We were promised a return to normal. Or, actually, we probably weren’t. But it sure felt like with the defeat of Donald Trump and the vaccine rollout and a stream of festival and tour announcements, that by the fall of 2021, we would be back to some version of normal. But that’s definitely not how it has felt. Instead, we keep redefining a new normal, adjusting our expectations to the reality that many people won’t be getting vaccinated, that indoor masks are here to stay, that safety from Covid is not a guarantee, regardless of the actions we take.
That’s all to say that the return of Outside Lands to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco wasn’t a one-for-one replica of the festival of old. After undergoing multiple postponements due to the pandemic, the fest finally returned to action more than two years after its 2019 installment, shifting from its typical mid-summer dates to Halloween weekend. Funny enough, the weather on the west side of San Francisco really isn’t that different any time of year, so aside from the costumes that grew denser as the weekend went on, the date switch had little effect on the actual feeling of the festival.
So what was different? There were vaccine/testing checks, all done efficiently using the Clear app, utilizing wristbands that made entry a breeze, even better than before the pandemic. There were mask requirements indoors, and despite general mask recommendations for the rest of the grounds, a good portion of the crowd opted to enjoy the crisp, cool air. There were also more lineup changes than usual, most notably Young Thug canceling a set Saturday evening on the main stage, which isn’t exactly uncommon in a normal year, and should only be more common as everything from supply chain issues to general health affect touring.
But mostly, Outside Lands 2021 felt like the return to normal we’ve been craving, the type of place you can go and temporarily forget about the horrid previous 18 months. Sunday closer Tame Impala exemplified that with their multisensory experience around their pre-pandemic offering, The Slow Rush. Seeing the fans in the front row absolutely lose their shit with the faux commercial for the drug Rushium — some clearly questioning whether the psychedelic video was druggy in production or just druggy because they were, in fact, on drugs — was equally hilarious and endearing. The band’s decision to announce that Tame Impala had been replaced by The Wiggles, and then showing up dressed like the kids’ entertainers for their Halloween set, only added to the joyous insanity of it all. But frills aside, Tame Impala was the act of the weekend that best bridged the fest’s dueling demographics, where OSL veterans and the next generation of Zoomers could enjoy one of contemporary rock’s best bands together.
Lizzo’s infectious personality also managed to unite the OSL audience; she’s the kind of pop star that can attract a crowd out of sheer curiosity as much as because of actual attachment to the music. And it’s a good thing, because witnessing a Lizzo concert is to become a fan, with the catchy tunes joining forces with a captivating stage presence that just screams stardom. Her rise from daytime small stages at festivals to the marquee act has been a pretty wonderful storyline over the last half-decade, and if she can continue to turn out hits, she’ll be doing the same for a long time.
In fact, of the headliners, only The Strokes that disappointed. It’s tough to say what’s going on there, but it’s easy to say that the responsibility falls solely on leader Julian Casablancas. His interest in his main band has seemed slight for literally decades, with him much more artistically and, seemingly, emotionally invested in his side work with The Voidz. On this night (and, through conversations, other nights of the current run), Casablancas seemed to hold his audience in contempt, baffled by why anyone would care about his music and giving them little reason to while on stage. It says something about the undeniability of their catalog that even with a lead singer phoning it in, they still entertained and showed flashes of greatness. Still, it was clearly the least attended headlining set of the weekend.
Outside of the headliners, the highlights were many. Vampire Weekend might as well have been a closer, as few bands that are still at their creative peak can fill a festival set with more recognizable tunes. Angel Olsen and Sharon Van Etten got together to play their great recent single “Like I Used To,” while also offering career-spanning sets that presented versions of themselves less tied to particular album cycles. More in the hip-hop lane, Rico Nasty and Nelly both showed off polar-opposite appeals, one with inviting abrasiveness, the other with a stream of tunes deeply ingrained in the public consciousness. And then there’s Khruangbin, the ideal festival band for 2021 that can tap into decades of hits from other artists as well as their own hyper-vibey psych-funk, becoming the ultimate communal band.
Outside Lands also remembers that festivals should be about music discovery. That’s why getting there early is essential, to make sure you take in people like Bartees Strange, whose anthemic indie rock is on a trajectory for bigger rooms as soon as next year. Or people like Dijon, whose silky voice is buoyed by a stage persona that’s hard to take your eyes off, his face contorting and eyebrows furrowing to exemplify the passion of his music. And then there’s my beloved Petey, who opened the Twin Peaks stage on Sunday to a small but mighty crowd, showing off his unique blend of clever songwriting and absurdist humor. He’s the absolute best.
Of course, there were all the rest of the activations and eats that make Outside Lands one of the best live events in the world. Maybe most notable is Grasslands, which thanks to California’s legalized weed laws, actually has areas now designated for consumption. Pair that with the self-explanatory Beerlands and Winelands, and well, you have yourself a nice time in the park. The cuisine was expertly curated with some of the best of the Bay, with a special shoutout needing to go to both the wonderful sticky buns from The Chairman and the delicious BBQ from Vegan Mob. But the overall sense of Outside Lands 2021 wasn’t a band or a song or a bite, it was being among tens of thousands of people and losing sight of the greater world narrative for a moment. Live music is a place to lose yourself and find it again. It felt more essential than ever this year.
Check out some photos from this year below.