The Best Things We Saw at Outside Lands 2021
The Halloween weekend festival in San Francisco was a super-fun celebration of all kinds of music.
There's a lot of music festivals, and if you're a music fan who follows the festival circuit, most of them start to feel pretty similar after a while. San Francisco's resident major music festival Outside Lands (which just so happens to be the largest independent fest in the nation) tends to be a stand-out, though—and this year felt extra special. It saw the return of the biggest live music event in the Bay Area since the start of the pandemic—walking through the crowds, you inevitably passed at least one person shouting something along the lines of, "Holy shit, it feels so good to be back"—and it was absolutely a Halloween weekend to remember.
While I was only able to make it to Friday and Saturday of the fest, I can genuinely say it was one of the coolest and the biggest festival I've ever been to (and I've been to a lot, from Governors Ball to Lollapalooza). The festival grounds are so gorgeous that they're nearly overwhelming, being that you're essentially in the middle of the woods and surrounded by canopy trees—which made the fest's Halloween theme featuring Alice in Wonderland- and haunted house-inspired production feel extra festive. (The fog coming off the coastline helped set the spooky vibes, too.) It highlighted everything the Bay Area has to offer, be it the city's cannabis culture or vibrant food scene with venders from local culinary destinations and even a whole food and drink fest that included demonstrations, like from Thrillist's own Wine and Cheeseburger. And, of course, the incredible curated lineup (which maybe gets the title of being the most exciting of the 2021 festival season) made the weekend. From Lizzo's headlining set to a slate of rising stars, these are the best things I saw at Outside Lands 2021.
Lizzo made her headlining set as fun as possible
Headlining is no easy task. While there's undoubtedly a portion of the crowd who are huge fans and got tickets in part to see you, you can expect another chunk to be only a little bit familiar with your music, or not at all. You have to be able to cater to the entire audience—which is something pop/hip-hop artist Lizzo recognized, making her Saturday night set as fun as it could be. She and her dancers emerged on stage to the sound of heavy metal guitars before opening with her recent single "Rumors." Just like she shouts, "Black people made rock and roll," on the track, it was as if she was paying homage to Black rock artists who came before her, like Sister Rosetta Tharpe who she's known to be a fan of and her own mentor, Prince. Then, with her hits like "Tempo," she got everybody dancing—declaring, "If you don't have ass, you got ass tonight," and leading the crowd in a chant of, "I have ass!" There was extensive pyrotechnics, twerking with abandon, a Halloween dance break to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" in which Lizzo reappeared on stage dressed as the doll from Squid Game, and she even asked the crowd to make a TikTok with her. She was legitimately having a good time, so the crowd was, too.
In recent years, many fests have leaned away from getting legacy acts as headliners and instead started booking mainstream pop acts of the moment (like Billie Eilish or Post Malone, who top-lined nearly every event this year). OSL made a case for booking a beloved name whose star is still on the rise. Lizzo herself said she was surprised they asked her to headline—but she shouldn't have been. She made everybody feel "Good As Hell" and have a blast, which is what the final show of the night should do.
Vampire Weekend's only concert of the year
For indie rock favorites Vampire Weekend's first show in 18 months, and only one of the year, they emerged on stage to the sound of "We Will Rock You," as it transitioned into their Father of the Bride song "2021." It was cheeky and full of oh-so-Vampire-Weekend wit, but it was such a moment of bliss seeing Ezra Koenig and the group again. They teetered between performing songs of their 2019 album and classics off their first three records—"Sunflower" with an extended live ending that transitioned into "White Sky" being especially great. An unabashed joy washed over the crowd upon hearing the first couple notes of "A-Punk," seeing as it was the first song on many people's iPods for years and remains impossible not to rock out to those jovial rockabilly guitars. They closed out with a string of debut record staples, from "A-Punk" to "Campus" to "Oxford Comma" to their typical closer "Walcott," as they tossed giant blown-up Father of the Bride globes into the crowd. It was impossible not to feel the hold the indie rockers have on so many hearts; there was a lot of earnest singing of the guitar lines, and it was as if each song's intro, from the baroque strings of "Step" to the percussion of "Cousins," reminded everybody just how much they loved the band. Walking out to "We Will Rock You" might have been a joke, but it was true, they definitely did!
The crowd's embrace of rising artists
OSL showed up for the rising acts slated in the afternoons. It was exciting not only because of how palpable the energy was, but because you could see just how much younger audiences respond to genre-defying, innovative artists. Remi Wolf, for example, had a 2:40 set on Friday and it was packed—like, there were so many people that you couldn't maneuver through the packed crowd. It was like a homecoming show for the singer, who grew up in Palo Alto, and the crowd gave her a warm welcome—hollering as she did somersaults across the stage and cheering to her vibrant pop that's fused with disco, R&B, and a whole lot of quirkiness. Her chameleon-like quality showed even more so as she played covers of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" and MGMT's "Electric Feel," both of which everybody sang right back to her.
Rico Nasty had a similar set on Saturday afternoon. The rapper who makes what she calls "sugar trap" (rapping over hardcore and splashy electro beats) had young women lining the barricade and spewing her verses word-for-word. Dressed in a mall goth Vaudevillian ensemble and joined by a pair of dancing Gizmos from Gremlins, she gave one of the most punk sets of the weekend by not giving a fuck and having fun, all the while going hard and relaying her sassy bars in her signature gravelly-yet-sweet tone. At one point she even noted how impressed she was with the crowd, saying, "Y'all got a whole lot of energy for me, wow"—although she shouldn't be surprised how amped her tracks get people.
That embrace from fans was exciting, though, since these names are still on the up-and-up and their sounds are quite different. The enthusiasm reminded me of when I saw Billie Eilish play the smallest stage at Governors Ball in 2018—just a year before she became a household name with the release of her debut record, and just three years before she headlined the exact same festival. Whether it's the accessibility of the streaming era and TikTok, or Gen-Z's favoritism for things that are a bit more eclectic, you can't help but look forward to what's next in both their careers and other new sounds that fans might latch onto. (Like, maybe Rico Nasty isn't too far off from following the trajectory of Megan Thee Stallion, which would be very cool.)