S H E ' S G O T S O U L
Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival 2015
“At Outside Lands, people are proud to be San Franciscan. It creates the contradiction of a festival which can pull acts as big as Elton John, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney while at the same time attracting a crowd that generally lives very nearby.”
Written by Henry Lyons
OUTSIDE LANDS IS A FESTIVAL WITH SOUL.
My first Outside Lands was the summer after my sophomore year of high school. Being in the midst of an intense EDM phase, when I heard Dillon Francis would be playing a set I knew I had to go. I rose bright and early and began the drive to the park much earlier than was necessary. Once I arrived, I had a single goal in mind: to be in the front row for Dillon Francis. I went to the stage where he was playing later that evening and sat down against the cold metal fence. Though I started the day alone, by the time Dillon finished playing I had a group of new friends. At the time I couldn’t have put it in words, but we all had something in common by virtue of being at Outside Lands. Even though I was on the other side of the barrier from the bands, it didn’t feel much of a divide. It showed me that music has the power to bring people together, and that made me realize that it was something I wanted to pursue professionally.
This year I wanted to figure out what sets Outside Lands apart in an overly saturated festival landscape. The event is a two day co- production between Another Planet Entertainment, Superfly Presents, and Starr Hill Presents, taking place over a weekend in August each year in San Francisco. Focusing on the fan experience, I wanted to know why it feels like a breath of fresh air for so many people.
The backbone of every festival is the lineup, and this year Outside Lands delivered. Headliners included Elton John, Mumford & Sons, The Black Keys, Sam Smith, and Kendrick Lamar, but the first act I saw was The Family Crest, an orchestral folk rock band from San Francisco. Their set was lively and upbeat with complex instrumentation performed by an astounding 12-person band. They immediately connected with the audience, and once they mentioned their local roots, the crowd engaged even more.
After their set, I meet lead singer Liam McCormick to discuss how they developed their style. “After I moved to San Francisco, I met John (the bassist) and we decided on a recording project where we’d incorporate anyone that wanted to join,” he says. “We thought we’d get like five musicians, and we ended up with around a hundred. Those people, we call them the extended family now, were the ones who were like, ‘hey, are you ever going to do this live?’ It took about three years for the group to solidify.”
Once they decided to play live shows, they needed to scale back the group so it could fit on the stage. “I think we had 250 people play on the last record so it can be a challenge breaking that down to just a few instruments for a live show,” he says, “but how many people can say they played Outside Lands and then walked home?”
Later during the festival, I was having lunch when I heard a brass section hitting an opening chord. I followed the sound to find Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe; I wasn’t sure why, but I was swept away by the groove. Denson is a legendary saxophonist, playing in a relaxed but deliberate manner. “I’m just trying to get it right,” he tells me later, “We’re just trying to keep it real, that’s what translates to people: when you’re doing something authentic, and you’re doing it well.”
Fast forward to the festival finale and Elton John was the act that everyone was looking forward to, “He’s one of those artists doesn’t need an explanation,” says festival goer Taylor Galla. “You never have to elaborate when you say you saw Elton John.” Sporting a dazzling blue suit with glittery red letters spelling out the word “Fantastic,” he sat at his piano for most of the set, rising to bow and thank the audience after every song. From his opener, The Bitch is Back to his encore Crocodile Rock, he was able to mesmerise the audience. Even though the number of legends I’ve seen play can be counted on one hand (after all, I’m only 19), Elton is definitely an entertainer who delivers to his reputation. “You felt united with other people. Maybe that was it,” Taylor tells me, “I’ve seen other legendary acts play when I haven’t really felt connected with other people, but last night was different.”
FOOD + WINE
Music is the beacon around which to gather at festivals, but it’s only part of the equation that makes the weekend unique. Outside Lands also pioneered the modern culinary festival experience. Catering the festival are restaurants specialising in different cuisines from around the Bay Area, but the signature culinary landmark is Wine Lands, a huge tent that is temporarily home to thirty-five wine makers pouring over 100 locally-sourced wines.
I met with Peter Eastlake, director of wine programming for Outside Lands, who told me the story of how Wine Lands came to be. Peter had met festival producer Jonathan Mayers at a party where they first discussed combining wine tasting and music. “He got back to me like a month later and said hey, I was thinking maybe there’s a way to involve wine in this festival I’m producing in Golden Gate Park. From there, the conversation just became me talking to some wine makers, and the wine makers agreeing that it would be awesome.”
Conceptually, Peter took inspiration from a different kind of festival. “I thought of an Oktoberfest style hall of wine, that feel. You could come in and taste all the wines, talk to the wine maker, the proprietor, and get that kind of intimacy of learning about the wine from the hand that made it.” The vision became reality in 2008 with the first Outside Lands, and has remained central to the festival ever since.
While wine is common at festivals today, Outside Lands was one of the first to put so much thought into it. “Nine years ago, I was trying to figure out how this was going to work,” Peter tells me, “There wasn’t any precedent whatsoever, but I think because it’s San Francisco and the Bay Area, it really works. It is a part of the culture of the Bay Area, wine and food, and that being locally sourced. That was super buzzing nine years ago, and it still is.”
Andrew Mariani of Scribe Winery has been at the tent since its first year. He was especially struck by the personal element: “Having guests who came and tasted last year and then they come back because they had a good time is pretty nice,” he says, “it makes it feel like you’re actually doing something and connecting with people in a real way.”
Beyond wine, Outside Lands boasts an outstanding variety of food vendors. This isn’t standard festival fare, but is instead cuisine prepared by well respected restaurants from around the Bay Area. “It’s always been a part of the festival to maintain a local focus,” says Peter Eastlake. “Obviously, the food is a part of that. Why would you have a national, large- scale concession company from somewhere else come in and do their world-famous hot dog, when we have way better stuff right here that doesn’t cost as much?”
The attention to what people eat and drink at Outside Lands brings an extra benefit by opening the door to a different way of enjoying the music. A quintessential way to experience the weekend is to sit down far back from the stage and enjoy a meal at the same time as the music, creating a multi-sensory experience.
Andrew sees this as a natural result of bringing together these elements in a thoughtful way. “This is how people celebrate and how people connect with one another.”
Like other music festivals, Outside Lands capitalises on the good vibes that are naturally created in a festival atmosphere. An outcome of this is the relative safety one feels, unlike other places where in the back of my mind I’m constantly aware of my wallet.
Outside Lands isn’t a crime-less utopia, but it does feel refreshingly secure. The respectful culture is something I notice immediately every time I walk into the park, and it’s apparent from both the audience and artist perspective. “I feel like a lot of the artists are relaxed because it’s such a calm environment. No one’s getting bum rushed in a weird way by fans here,” Liam from The Family Crest told me. “If someone’s approaching me or if someone’s approaching somebody else in the band, they’re like, ‘Hey, it’s really nice to meet you.’”
Peter Eastlake sees responsibility being a big part of this, “They’re creating the sense that you really need to look out for not only yourself, but other people’s experience.”
Part of this comfort comes from how local the festival feels. This isn’t a destination festival. It’s not that there’s a sense of exclusivity, but there is certainly a strong sense of ownership. This is underscored by the locally sourced food and wine as well as many of the smaller bands being from nearby. At Tennessee festival Bonnaroo, people are proud to be Bonnaroovian. At Outside Lands, people are proud to be San Franciscan. It creates the contradiction of a festival which can pull acts as big as Elton John, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney while at the same time attracting a crowd that generally lives very nearby. “The thing that I love about this is that it’s a really chilled vibe,” third-time festival goer Sofia Miller tells me. “People are here because they love the music, not to go crazy or anything. There’s no hidden agenda about why they come.”
This was just as evident in the press tent. There was a lot of local press who seemed to know each other. Journalists were relaxed and shared food and even hung out with “the competition,” chatting about what sets they’d seen and interviews they’d done.
Another notable cultural aspect was the openness. Andrew from Scribe Winery put it this way, “California is just a willing place. We’re down. People are always willing to give it a shot.” This was evident on stage, too: of the four sets that Karl Denson played on Sunday, one stuck out. On the small GastroMagic Stage, he hosted a set by Sexual Chocolate, a fictional band he was featured in from Eddie Murphy’s 1988 comedy, Coming to America. The group played songs from the movie’s soundtrack while on the side of the stage a chocolatier from Guittard Chocolate Company built a chocolate sculpture. “It was amazing, the fact that the people actually got it,” says Karl, “that, I think, is unique to San Francisco.”
For me, Outside Lands works because it doesn’t scream in my face about how much fun I should be having. Instead of a singular focus, there’s rigorous attention to detail to every aspect of my weekend.
I told Peter Eastlake that tranquil moments are part of what defines the festival for me, and he understood what I meant. “I think everybody has that moment or two during the festival. Oftentimes it comes towards the end of the weekend, when you’re feeling worn down, not in a bad way, but you feel like you’ve sort of seen everything. And then you just get hit with that ‘wow, this is incredible. This is an amazing moment, right now.’ And that often hits you when you’re softened up a little bit and kind of been there, done that for the weekend. And then you realize, this is a really incredible thing to be a part of, right now.”
The wisdom of Outside Lands is that the creative, free and transcendent spirit of a music festival doesn’t need to stay contained within that weekend. When I left the park for the last time on Sunday night, it was a full-on cattle situation. Herds of people were slowly spilling out of the festival gates, and just like every year, the crowd began to sing. Together, everyone hollered along, “Yooouu, you got what I neeeed, and you say she’s just a friend, and you say she’s just a friend, oh baby!” Freddie Scott recorded that song to vinyl in 1968. It’s pretty cool that the crowd at Outside Lands is still singing it in 2015.
I GUESS THAT'S THE POWER OF SOUL.