San Francisco's Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival celebrated its eighth year in style with huge headliners like Elton John, Mumford and Sons and the Black Keys each holding down each of its three nights. Here's what went down at the Bay Area's biggest summer fest, drawing an estimated 70,000-plus revelers.
When an entertainer amasses a catalog on the monumental level of Sir Elton John's, the only thing he and his band needs to do is not get in the way of it. During Outside Lands' closing main stage set, the consummate performer wisely chose to let the songs sing themselves. That's not to say that he didn't sometimes drop keys and simplify melodies to suit his deepened register, or that he didn't bang the ivory off his grand piano at every opportunity. At times, he drastically altered his songs — "Levon" accelerated into a roof-raising gospel showstopper, "Rocket Man" was strikingly slower and darker.
There's arguably no serious songwriter as showbiz-y as Elton; his rhinestone-encrusted electric blue suit was emblazoned across his shoulders with the Captain Fantastic logo; his shoes and eyeglass frames seemed manufactured solely to match. But he hasn't lost his profound love for his music and audience, nor his ability to treat each with the care both deserve. His graciousness was unmistakable and authentic.
That benevolence extended to his song selection. Of course he pulled out his most enduring hits, like "Daniel," "Tiny Dancer" and "Candle in the Wind." But he also threw in a few curveballs like his glam-rocking "All the Young Girls Love Alice" and the equally sublime symphonic pop explosion "Burn Down the Mission." The crowd responded in kind, singing "Your Song" back to him so forcefully that it echoed throughout the park.
Just after D'Angelo's set roared to a ravenously vamping climax, Mumford and Sons struck a mid-set peak with "The Cave," one of the London folk-rock quartet's many monster hits. Buttressed by the bluster of this year's louder Wilder Mind, Marcus Mumford and his band earned their Friday night headliner slot. Although he nor his sidemen radiate superstar charisma, Mumford delivered multiple opportunities for the crowd to dance and sing along — the key to the stratospheric success of these otherwise ordinary fellows.
They may be largely acoustic, but many of Mumford's biggest hits boast rhythms and dynamics identical to EDM's: Instrumentation surges then drops out as vocals carry the tune until the four-on-the-floor bass drum brings back the beat with clockwork precision. Whenever the band did one of these sure-fire anthems, like "The Cave" or the similarly structured "Roll Away Your Stone," the crowd hopped around as if they were at a David Guetta gig.
When the foursome, here amended with drums and horns, switched to slower, pensive balladry, as they did on their recent Wilder Mind cut "Broad-Shouldered Beast," the audience talked loud enough to impact even these consummate professionals: When they returned for an encore with the even quieter "Cold Arms," the singer requested that his fans "shut up a little bit." However, they shrewdly closed the evening with their earliest and most festival-ready hit "Little Lion Man."
No other big-time rockers currently groove so assuredly and distinctively as the duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney. For their Saturday night headlining slot, the Black Keys varied tempos, moods and genres but always foregrounded the interplay between Auerbach's greasy guitar licks and Carney's rollicking rhythms. Although complimented by keyboardist John Clement Wood and bassist Richard Swift, the duo maintained their ability to fatten but not bog down their chemistry. Just as Swift's piercingly falsetto background vocals sometimes suggested a hidden choir of women, Auerbach and Carney play as if each of them had invisible twins jamming beside them. In a hit-packed 20-song set, they stretched across their discography to their very beginnings, but focused on the most soulful cuts from 2008's Attack & Release onward.
Blessed with a yearning yet uncommonly assured voice, Sam Smith has learned, over the last year of his astronomical success, how to hold back. Since his initial North American dates, he's seemingly realized that the more he relaxes, the more he becomes himself — a humble balladeer in the grandest pop-soul tradition. His vocal technique may be polished; possibly at times to a fault. But his earnestness is utterly disarming. Like Rick Astley, an earlier Brit whose outsized voice dwarfed his unassuming demeanor, Smith isn't larger than life, but his talent sure is. His songs of young heartbreak are eminently accessible because, despite their commerciality, they're nakedly sincere.
Smith's gentle nature was obvious the moment he arrived Sunday night moaning "I'm Not the Only One," which was as casual as R&B featuring a cello can get. "Are you ready to sing every single song as loud as you can?" he teased, and many fans responded as if he weren't joking. Along with nearly every cut from the deluxe version of his multi-smash, Grammy-grabbing debut In the Lonely Hour, Smith and his five-piece band (plus a three-member background vocal support) particularly shone via a medley of Amy Winehouse's "Tears Dry on Their Own" and the Motown hit it quotes, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."
Before Mumford and Sons hit the main stage, Wilco played their surprise new album, the acclaimed Star Wars, in its entirety — they've been bringing the 11-song album to the summer festival circuit, play it at both Pitchfork Music Festival and Gathering of the Vibes. After they powered through the LP, Jeff Tweedy and Co. closed out their time on stage with a sampling of tracks spanning their 20-year career, including first single, 1995's "Box Full of Letters" and their closer, 2007's "Impossible Germany."
Tame Impala started an early Saturday evening set with the kind of misfires that makes one wonder if the band no longer lives up to its healthy buzz. Leader Kevin Parker's microphone dropped out while he spoke to the crowd; a misbehaving synth sent a lab-coated roadie scurrying across the stage; the singer strained for high notes that didn't always materialize. Although screens behind and on both sides of the band flashed with intense washes of color, the onstage vibe was initially gray.
Parker sings in a thin, reedy tenor while mixing genres in a neo-psychedelic soup of sound he solitarily creates in his studio, typically exploring the isolation of depression, and does so through dreamy music seemingly designed to float above his psychic rut. That escape didn't take flight until "The Moment," one of the bouncier and more electronic tracks on his new album Currents. When Lonerism's stomping "Elephant" followed, the set elevated into high gear. Although Currents songs like "The Less I Know the Better" and "Eventually" seemingly deal with an unhappy breakup, Parker and his band rendered them upliftingly.
"I woke up this morning feeling pretty shitty," the singer admitted, "but I couldn't have made a bigger turnaround as soon as I hit the stage." By "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards," here more majestically bittersweet than ever, that transformation was complete.
Although the 14-year gap between his last and most recent albums has often been characterized as a crisis of insecurity, D'Angelo radiated consummate assurance on Friday in a masterful set that pulsed like a steady but syncopated heart. It's hard to imagine R&B arrangements more intricate than those generated by the bandleader and his expansive Vanguard, which featured sax, trumpet, bass, keys, drums, two guitarists and three background singers.
Adding and subtracting to his black-on-black wardrobe with, at one point, a billowing robe, D'Angelo delivered a sermon of finely finessed rhythm, and the crowd hung on every unpredictable beat. Opening with "Ain't That Easy," the introductory cut on his long-awaited Black Messiah, he combined his comeback material with songs now 20 years old, like his 1995 single "Brown Sugar," which went down like molasses. Switching from vocals to electric piano to a custom black and silver guitar (sure to be the envy of every metalhead), he emphasized the jazz elements of his polyglot funk so tightly controlled it felt free.
This didn't mean he nor the band neglected rocking out. "This goes out to all the victims of senseless police brutality," he said before launching into "The Charade," a wailing squall of screaming guitars and throbbing bass. For the song's raging climax, he and his axe-men stepped to the front in tight formation, striking a bravado pose à la KISS.
"In order to maximize your enjoyment," spoke a computerized voice at the start of St. Vincent's set, "please refrain from digitally capturing your experience": A fitting introduction for a musician whose increasingly mechanized sounds explore what it means to be human. As proven by her Friday afternoon performance, Annie Clark isn't just an exemplary singer-songwriter and exceptionally inventive guitarist, she's also a striking performance artist who revels in chilly artifice in order to examine the uncomfortable heat of 21st century reality.
Her makeup both exacting and blurred, her black outfit covered in peek-a-boo holes, Clark resembled Prince looking like Catwoman — and like Prince, she's confrontationally sexy with a purpose. For "Cheerleader," a song in which she refuses to take a feminine supporting role, she pointedly ascended a pink staircase, as if to put herself on a pedestal. Here and elsewhere, she projected cool confidence while confronting her insecurities: She blazed so masterfully noisy on her instrument at the end of "Surgeon" that the crowd's response went from politely intrigued to emphatically charmed. Clark wryly smiled and shredded some more.
London quintet Hot Chip remain one of the few club music acts whose live show often betters their records. In the studio, they're intelligent, hooky and often compositionally complex. On stage, they're all those things while kicking out the synthetic/kinetic jams. While others push buttons, Hot Chip work up a well-justified sweat. It's hard not to read their latest album's title Why Make Sense? as an acknowledgement of their stylistic debt to peak-era Talking Heads. The same could be said of Sunday's expanded seven-person presentation: Anchored by New Young Pony Club drummer Sarah Jones — a pile-driving beat machine made flesh — and further amended by another player who banged out dissonant techno riffs on steel drums, the ever-morphing, instrument-swapping ensemble proved their art-funk can be simultaneously deep and joyous. Highlights were many: New songs like set opener "Huarache Lights" and "Need You Now" flaunted substantial vocal samples of underground disco hits, while earlier cuts like "Over and Over" and "Ready for the Floor" have, like the band, grown more emphatic with time. In a twist that only amplified their uniqueness, their set climaxed with a cathartic rendition of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark."
Toro y Moi's Chaz Bundick dressed for his late Saturday afternoon set in fleece parka and wooly hat. This must've vexed the sun, which came out for his performance and made his increasingly warm and luminous music that much more unclouded. He switched back and forth between guitar and keyboards the way his latest sounds alternate between power-pop, art-rock and feather-light funk. Rather than directly engage the crowd, Bundick mostly related to the four other musicians who, in concert, help realize his self-created, intricately overdubbed studio orchestrations that have steadily grown less shy. Saturday's set favored this year's What For?, by far his least electronic but most eclectic album. Although the genres it draws from often stretch out into lengthy compositions, Bundick and his band kept everything tight, compact and continuously morphing, like the way "The Flight" floated along on hazy guitar-lead balladry amended by touring keyboardist Anthony Ferraro's fleeting classical piano solo.