SAN FRANCISCO -- Outside Lands -- the Golden Gate Park music festival that everyone you know was at this weekend -- is often referred to as a mini-Coachella. After all, there are no massive campsites, Kanye West doesn't crane his way through a crowd and Rage Against the Machine doesn't reunite.
But none of this is to say that Outside Lands 2011 was not a fully-formed, exhaustive musical and sensory experience.
Festival organizers should take note: From the band list to the Wine Lands tent to the surprisingly affordable snacks and meals available right alongside the festival's stages to the relative ease with which one could walk, beers in hand, from the Lands End stage to Twin Peaks or Sutro, this year's Outside Lands was a massive success.
When flipping back through mental snapshots of the three day extravaganza, it's hard not to recall certain standout performances. One lineup that felt especially strong was the smoldering trio of Phantogram, Foster the People and Ellie Goulding on Friday afternoon at Sutro. Phantogram's sometimes haunting, always thumping electro-rock seemed to pleasantly surprise the crowd. Mark Foster of Foster the People wasted none of the energy his band inherited from Phantogram, and the highly-acclaimed Los Angeles band swept the crowd through a set that included hits and songs that are just waiting to be hits, all while the audience fed off of Foster's frenetic, almost vintage style of swagger and dance. Goulding, whose publicist said she was unavailable for press because of a straining voice, also performed ably, blending in her trademark cover of Kanye West's "Power" into a performance that was as short as it was heartbreaking.
Big Boi's set was undone by a computer malfunction (which, admittedly, seems a bit ridiculous), but in a somewhat shocking twist, comedian/recluse Dave Chappelle took the stage to crack wise about the delay and festival culture. "I have waited a long time to be a festival where there are beach balls," Chappelle joked. "There are a lot of black youths who never get to experience this."
Erykah Badu won the award for most intricate costumes and most awkward attempt at crowd-surfing, but her set was dynamic and, in a word, fierce. Badu gleefully claimed she would play more songs in stark defiance of event organizers, though it seemed unlikely that she was actually being cut off. If anything, her music could have stood alone without such acts of mock resistance.
Like Friday, Day 2 started strong, with French-Chilean rapper/singer Ana Tijoux breaking in the early crowd at Twin Peaks. Her set was strong and the crowd seemed to appreciate her vibe even if they didn't know many -- or any -- of her songs. If Friday's Sutro bands all put on all-star sets, one can be forgiven by feeling a slight lack of energy at Lands End on Saturday. OK Go put there all into their show, and lead singer Damian Kulash told The Huffington Post that he imagined about 45,000 people were watching their performance. The Arctic Monkey's set proved a bit dry, if only because this author expected a more engaged performance from the North England rockers. Perhaps being on the last American leg of their tour had something to do with it. Lead singer Alex Turner said he felt as though he was covering another band when performing his old songs, adding that he believed "we do a pretty good 'You Look Good on the Dance Floor' cover" ('You Look Good' proved to be the most rousing song for the crowd watching in a suddenly scorching Polo Field).
Those who wandered over to The Roots found it hard not to be impressed, as Questlove, Black Thought and the rest of the "Legendary Roots Crew from Illadelphia" strummed, drummed and hyped the massive Twin Peaks crowd to a frenzy. Reports indicate that Girl Talk followed The Roots with a characteristically raucous performance, and Matthew Bellamy and Muse found a stirring harmony with the visual team to close out the night. Muse's set was as epic as expected, with a true stadium vibe that one has come to expect from the boys from Devon. We suppose we can't blame them for not shocking us if our expectations are that high.
Sunday proved to be dance day for many, with bands like !!! riling up a Twin Peaks crowd that stayed for much of the day and night, thumping to Diplo and Switch's Major Lazer tunes (albeit songs that lacked a strong bass element, perhaps due to speakers that may have blown early in the set). Festival standouts STS9 followed Major Lazer, and it's hard to say whether STS9 or Friday's Foster the People wins the award for best breakout performance. The former's music seemed perfectly matched with the weather and the audience's desires, as they jammed through songs like "Scheme" with a fiery efficiency that had the crowd more than primed for the stage's headliner, the progressive-house producer Deadmau5.
Joel Zimmerman, the Canadian in the mouse mask, put on a show that can really only be described in two words: Daft Punk. Hovering in an ever-growing hive of cubic speakers and looking down approvingly on the tens of thousands of dancing listeners, many who were openly (and literally) dipping in sensory enhancing substances, as he keyed his way through crowd-pleasers like "Ghosts N Stuff" and mixing in perks like the audio of Bill O'Reilly's YouTube-sweeping "We'll do it live" rant. Zimmerman had earlier told The Huffington Post that he didn't plan on any big surprises as he intended to keep his performances consistent throughout his tour.
Zimmerman's vocalist, SOFI, added an extra spark that sustained what may have been a much less dynamic show. SOFI, who was spotted in the press area holding hands with Tommy Lee (yep, that Tommy Lee) immediately recalls Dev in both sound and style, the singer behind club-friendly hits like "Like a G6" and "Bass Down Low." To say that the duo's act was not revolutionary, however, is not to diminish the experience they provided the thousands who had passed up on the chance to see Arcade Fire. There was dancing, and lots of it.
It's hard to pinpoint negatives about this year's Outside Lands, save for the cliched conundrum of having to choose between stellar artists. None of the performances this reporter saw were dull enough to truly dampen one's mood, and many were surprisingly strong. Combine that level of quality with an obsessive-compulsive attention to culinary detail, and you may have a model for the perfect festival: sizable yet manageable, exhaustive but in no way unbearable.
In other words, the ultimate setting for the creation of fond memories.