LCD Soundsystem and Beach House give otherworldly performances for Outside Lands day one
There are very music festivals that are graced with both the locale and the finances to escape the urban sprawls of the major cities they live in the shadows of. Festivals like Sasquatch and Bonnaroo are blessed exceptions, while the rest (Lollapalooza, Governors Ball) attempt to embrace the culture of their metropolitan areas with varying degrees of success. Then there is Outside Lands, the little wonderland tucked with San Francisco’s equivalent to Grand Central Park: Golden Gate Park. Albeit much smaller than its East Coast partner, Golden Gate still offers that same level of hidden intimacy, especially in and around Lindley Meadow, where the festival takes place.
During the day, the magic is somewhat muffled, but the crisscross of dirt trails through a tall canopy of trees is enough make you forget that you’re in the middle of one of the U.S.’s largest cities. At every turn in this little forest you find, more times than not, the very opposite of what you were expecting. Wandering in search of water and bathrooms, I stumbled upon ChocoLand, a delightful fantasy world which celebrated the cocoa leaf by crafting delicacies of every kind in its honor. A few steps later and I found myself watching a comedy-culinary performance, a massive booth dedicated to delicious coffee roasts, and another across from it boasting magical cocktail elixirs for the weary. It all had a strangely European theme, with little castles and workers dressed in medieval gowns flouncing around–but when you’re three chocolate macaroons deep and high off espresso shots, you’ll accept anything as your reality.
When you weren’t nerding out at the local arcade or grabbing a beer from a heavenly curated beer garden, you found yourself remembering that Outside Lands is also a music festival. It was hard to see everything day one, especially with stages spread far and between (although the lack of sound pollution was welcomed). Each of the three larger stages were tucked into respective corners of the festival, giving them a secluded and otherworldly feel, like you just happened to come across a fifty-foot stage in the middle of the woods.The first tangle of music I found myself surrounded in as I made my way into the festival was that of indie-folk duo Whitney. Drawn by the sound of the duo’s softly strummed, spritely vocalizations, which flittered from the Sutro stage, an enigmatic but small crowd swayed along to the bursts of brass that backed their sound. An illegitimate reincarnate of Smith Westerns, Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek’s newest project may have left behind any traces of its heavy-handed garage-surf-rock for a fuller ensemble, but not the illustrious guitar driven hooks of their past. Mellow and cheery, the duo stroked the anticipations of the early arrivers as they walked through the main festival gates, cooing their anxieties and rush with body swaying crooners like “Dave’s Song.”
Whitney was followed swiftly by indie-rock powerhouse Caveman, who, as their name implies, relied on a brutish onslaught of rock and punk to push the crowd into submission. Empty of any traditional hooks, Caveman, fronted by Matthew Iwanusa’s delirious howls, blends genres and African traditionalist music into a wildly eclectic banter of propulsive tunes that have drawn a lot of comparison to The Shins, and not for the lack of Iwanusa’s vocal similarities to James Mercer. Live however, the band’s bleak introspections are loudly blared through their brazen electric guitars and rhythmic percussiveness, while also playing the part of rocking-your-fucking-socks-off on songs like the anthemic “Never Going Back.” The beauty of Caveman, like most new indie rock prodigies, is that their songs already sound like generation defining, classic hits; and their easy listening structure make instant fans also instant sing-along experts. A non-stop jagged ball of energy, Caveman powered through their set like seasoned rockers, Iwanusa’s crowd dynamic is off the charts in terms of charisma–but the heart of their success came from the inherently tangible passion that gushed from their playing.
Now, if you’d pulled yourself reluctantly away from the Sutro stage long enough to endeavor to explore the rest of the festival grounds, you might’ve come across R&B pop trio LANY, who dominated their early afternoon slot on the Lands End stage. Coming over the hill and into the small polo field that made up the main festival grounds, the subtle atmospherics of the Los Angeles-based trio grew to an overwhelming size as they burned through the sensual moods of their 80-90’s dance tracks. An animated bunch, clearly vying with the crowd on who was enjoying their music more, LANY was one of the few acts to ignite actual dancing across their modest crowd. Unlike many synth-pop acts who fall victim to lost momentum due to spending their entire set motionless, LANY’s enormous stage presence and ever encompassing sonics left the crowd with nothing to do but walk away (an impossible option) or lose themselves to the dance.
The first casualty of disappointment came unexpectedly from New York’s synth-pop sweethearts Ra Ra Riot. Plagued by technical and audio issues that left Wesley Miles’ signature, heart-wrenching croon lost in the drowned out sea of the band’s other instruments, the five-piece pushed valiantly onward. It was unclear if Miles and company knew their vocals and instruments were woefully underwhelming, but nonetheless they found a way to hold it all together on sheer force of will alone, with Miles jumping from their drum set and Milo Bonacci and Mathieu Santos (guitar/bass) grooving out in their own world. It was enough to keep die hard fans at the stage, but many left the Lands End to find spots for upcoming acts, or food and bathroom breaks. The audio issue got somewhat better during a playthrough of “Beta Love” and “Water,” but it also reduced favorites like “Absolutely” and “Can You Tell” into broken and sad barely audible whispers. The worst part was that it also affected the band’s usually serendipitous string section. It was muffled as well, and when it came time for those moments in which Rebecca Zeller’s violin or Alexandra Lawn’s cello to shine, you could barely make out the hums. As Miles pushed through “Dance With Me,” the song’s opening lines rung unfortunately true for the band, their good day just didn’t turn out so great after all.
Brooklyn-based snyth-pop outfit St. Lucia picked up the slack on Lands End with their highly combustible, dance-anthems. Packed tight with sugary-sweet hooks and explosions of heaven sent synthesizer drops, Jean-Philip Grobler was simply the mode of communication, the human translator through which their pop inflections were channeled through on their way to the crowd. Pulling the youngest of crowds on day one (aka all the kids dressed like they were at Coachella), but also one of the largest for a midday slot, St. Lucia made the area in front of Lands End their own personal dance party, urging fans to get off their asses and move their bodies, and this wasn’t hard to do, especially to the lush sax and keyboards trills of “All Eyes On You.” It was hard to pull yourself from the depths of St. Lucia’s crowd, but as I made my way out (in the hopes of catching some of Foals) I found myself being led by the hand by complete strangers, who danced with me all the way into the outskirts of the crowd. This was the most definable difference that Outside Lands has with other music festivals, whether it’s the weather or the culture the bay has fostered for itself, these crowds were less rushed, mellow, and at ease with where they were. There were very few groups of people running from set to set, instead, they sat on wooden park benches drinking beer and coffee, having conversations, connecting in ways that were beyond small talk over a charge station.
With this air of positivity I was back at the Sutro, being thrown around in the mosh pits and head banging sea of hair that was a Foals crowd. As always Yannis Philippakis was an uncontrollable rage of emotion that dived, jumped, and raged with his fans as he stood atop the metal railing that unjustly separated the two. The bottleneck that led up to the Sutro was eventually filled with people dancing to the groovy plucks of “My Number,” which was followed mind-blowingly by another hit, “Mountain At My Gates.” As the bass rumblings thundered through the crowd, the air went electric. Philippakis, ever the puppet master of crowd emotion, seemed to be the source of the entire energy and his wild guitar playing only pushed them further into their frenzy. Standing on the hill that overlooked the Sutro, all you could make out was a sea of hands and flailing bodies, rollicking back and forth against one another to the buzzing, head-fogging guitars of “What Went Down.”
I was sitting down, drinking coffee with a gorgeous view of the Lands End stage when two explosions signaled the beginning of Duran Duran’s set. It was like some surreal dream to think that I was rocking out (espresso in hand) to a band my parent’s no doubt partied to in much the same way, although perhaps without the excess of coffee. If you closed your eyes you could almost pretend you were at some stadium show in the 80’s, given current fashion trends it wasn’t even a stretch with your eyes open. They gave us what we wanted, and what we wanted was what our parents got, all the hits–and we even got a bit more, due to their recent release Paper Gods. But everything, and I do mean everything, sounded too gorgeous to be real. From the virulent guitar licks on ‘Hungry Like the Wolf” to the soaring vocal atmospherics of “Ordinary World,” Duran Duran reminded San Francisco why they were the pop-rock gods that they were. Sure, as with any reunion, the live theatrics were played out even before they began, but even the nostalgic sentimentalities were nothing compared to how damn great they sounded. Sometimes it’s nice when a band changes it up or sounds rawer live than on the studio albums, but Duran Duran, channeling that lightning rod of emotional candor that cut through with every stratospheric croon and dizzying electric riff took everyone back to the first time they listened to “Come Undone” alone on their bedroom floor, or roared along to “Wild Boys.”
From a pseudo-80’s pop fantasia to being transferred to another world entirely, that’s what happened as I made my way back to Sutro one last time that night for Beach House. Victoria Legrande, the otherworldly goddess cloaked and hooded behind her keyboard, signaled her departure from the mortal world with the opening lush synths of “Wild,” and as those buzzing riffs spiraled upwards towards her soul shuddering howl (And in a while/You start a smile/The earth is wild/You’ve got no time). With that, we were no longer on Earth; as bursts of blinding light shot from the stage, only the dark silhouettes of Legrande and her bandmates visible in the fading sunset, the only thing you had to hold onto was the glittering synth medleys that dazzled alongside her eerie vocals. Oftentimes mistaken for being woefully, boringly minimalist (a friend mentioned that some Chicago journalist made such an ignorant claim when reviewing the band’s Pitchfork Fest set), the intricacies of Beach House are beyond count. Live, Legrande is a haunting, angel-voiced wraith that is less a musician and more a conjurer of soul stealing sounds. Together, the all encompassing, exceptionally loud nature of their electronic soundscapes are impossible to pull away from. It’s not the kind of music you dance wildly too, but it is the kind you let take you somewhere far away from where you already are–and the glowing purples, blues, and greens that lit up the trees of Golden Gate Park didn’t make it hard to do just that.
For third time this year I found myself in a crowd, dancing themselves clean to the soothing croons of one James Murphy–but I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the sound of Murphy clanging his cow bells, or of Nancy Whang’s shouted “Get Innoucuous!” Even after staying through the entirety of Beach House’s set, I still found myself with fifty-five minutes worth of LCD Soundsystem’s insanely funky, groovy, all around crazy jumble of synths and instruments that are somehow strung together coherently alongside Murphy’s wails. Walking across a field of dancers waltzing their way towards the flashing lights that were setting Lands End aglow, moving to the soft shudders of bass and yelling hoarsely “When someone great is gone!” Further and further across the field, dazed fans huddled together in the cold, lost in the humorous lyricisms and speaker busting crashes of “Losing My Edge,” the stage seemed almost an eternity away. By the time I was knee deep in LCD fans, the ones who had spent the entire set moving their bodies, throwing up their arms, shaking their legs, and tip-toeing to their staccato synth beats, Murphy was half-way through his finale of “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” It all ended, the way it always does and the only way we’d ever take it, with the pummeled nostalgia, regret, and stampede of piano keys that begins “All My Friends.” Flying at speeds close to light, between those heart-gutting electric riffs and glowing backing synth beeps, as each new layer of sound was dropped atop the next, Murphy piled on the sublime sentimentalities of every person that roared back to him that deeply feared question that emerges once the glory of the memory fades: “But where are your friends tonight?” It seems to me, when you’re in an LCD crowd, the answer is all around you.
Words: Steven Ward
Photography: Danielle Gornbein
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