Outside Lands 2021 Review: Leaning in on Halloween’s Darker Side | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, November 30th, 2021  

Outside Lands

Outside Lands 2021 Review: Leaning in on Halloween’s Darker Side,

Nov 08, 2021 Photography by Joshua Mellin
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The acts that marked Outside Lands’ return to Golden Gate Park the last weekend of October can be broadly divided to the colorful and ebullient (Lizzo, Hinds, Remi Wolf) or those that leaned into a darker aesthetic (Angel Olsen, Moses Sumney, Reggie Watts), perfect for the festival’s 13th installment and Halloween theme. Due to the pandemic, it was the first and probably last time that the Bay Area music festival would ever coincide with all hallow’s eve. Next year, it will return to its regular slot in the summer—Aug 5-7.

A smattering of festival-goers took the opportunity to wear costumes throughout the three-day event, but everyone came out in full force on Sunday, donning superhero costumes, animal and fruit onesies, and cosplay memes. There was a huge contingent of Ranger Dave’s—the festival’s official mascot, several Ted Lasso’s, and at least one very convincing Hunter S. Thompson, as played by Johnny Depp in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. I myself was an avocado in search of toast but was overjoyed when a trio of other avocadoes found me, no mean feat in an event that saw more than 70,000 people each day.

Atmospheric river, the weather system of torrential rains and strong winds that saw flash flooding in the Bay Area the previous weekend, meant that the muddy, wet ground was covered with sand in several areas including the fields in front of Land’s End and Sutro stages—giving walks to see acts there an easy, beachside vibe, as folks set their Outside Lands blankets down. San Francisco’s fog rolled in predictability at different points but miraculously we were spared rain. The heavens did open early Monday morning and rained continuously till evening.

There was no dampening the spirits of music fans at the festival. Many felt confident of the city’s strict mandates for COVID vaccines and negative tests. On the shuttles, Muni buses, and even in lines to get in, staff were on hand to tell people to pull their mask over their noses. Once inside the grounds, most people were maskless. After almost 18 months without live music, many were poised for a good time.

Tame Impala
Tame Impala
Sharon Van Etten
Sharon Van Etten
Tyler, the Creator
Tyler, the Creator
Caroline Polachek
Caroline Polachek

Headliners—Tame Impala (who dressed as The Wiggles), Lizzo (had a Squid Games costume change), and The Strokes (neglected to play dress up)—pulled the biggest crowds but Tyler, the Creator’s set at the Twin Peaks stage was one of the most talked about. He had an impressive, actual speedboat onstage. It rocked violently as he performed “Lemonhead” from in it. “It’s nigg*s in the crowd. It’s usually white people only,” he observed, “I feel safe,” the irony not lost on anyone. It is a credit to festival organizers, Another Planet Entertainment (APE), that they’ve always strived to be inclusive with the festival’s lineup. And if they’re not, Bay Area fans are very vocal.

More than a hundred acts were on the bill over the weekend offering diverse acts from rap to EDM, DJs to indie rock, even Mongolian throat singers, The Hu. Caroline Polacheck dressed as Marie Antoinette, Sharon Van Etten commanding the fog and then performing a duet with Angel Olsen, Lord Huron, Bartees Strange, Hinds, and Vampire Weekend were some of the indie rock crowd’s favorites. The latter drew out the best vibes with nostalgic, aughts favorites— “Oxford Comma,” “Step,” and “A-Punk” alongside their 2020 Father Of The Bride highlights, “Harmony Hall” and “This Life.” It was also their first concert in two years, and their only gig of 2021.

The lack of more international mid-tier and legacy acts meant that organizers shifted their focus to a host of local, up and comers from Remi Wolf to Rexx Life Raj, ODIE, and indie darling, mxmtoon. There was still so much on offer and here are our Top 6 acts. They helped establish the balance between light and dark back to the live music and festival universe after almost two very grim years.

1. Lizzo

Let there be light, love and fun? Then let there be Lizzo! When Lizzo performed at the Land’s End stage in 2018 she had yet to break into the mainstream in a big way but hers was the name on everyone’s lips. And the crowds that gathered to watch her knew all the words to tracks like “Fitness,” “Boys,” and “Good as Hell.” Four years on and one pandemic later, she has ascended to superstar status and again everyone danced and sang along with her. As infectious as ever was her brand of big girl, body positivity. She took to the stage in a fluorescent green leotard, backed by an all female-rock band singing “Rumors,” her recent single featuring Cardi B—both hitting back at haters, “All the “rumors are true, yeah…this shit from my soul, yeah/Black people made rock n’ roll, yeah.” She twerked with her dancers and several thousand of her closest friends who she also got to shoot a Tik Tok video, live during her set. About an hour in, she exited and returned in a Squid Game mask and dress— with her dancers dressed as henchmen—to do the “Thriller” dance, before finally bringing the evening to a perfect close with one of the best love-yourself anthems ever, “Truth Hurts.”

Lizzo
Lizzo
Lizzo
Lizzo

2. Remi Wolf

Bay Area upstart Remi Wolf burst onstage a riot of color and energy! Stepping out in a stripey, fluorescent pink top, she took no time kicking off her shoes. Next, she peeled off her top, then shirt, down to eventually her sports bra. Granted she must have worked up a sweat as she jumped and slid across the floor, dry-humped it—to the delightful shrieks of her hometown crowd—and like a toddler, cartwheeled back and forth, in between singing her self-described “funky, soul-pop.” Referring to the stage as “like Tumble Tikes up here,” her high-octane charisma was undeniable as she bantered easily with the crowd—calling them out for being “a narcissist if they thought everything was always about them” but also that they should go to therapy, if “they never thought they were sexy,” before she jumped into “Sexy Villain,” a track off her recently released debut Juno. Other highlights included the earworm-y “Monte Carlo,” “Liquor Store,” and “Photo ID.” With her almost indescribable vocal stylings—somewhere between Björk’s cute-sy gurgles and Amy Winehouse’s jazzy contralto-phrasing—she was also sensational on covers, “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley and MGMT’s “Electric Feel.” It was the quickest way out of any lingering doldrums one might have had.

Remi Wolf
Remi Wolf
Remi Wolf
Remi Wolf

3. Angel Olsen

Imploring for the proceedings to be “more spooky,” Angel Olsen looked the part of a high priestess of a darker strain of indie folk, with her characteristic bouffant and her whole band dressed all in black. Singing against a monochromatic screen just as the sun was about to set and the colored lights came on under the canopy of the eucalyptus trees, she opened with the eponymous “All Mirrors,” and followed it with “Spring.” She then teased the audience with the promise of a new song, “I wrote it yesterday,” she said, but went on to sing “Shut Up & Kiss Me,” from 2016’s My Woman. “You all seem to know it,” she mused, “were you in my bedroom?” Accompanied by a string duo, her moody but stunning rendition of “Chance” delivered like a heartbroken ’50s chanteuse was an exercise in measured pacing and emotional veracity that brought her set to a beautiful close.

Angel Olsen
Angel Olsen

4. Moses Sumney

“This shit is better than Coachella,” proclaimed the commanding, Asheville, North Carolina-based artist, Moses Sumney after his opening song, “Virile” —a treatise on the male physique and what it represents. To undercut that, he started his set with a mask over his eyes and was impeccably dressed like a Gladiator, in a black kilt and dark cape, spotting a striking, new, blonde hair-do, (at one point, he took off the cape to reveal a breast plate). More than once he referred to his songs as “about trauma.” For his last album Aromanticism, his festival appearances often featured him solo with his keyboard, guitar and loop pedals. As his critically acclaimed double album, Grae, was released at the beginning of the pandemic last year, Sumney’s had time to consider the vision of his new show, which—if his Outside Lands set is anything to go by—will be dark, spellbinding and expansive. As the sonics of the album Grae has more of a genre-blending range than any of his earlier work, his set here already reflects this with a trio of horn players, in addition to his band. The dark metal and rock elements now hit harder while tracks like “Colouour” were imbibed with an earthy-Nina Simone vibe. On “Ask Me in 20 Years,“ a favorite off Grae, he doubled-down, “Fuck, it’s about trauma too,” before treating the audience with a searing performance. He teased out the emotional lows of the song’s lyricism while hitting the piercing, sky-high falsettos with ease, guaranteed to make a few new fans in the process.

5. Reggie Watts

The inimitable leader of the houseband on The Late Late Show with James Corden, Reggie Watts was a last minute stand-in for his friend Marc Rebillet who cancelled due to an injury. Gifting us with one of the festival’s best sets, Watts sang the praises of all things gloom, proclaiming his love for Bauhaus, System of a Down, and death metal as he shrieked like a metal head to a simple but effective, looped beat and synthesized melody. And who would not consider seriously micro-dosing on Medicinal Ketamine after Watts recommended we “get sub woofer speakers, a comfortable mattress, a bottle of water with a cap that comes off easy, and some Brian Eno,” to let reality reveal itself to us. There was also a funny takedown of brunch and the brunch aficionado’s preoccupation with which way to have their eggs. His stream-of-consciousness comedy style also poked fun at our obsession with “the next hot band” as he randomly quoted bands from yesteryears, and had many in stitches as he riffed on the festival’s moniker “...not so long ago this festival used to be primarily inside of structures…it’s not fully outside lands cause there are still some tents, but that’s just to pay homage to the roots of the festival.”

Reggie Watts
Reggie Watts

6. The Strokes

Like the mise en scene of a horror movie—dim-lit with heavy fog—you barely noticed Julian Casablancas had already hit the stage when you heard him mumbling, almost inaudibly “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” from their self-imposed media blackout, fifth album, Comedown Machine. Here was a hint of things to come, The Strokes were playing by their own rules. They started late and appeared to be dropping songs off their list as they went along. There was no mention of Halloween. They were the only Land’s End headliner to not make an effort to dress up and horror of horrors—he seemed to be mocking San Francisco’s stricter COVID mandates: “I didn’t get let in to a restaurant today, I had a vaccine card.” And its neighborhood noise ordinance — “Is the PA working?” “Our sound guy, Gus, is notorious for damaging ear drums so I’m sure it’s the law or some San Francisco bullshit.” Compare that to the banter at their Los Angeles show at The Forum, the night before: “You guys are the best. Fucking LA. You know it…I don’t need to tell my usual lie when I get into towns. This is the best!” But to the diehard, “Who cares?!?”

Standing alone with my mask on, freezing, in a field of 10,000s, surrounded by fresh-faced kids who probably weren’t even born when their debut Is This It, dropped 20 years ago, all it took was to hear the familiar, dueling guitar strains from Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr—and it put my faith back in life, in music, in rock n roll. I cried. But I don’t know if it was the nostalgia the music immediately evoked in my soul; the sheer magnitude of the last 18 months; the fact that their talents are undeniable and I’m overjoyed the quintet got back together to record The New Abnormal; or the bittersweet acknowledgement that my best friends weren’t standing next to me because tickets—even for bougie VIP—were so incredibly hard to come by.

The band powered through “Bad Decisions,” an insane performance of “Juicebox” and climaxed with “Someday”—and yet were still only five songs in. Then Casablancas deadpanned: “Can we have 10 mins of silence please? For the inequality,” before he relented: “Just Kidding, YOLO!” and delivered “You Only Live Once”—a highlight in a set with not a single miss-step. It was matched with the exuberance on “Reptilia,” Nikolai Fraiture’s driving bass riff as urgent as ever and another high point with the crowds jumping and yelling along to Casablancas.

No matter how shambolic Casablancas’ vocals got—at one point he sang “meow meow meow” on the final lines of “Someday,” presumably because he had forgotten the lyrics, but who knows? Maybe it was intentional as he literally barked on another song later in their set. Still, the rest of the band were ever solid, and nothing derailed them. Drummer Fabrizio Moretti’s dexterity was in full force when he caught a baby doll that butter fingers-Casablancas dropped onstage—the fans relished the moment. And whilst Casablancas seemed to do whatever-the-fuck-he-wanted with the lyrics, his actual vocals were in fine form from the guttural, punk shrieks of “Juicebox” to the pathos and speak-sing on “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus.” The Frank Sinatra-croon on the jam band-inspired “Ode to the Mets” was haunting and hit the emotional low perfectly. While on the defining classics off their debut—“Is This It,” Hard To Explain,” and “New York City Cops”—they sounded as good if not better than when I first heard them live, in the smaller tent at Reading Festival, in 2001, before the album even dropped. Folks complaining Casablanca was surly or didn’t want to be in San Francisco, missed the whole point of The Strokes. Their North Star have never been The Beatles or any by-the-book rock band, but hard to pin, iconoclast Lou Reed. And if you needed to be reminded Hammond Jr actually wore a t-shirt featuring Reed’s Transformer album art.

Their set brought a fitting close to a brilliant first day of the festival’s return after several COVID delays. The band exited the stage after the frenetic crescendo of “Last Nite,” but were kind enough to not make fans wait too long before they returned for the encore with “The Adults Are Talking,” from The New Abnormal, finishing off with a rousing rendition of “New York City Cops.” Then Casablancas bid farewell and as the rest of the band members followed him off the stage, the crowds remained, steadfast, and wishfully chanted “One more song, one more song…” into the cold, dark night.

www.sfoutsidelands.com

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