolate, welcoming me to Choco Lands. It was a whimsical element that invoked childhood memories of Disney World and set a magical tone that endured throughout the weekend.
And what a wonderful weekend it was. The setting alone was awe-inspiring -- the trees in California are so beautiful and diverse, none of my pictures could convey the majesty of the surroundings. And the smell -- oh, the smell. It was a full sensory experience. Not to mention perfect weather -- cool and foggy, a welcome change from New York City's nasty heat and humidity.
I had originally set up my schedule so that I could shoot as many bands as possible, but it was immediately apparent that I would have to abandon that plan -- there was too much to enjoy, beyond the music, for me to spend my whole day trudging from photo pit to photo pit.
I've been to festivals where down time is the worst -- I would sit there and literally count down how many bands I had to shoot before I could finally go home. Outside Lands presented the opposite problem -- I couldn't get enough down time. I even sacrificed shooting a couple of bands, just so I could take a moment (or two) to enjoy the incredible atmosphere created by Superfly Presents and Another Planet.
Read on as I give you all of the (tangible) reasons why Outside Lands is the best festival I've ever been to, then head over to our Facebook Page, where we've posted all of the photos from our spectacular weekend at Outside Lands.
When it comes to beverages, most festivals offer a handful of beer options (I'm not much of a beer drinker), and if they do offer wine, it's generally a red-or-white situation (no thanks). Some festivals serve cocktails (usually vodka-based, not my thing), and a rare few even serve Champagne (my kind of festival -- unless they charge $36/glass… ahem… Electric Zoo). I'll be the first to admit that I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to food and drinks, but Outside Lands cleared the bar with miles to spare.
Wine Lands is a perfect example of why Outside Lands is so different from other festivals. Each of the 49 wineries offered at least one red and one white option; you could choose to buy a taste, or go for a whole glass, making it easy to sample a variety of wines without overindulging. All of the 120 wines at the festival were also available for home delivery, which you could order on the spot. I probably tasted at least 10 reds over the course of the weekend, and my favorite was definitely the Special Blend from Claypool Cellars (that's right -- Claypool, as in Les Claypool).
Outside Lands hosted approximately 60 food vendors, all from establishments within the Bay Area -- I didn't know where to begin. As someone who suffers from severe food envy at restaurants, my strategy was to ask people what they were eating, what they thought of the food, and where they got it. Everything, it seemed, had a gourmet twist. I sampled crispy mac n cheese from Andalu, fancy pizza from Del Popolo, and chimichurri fries from 4505 Meats, but my absolute favorite meal was the BBQ Oysters from Woodhouse Fish Co. -- they were grilled to perfection, with bubbling cocktail sauce. I've always eaten my oysters raw, but wow. Game changer.
One person, while taking a picture of his friend's oysters, aptly stated "this is what makes this festival not Coachella". Comparisons between Outside Lands and Coachella were flying around all weekend, probably because the two festivals are in California, and many people I spoke to have attended both. Outside Lands earned high marks for the food, and a several people mentioned how well Outside Lands reflects the San Francisco community and culture. Everyone seemed to agree that both festivals create gratifying experiences that are extremely well executed.
Another great aspect of the festival were the activities and sideshows -- there was so much going on, so much to do, boredom just wasn't an option. I loved the live painting by the main stage, sponsored by Juxtapoz. Each day, artists would start with a blank wooden canvas and create pieces of art; it was cool to stop by periodically throughout the day and monitor their progress. The finished paintings were displayed around the perimeter of the Polo Field, and included pieces from last year's festival, as well as the newly completed ones from the weekend.
I didn't get to see as much comedy as I would have liked, but did duck in for about 15 minutes on Saturday to catch Neil Patrick Harris. The Barbary tent was packed, with a line of people waiting outside. Once you entered, you completely forgot that you were in a tent -- it was set up like a real comedy club, with tables, booths, and a bar. I meant to return on Sunday to see David Cross, but alas, I forgot. In my defense, the Barbary was pretty far away from everything else, and well, out of sight, out of mind.
The Barbary was located right next to Beer Lands, which was new for 2012. Much like at Wine Lands, you could choose between a taste or a glass from one of the 16 local and craft breweries represented. I'm not much of a beer drinker so I didn't spend any time there, but it's a great addition to the festival.
And finally… the music. The lineup was the perfect balance between discovery and nostalgia. The first few bands I saw were all fairly new to me. Yacht was an early standout -- I couldn't take my eyes off of Claire L. Evans, who delivered a strong performance, oozing with cool. I also liked how the band members rotated between instruments -- it gave the band a real "team" feeling, and made their performance that much more cohesive.
Antibalas , who had the difficult task of going up against the Foo Fighters, were another standout. I haven't seen them since the Roots Picnic in 2009, where, in addition to playing their own set, the brass section was part of the massive back-up band behind Public Enemy and TV on the Radio. "Like a fine wine, our music is meant to be enjoyed at the right temperature," Martin Perna, the group's founder addressed the crowd, "this is not the right temperature." If you ask us (and the lively crowd), Antibalas definitely brought the heat.
Animal Kingdom continued their string of debuts across the US with another solid performance. I caught their first NYC show a few weeks ago, and was pumped to see them again.
One of the year's buzziest bands, the Alabama Shakes, delivered a gritty and soulful performance, dripping with authenticity.
Alison Mosshart of The Kills is nothing short of incredible -- I'd seen her before with The Dead Weather at Street Scene in 2009, and she really performs with every ounce of her body and soul, down to her fingertips.
Bloc Party was another one of my favorites. It was a spirited show, and everyone in the band looked like they were having as much fun on stage as the fans below. Gotta love Kele Okereke's t-shirt collection.
And speaking of the fans -- Outside Lands drew an amazing festival crowd. I've never met so many people in such a short amount of time (except for maybe in college). Everyone was so nice and genuinely excited to be there, and for the artists, it must have been an uplifting feeling to be welcomed with such enthusiasm.
The element of nostalgia was really strong at Outside Lands. Nostalgia is a very personal thing -- it's as much about the context as it is about the music, and Big Boi is a prime example. I was 13 when I bought my first Outkast album, ATLiens. There was a drawing of a naked woman on the CD, which I covered with a sticker for fear that my parents would confiscate it. It's not that live interpretations of songs like "ATLiens", "Rosa Parks", and "Miss Jackson" evoke specific memories, but these songs are so deeply rooted in my teenage years -- they take me back to that era, and it's great to hear them live.
Sigur Ros played a mesmerizing set, and the light mist that came down as they took the stage was a perfect enhancement to their beautifully ambient sound. As soon as I left the photo pit, they launched into "Svefn - G - Englar" from Ágætis Byrjun; I sat on the grass and let the music take me back to a very specific period in college -- it's amazing how powerful music can be.
I swung by the main stage to catch some of Metallica's set, right as they started playing "Enter Sandman," the only song I really wanted to hear. At the risk of exposing my nerdy side, I'll admit that I've spent hours playing that song on Rock Band. Even from afar, their musical talent and stagemanship shined.
I can't think of a better way to cap off the festival than with Stevie Wonder -- his set was everything I could have possibly hoped for, and more. I didn't get to shoot it due a very restricted photo pit, but that allowed me to venture into the audience and really experience the greatness of his performance. He stressed the importance of love and unity, and put it into practice by guiding the audience in a singalong. I've never seen such strong audience participation -- you not only heard his message, but felt its effects rippling through the crowd. Talk about nostalgia: Stevie Wonder doesn't take me back to a specific time in my life, because his music has been present throughout. When he went from "Living For The City" into "I Just Called to Say I Love You," I almost lost it. That song has so much significance for me and my family, I couldn't begin to convey how special that moment was.
And with that, my amazing weekend at Outside Lands came to a close. Check out the full photo galleries on Facebook, and stay tuned for an updated Outside Lands travel guide, coming soon.