There’s an architectural adage that explains how the sign of a healthy city is an ever-evolving skyline. In San Francisco, the colorfully reflective Salesforce Tower replacing the iconic Transamerica Pyramid as the most prominent pillar in Downtown’s lineup of buildings is a prime example of this concept. A permanent fixture signifying a period of growth.
Lasting music festivals are similar in their nature. The sign of a healthy festival is one that also flashes an ever-evolving landscape and more importantly, one that continues to reflect the city where it takes place in new and exciting ways. Outside Lands, San Francisco’s most significant pop music festival, operates like a city within a city, one that welcomed 225,000 people to an unusually sunny Golden Gate Park this past weekend for its 14th edition. But unlike a skyline, a lot of those changes — besides the new light-up windmill which replaced the double wooden mills of old — can’t be seen from a distance and are only fully appreciated when traversing the festival’s bountiful paths and walkways to “Lands” within Golden Gate Park, one of America’s quintessential music festival venues.
It’s nothing short of a privilege to be coursing through Golden Gate Park’s meadows and fields for the weekend. It’s an easy walk to the end of the Polo Field to catch Green Day, Post Malone, or SZA’s headlining sets, but walk beneath the cypress tree-coverings of McLaren Pass, and you might just stumble into DJ’s Q-Bert and Shortkut of the famed Invisbl Skratch Piklz turntablist crew throwing down a world-class display at a pop-up stage in a cocktail-themed corner of the fest. Stroll through the festival’s outer edge along the North entrance and you can cross the street into Marx Meadow for the electronic music-focused SOMA Tent. While last year’s 1,000 capacity area was an overpopulated mess, this year’s tent had double the capacity for DJs ranging up to Tokimonsta and Claude VonStroke. Pull open the door to Outside Lands’ only indoor stage and you’re transported into a strikingly large space akin to one of San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood underground clubs, complete with LED cubes encrusting the stage. Fine-tuning an indoor electronic music component to the festival was long overdue for Outside Lands and for the club kids and ravers who want to dance in a warehouse-like setting all weekend, it’s a swell function that also funnels away traffic from the rest of the fest.
You see, every corner of the footprint is built to showcase the beauty of the grounds. At the sweeping, sunken meadow of the Sutro Stage — where Faye Webster dazzled, Wet Leg roused, and Robert Glasper proved once again that he’s one of this summer’s must-see festival acts — unsightly porta potties that lined the outer edge were removed this year in favor of a more concealed and functional facility on the opposite side of the field. To say it improved aesthetics is an understatement and it was one of many functional improvements that Outside Lands is beginning to deploy as it becomes increasingly well-oiled.
Walk through a tunnel beneath the Polo Field bleachers and you slide into the flowering Grasslands, a legal cannabis wonderland with dispensary booths selling every variant of cannabis product imaginable. Over the last handful of years as cannabis laws have become relaxed, Outside Lands has worked to perfect this unique music festival experience. There are newly expanded “consumption areas” where folks can lounge and puff. A stoner jam band played on Sunday while carving up tiki idols as dispensary hacks hucked “buy one get one” deals like your typical pot shop experience. One dispensary even offered a “FREE GUNNA” t-shirt with the purchase of an eighth (I support this, #FreeYSL).
And for as much of a marketing-palooza as any music festival experience can be, Outside Lands’ corporate interests blended seamlessly into the background, with the exception of the new Music Den by Toyota stage. But to be fair, this was hands down the best addition to the festival’s overall music offerings. Acts who played earlier in the festival got an opportunity to appear again in a natural amphitheater-like setting. If you didn’t get in between noon and 2pm, you could still catch indie acts like The Beths, L’Rain, and Cassandra Jenkins later in the day. It proved a welcome respite to lay on the grassy slope looking at the obscure reflections of ourselves on oversized ornaments perched above on the cypress branches, while the artists played intentionally lowered volume sets.
And while the transformation of Golden Gate Park into this colorful community is always the star of the show, the music was better than I anticipated compared to last year’s sublime lineup over Halloween Weekend. Green Day broke through across the Bay as an Oakland punk trio in the ’90s and here they were, closing down Saturday night’s slate with the #hits that got them here. “I remember one time we tried to play in Dolores Park. There were a lot of punk bands and then the cops came and shut it down,” singer Billie Joe Armstrong said to the crowd. “Well, they didn’t shut this one down!” The set was also a reminder of how under-appreciated Mike Dirnt is as a bassist. His grooves on “Longview” and “Welcome To Paradise” belong in whatever the equivalent of the punk rock Louvre is.
Green Day as a local headliner was part of a bigger theme for Outside Lands 2022, one that saw a bigger commitment to Bay Area artists than ever. San Francisco rapper Larry June put down the best party set of the weekend with a prime 5:30 pm slot on the Twin Peaks Stage — the festival’s second largest. The chill, weird, lit Bay Area ethos was blowing through the diverse crowd in clouds of smoke all the way to June rapping “Bitch I feel like I’m dreaminnng…” on set closer “Smoothies In 1991.”
EDM producer Illenium, who went to St. Ignatius High School in the nearby Sunset district, closed down Twin Peaks Stage on Sunday. But the weekend felt like a true showcase for emerging Bay Area talent too; a “risk” that Outside Lands wasn’t always willing to take. In building this true ecosystem that reflects its locale, sets from Bay Area-bred acts like rising pop singer Thuy, Atlantic Records rapper Symba, flamboyant empowerment pop group Planet Booty, indie stalwart Spellling, and the biggest surprise of the weekend, Odie, bridge the great divide of the stratification of festival crowds. In effect, it hits different when we can all score more than one for the home team.
And then there’s the big ticket stars. the artists most people end up remembering the most. And it’s hard to begin this conversation without bringing up Pusha T first. King Push is bar none of the best lyricists in the game and he proves it every time on stage. Incredible energy, no bells and whistles, just a non-stop flow and series of poised death stares delivered while standing in the cleanest pair of coke white Yeezy Boost 350s you’ve ever seen. He’s the type of dude who can shout sweeping statements to the crowd like, “It’s Almost Dry! Rap album of the muthaf*ckin year. Easy!” And then perform with such conviction that you can’t help but think how right he is when it’s over.
SZA’s Friday night headlining set was evidence of Outside Lands’ growing continuity in booking. The singer, who came out standing on an elaborate lighthouse erected on stage, first graced the noon slot at Twin Peaks stage in 2015. And even without that long-awaited new album in tow, the crowd was still wrapped around her finger on all of the Ctrl jams, a Doja Cat-less rendition of “Kiss Me More,” and an explosive set-opening “All The Stars.”
The largest crowds of the weekend felt like they were (weirdly) for Weezer and Jack Harlow, but largely a function of people preparing for headliners Post Malone and Green Day, who played right after them, respectively. On Saturday, Harlow made a rare performance backed by a live band, commanding the youngest crowd of the weekend that gradually became older as folks started positioning themselves for Green Day. Weezer playing a sing-along set on the main stage’s penultimate slot of the entire festival Sunday night was a masterstroke of understanding what works and what doesn’t at a music festival in 2022. Organizers Another Planet Entertainment learned from 2016’s debacle of a Lionel Richie closing set that was very sparsely attended. Sure, it’s the legacy act, but look, you can’t please everyone and acting as such is important. So send the aging hipsters home early along with Rivers Cuomo and the Microsoft ball cap he took off (facts only, you can’t make this stuff up) so they can make it to work on time on Monday, and let the rest of the crowd vibe out to Post Malone.
For those who stayed, they’d have seen an artist on top of the music world showing the crowd exactly why he belongs there. You might’ve not known it right off the bat though. “I’m here to play some shitty music and get f*cked up!” Malone told the crowd at the beginning of his set; red cup in hand. Make no mistake about it, this was a galvanizing performance for easily the most diverse crowd of the weekend and Posty kept us guessing the entire time.
At one point, he straddled a mic with his mouth on the ground to sing “I Fall Apart” (surely making Karen O proud) then got up to take a seat, grabbed an acoustic guitar to play “Stay” and “Go Flex” while never putting his cigarette down. “The world has been such a shitty place and it just feels so beautiful to be out here with you to have a good time,” Malone said, radiating a message of love that was a resounding theme for just about every artist on stage over the weekend. And you know what? This is music to get f*cked up to. And this day and age, when we have no clue what virus is floating in the air around us when we’re surrounded by tens of thousands of people, surrendering to the music is the only way to enjoy ourselves in this environment. And nobody did surrender better than the guy who set his guitar on fire and smashed it, after performing alone on stage for the last hour and a half of an unforgettable weekend.
Check out some photos from this year’s festival below.
Some of the artists mentioned here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.