The very first music festival I ever attended was Outside Lands 2012. I won tickets to the festival that year by getting the most likes on a Facebook post. I was broker than all hell, and midway through the first day my phone ran out of minutes (remember that was a thing?). I didn’t care, it was freeing in a way, and I just bopped around the festival and met a ton of cool people and bumped into a lot of friends having grown up 30 minutes from San Francisco in the East Bay.
Nine years later, it was nice to be back at Golden Gate Park for Outside Lands 2021. The pandemic stalled a streak of having attended the festival four years in a row, and it was definitely something I missed badly. For the first — and perhaps only time, the festival took place across Halloween weekend. I flew into the Bay Area early Friday morning, dropped my bags off at a nearby hotel, and went straight in.
This was my first three-day music festival since the pandemic shut down the live music industry for more than a year. As someone who attended festivals regularly, it was a huge blow for me personally to not have that outlet. I didn’t realize how much it helped my mental health to be able to see live music, especially at festivals. Here’s what I found to be the best and worst of this year’s festival.
BEST: Outside Lands gets a spooky shift
To me, this past weekend was a sign that Outside Lands should permanently make the move to Halloween weekend. It goes head-to-head with fewer music festivals than its usual August dates (which I think run contrary to quite a few) and it presents some awesome branding opportunities in the form of one of the favorite holidays of most people. Though Halloween was the Sunday of the festival, people were in the dress-up spirit all weekend long. People dress up at music festivals in general, but this made it so a lot of people who maybe wouldn’t have taken that initiative on any other weekend got into the spirit.
Outside Lands did a great job with their pivot to Halloween weekend by including spooky stuff in their merch, signs, and overall feel and look. I vote that it takes place that weekend every year, but I say that without knowing how easily the tickets moved for this weekend versus when it happens in August, and what issues arose as a result of it happening in October and not earlier. The weather held up all weekend long and didn’t present any huge problems, either.
BEST: Nelly scratches the nostalgia itch with main stage set
Where was the biggest party of the weekend? No, it wasn’t at any of the headlining sets, but in the late afternoon at the main Land’s End stage for rapper Nelly. His music clearly has stood the test of time, as people old and young were singing along to “E.I.”, “Country Grammar”, and “Ride Wit Me” like the songs came out yesterday. He also is actually a tremendous performer, rapping nearly every word rather than letting a track do all the heavy lifting. He also played a more recent single that I had never heard but I saw the younger crowd vibing to, which tells me he isn’t done making hits yet.
The late-afternoon nostalgia hip-hop main stage act has become a staple of other festivals and you see why. It’s an incredible formula to build a massive crowd.
WORST: People pissing everywhere
It felt like there were plenty of bathrooms, but that didn’t keep people (large majority of course being dudes) from having zero patience. There were a handful of times where you’d be standing or sitting somewhere, and you’d just hear the sound of someone urinating not a few feet away from me. Where this seemed to be happening the most is near the Sutro Stage on the way down the hill. But it also basically happened everywhere. What’s even worse is someone would take a piss somewhere in the open, and minutes later you’d see someone go and sit right where it happened. Not sure how to combat this but it was a huge problem.
BEST: Tame Impala are legit festival headliners
A couple of years ago when Tame Impala headlined Coachella, it felt as though they weren’t quite up to the task. But they’ve really become legitimate first-tier festival headliners, and the strength of their latest album The Slow Rush has helped raise their game. The last show I saw before the pandemic shut everything down was Tame Impala opening their tour in San Diego. A few days later after a couple LA shows, live music was in a coma.
They juked the crowd by pretending that they were being replaced by The Wiggles, which was a super fun way to get things started (note: check out The Wiggles’ cover of Tame Impala on Spotify. You won’t be disappointed. They shred.)
What was wild about this show was that almost nobody left during the show, even though they were up against popular mainstream radio acts J. Balvin and local hero Kehlani. I got as close as the sound stage by the time they went on and never moved any closer. That’s how captivated the crowd was as they delivered another memorable show.
BEST: Battle of Neal Francis vs. NEIL FRANCES
There are two bands with the same name but different spellings, and this year, not only did they both wind up playing Outside Lands 2021, but they were booked one after the other on the same stage on Sunday. I don’t know the reasoning behind it — would love to know how they came to that result — but perhaps they just wanted to make sure nobody accidentally missed the band they wanted to see.
First up, was Neal Francis, the Chicago-based rock band fronted by Neal Francis. When the band took to the Panhandle Stage at noon, he started by saying “I’m Neal Francis — the warmup act for NEIL FRANCES. Give it up for Neal Francis! It’s a big Neal Francis fuck party out here!”
The band ripped through a high-energy set before giving way to Los Angeles-based NEIL FRANCES, which is the indie-pop act comprised of Jordan Feller and Marc Gilfry — nobody is named Neil or Frances. They brought a fun set that was highlighted by their “Music Sounds Better With You” cover.
But what made this really fun was how these guys embraced the whole same-name thing. I bet generally it’s a pain in the ass but they had a great time. Take a look at Neal Francis doing his best Macho Man Randy Savage promo.
The other NEIL FRANCES made a reference to the movie Face/Off on their Instagram. Afterwards, they shared a photo together. And through the two sets, I only heard one person say, “Wait, this isn’t Neal Francis…”
WORST: Young Thug cancels for no reason
There were quite a few cancellations at the last minute at this year’s festival. Almost all of them had legitimate reasons. scarypoolparty was prioritizing his mental health. Marc Rebillet suffered an injury. Young Thug … was just being Young Thug. This is not the first time Young Thug cancelled a festival set, and he didn’t even post anything on his own social media about it. It’s probably about time he stops getting bookings at the top of these festival posters if he isn’t going to respect the fact that people paid money to come see him.
Overall, I had a wonderful return to Outside Lands and I don’t foresee any reason why I wouldn’t keep attending. With a niece and nephew that live in the Bay Area, I look forward to many years of making it a family affair — my niece came when she was 7 and my nephew is still a few years away from that age. It’s a family-friendly festival — so long as you keep a lookout for the pot smoke around you.
Five Favorite Sets of Outside Lands 2021
Tame Impala: They are a legitimate festival headliner for all the reasons stated above. This was somehow my 14th time seeing them perform live since first seeing them play a not-great set at the Shrine Auditorium in LA in 2014. Glad I kept going out and seeing them because they’ve become one of my favorite live acts.
Sharon Van Etten: The very first set I saw at my very first music festival was Sharon Van Etten at Outside Lands 2012. I had done minor research into the lineup and liked one of her songs, checked her out, and immediately became a big fan. It was a full-circle moment for me to see her, and she even referenced that 2012 show midway through her set at the Lands End Stage on Friday. It’s been wild to see her rise, she’s legitimately one of the best songwriters of her generation and I finally got to see “Seventeen” performed in all of its glory. Sharon also capped off the set by bringing out Angel Olsen for their collab “Like I Used To” — a perfect way to end things.
Angel Olsen: I hadn’t had an opportunity to see Angel Olsen perform live since she released All Mirrors in 2019 and we got right up onto the railing for her set Saturday at the Sutro Stage. She had people playing strings behind her, which really made “Lark” probably the best performance I heard all weekend long. Angel tugged at everyone’s heartstrings while also making them dance during “Shut Up Kiss Me”. Her sound has expanded so much since her earlier work and she’s a bona fide big-stage performer.
Neal Francis: Even though my legs were tired after two days of the festival and the most rigorous workout I’ve had since the pandemic, I made sure to get into the festival Sunday in time for Neal Francis. He was one of the last shows I saw in LA before the pandemic, and I only really knew one song when I saw him and he blew me away. He was the perfect Sunday opener because he and his band rocked our fucking faces off. I didn’t need a cup of coffee by the time he was done with us. The solos on the keys and his guitarist’s solos were melting faces. Just a fun time all around.
Nelly: Said so why up top. Nostalgia hip-hop acts crush main stages in the afternoon, and Nelly’s still got it.
Words by Mark Ortega