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Outside Lands Recap: Elton Was Awesome and Kendrick Was ‘Important’

And St. Vincent had the best ax face.

Elton John at Outside Lands 2015 (c) Moses Namkung

SLIDESHOW

Elton John.

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Elton John at Outside Lands 2015 (c) Moses Namkung

Natalie Prass.

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Elton John at Outside Lands 2015 (c) Moses Namkung

Speedy Ortiz.

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Elton John at Outside Lands 2015 (c) Moses Namkung

First Aid Kit.

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Elton John at Outside Lands 2015 (c) Moses Namkung

St Vincent.

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Elton John at Outside Lands 2015 (c) Moses Namkung

D'Angelo.

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Elton John at Outside Lands 2015 (c) Moses Namkung

Mac DeMarco.

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Elton John at Outside Lands 2015 (c) Moses Namkung

Tame Impala.

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Elton John at Outside Lands 2015 (c) Moses Namkung

Toro y Moi.

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Elton John at Outside Lands 2015 (c) Moses Namkung

St. Paul and the Broken Bones.

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Elton John at Outside Lands 2015 (c) Moses Namkung

Elton John.

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The eighth annual Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival was, above all else, a triumph of scheduling. Though the lineup was heavy on two of the contemporary music scene's most loathable genres—indie folk and commercial EDM—there was an alternative to either of these at any given time. And though there weren't any true stunners like Paul McCartney or Willie Nelson, it's safe to say there was something for everyone.


FRIDAY

Natalie Prass's sweet yet commanding voice wafted over the park in the festival's first hour, serenading the earliest stragglers over jazzy chords. From her position on the Sutro stage just beyond the front entrance, her voice sounded eerie from afar, pristine from up close: the perfect guide into wonderland.

I wandered over to the smaller Panhandle stage, where Speedy Ortiz was performing. They were sloppy as hell, and they didn't move around much even when they kicked their tense grunge songs into overdrive. Generally, Sadie Dupuis' majestic lyricism—best showcased on their fantastic second album, Major Arcana—would be enough to focus on. But as is sadly often the case with smaller-stage bands, her vocals were too muddy for any of the lyrics to be comprehensible. This is a band probably better suited for a club. Their main appeal came from their willingness to make screeching guitar noises at an ubercommercial festival.

Robert DeLong, the festival's first EDM act, was just on the other side of Hellman Hollow from Speedy Ortiz, at the massive Twin Peaks stage. A capable singer who also drummed in addition to pushing the usual buttons, DeLong unfortunately spent most of his set doing awful trap-into-dubstep-into-house mixes and engaging in some shameless self-promotion (using one’s own website URL as a loop is not exactly an endearing move).

I expected First Aid Kit on the main stage to be an indie folk band by the numbers. How surprising to find a tough, hard-hitting rock band with a great sense of humor and no fear of using their pedals. They cracked jokes. They eschewed "whoa-ohs." They covered "War Pigs" quite convincingly, adding some disarming two-part harmonies. (Still a shame, though, that they turned a tribute to their heroes Johnny Cash and June Carter into a "you be my" game.)

When St. Vincent played with Tune-Yards in Oakland three years ago, it was one of the most visceral and terrifying performances I've ever seen. Singer/guitar hero Annie Clark was shredding with an expression of utter terror on her face, as if playing for dear life. At her Outside Lands performance, Clark’s ax face was one of complete control—the same control she exerts over her band, a relatively tiny four-piece with two keyboards. She's an almost militaristically commanding performer, the perfect match for her digitally distorted hard rock.

I saw about thirty minutes of Wilco—who followed a set from their latest album with a string of familiar alt-country ditties—then left to get a good spot for D'Angelo. En route, I had to brave Chet Faker and his audience of hooting bros, who almost completely drowned out his too-quiet downtempo beats. Luckily, they all left, presumably for Porter Robinson at Twin Peaks.

D'Angelo's set was quick and sharp. The languid, stoned soul of his best album, 2000's Voodoo, was nowhere to be found. Rather, most of the setlist came from his harder-edged new opus, Black Messiah, and in keeping with that album's more rock-influenced vibe, he whipped out an impressive guitar to shred on (though not, as one audience member was disappointed to discover, the pink guitar he was allegedly given by Prince). Throughout, he took on the role of a funk bandleader, counting horn stabs to the band on his fingers and switching up his glamorous outfit at any possible opportunity. The set ended in a clean hour with no prior announcement, leaving the audience to wonder what exactly had just hit them.


SATURDAY

Saturday kicked off with perennial indie-rock fave Mac DeMarco, fresh off his new collection, Another One. DeMarco has a reputation as a goofball, but here he was stonefaced and serious, even as his bandmembers joked back and forth. This was a good thing. Another One is the fullest refinement of his sound yet, so there's no reason for DeMarco to hang onto a persona whose entire joke was to conflict with his classicist pop songs. But it's unlikely anyone disappointed by this shift would be bored. His songs rarely breach three minutes, and he played all his best-known tunes.

New Orleans bounce rapper Big Freedia was the festival's biggest surprise, there for a promotion with Brenda's Soul Food at the GastroMagic side stage in the woods. In spite of her music being fiercely queer, sounding fiercely regional, and bearing almost no signs of stylistic compromise, straight bros love her. I saw a group of fifteen of them gather for a selfie with the Queen Diva, all of them making shaka signs and cuddling up to Freedia.

I saw a few minutes of Django Django, a sort of art rock-EDM fusion act, before heading back to the main stage for Billy Idol. Idol remarkably didn't replicate his '80s hits down to a T, as many other classic-rock holdovers do (go see a Doobie Brothers concert for some real déjà vu). He jammed out with his band, spat profane ad-libs, and roared the festival's name a few too many times for comfort. The only real cringe-inducing moment was his cover of the Doors' "L.A. Woman" as "San Fran Woman." First of all, Billy: expect Jim Morrison's zombie at your door soon. Second: we really need to pass out pamphlets to these musicians explaining why they shouldn't call it "San Fran."

Tame Impala came immediately after Billy Idol—an odd choice until you realize how indebted to classic rock the latter-day Australian psych greats are. The set was a nice mix of material from their three albums, though it leaned heavily toward the new Currents. Heavily inspired by disco, Currents is a divisive entry in the Tame Impala oeuvre. But its spacious songs went over well. The best moments of Tame Impala's set weren't their tighter, hookier tunes, but the ones in which the audience could get lost and gaze into the impressive, swirling light show. The peak came at the end, with the seemingly endless lead-out jam of "Apocalypse Dreams."

On the other side of the park, Kendrick Lamar delivered the festival's most bracing, urgent set. Even with his obligatory "make some noise" shouts, he was tense, unsmiling, and seemingly committed to banging the songs out as quickly as possible. Luckily, this performance style was the perfect match for his music: hyperspeed rapping laced with jarring sociopolitical observations and boasts that may or may not be ironic. Though his set didn't have the unpredictability of Kanye West's headlining turn last year or the fun factor of Big Boi's fantastic 2013 Twin Peaks performance, the proceedings made it clear to the audience that they were witnessing possibly the most important rapper of his generation.


SUNDAY

I managed to catch the tail end of Allah-Las, a hooky and professionally dressed garage rock band. Next came James Bay. Though it was easy to size him up as a “soulful white guy” (shudder), he turned out to be more of a pop singer in the Bad-era Michael Jackson vein, all power-pop guitars and slick, high-pitched vocal melodies. Whoever was manning the soundboard that day must have had a flash of inspiration: Both artists sounded crisp and clear.

DJ Mustard is one of the biggest pop producers of the last half-decade, with hits like 2 Chainz' "I'm Different" and Tyga's "Rack City" to his name. He played a few of those, but most of his set was a mix of hip-hop hits he didn't even produce. Ultimately, I could have seen exactly what Mustard did at any high school prom circa 2013, though with less finesse and on a far smaller sound system.

On the main stage, Hot Chip underwhelmed. The suave British electropop outfit, now in its fifteenth year and on its sixth album, should have been the ideal mix of EDM and indie smarts for this crowd. But singer Alexis Taylor sounded half-asleep and uninterested—unsurprising given how drab the latest album, Why Make Sense?, turned out to be—and the bass was scarcely enough to rouse the crowd. One interesting moment? A cover of LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends."

Sam Smith can sound a bit dull on record, and live, he doesn't switch from the "soul" preset his voice seems perpetually stuck on. But I was surprised at the amount of energy he was able to give off. Press photos portray him as a pleading, hunched-over sadsack, but live he beams and waves, just like a proper entertainer. And his band was as tight as it needed to be. He still isn't making brilliant music. But as a low-stakes yet substantial opener to Elton John, he did the job just fine.

As for Elton John—wow, what a performance. His voice has matured majestically from an insectoid whine to a deep, grizzled bark, which he delivers while barely moving on his piano bench. It's amazing how something as simple as a voice change could throw his entire discography into new relief. The mammoth piano stomp of "Bennie & the Jets" becomes terrifying when driven by that deathly serious voice. It's unfortunate that the new Elton John couldn't quite drive some of the rockier numbers. Without any humor in his vocals, "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" and "Crocodile Rock" came across as staid. But when he can pull off "Tiny Dancer" without one audience member ironically pulling out a lighter, that's an accomplishment.


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