My first American music festival was everything and nothing like I thought it would be. When work took me to the Bay Area last August, I grabbed the once-in-a-lifetime chance to attend Outside Lands, San Francisco’s lively art, music, and wine festival at Golden Gate Park. I all but peed my pants with excitement as I punched in my credit card number and purchased a three-day pass. Not only will I be seeing bands I never thought I’d see live, but being at the festival meant joining a free-spirited celebration of good wine, good music, and all-around good vibes with friends I haven’t seen in a long time.
First: what to wear. I was a little obsessed with fashion then, and thought that Outside Lands would be the perfect time to bust out my feather headdress, pile on beaded necklaces, and feel the sun on my skin through a sheer chiffon dress. This was before I stepped out of the plane into the foggy chill of a San Francisco summer. I had forgotten that the weather in this city is as varied as its people, and that Golden Gate Park’s windy and foggy micro-climate becomes even more pronounced in August. Without a winter coat, I would freeze to death when the fog rolls in, so there went all my dreams of channeling Vanessa Hudgens’ festival garb.
I then made an ambitious list of all the bands I wanted to see and shared it with Klassy, who would be going to Outside Lands with me. The $200 I spent on a 3-day pass ate a huge chunk of my Third World paycheck, and I wanted to get my money’s worth by seeing as many bands as I could and experiencing everything the festival has to offer. This didn’t exactly turn out as I expected, because I failed to consider a bunch of things – namely, that the effort required to see the bands you really want to see will involve giving up seeing the bands you only sort of want to see.
Here’s what I didn’t know about music festivals: there are several stages and tents scattered across the park, and each stage hosts their own schedule of acts. If you’re lucky, all the bands you want to see will be playing at the same stage; if not, you’ll need to make your way to a different stage to see them. On a normal, non-Outside Lands weekend, getting from one stage to another would mean a nice, ten-minute stroll through meadows and towering redwood trees. But when there are 50,000 other festival goers pushing and shoving their way towards different directions, it could take you as much as 30 minutes to get to your destination.
The worst time to try moving is right after an act ends. When the music stops and roar of the crowd fades, the festival becomes a battleground between people trying to leave and people trying to snag a good spot. Anyone who doesn’t move fast enough gets swept away by the crowd, never to be seen by their friends until they manage to find each other by some miracle. Golden Gate Park’s hilly topography and wind chill factor doesn’t it any easier to navigate the distance between stages. When you’re climbing uphill in a smelly hipster sandwich, shivering despite your winter coat and three layers of clothes, you start asking yourself if seeing this next band was really worth leaving your nice, cozy spot behind.
But when the stage lights up and the musicians from your iPod come out from the wings, it’s easy to forget the grueling trek you took just to see them. The thrill of finally seeing your favorite artists in the flesh gives you all the energy you need to enjoy their set. Tired feet get up to dance, and for as long as the music plays, nothing else matters, not even the biting cold. Even though Outside Lands had too much going on to be the chill hippie gathering of free love that I imagined it to be, the festival was easily the highlight of my trip and I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything else in the world. Below, a quick recap of the artists I saw:
Klassy and I reached Outside Lands in the middle of Phantogram’s set, but I was too busy taking in the environment to pay much attention to the music. We stayed a few minutes to listen to Mouthful of Diamonds before moving on to the main stage.
Confession: I never really listened to MGMT until before I left for San Francisco, and I don’t know why it took me this long to appreciate them. I think it’s because I tried listening to them once, way after college, and found myself unable to relate to their youthful recklessness. Onstage, the band didn’t interact with the audience much, but they gave a lively performance that the crowd loved despite their aloofness. Some of their songs were pretty enjoyable to listen live, particularly Time to Pretend and Weekend Wars, but the rest of MGMT’s set sounded like they’d be best enjoyed with a good buzz rather than stone-cold sober (which I was at the time – but not for long).
Best Coast is one of those bands that people either hate or love, and I’m quite the fan of their low-fi surf-pop approach to music. Listening to them feels like a perfect day at the beach, or the exciting start of a sunny road trip. In concert, Best Coast sounds louder and more energetic than their studio recordings, which is pretty impressive when you consider that stage they were playing at was entirely solar-powered. I loved every song they played, but felt a little sad that they didn’t include When I’m With You in the set list (which apparently has an official music video now!).
The afternoon had already given way to a calm starry evening by the time we made our way to see The Shins; somehow, it felt just right to cap off the day with them. We sat on a hill to get a better view of the stage and enjoy the music without feeling the crush of the crowd. I felt goosebumps rise when they started to play Caring is Creepy, and the crowd welcomed them with a euphoric roar that gradually died down and gave way to singing.One of the best surprises for the evening was their performance of a new song that will be in their next album (they will have a new album!), and I have no idea what the title is but I loved every single note.
Klassy and I were getting pretty exhausted at this point, and we both agreed that we should probably try to get out of the park before everyone else does. We made our way out just as The Shins began playing the opening notes of New Slang, and even though there were a lot of scary drunks nearby I had to stop, listen, and try to preserve the moment in my memory forever. I have never felt so happy about seeing an artist perform live.
We woke up at noon on Saturday and quickly made our way to Golden Gate Park to catch Starfucker (STRFKR) at my insistence. It was apparently the biggest crowd they have ever played for, or so they nervously confessed, before they blew the audience away with their unique brand of psychedelic synth-pop. The entire set was fun, dancy, and fresh, their live and pre-recorded material in perfect synchronization. Towards the end, I had to leave the crowd and find bottled water for my parched throat, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying their finale, a cover of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.
Arcade Fire and The Black Keys
A visit to the wine tent had me tipsy and sitting out the rest of Arcade Fire’s performance. I’m not really a fan or familiar with their music, and there isn’t much else I can say about their set. When the crowd dispersed, we moved closer to where Klassy and her husband Eric’s friends’ had a blanket nearer the stage, and I spent the rest of the afternoon just chilling as Black Keys took the stage.
I’m not very familiar with Muse and couldn’t appreciate their performance as much as a real fan would, but the laser light show that complemented their slower songs served as a hypnotic ending to the day’s events.
Bands I regret not seeing: Foster the People (they played the same time as MGMT and I wasn’t a fan until waaaaay after my trip!), Arctic Monkeys, and the The Decemberists (I had to leave San Francisco on the third day of the festival and missed them :()Google+