A sweaty man in a pink, furry bodysuit kicked up a cloud of dirt as he staggered toward the main festivities. A legion of temporary toilets added their odors to the haze in his wake, making the path to Outside Lands’ main stage a noxious, fetid descent. In the sweltering basin below, the crowd churned and writhed around. Their shrieks mingled with indistinct, gurgling bass and emanated throughout Golden Gate Park. At the bottom of the hill, a small cadre of expert festivalgoers unveiled a banner and assembled themselves around it for a photo shoot. It read, “FUCK HER #HARD.”
Because festival culture’s base hedonism and crass antics inevitably amount to a mostly unpleasant and often offensive scene, it’s up to the performers to deliver attendees from the misery. Their challenge is to transport people away from the festival environment, not enhance it. At the seventh annual Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival, which rolled out over three days last weekend, several sets did precisely that. Organizers capitulated to the swelling popularity of electronic music and booked DJ Tiesto as headliner, billed UK house act Disclosure up high, and erected a DJ tent for an all-day mini-rave. Meanwhile, headlining rappers Kanye West and Macklemore dominated much of the discussion. Traditionally an indie rock-oriented festival, Outside Lands’ newfound prescription for musical diversity proved especially wise, as hip-hop and electronic artists provided many of the strongest moments.
Kanye West commanded the chatter, but New Orleans bounce artist Big Freedia ruled the weekend. Easily the most anarchic and seemingly spontaneous set of the weekend, Big Freedia bucked the rehearsed conventions of festival performance with skittish samples, a thunderous roar, and a riotous twerking troupe. Male and female dancers twerked across the stage, but that wasn’t enough, so they found a stepladder and twerked up that. DJ table: twerk; white folding chairs: twerk; stage scaffolding: they twerked up that, too. Was Big Freedia’s set all about ass? Pretty much, but not like the reductive objectification that ass meant to the unofficial festival-greeters with their banner. For Big Freedia’s consummate performance, super-human ass movement meant uninhibited physical abandon. Everyone at Outside Lands threatened to “go hard,” which usually amounted to feverish exhibitions of machismo and pugilistic sexual boasts, but Big Freedia did go harder, all for the sake of ecstatic release.
Outside Lands was light on local performers, but San Francisco songwriter Christopher Owens treated the Saturday afternoon crowd to a charming set of western-inflected balladry that boded well for his forthcoming album. The former Girls leader was accompanied by a full band, including organist, backup singers, and a pedal steel guitarist. Owens’ twangy flourishes emphasized his core strengths as a nuanced and warmly emotional songwriter. In contrast to the overwrought crowd-pandering prevalent throughout Outside Lands — and especially during Haim’s set — Owens’ rapport with the audience was understated and reserved. He shrugged off technical difficulties, likening his amp to an old truck, and calmly stated how pleased he was to perform just a few blocks away from his house. He not only acknowledged the stage help, but applauded them. It was classy. In charisma and demeanor, the most comparable set to Owens’ came from Tom Petty.
Although the total experience of Outside Lands was basically assaultive, certain corners of the festival grounds offered relief. To discover country artist Kacey Musgraves in the breezy afternoon was a pleasure. Tedeschi Trucks Band’s woozy skronk and stomp wafted around like vintage perfume, and the wooded parts of the park with minor food and music attractions were ideal for a break. Alternately, The House tent featured putrid, Heineken-green lighting and nonstop DJ sets. But although no less claustrophobic than the main crowd, The House somehow felt like an oasis, full of eviscerating bass and DJ Icey’s garish Top-40 mashups played at punishing volumes.
Still, the anticipation of Kanye West’s performance outweighed everything. It was also the most illuminative about celebrity and festival audiences. The crowd was rapt before he even began, giving credence to the messianic claims that the famous rapper is prone to. His set was not a spectacle. There was little more than a man on stage with a mic. With his crossover listenership and constant media spotlight, West put on a restrained show that implied a bold claim: With this kind of fame, even the least bit of effort enthralls all of the sycophants.
West’s set started diabolically. Swathed in fog and red light with a scarf wrapped around his head, he stood still in lieu of a greeting, and hardly showed his face all night. Blasts of red light pulsated and throbbed as he began “Black Skinhead,” and the jumbo monitors eventually switched to a warped video feed of the rapper on stage. At one point, West simply laid down. The crowd erupted.
The festival-industrial complex mostly gets criticized for disrupting the touring ecosystem and enabling irresponsible drug use. The strangest thing about music festivals, though, is how little it seems to matter whether the performances are good or not — a phenomenon made abundantly clear by West.