Best and Worst of Outside Lands 2018

Outside Lands 2018 is in the books, and it marked the third straight year and fourth time overall I attended my hometown music festival. In fact, Outside Lands 2012 was the very first festival I ever experienced after winning a pair of passes through a Facebook giveaway when I was broke as shit. Thus, the festival will always hold a special place in my heart.

It’s been interesting to see how the festival has changed over the course of its 11-year history. This year in particular, it felt like they dumped a lot of the folk and Americana acts in favor of indie pop and more mainstream acts. That translated to a much younger demographic than I ever recall in the times I’ve attended the festival.

It took 11 years, but Florence + The Machine became the festival’s first-ever female headliner when she took the stage Saturday night, which also happened to be the highest-attended single day in the festival’s history. Janet Jackson closed the festival out as the Sunday night legacy act. The Weeknd was Friday night’s headliner.

Overall, it was a great time at Golden Gate Park with sunnier than usual weather the first two days causing me to experience my first-ever Outside Lands sunburn. At least the media tent had free Sierra Nevada brews to combat the pain. Now onto the best and worst the festival by the Bay had to offer.

Billie Eilish

BEST: Young indie pop stars Billie Eilish, Elohim, Sasha Sloan, and more prove you don’t need a vocal track

I’m a huge indie pop fan and attend countless shows from up-and-coming singers. Far too often, a singer relies on a vocal track to help with the heavy lifting rather than trusting their own voice. But this year’s lineup was packed with talented singers who let their live vocals speak for themselves. Leading the way was 16-year-old burgeoning pop star Billie Eilish, who has immense vocal talent and a stage presence to match. She drew a big crowd to her Friday performance at the Lands End main stage and at this point in her career is now an experienced festival performer and knows just what to do. It seems like only yesterday I saw her first-ever festival set at CRSSD Fest 2017 last March.

There were a bunch of other indie pop acts just getting their festival feet wet on the bill and they all performed admirably. Sasha Sloan played up her sad girl aesthetic with funny quips in between gutwrenching electro-pop tunes on the Panhandle Stage. Olivia O’Brien followed her up on the same stage with a memorable performance, and electro-pop wunderkind Elohim closed that stage out Friday night to a massive crowd of positive vibes.

Janelle Monae

BEST: Janelle Monae proves the heir apparent to Prince

The late icon Prince worked on Janelle Monae‘s masterful album from this year Dirty Computer, and Sunday on the Lands End stage she proved she’s likely the heir to the throne of funk-soul-R&B he left with his passing. Monae delivered a nonstop action-packed set that had some amazing choreography, and she did all this despite food poisoning. Monae was a late addition to the festival’s lineup after Huey Lewis & The News dropped out, and she wowed everyone who caught her set Sunday. She was made a late addition to the upcoming Music Tastes Good 2018 lineup happening in Long Beach, and I’m already counting on being up close for that set.

James Blake

WORST: Sound at Sutro Stage near the back

It’s time for Outside Lands to add some speakers at the Sutro Stage. If you were any further back than the soundboard, you likely had a difficult time really hearing what was happening there. That’s a shame because they had some of the best bookings of the entire weekend, from Jamie XX to James Blake and Tash Sultana. One of the festival’s most-anticipated early-day acts Rex Orange County performed a solo set because his tour bus broke down and the whole band couldn’t make it, and it was all for naught unless you were 10 feet from the stage because the sound was so low. It’s something they need to work to improve.

Jamie XX

BEST: Non big-room electronic bookings slay at Sutro Stage

Outside Lands 2018 had its fair share of major big-room EDM acts, from DJ Snake to ODESZA to Illenium. But where the festival hit a home run was Saturday night on the Sutro Stage, where you could setup for a number of hours and catch Poolside, Big Gigantic, Tycho, and Jamie XX all in succession. You just had to make sure you were close to the stage to fully enjoy it.

It was a nonstop dance fest at that stage with massive crowds taking in sets from left-of-center electronic acts with some real substance. Poolside knows their role as daytime dance kingpins. Big Gigantic brought the heat, and local favorites Tycho slowed things down with their vibey ambient sound. Jamie XX was one of the best sets of the entire weekend with his hour-plus long set that mixed in obscure samples and vinyl offerings that had your feet moving the entire time. This song was a funny highlight.

Hot Flash Heat Wave

BEST: Highlighting local acts getting to play their hometown festival

Outside Lands 2018 did a great job of booking some local favorites on the undercard of their lineup. From Oakland garage rockers Shannon & The Clams to rising Berkeley hip-hop act Caleborate to SF band Hot Flash Heat Wave to SF funk band Sweet Plot, there was a lot of the best of the Bay to catch on stage.

As the Bay Area becomes more and more expensive to live in and many bands move away, it’s important for the juggernaut festivals in the area to continue to support local acts. Outside Lands taking that on as a mission was nice to see. Music festivals at their best celebrate the music of the area it takes place in.

WORST: Will-call line Friday fuckery

Thank goodness press picks up their passes at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, because for those that had to pick up their passes at will-call on site, it was a total shitshow on Friday. Reports of people waiting two hours were rampant, and a friend who had an artist pass even had to wait an hour-plus to pick up his pass. The festival didn’t do a good enough job of letting people know there was a second will-call at Lincoln and 33rd that wasn’t 200-people long — those that found it didn’t have to wait long at all.

Grass Lands veggie bongs

BEST: Grass Lands serves as proving ground for pot-friendly major festival

The inaugural Grass Lands came to Outside Lands this past weekend, with one caveat — there was no marijuana or weed products made available on the premises. Still, it was an interesting addition and a major step forward for a mainstream non pot-centric music festival to take in terms of normalizing weed and the culture around it. At Kiva Confections, you could test out their edible mints and candies (without the pot infused of course), or get your PAX vape pen engraved with whatever you wanted it to say. They even had a competition for people who made bongs out of vegetables.

The coordinators of Grass Lands — Highland Events — are sponsoring a bill AB-2020 that opens up the regulations of where you can host a marijuana event. Currently, they can only be held at county fairgrounds and similar spaces, where major cities like SF, Oakland, etc. don’t have zones like that. Kiva Confections co-founder Kristi Knoblich says she expects on-site cannabis consumption to be able to happen in the next year or two, which means the days of having to hide your stash under your junk when entering the festival may soon be behind us.

Florence + The Machine

Five Favorite Sets of Outside Lands 2018

  1. Janelle Monae — Monae proved she’s a future festival headliner based on the way she crushed her main stage set Sunday despite dealing with food poisoning. A lot of thought went into the choreography and running order of her show and she is such a powerful bad ass and it shined through in every note she sang and every move she made.
  2. Jamie XX — Easily the best dance party of the weekend, the Brit’s name is starting to grow to the level of his band the xx. The obscure songs he pulled out during his hour-plus set had the crowd moving nonstop. He headlines All My Friends in DTLA this weekend, don’t miss out.
  3. Florence + The Machine — Florence Welch has fully graduated from festival subheadliner that steals the show from the headliner to being a bonafide headliner herself. She had proven as much with second-tier headline performances in recent years, but Outside Lands was definitely her biggest U.S. headline performance to date and she debuted a new show that was fantastic.
  4. Poolside — Another fantastic time, it’s refreshing when a band knows their sweet spot is that late-afternoon dance party vibes. They don’t get enough credit for how awesome their live show is — chances are you’ve probably seen them do a DJ set (also fun) but nothing matches their live show. People were feeding off their energy and when it came to an end everyone around me was bummed.
  5. James Blake — James Blake hates being called a sad boy but damn if he doesn’t write gutwrenching songs better than most of the people out there. He also surprised people with his upbeat bangers and it was a great comedown set before heading home after a long weekend.

Outside Lands 2018 was a blast and I’m already looking forward to seeing what they bring to the table next year. The northern California festival scene is as vibrant as it has ever been, with both Outside Lands and BottleRock Napa putting together massively successful events this year.

Photos courtesy of Outside Lands by FilmMagic.com (except weed bongs)
Top photo courtesy of Josh Withers