Now in its fourth year, the Outside Lands festival in San Francisco sets itself apart with the breadth and diversity of its performers. No niche is left unexplored, from the simmering soul of the Original Meters and Charles Bradley to the gutsy garage of Ty Segall. It's also one of the more globally conscious music festivals: its Panhandle Stage is powered entirely by solar energy, and its EcoLands village offers creative approaches to solving environmental problems. Making sense of it all can be overwhelming, so we've distilled it to the essentials. These are the 25 Acts You Need to See. (Want to see more? Design your own schedule on Outside Lands' website.)
The Original Meters: Lands End, 2:50 p.m.
The operative word is "Original." The authors of such classic New Orleans R&B staples like "Cissy Strut" and "Look-Ka Py Py" have been reuniting sporadically over the course of the last decade, and every opportunity to see them should be seized. Simply put, they still crackle with vitality, locking into those elegant grooves and slow, swaggering rhythms. Fresh from a performance backing Dr. John at Bonnaroo, these funk legends are certain to be in top shape.
Tamaryn: Panhandle Solar, 3:05 p.m.
Dark and doomy doesn't always go over well at a festival setting, but their performances over the last few years prove San Francisco locals Tamaryn take more than just sonic cues from Siouxsie and the Banshees. Their rich, rippling neo-Goth is foreboding on record, but becomes stern and commanding in the live setting, rolling in like shadows and bringing with it a bracing, welcome chill. They're simultaneously eerie and inviting – like that spooky house at the end of the block you just can't help but investigate.
Orgone: Panhandle Solar, 4:40 p.m.
Orgone nicks their name from an obscure 1930s pseudosicentific theory about the universal forces that bind us all together and, though the investigation behind that theory may be hogwash, the California group appears distinctly determined to unite as all under a groove. Drawing heavily on the soul and funk of the 1970s, Orgone craft sizzling, airtight grooves propelled by hard-whomping bass, stomping brass and streak-of-lightning vocals. This is bellbottom music, perfect for twisting and shaking into the evening hours.
Ellie Goulding: Sutro, 5 p.m.
Already a superstar in her native England, Ellie Goulding has been quietly making a name for herself in the States as a songwriter who doesn't shy away from her pop sensibility. The gently percolating "Lights" builds steadily from a twinking beginning to its throbbing, insistent chorus and the ominous "Salt Skin" recalls the eerie grandeur of Kate Bush. And given the warm reception British singer-songwriters have been receiving as of late – both Florence and the Machine and Adele moved from cult favorites to chart-toppers in seconds flat – that Goulding should find greater success is not a question of if, but when.
Big Boi: Sutro, 6:20 p.m.
Call it a blessing in disguise: when Andre 3000, the erratic, outlandish half of OutKast, assumed and indefinite hiatus, the response was almost universal dismay. Turns out, this absence was a good thing – it's allowed proper respect to be shown to OutKast's other member, who's proven just as unpredictable as his more popular bandmate (as his recent, er, "situation" in Miami has proven). Andre may pledge loyalty to soul, but Big Boi is all funk, and his excellent solo record, Sir Lucious Left Foot, found him spitballing mile-a-minute raps over hard thunking bass and popcorn backbeats. His live show is just as thrilling, allowing him the opportunity to sprinkle his dizzying hip-hop with a few choice, tantalizing OutKast snippets. It's enough to make you wish the split lasts just a few years more.
Phish: Lands End, 6:30 p.m.
The reigning kings of the festival set, Phish have gone from tireless road dogs burning endless miles of pavement to canny artists who mete out their public performances sparingly. The strategy works: if you're constantly on the road, it's easy to take you for granted. That Phish now only plays in short bursts is enough to arouse the curiosity of those who were uninterested for decades – if they may never play again, shouldn't you see them now? Here's another reason: the group remain able, agile performers, peppering blues and funk and classic rock into their long looping constructions. They explore their songs like spelunkers pawing their way through dark caverns, each unlikely turn holding a new surprise. Their three-and-a-half-hour Outside Lands set is one of a handful they're playing this year, and is the perfect way to cap the fest's first day.
Toro y Moi: Twin Peaks, 6:50 p.m.
Underneath the Pine, the latest record by Chazwick Bundick, who records as Toro y Moi, has more in common with Stevie Wonder than any of-the-moment lo-fi movement. Rather than burying his songs behind a synth haze, Bundick has emphasized the slippery, soulful melodies, and his live shows have evolved into full-on dance parties, moving from quiet storm to throbbing floor-fillers with equal confidence.
Erykah Badu: Sutro, 7:50 p.m.
Erykah Badu's live shows fall somewhere between soul revival and mystic ritual. She seems to be channeling whole chapters of popular music at once: deep, dank roots reggae, hazy late Seventies funk – after the peace dreams of the early Sixties crashed and shattered on post-Vietnam desperation – and the outer fringes of experimental hip-hop. This would feel maddeningly diffuse from any other artist, but Badu fuses all of it elegantly, creating a spectacle that is both engrossing and transcendent.
The Shins: Twin Peaks, 8:40 p.m.
It's been about four years since the Shins changed anyone's life. After mainman James Mercer shed and replaced roughly half of the group's longtime lineup, it's anyone's guess as to what the group will even sound like. That's a good thing: Mercer used the time off to collaborate with Danger Mouse in Broken Bells, and odds are good he'll bring some of that new sonic restlessness to bear as he returns to his main gig. This is the first chance to glimpse the future of the Shins – and to hear a couple of classics for old time's sake.
The Vaccines: Twin Peaks, 2:10 p.m.
British indie band the Vaccines are the latest in a lineage of hyperactive British rockers that include both the Arctic Monkeys and the Kaiser Chiefs – but they're more unabashedly hooky than the former and, unlike the latter, they're not likely to be a flash in the pan. At times, they sound like a revved-up Coldplay, combining earnest vocals with tense guitars for results that are wriggly and riotous.
Sia: Twin Peaks, 5:15 p.m.
Australian singer Sia masquerades as singer/songwriter – most people still know her best for the heartwrenching "Breathe Me", as heard on the Six Feet Under finale – but her music is more delightfully, deliberately skewed than that. She lays her soaring voice across rubbery, disco-derived bass lines and bone-dry backbeats for songs that could almost pass for an artier Shakira. Her show at Outside Lands will be one of her first after being diagnosed with Graves disease. Expect both an emotional, and a triumphant, comeback.
Old 97's: Sutro, 5:45 p.m.
This Dallas outfit – fronted by the fetching Rhett Miller – gradually transformed from pioneers of alt-country to one of the sleekest and winningest power pop bands around. Their latest outing, The Grand Theatre, Vol. 2, showcases songs they wrote and worked out in the titular venue in Dallas. The energy is apparent: Each song centers around a sparkling chorus and is shot through with the spark that comes from four men playing in a room together. Expect them to bring that same nervy energy to Outside Lands.
The Black Keys: Lands End, 6:15 p.m.
By this stage of the game, you know why you should see these guys. Or at least, you ought to. These onetime quasi-traditional bluesmen have moved past their greasy roots into full-bore FM rock, nodding casually at everything from T. Rexian glam to swampy county-funk. Rumor has it the band has already completed work on the hotly anticipated follow-up to Brothers, so the likelihood is high that a few as-yet-unreleased songs will slip their way into the set.
The Roots: Twin Peaks, 6:50 p.m.
How the Roots manage to maintain their schedule – seemingly constant touring while simultaneously serving as the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon – is anyone's guess. But the upside to such a brain-breaking work ethic is that the band has chops. They're inarguably one of the best live acts in the business, and their vibrant sets alternate their own manic, paranoid brand of hip-hop with a healthy smattering of unlikely covers. A recent show in New York found them turning out spirited versions of both "Jungle Boogie" and "Sweet Child O' Mine," so who knows what they're saving for the San Francisco crowd.
Muse: Lands End, 8:10 p.m.
What would an outdoor festival be without a little grandiosity? Muse specialize in the grand gesture: their live shows are just as much a spectacle of the eyes as for the ears. Phantasmagoric videos, massive, Froot Loop-colored sets and the kind of laser show you used to have to drive to a suburban planetarium to see. As spectacular as that may be, their songs are somehow even bigger – giant, pleading anthems that suggest Queen as the world's best U2 cover band. Lead vocalist Matt Bellamy just became a dad, having a son with Kate Hudson, so those near the front may want to request a few Yo Gabba Gabba covers. He's got to learn them sooner or later.
Girl Talk: Twin Peaks, 8:40 p.m.
Girl Talk's Gregg Gillis may take flack from the blogerati for the way he shamelessly grafts academic indie rock to hip-hop and techno, but when you're jammed into a sweaty tent watching him do it live, it's impossible to deny that it works. And why shouldn't it? The days of sequestering your listening by genre are long gone and Gillis, better than anyone else, replicates in real-time an age where Can and Ciara sit side-by-side in a digital library.
Charles Bradley & the Menahan Street Band: Lands End, 12:15 p.m.
"Why is it so hard to make it in America?" sings Charles Bradley in one of his more wrenching songs – and he would know. He was laboring as a James Brown impersonator in a small club in Brooklyn when he was discovered by the owners of the Daptone label, and quickly assumed his place as the next great talent in their formidable R&B roster (which already includes the mighty Sharon Jones). The traces of his previous career are evident in every live performance: Bradley drops to his knees, mops his brow, cradles the mic and pulls notes up from way down deep, delivering his tales of passion and woe with the kind of soul fire they require. By the time he gets to his blistering cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," any skeptics in the crowd will be singing right along with him.
Tune-Yards: Sutro, 1:15 p.m.
Part performance art, part sacred tribal ritual, part eye-popping spectacle, the shows Merrill Garbus performs as Tune-Yards (or, as she prefers, tUnE-yArDs) are about as far from typical as pop music can get. Garbus takes the stage in neon face paint and feathers and bangs out driving rhythms on a floor tom which she then loops and layers to create the backbeat for her delightfully skewed songs. On top of that go layers of ukulele and on top of that goes Garbus's voice – sampled in real-time and then stretched and shifted and taped end-to-end. Call it a sonic highwire act – all the songs are constructed live and on the fly. But rather than being heady, Garbus's music is full of joy – shouts and bleats and ululations that come across as ecstatic cries of freedom.
Mavis Staples: Lands End, 1:45 p.m.
A living, breathing, singing embodiment of rock & roll history, the legendary Mavis Staples routinely peppers her sets with songs about Bob Dylan, the Band and the Civil Rights movement before pouring her mighty alto – which has only strengthened with age – into classics like "The Weight." Even better is the fact that her new record, the Jeff Tweedy-produced You Are Not Alone, is just as good as her catalog, a rousing batch of country and gospel songs tailor-made to comfort and inspire.
Ty Segall: Panhandle Solar, 3:55 p.m.
Ty is a tempest, a carrot-haired hesher who delights in revving up '70s stoner rock to twice its normal speed, roaring through his petulant punk songs like a busted Mustang down an empty back alley. That he and his powerhouse band have lately taken to covering Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" is appropriate; they music has all of that band's murk and power, but there's something more frenzied, more panicked about Segall – a sense of urgency in replacing Sabbath's sense of dread. Excelling in both speed and volume, Segall is a wrecking ball bent on leveling everything in his path.
!!!: Twin Peaks, 4:05 p.m.
Fugazi's Ian Mackaye used to say that the band's albums were the menu, but the live shows were the meal. The same is true of New York post-funkers !!!, whose knack for blown-out booty-movers can only be appreciated fully as part of a large crowd. They center, again and again, on fantastically elastic bass grooves, with vocalist Nic Offer's hiccupping delivery serving mainly to whip his audience into a frenzy. And, time and time again, he does it, bounding along the top of his band's potent Talking Heads-by-way-of-Funkadelic party anthems and coming off like vocalist and hypeman rolled into one.
Major Lazer: Twin Peaks, 4:40 p.m.
Major Lazer take to the live stage with a carnival spirit. Though its prime movers are the generally reserved producers Diplo and Switch, the stage is generally flooded with vocalists, hypemen, neon-clad dancers and hyperactive acrobats, all of them serving as physical manifestations of the duo's revved-up dancehall and hip-hop. You'd be hard pressed to find a more visceral live show, and as the performance goes on, it tends to teeter closer and closer to all-out chaos. Finding out whether or not they manage to hold it all together is just one of the many reasons to see them.
Little Dragon: Sutro, 5:20 p.m.
The Swedish dance group Little Dragon might not exactly be packing out venues in the States, but it's only a matter of time. Their cunning hybrid of glitchy electronics, bright electropop and slinky R&B feels so inevitable its amazing no one thought of it sooner. Their latest album, Ritual Union, is their most fully realized to date, with vocalist Yukimi Nagano's voice sounding slinkier and sexier than ever as she glides across the skittering rhythms. It's a winning combination, recalling simultaneously the furthest reaches of minimal techno and the best moments of early '00s soul. See them in San Fran and be ahead of the sonic curve.
The Decemberists: Lands End, 6:15 p.m.
The reason to see the Decemberists now is easy: now that they've moved past their admirable but difficult to stage concept record phase (the tour in support of 2009's The Crane Wife), they've returned to what they do best, writing elegant and quietly devastating songs couched equally in country and '80s college rock. Colin Meloy has even toned down some of his bookier phrasings, preferring simplicity to showy erudition. Their latest effort, the sublime The King Is Dead, translates beautifully to a live setting, its rich harmonies and oaky instrumentation sounding best when they're ringing through the open air.
Arcade Fire: Lands End, 8:10 p.m.
Arcade Fire are officially road-tested and crowd-approved, achieving in the live setting the kind of glorious transcendence they routinely deliver in their songs. The last few years have seen them rocket from quietly-kept indie secret to full-on world-beating supernova and, on stage, they act like a band that's ready to claim the mantle of the Best Rock Band in the World. Win Butler's ragged voice exudes passion and fury in equal amounts, and few moments are as spectacular or as thrilling as the moment they deliver the all-join-hands opening of "Wake Up" near the end of the set. Their Coachella set ended in a rain of illuminated white balloons, but even if they skimp on the props for Outside Lands it won't matter – their sweeping songs and full-bodied delivery are all the special effects you need.