If you were to say at this time last year, that in less than a year, we’d be able to hold large-scale music festivals that wouldn’t be a COVID-19 super-spreader event, you might’ve sounded like a crazy person. But by and large, as we’ve learned how change our behavior to help stop the spread of COVID-19, festivals like Lollapalooza and Outside Lands were executed remarkably. Requiring proof of vaccination and implementing a system to verify said proof was a major key, and tens of thousands of people have been able to revel in the grandeur of live music outdoors once again.
On Halloween weekend at Outside Lands festival, over 70,000 people a day came out to San Francisco’s sweeping Golden Gate Park, for what was nothing short of one of the best concert weekends of the year. Fans emanated gratitude for the experience just as much as artists did.
The live music industry was hit hard and for artists, it bore a big weight not just on their livelihoods, but on their creativity as well. Things got pretty dark there for a year and a half. And now with live music and music festivals back in action, there’s a welcome freshness from musicians on stage; thriving once again and needed for so many reasons. We caught up with five performers at Outside Lands 2021 — Albert Hammond Jr., Bartees Strange, Mxmtoon, ZHU, and Rexx Life Raj — to talk about what it means to be playing live shows for massive crowds again. Tap in.
Albert Hammond Jr. – The Headliner
The Strokes took a solid victory lap around the festival circuit this year, playing III Points Fest in Miami, Atlanta’s Shaky Knees, and even making a headlining stop at The Forum in Los Angeles before the band’s Friday night closing set at Outside Lands. Albert Hammond Jr. has been behind some of the most iconic riffs of the past 20 years and he most recently put out his fourth solo album, Francis Trouble in 2018. But in San Francisco, he was here to put it down with The Strokes, all while relishing in the launch of his sneaky delightful wine seltzer, Jetway.
“Just gathering with people is very important to being a human being. But even besides me, where my career is playing live music and recording, I can see it in people that they want to be around other people. People want to f*ck, man! [laughs] I’m kidding obviously, but I mean that in how people want to interact… It’s a very human thing. And If we’re just home, things start to fall apart.”
Bartees Strange – A Big Realization
Washington D.C.-based indie rocker Bartees Strange’s career is on the up. His 2020 album Live Forever proved to be a critically-acclaimed breakout hit and its surging artists like him who relish in the number of people at a music festival who are witnessing him and his music for the first time. He delivered one of the most inspired and positively-charged performances of the weekend on the Sutro Stage, and being back out on stage and playing to big festival crowds helped him re-focus on why he makes music to begin with.
“For the last 15 years, I’ve just been playing music and playing shows. And then all of a sudden it just went away. But I kept writing… but then I kinda forgot why? I was like ‘No one is ever gonna hear this?!’ And then I had to remember that I was always writing for myself anyways. And I found a lot of peace in that. And now that I’ve come back out and I’m playing to bigger crowds, it’s exciting to watch everybody react to the music, and I feel really good about being happy with myself. It’s a beautiful thing to come to realize, at a point where I don’t think I would’ve ever had that realization if things wouldn’t have stopped. So it’s been really amazing to be in front of people and to be perceived, and I feel very solid, which is nice.”
Mxmtoon – From The Bedroom To The Big Stage… Finally
Mxmtoon not only built her music from her bedroom, but she also built a massive fanbase. The Oakland native has close to a billion Spotify streams across all of her quaint folk-pop songs and is a TikTok sensation with more than 2 million followers. She launched a pop culture-friendly history podcast called 365 days with Mxmtoon, where she’s had guests on like Carly Rae Jepsen, Jon Batiste, and Julien Baker. And this past September, she put out the True Colors EP in conjunction with the Life Is Strange adventure game series. Suffice it to say, the 21-year-old had a lot of material to share on stage and she said that being back at a festival in her backyard means “everything” to her.
“I started making music by myself in my room and I think to have an opportunity to bring the pieces of work that I’ve been making for the last three years really, to a live stage and just play it to an audience that’s so close to my heart in the Bay Area? It’s so cool and something I’ve been waiting to do for years at this point. And I can’t really believe that it’s actually happening, it feels really surreal. I can only hope to keep having experiences like this and hopefully for people to see that there is a light at the tunnel through all of this and that live shows are back and hopefully here to stay.”
Rexx Life Raj – The Hometown Rapper Back Where He Belongs
Few people made an entrance at Outside Lands quite like the gregarious and gigantic Rexx Life Raj. On Halloween afternoon, he came out mounting a literal T-Rex, clad in a Jurassic Park-style safari vest that his whole team on stage was also wearing. It was not only a testament to his larger-than-life persona, but also to the team mentality that Bay Area hip-hop is founded on. In true Bay Area fashion, the man knows how to relax, and after his set, sipped an Aperol Spritz (at the branded “Aperol Piazza,” of course) and reflected on not just being back on stage, but doing so to a hometown crowd.
“It literally feels insane, but insane in a good way. I knew I missed it, but I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I was on stage and was like, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be.’ And just being around this many people? I haven’t been around this many people in a year and a half, two years even. it just feels good to be at home here and see friends and family, and just to be able to perform is really tight.”
ZHU – The Electronic Music Heavyweight
Living in the shadows has always been a part of ZHU’s persona. The electronic producer and multi-instrumentalist initially came up as a mystical figure in EDM with an unknown identity. He’s since stepped out from behind the curtain to become one of the most crucial voices for Asian-Americans in electronic music, and released the excellent Dreamland 2021 this year. A San Francisco native, he headlined the Twin Peaks Stage on Saturday night following his fellow SF-er 24KGoldn’s performance. The pair would perform their hit “I Admit It” together at the festival and for someone who plays electronic festivals all over the world, a return to the normalcy of being back on the road and on stage was beginning to set in.
“I think that it was a transitional period for all of us. For me, it really didn’t hit until even last week when I was in Miami playing to 10,000+ kids and for the first time, I had the realization that we’re really back. It’s not a minimal capacity. People were ready and it’s great for the culture.”