Nestled away somewhere in between the disc golf courses and barbecue pits of Golden Gate Park, the seemingly instantaneous assembly of labyrinthian fences and headlining stages mark both the conclusion of whatever poor excuse of a hot season San Francisco calls summer and the inauguration of Northern California’s one-word answer to Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival — Outside Lands (okay, it’s actually two words).
It’s 11 a.m. Saturday, August 9th (unfortunately, I missed Friday). I hastily packed my festival bag while downing two cups of coffee, and traversed the five city blocks from my parents’ home to get to my fifth consecutive Outside Lands. The park grass was damp from remnants of the morning fog, and the sun, obscured by dark ominous clouds, left the temperature lingering around a chilly 60 degrees: perfect Outside Lands weather. In line for the main entrance, I spotted a man sporting a worn flannel over a grey Joy Division t-shirt approach one of the soldiers of the security guard army. As the guard turned to point him in his desired direction, flannel-man ran through the supply gate into a crowd of festival-goers faster than Usain Bolt sprinting the 100 meter. Every year the hipsters get hipper and the fences grow taller, but some things will never change. I take comfort in this.
After what seems like an eternity of wading through a sea of tribal-patterned hand-knit shawls and tweed Crossroads suspenders, I reached the entrance at last. The ticket-scanner grunted me in with a powerful indifference that I can only take to mean, “Thanks for your patronage! I wish you a merry time enjoying the beautiful art and world-class music that only this celebration of culture has to offer!” Needless to say, I couldn’t help thinking that the sooner I was on the same side of the fence as the Dum Dum Girls, the better.
Land’s End, the main stage, is located at the edge of a great grassy expanse known as the Polo Fields, and it’s this area that really captures the essence of Outside Lands. The Polo Fields are a vibrant bazaar of festival eateries, merchandise stores and most importantly, urban art installations. Locally famous street artists garbed in HAZMAT suits can be seen spray-painting enormous particle-board canvases with dastardly wizards, feral gorillas and other monsters from your two-year-old’s nightmares. If there’s anything that can be said about Outside Lands it is that, while it does not boast the biggest and best lineup, the festival management does a good job of keeping the party about the art and music and not the other way around.
Outside Lands does feature some party-oriented music acts (e.g. Duck Sauce, Tiësto and Disclosure, to name a few,) but, unlike most analogous festivals across the country, it does not feature a stage that is headlined by purely dance music acts. In order to have a really good time at Outside Lands, you’ll need to be familiar with some of the artists and know the words to a few songs, and this draws a crowd of devout music fans. When droves of twenty-somethings left Atmosphere early to join the hoard of tired baby-boomers at Tom Petty’s closing set at the end of the night, it was something special.
While not completely absent at other large festivals, these authentic music fans comprise the majority of Outside Lands attendees, and this makes the Outside Lands community feel refreshing even to veteran festival-goers. Additionally, this allows management to continue to keep booking up-and-coming musicians such as Warpaint and Gold Panda … even if sometimes the bill includes a beat-boxing cello player whose amplifier is powered by a volunteer on a bicycle.
Here are some tips on having the ultimate OSL experience. First, don’t be afraid to dance like a hippie to your favorite indie act, because people will join you without fail if you dance hard enough. Second, although a little pricy, the chimmichurri fries from 4505 Meats will be worth it every time.
Third, roam around the festival grounds, and don’t be worried about occasionally losing your friends; you’ll find new friends if you mouth lyrics to songs you don’t know the words to. Fourth, bring a hoodie. If you’re not dancing harder than Samuel T. Herring, San Francisco nights can be about as unforgiving as exile in Siberia. Lastly, see a new act. Support struggling musicians, because acts with goofy names like Yellow Ostrich, Fitz and the Tantrums, or GRiZ might just become your next bread-and-butter group.
Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival takes place in every year in Golden Gate Park the second week of August.
This story appeared on page 11 of Thursday, September 25, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.