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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

    First Aid Kit

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    Leave it to a sister duo of Swedish folk-rockers to break out a killer Black Sabbath cover. Midway through their sunny afternoon set, Klara and Johanna Söderberg took a break from their catalogue of country-tinged duets to shred a rousing rendition of “War Pigs”, with older sister Johanna dropping to her knees on keyboards as the final notes reverberated across the park. That First Aid Kit could so convincingly cover a song outside their genre is no surprise. The sisters Söderberg displayed a commanding presence for the early afternoon crowd, dousing the Polo Fields in the sugary warmth of their immaculate voices. –Zack Ruskin

    Comedy Bang Bang

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    The Barbary was overflowing in anticipation of a visit from the one and only Hot Saucerman aka the Choctaw aka Scott Aukerman. For his live podcast, he recruited comedians who had previously performed throughout the weekend. Jon Gabrus was Gino, the inept and racist intern; Rory Scovel was Ranger Steve, a predecessor of Outside Lands’ current mascot, Ranger Dave; Matt Besser was a professional concert yeller and the son of the guy who first yelled “Freebird” at a non-Lynyrd Skynyrd concert; and James Adomian was Bernie Saunders, the percentage-loving current presidential candidate.

    The show was its usual seamless blend of character work, bad puns, and immense chemistry between Aukerman and his guests. Acknowledging the sound pollution that plagued the Barbary all weekend long, he organized the show into “the part that would happen before Hot Chip started” and the part that would feature Hot Chip’s set as unwanted ambient background noise.

    Later on, Besser’s character “tried out” some things he planned to yell during Elton John’s set. When he suggested yelling “because you’ll burn your dick” after John sings the line “don’t let the sun go down on me,” Aukerman promised to retire from comedy if he heard the 500 plus people in the Barbary actually yell the line during John’s performance. It was one of many hilarious moments in a show that continues to be original, and more importantly, extremely funny. –Zack Ruskin

    Natalie Prass

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    Natalie Prass has a beautiful voice, but it’s not a pretty one. She pulls from a nasally register — and that’s hardly an insult. That nasally register projects a strong voice: she holds and sustains each note with perfect control. On “My Baby Don’t Understand Me”, she repeats the words “our love is a long goodbye” to the point that we all want to cry for her: her intonation is pained and careful. It arrested me. And the audience clapped louder for the song than they had all afternoon. –Mike Anderson

    Heartwatch

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    Despite the fog and light rain, I felt transported to a beach during Heartwatch’s set. On a new song, Eric Silverman plucked his guitar in a way that resembled more a tropical steel drum than it did an axe. And the crowd roared with approval. The enthusiasm peaked when, halfway through the set, the 40 or so members of the crowd who carried sunflowers with them to the show threw their dozens of bouquets onto the stage. Several of these bouquets pelted the lead singer Claire. She dodged the sunflowers that she could but accepted the pelts of the rest, laughed, and continued to hit each note. This was Heartwatch’s — a local favorite formerly known as the Tropics — first set at Outside Lands, and I doubt it will be their last. There are few rock bands that can get a crowd to dance without explicitly asking; Heartwatch managed to do just that. –Mike Anderson

    Benjamin Booker

    2015 Outside Lands Music And Arts Festival - Sutro Stage - Day 3

    Photo by FilmMagic

    Midday Sunday is the the time we all need to be slapped in the face by a guitar just to get the blood flowing again. After 48 hours of drinking beer and liquor and eating fried food, your feet are a little heavier. A girl I met on Friday had the word “VODKA” printed on the inside of her bottom lip, and, seconds after showing me this, she took a pull from a bottle of sunscreen: a vodka coke. In short, the crowd was tired. Many were passed out in the grass, but Benjamin Booker’s swagger and dense guitar fuzz roused the rest of us. –Mike Anderson

    Twin Peaks

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    Those who caught Twin Peaks on the festival’s far Twin Peaks stage at the early time of 12:40 on Saturday afternoon were truly in Golden Gate Park this weekend for one thing and one thing only: to party, and that includes this young Chicago band. “They built us our own stage!” frontman Cadien Lake James said of their perfect placement. Whether or not the dudes would have been given the same slot (second main stage) had those behind the festival’s organizational curtain not taken full advantage of this nominal coincidence remains to be seen, but they killed it nonetheless. They continued to do so throughout the weekend as they ripped through an after show Saturday night at Brick and Mortar and stuck around to play Mortal Combat X during Caribou’s set on Sunday before accidentally attempting to bring a bong on a plane. Rock and roll. –Amanda Koellner

    Sam Smith

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    Sam Smith looked so delighted at Outside Lands. He grinned from ear to ear and moved around the stage at a steady, poised pace as he sang hit after hit. This man crept up on us. Many of us first heard him on Disclosure’s hit single “Latch” long before he was an even bigger name in his own right, and, initially, in that processed, treated context, his high pitch sounded alien. Today, it sounds familiar, and I hope it continues to be, because Smith is able to make a sweet, saccharine sound palatable for even your most jaded music fans. –Mike Anderson

    Dan Deacon

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    “I took mushrooms last night.” And so began Dan Deacon’s set, a shot of musical espresso in the midst of the late Sunday lull that often exists as festivalgoers begin to succumb to three days of running to stages and shaking their proverbial tail feathers. But Dan Deacon is not one for excuses. By the second song in his relatively short 40-minute set, Deacon had successfully convinced the crowd to form a giant pit and conduct a dance contest. “Rule number one is you have to dance sassy as fuck,” he explained. Fans were only too happy to follow instructions, busting moves and creating one of the more energetic moments of the entire festival. All hail Deacon. –Zack Ruskin

    Tame Impala

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    San Francisco is a welcoming environment for psychedelic-minded rock. Tame Impala took full advantage of their surroundings when Kevin Parker and his touring bandmates took the stage as the de facto opening act for headliners The Black Keys. Backed by appropriately trippy visuals, the band worked their way through tracks from the newly released Currents as well as selections from their first two albums. The crowd consisted of baby boomers lingering from Billy Idol’s set, a healthy serving of hipsters eager to see a band radiating with limelight, and some hallucinogen enthusiasts looking for a soundtrack to compliment their trips. It made for a somewhat disjointed energy, reinforced by the reality that songs like “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”, while quite gorgeous live, do not lend themselves readily to dancing. So there was swaying and sitting on blankets – a calm energy befitting the reverb and woe emanating from the stage. –Zack Ruskin

    Hot Chip

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    Hot Chip isn’t an album band. On many of their albums, after an up-tempo banger like “Ready for the Floor”, the pace slows down suddenly, and whereas before you felt transported, you think, in this new context, oh, Alexis Taylor’s squeaky voice is actually a little awkward. Hot Chip is, however, a phenomenal singles band: “Over and Over”, “Ready for the Floor”, “Flutes”, and the new “Huarache Lights” all send their fans into a frenzy. And at Outside Lands, their studio recordings’ heavy gloss was scraped away and left the crowd with a rougher, live instrumental beat to shake, bounce, and turn to. –Mike Anderson

    Caribou

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    Dan Snaith is the master of the slow burn. Many of his songs begin simple and repetitive. Over the course of a song, though, Caribou lays layer after layer on top of that first sound, until you’re left with a frenetic, undeniable beat. Each song, initially, tastes like some unfamiliar elixir; you need to acquire the taste. By the end of each of these songs, though, the crowd was intoxicated, and they danced wildly. –Mike Anderson

    Mumford and Sons

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    As the latest act to make the leap to major festival headliner/arena act, Mumford and Sons had a fair share of doubters as they closed out the first day of Outside Lands’ 2015 edition. Though D’Angelo certainly drew a large crowd at his competing set, the polo field was blanketed with fans for the Mumfords, with frontman Marcus Mumford beginning his set not as the overconfident rock star these kind of moments usually demand, but a nervous, humble, relatable songwriter ready to let the songs and performance speak for themselves.

    And they did. The jump on the band’s recent album, Wilder Mind, from banjo-toting folk rockers to a more traditional rock outfit, was easily negotiated throughout the set. To an audience that still packs in twenty and thirtysomethings, it was a chance to spread out the blankets, to dance with someone you love, and to sing along until your voice grew hoarse. When “The Cave” showed up at the middle of the two-hour set, lights shown on the audience to reveal the thousands jumping in unison, their arms raised up. Mumfords had created a moment at their first Outside Lands appearance, and for a festival headliner, that’s about all you can ask for. –Philip Cosores

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    Leon Bridges

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    Not long ago, soul revivalist Leon Bridges made his living washing dishes and playing open mic nights. Friday afternoon, he drew a bigger crowd at OSL’s wooded Sutra stage than D’Angelo would at the same spot hours later. The Sam Cooke-recalling crooner was dressed to the nines, as per usual, and accompanied by White Denim’s Josh Block and Austin Jenkins (who found Leon outside of Fort Worth, TX and fell so hard that they recorded his debut album for free, and now tour with the young musician). Snapping and twisting through the majority of Coming Home, the 26-year-old proved he’ll be commanding massive main stage crowds in no time. –Amanda Koellner

    Elton John

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    Perhaps Elton John spent the hours ahead of his set closing out the Outside Lands Festival taking in a viewing of the 2012 LCD Soundsystem documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits, because that’s exactly what he choose to do for 120 minutes on Sunday night. Fortunately for Sir Elton, the hits that form the backbone of his extensive catalogue are numerous and beloved. At age 68, he’s no slouch on the piano either, as his numerous solos and musical flourishes across the evening reaffirmed. In a moment of visual perfection, someone in the crowd released a Buzz Lightyear balloon into the sky as John hit the refrain of “Rocket Man”.

    Sir Elton reveled in the crowd’s adoration, taking several laps across the stage to bow and wave after various songs. When he finally did conclude his regular set with a blistering rendition of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”, he didn’t wait long to retake the stage and send the 2015 Outside Lands Festival out with a bang with the rollicking “Crocodile Rock”. Sadly, no numbers from The Lion King made the cut, denying festivalgoers the chance to nail a “Hakuna Matata” sing-along. While light on stage banter, and absent of any special guests, Sir Elton’s performance was buoyed by his impeccable pedigree as a performer and his ceaseless arsenal of classic songs. Hearing “Tiny Dancer” makes for an excellent recompense from the drizzly Sunday night that signaled the end of another year of music amid the woods in Golden Gate Park. –Zack Ruskin

    St. Vincent

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    Who can ever tell what is going through the mind of St. Vincent aka Annie Clark? Her presence is an enigma, all emotive eyebrows and shuffled steps. During her Friday afternoon performance, she chose to speak instead through a moon-white guitar, nimbly executing solo after solo as she charged through a setlist derived mainly from her eponymous latest album. Ascending a pink staircase at center stage, she absorbed the attention of a sizeable crowd with her tip-toe choreography and statuesque intensity. But her impenetrable façade wasn’t without its cracks. When Clark straddled the audience barricade during “Rattlesnake”, there was no mistaking her adoration for the fans that eagerly swarmed around her. “This is for the dominatrixes and the dominated,” she later told the crowd, and the words fit. St. Vincent aims to dominate, and she’s not one to miss. –Zack Ruskin

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