Outside Lands recap: great music and great people watching at the expense of claustrophobia

Sept. 1, 2013, 8:02 p.m.
Photo by Frances Guo
Photo by Frances Guo

As someone whose idea of fun tends to involve browsing Netflix or Wikipedia, and whose principle interaction on any given day is usually with a pile of pillow pets, nothing could have prepared me for last month’s Outside Lands, for which an average of 60,000 people stormed San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park each of three days in search of a unique experience.

The first performance I caught on Day 1 was Northern Irish artist Foy Vance, who delivered an intimate set to a relatively small crowed at the Sutro Stage. Vance was one of my festival favorites: his voice was soulful and gritty, heartfelt and guttural, and his easy charisma more than compensated for his set’s lack of showiness.

Rhye, a Los Angeles-based duo, performed at Sutro later that afternoon. The pair’s main vocalist, Mike Milosh, has a beautifully androgynous voice that weaves in and out of languid basslines effortlessly, in concert and in recordings. His final song, “Open,” shone with a sultry, ethereal energy. Young Chicago-based quartet Smith Westerns performed on the Lands End Stage, but their standout track, “3am Spiritual,” was, frankly, better recorded than it was live and faced with preserving wistful dreaminess with an energetic concert setting.

Day 2’s highlight was Youth Lagoon, who I chose to see over Young the Giant partially out of musical preference, but mostly out of a desire to escape the bone-crushing crowd of the latter group. His set was decidedly trippy, focusing more on a psychedelic ambience than lyrics or visual effects. The audience seemed slightly dazed by the end—I know my eardrums were ringing—and it felt as if he had given something deeply personal, almost visceral, to the crowd.

International cuisine booths at Outside Lands. Photo by Frances Guo.
International cuisine booths at Outside Lands. Photo by Frances Guo.

On Day 3, Vampire Weekend gave a fantastic performance, compensating only slightly for the fact that, by this point, I could barely breathe and was beginning to fear literal death by compression. Their 17-song set featured songs from their latest album — “Modern Vampires of the City” — and old fan-favorites, including “A-Punk” and “Oxford Comma,” and – unlike my rib cage – frontman Ezra Koenig seemed at ease throughout the performance. They closed with “Walcott,” their traditional goodbye song, at which point I decided to sacrifice the only chance I may ever have to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers from 40 feet away for the sake of my sanity. Unfortunately, as the guy squashed next to me sagely informed me, the only way out was up.

I looked up, and there did in fact seem to be an almost factory-line-like progression of desperate concert-goers being passed over the heads of the crowd towards the stage, security guards helping to carry them down. The only two options for anyone who wanted out were to somehow shove their way through 300 feet of packed bodies (frankly impossible) or to crowdsurf towards the front. The only way out was up, indeed.

So I did it. One guy who must have seen the look of paralyzing fear on my face shouted “Don’t worry, we’re all having fun here!” No, we really aren’t. It was insane. When I felt solid ground again, I could have wept.

Outside Lands fully absorbed the flavor of the city: gourmet food and wine, a love for the outdoors, embracing creativity and the permeating reek of marijuana everywhere. So it was interesting how uniform much of the crowd seemed: a liberal, bohemian, crop-top and flower-crown sporting mass of upper-middle-class yuppies, young teenagers with Polaroids, and middle-aged adults in Birkenstocks and CamelBaks. Cliché as it sounds, the people-watching alone was half the experience.

At the end of the three days, I’m glad that I went. I certainly don’t think I’ll ever go again, and I would never recommend it to someone with even the barest whisper of claustrophobic tendencies, but it was worth experiencing the quintessential West Coast music festival at least once. Perhaps, in a few years, I’ll check out the lineup for Outside Lands again. At least I’d know what I was signing up for. For now, though, a few solid weeks of Netflix await. My eardrums and ribs are still recovering.

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