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Outside Lands 2015 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

The highs and lows of Golden Gate Park's odyssey of music, comedy, art, and food

Outside Lands 2015
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    With rainy summers and gorgeous falls, it’s hardly a surprise that Christmas comes to San Francisco in August. For three days, the natural beauty of Golden Gate Park is transformed into an odyssey of music, comedy, art, food, and wine. Returning in 2015 for its eighth year, the Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival once again delivered on its unique niche of fog-soaked tunes and lots of things wrapped in bacon (with a pinot to pair, of course).

    Headliners Mumford and Sons, The Black Keys, and Elton John all delivered the goods with sets rich in popular tracks and gratitude for the mass of fans who braved the cold each night. As is always the case with festivals, some of the weekend’s best moments were the small surprises – Hot Chip covering Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark”, Bill Kreutzmann jumping behind a drum kit to jam with Alex Bleeker and the Freaks, and the last-minute addition of Wolf Alice to the bill.

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    Sadly, not all was flower crowns and microbrews. Fantastic Negrito made local headlines on Saturday when he was denied entry to the festival just ahead of his set. SZA, playing the morning after a brilliant performance from Kendrick Lamar, was unable to rouse him to join her for one of her most popular songs. Such is life in the whirlwind that is the modern music festival. Still, the chance to hear music you love again or discover your first taste of a new favorite artist among the trees in the majesty of Golden Gate Park is an experience everyone should take part in.

    Read on for our extensive coverage of the highs and lows of the 2015 Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival.

    –Zack Ruskin
    Staff Writer

    George Ezra

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    George Ezra has the deep, thick, and passionate voice of that 50-year-old man who plays a set every Saturday night at your local piano bar. George Ezra, though, is actually 22 years old. He just sounds much older. Ezra was discovered on YouTube at the age of 18, and now, at 22, he’s a star, having already earned a top 10 record in his home country of England and a top 40 hit in the US with “Budapest”. His baritone demands your attention, but it’s almost too easy. His voice rarely waivers, becomes delicate; it’s just pretty and pleasant. His voice — deep and rich — is like syrup: thick and sweet. –Mike Anderson

    Toro y Moi

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    Call me a hater — many will, as Chaz Bundick is very popular — but Toro y Moi’s sound is a little flat. His synths don’t bounce and tickle you like some other acts’ manage to do. Of course, this is a chillwave act — which, although very vaguely defined, generally denotes music where the synths are processed and faded and, well, chill — but at least Neon Indian mines from the same sonic palette and crafts something with a little more depth and fullness (read: “Polish Girl”). –Mike Anderson

    Amon Tobin

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    ISAM is a funny choice for such an elaborate stage show. The album, which the Brazilian DJ performs the whole of, is harsh. It culls more from the industrial genre than the breakbeat jazz of his past work. The first 20 minutes of this show are made tolerable because Amon Tobin presents us with one of the most sophisticated light shows you’ll ever see: a pile of cubes sits on the stage, and a landscape lays itself out on them, folding and morphing into different worlds throughout the course of a song and in perfect sync with the music. While this was beautiful to see, the music certainly left some of us desiring an equally stimulating sound to match — not just electronic music as imagined by a slightly obtuse robot. –Mike Anderson

    Hurray for the Riff Raff

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    “I used to sleep in this park when I was a little runaway kid,” Alynda Lee Segarra announced to the small crowd of early risers who opted to kick off their day with a foggy hoedown. Her serene country rasp was a great cure for the gray skies and occasional raindrops spread above the Sutro stage. Segarra’s banter was as entertaining as her music. Before “Lake of Fire”, she dedicated the song to “that asshole from earlier who told me to smile.”  Between quips, Segarra and her band played a set of heartfelt, occasionally somber tunes that worked well for a crowd still finding their bearings from the night before. –Zack Ruskin

    SZA

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    Photo by Philip Cosores
    Taking the stage in an oversized Adidas jacket, her mane of copper-red hair billowing in the wind, SZA got down to business. “How the fuck is everyone?!” she demanded, but didn’t wait for an answer. Her high energy and infectious dance moves inspired some early afternoon movement from the Twin Peaks crowd. The only real disappointment was the missed opportunity to welcome Kendrick Lamar back to the stage he’d destroyed the night before to deliver his verse on SZA’s “Babylon.” Major bummer. –Zack Ruskin

    Nate Ruess

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    So there was this dude at the festival with long, blonde hair that danced from open to close on all three days with such exuberance that he became something of a fest celebrity. Barefoot, shirtless, dirty, there was never a song that he didn’t like. For him especially, Nate Ruess’ faithful cover of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” was the festival’s climax, a moment that all the other acts had been working towards. For much of the rest of the sedate audience, Ruess’ cheeseball act played fine, but not captivating enough to earn the .fun singer the distinction of becoming a must-see festival act. Still, when Ruess trucked out “We Are Young” and “Some Nights”, the commitment to giving fans what they wanted rather than sticking solely to his solo and previous band material was admirable. –Philip Cosores

    Alex Bleeker and the Freaks: Play Dead

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    If you’re going to play a set of Grateful Dead songs, it never hurts to bring out a member of the Dead to jam along with you. This was the route Alex Bleeker employed Sunday afternoon as he welcomed drummer Bill Kreutzmann to sit in for extended takes on “The Other One” and “St. Stephen”. It was almost a given that a festival set in San Francisco would have to have at least one band with a connection to the Grateful Dead, and the occasion was all the more fitting as it marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Jerry Garcia. Despite somewhat raw vocals and a meager turnout for one of Day Three’s first performances, seeing Kreutzmann work his magic on a drum kit is a sight that will never get old. –Zack Ruskin

    Unknown Mortal Orchestra

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    Before Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s early afternoon set, project mastermind Ruban Nielson pleased his biggest fans by taking their Polaroid camera up to the stage to snap shots of himself and the crowd. He was rewarded with chants of “best band in the world.” And while the performance didn’t quite live up to that billing, with the group sorely missing a visual accompaniment element that often appears at their own concerts, the band’s newer material supported the idea that the group is ready for major music festivals, appealing broadly for the first time in their career, with fans heard even comparing Nielson’s vocal style to Michael Jackson’s. The Weeknd should watch out. –Philip Cosores

    Strand of Oaks

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    “Strand of Oaks” is just about the folksiest name a folk-rock act can choose. But Strand of Oaks is rooted firmly in rock music. Some of Timothy Showalter’s songs may begin with that quintessential slow piano. But then the volume turns up to 11 and the guitar fuzz rips you a new one, like on his single “Goshen ‘97”, which sounds more like Dinosaur Jr than it does a Bon Iver copycat (and for good reason, since Dino Jr’s J Mascis actually plays on the song). Sometimes, on record, he pairs this sound with synths. At Outside Lands, though, he and his band stuck to the conventional guitar, bass, and drums format. It certainly rocked, but it did sound thin without the detail he crafts in the studio. –Mike Anderson

    Tig Notaro, Andy Kindler & James Adomian

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    The Barbary comedy tent was impressively packed for a triple-bill that asked its attendees to forgo Wilco and Chet Faker, among other acts, for laughs. First was James Adomian, who put aside his better-known personas like Huell Howser and Jesse Ventura (frequent Comedy Bang Bang guests) for a set well suited to his audience, focused on the tribulations of renewing his marijuana card and the reality behind the lyrics of Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. Of course, the biggest laughs still came from Adomian’s spot-on impressions as he tackled Lewis Black reading a teenage girl’s diary and Louis CK doing … something.

    Second to the stage was Andy Kindler, who spent his 20-plus minutes insulting other comedians, repeatedly referencing Hitler, and telling increasingly unfunny jokes that I hope for his sake he was making up on the spot. Insulting Dane Cook is all well and good, but it comes off pretty poorly when your jokes about Cook are worse than anything Cook says in his act. Fortunately for Kindler, the audience waited through his nonsense for a chance to see closing comic Tig Notaro.

    Tig took her half-hour set and stretched it into double that length, interspersing planned material about the Kool Aid man and her wisdom tooth surgery with inspired crowd work. When one guy yelled out some indecipherable gibberish, Notaro launched into an analysis of what his mindset must have been when he chose to speak out, to great effect. Late in her set, the recognizable notes of Mumford and Son’s “I Will Wait” permeated the tent, which was questionably placed in direct range of music pollution from other stages.

    The comic didn’t flinch, instead imagining for the crowd what it would be like if Mumford and his offspring were forced to perform as the sounds of her material played over their music. In most comics’ hands, the break from proven jokes may have faltered, but in the acerbic, patient words of Notaro, it was but the latest evidence of her place as one of the most original stand-ups working today. –Zack Ruskin

    Django Django

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    Photo by FilmMagic

    Many music critics have compared Django Django to the Beta Band for their poppy approach to psychedelic rock. It’s an easy and lazy comparison because their producer and drummer is the younger brother of Beta Band member John Maclean. While Beta Band’s psychedelia is more of a cool head rush, Django Django’s is a rodeo. The guitars and drums bounce and insist that the crowd jump up and down. The crowd obliged. –Mike Anderson

    The Black Keys

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    For American audiences, the Black Keys have hardly been in the spotlight of late, with Outside Lands marking just one of a sparse handful of American tour dates in 2015, but the band showed no signs of rust, delivering an 80-minute set that celebrated their entire career and left fans satisfied. The downside to their set was that they were up again Kendrick Lamar, who split the OSL crowd and in the end probably drew more fans, with the Keys’ audience slowly diminishing over the course of their set. In the end, it didn’t end with a bang, with the band exiting a few minutes before they had to and not quite going for broke as the Saturday night headliner. Still, the band is a reliable headliner at this point in their career and hard to fault for giving a predictably solid set. –Philip Cosores

    St. Paul and the Broken Bones

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    The moment Paul Janeway aka St. Paul sang the opening words of “Simple Song”, church was in session. The snazzy seven-piece soul band from Birmingham, Alabama, is ripe with talent, but Janeway’s otherworldly voice stood out, a throwback blend of shout bravado and sultry falsetto. The band paid homage to their roots with a rousing cover of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”. They also tackled Sam Cooke’s “Shake” and closed their set with a convincing take on Tom Waits’ “Make It Rain”. St. Paul and the Broken Bones was the epitome of what a festival band should be: high-energy, innovative with their song choices, and exceptionally talented. –Zack Ruskin

    Billy Idol

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    Billy Idol took the stage to “Dancing with Myself”, and it was all over. Any thoughts that Idol’s set would be anything other than an enjoyable romp through an early ’90s jukebox were quickly dismissed. Young fans and old diehards alike gave Idol exactly what he wanted, chanting the chorus to “Mony Mony” and wildly applauding when he unbuttoned his shirt. While Idol did venture into less known territory for a few numbers, his setlist was an impressive reminder of how many memorable singles he’s been responsible for over the years. Eventually the shirt came off — as we all knew it must — and bare-chested, still catching his breath, Idol thanked the crowd “for making my life so fucking great.” The feeling was mutual. –Zack Ruskin

    Allah-Las

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    There’s little new about the Allah-Las’ sound, and there’s nothing wrong with that. This band, born in Los Angeles in 2008, sounds like it came straight out of the psychedelic pop of the 1960s. The band casts a light haze over their guitars and harmonies. It’s akin to seeing sunlight splash on a body of water: you can see the light, but it’s unsteady, moving, and it’s even more beautiful because of this, as the light’s reflection shifts nervously in front of you. –Mike Anderson

    Mac Demarco

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    All the Mac DeMarco songs I know are slow. DeMarco’s voice is buoyed by a keyboard that bounces lightly, quiet steady drums, and guitar that, while often groovy, sounds subdued: the notes aren’t sustained like that of a Journey guitar solo; they’re quick and gentle. For some crowds, these subtleties might be lost. But on Saturday afternoon, a half-drunken crowd swayed, laughed, and danced lightly to Mac’s expert slacker rock. –Mike Anderson

    Upright Citizen’s Brigade: ASSSSCAT

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    Not even the chairs were safe. Indeed, in one scene during the Upright Citizen Brigade’s fully improvised show ASSSSCAT, Matt Walsh sat in a chair on stage pretending to talk into an imagined cell phone. The gist of the scene, inspired by monologist Jen Kirkman, was that as she recalled, only rich important people had cell phones in 1996. Matt Besser approached Walsh, in awe of the pantomimed phone, when suddenly Ian Roberts swooped in as a police officer to tell Walsh that he couldn’t just have a chair in the middle of the street. It was a brilliant redirect, and more importantly, a perfect example of how entertaining it is to see three of the world’s best improv comics sharing a stage and taking no prisoners … or chairs. –Zack Ruskin

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