SAN FRANCISCO — Childish Gambino made the announcement shortly after taking the stage: He had just been told that his performance at Outside Lands had drawn the largest single crowd in the festival’s decade-plus history. It means he’s drawn more than McCartney or Wonder, Radiohead or Muse, Metallica or Kanye West. How they could measure such a thing wasn’t clear, but it was believable because even two hours earlier, concertgoers leaving the front had to spend more than 10 minutes of pushing through packed bodies to escape the throng at the Lands End stage that went on more than halfway down the polo field.
The talented hip-hop artist, actor and producer, whose real name is Donald Glover, wasted no time proving he was worthy of Outside Lands’ largest crowd crown with a performance that used all of his skills—singing, rapping, dancing and acting. It was an overwhelming success because it was more than a concert. Childish Gambino provided context and a story to go with the flow of the 90-minute set.
Glover performed on a two-tiered stage with a full band, backing singers and dancers. He kicked off the performance with the high falsetto lead of “Algorythm” while the stage was still shrouded in darkness. When the lights suddenly turned on in a flash, a shirtless Childish Gambino was running down the pit that separated the two halves of the floor, giving fans high-fives. Like many of the songs, “Algorythm” had a gospel tinge to it, even if the message was not so straightforward.
Afterward, Glover laid some some ground rules for the show. In essence, they were to “love each other” and “put your phones down.” Like Jack White, he wanted people to live in the moment rather than trying to force memories. The latter rule Childish Gambino would soon forget.
“We’re going to church tonight,” said Childish Gambino, who also made several references to his connections to the Bay Area, and to Oakland specifically.
By the middle of the next song, “Summertime Magic,” he was vigorously pelvis-thrusting to the dance rhythm of the R&B and pop song. Following the bouncy “I. The Worst Guys,” off 2013’s Because the Internet, Childish Gambino and his band sped up the pace on “II. Worldstar.” Soon after, he was back in the crowd, telling fans to get their phones out as he grabbed the phones and snapped selfies. It was a fun, lighthearted moment for a song with lyrics like, “Yeah, motherfucker, take your phone out/ To record this/ Ain’t nobody can ignore this/ I’m more or less, a moral-less individual.”
On “Boogieman,” from 2016’s Awaken My Love, Childish Gambino practiced some vocal gymnastics and gave his best Little Richard scream, while fireworks exploded high above the stage. The choir intro to “Have Some Love” again recalled the gospel influences on many of the songs, while “Riot” showed a man whose soul was cracking at the thought of American injustice.
Childish Gambino finished the remainder of his set with the laid-back “Feels Like Summer”—”it’s a little chilly, but summer’s here,” he said, finally acknowledging that windy Golden Gate Park may not be the best place to go shirtless at night—and newer cut “Human Sacrifice. The riveting “This is America” rounded out the main set before Childish Gambino returned for a 20-minute encore that sent many fans home happy.
Trap DJ RL Grime—EDM trap, not Southern hip-hop trap—thrilled an immense crowd with not just solid electronic music but a visual spectacle that dwarfed even the pounding bass.
Lulling the audience to a false sense of security with an intro of slowly pulsing blue lights and low, soothing tones, the show officially got under way by turning the entire stage into a giant strobe light. Not just the stage lighting but the four giant screens framing the stage and the even larger backdrop flashed white, evoking a cheer that even managed to drown out the music.
While many DJs are content to supplement the music with looping animations and a live video of the artist, RL Grime put in the time to make the visuals a part of the music. Animations changed tempos with the song, lyrics appeared over the stage and flames erupted from the stage to the beat. The choreography and attention to detail were astounding and, even if not consciously aware, obviously felt the effects of the controlled sensory overload being presented to them.
Taken as a whole, the show was the musical equivalent of a really good summer blockbuster; it doesn’t necessarily teach you anything, but as a brief escape from the world’s problems, it’s hard to beat.
Irish blues-rocker Hozier drew thousands to the Sutro stage as the sun was beginning to set, though his crowd was considerably more relaxed than either RL Grime’s or Childish Gambino’s. The singer-songwriter, performing with his talented band, made the large stage seem more intimate by blocking out a portion of it with lights and projecting homey backgrounds onto the video screen, such as a stage curtain.
He opened with the grandiose arena rocker “Would That I,” from his 2019 album, Wasteland, Baby! The song could have found a home on a record by The Lumineers, who played the festival the previous night. His voice reached up and cascaded in harmony with the band’s crescendos.
The following new cut, “Dinner & Diatribes” recreated the sinister fiery images from the song’s video. The band followed that up with 2018 single “Nina Cried Power.” The performance was emotional and tragic; paired with video footage of refugees, freedom marchers and injustices. On “To Be Alone,” Hozier played a guitar fashioned out of what appeared to be a toolbox. The instrument added a metallic twang to the tune, which also carried some gothic elements, with changed lyrics.
Other songs carried differing emotions, such as “Nobody,” which had rising scales that were tailor-made for singalongs; and “From Eden,” which started slowly but concluded as a barn-burner. Hozier’s talented guitarist also turned out to be a talented violinist on the song. Her solo carried the tune home.
Fog was beginning to settle over the area, which prompted Hozier to remark that it was familiar to him.
“This reminds me of home,” he said.
Londoner Ella Mai probably felt more than a little at home in the cold fog and slight drizzle in Golden Gate Park, though it wasn’t ideal for performing—she mentioned at one point that the stage was wet and slippery. But despite the conditions, the throwback R&B singer wowed the crowd with tracks from her 2018 platinum-selling, self-titled album and more.
After opening with some deeper cuts, she moved into more familiar territory for casual fans with what she described as “my favorite song of last year,” Meek Mill’s “24/7,” for which she sang the chorus. As awkward as it can be for an artist to perform a song without the guest it’s often more awkward for the guest to perform without the artist, but she made it work.
Eventually she got to, as she put it, “The song that most of you out here are waiting for,” her smash hit “Boo’d Up.” She followed it up with the album’s bonus track “Naked,” then finished the set with her second single “Trip,” leaving everyone satisfied and closing on a good note.
Hip-hop has a reputation for being misogynisti, and it’s not completely undeserved. Chicago rapper CupCakKe is the antidote to that.
Her lyrics are explicit enough to put just about any other rapper to shame, but the confidence and authority with which she delivered them somehow made it positive. It’s impossible to hear stage banter like, “It’s hot. My pussy is moist. And I ain’t talking about the weather, y’all,” and be in a bad mood. At another point in the set, she either intentionally or accidentally flashed the audience.
She also gets a lot of credit for doing something many thought was impossible: Inventing more euphemisms for genitalia. “Squidward Nose,” for example, is about exactly what you’re thinking. In “Garfield” she sings, “I got a fat cat/ lookin’ like Garfield.” Just when you think every term is coined, you learn so many more.
If anything negative could be set about the performance, it’s the the majority of the crowd was younger; early teens, many of whom screamed along to her lyrics. She could be a parent’s worst nightmare. But then again, so was Elvis.
Pop rock star Bea Miller, despite some early technical problems, rocked a massive crowd at the Panhandle stage. Those who only remember her from her run on The X-Factor as a 13-year-old or her subsequent appearances on the Disney Channel likely did not expect what they got; her more recent brand of aggressive pop rock veers more to the rock side than it did when she was a teen.
Her introduction to “motherlove,” for example, was a story about a Tinder hookup that… let’s say ended quickly, and her frustration that she could have done a better job of it herself. Then the song’s lyrics reiterated that point. She also alluded to her time under her previous contract; her former management was working her so hard that she wrote a song specifically to be boring and unlistenable, but it ended up being “outside,” one of her favorites.
Miller’s backing band did a standout job. The guitarist was especially noteworthy; her solo during “S.L.U.T.” was excellent, and she should have had more opportunities to play.
The R&B artist’s set was marred by a 20-minute delay and vocals that were mostly buried in the mix.
Two of the works looked French and minimalist, while another was a glittery skull that was later tagged.
As for the set, it included a mix of mostly down-tempo balladry like “Make You Feel,” “Fantasy,” “The One” and “I Don’t Even Know Why Though.”
Tierra Whack, the artist’s birth name rather than a stage name or group, began with a DJ set. But unlike other DJs who wore out their welcome long before the rapper got to the stage Whack’s DJ, Zach, played a handful of universally-known classics before the woman herself came on stage halfway through Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” before everyone lost interest.
Ms. Whack herself, keeping to a Dr. Seuss theme with a Green Eggs and Ham backdrop and the Cat in the Hat on her dress, immediately showed off her impressive singing and rapping talents with “Only Child” and didn’t slow down through the rest of her set. “Fruit Salad” and “Cable Guy” especially weren’t just fan favorites but seemed to immediately win over the crowd.
Especially notable was the dynamic between Whack and Zach. While most rappers so far have split between ignoring their DJ entirely and leaning on them to keep the crowd energy up when their lyrics can’t, this pair had a clear star/sidekick dynamic, Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon style, that should be more common than it is. Zach would provide the usual hype and the standard tropes (“When this one drops I want you to go crazy!” “Give it up for the rapper you came here to see!”) but also set up Whack for jokes and one-liners.
The Philadelphia-born vocalist, clad in a
“I break the rules my way,” Santigold rapped. The set included her feature on Jay-Z’s “Brooklyn (We Go Hard),” “Shove It,” “Creator” and “Coo Coo Coo.” As is customary in her performances, Santigold had roughly 100 fans run onto the stage to dance with her. Her high-bmp banger “Creator” got concertgoers moving while her two dancers grooved robotically and hid their emotions behind sunglasses.
Playing the last stop of their American tour, Amsterdam native Turkish psychedelic folk rock band Altin Gün wowed the Panhandle stage with their blend of genres, growing an initially modest crowd to near capacity for the area as people heard them and came over to see more.
They’re a six-person band, supplementing the standard guitar, bass, drum and singer with a second set of percussion instruments and an electric Turkish bağlama, a stringed instrument that sounds a little like a sitar. Those two additions give a Turkish folk spin to a psychedelic rock sound that evokes bands like The Doors. They made a very good festival act, rocking the audience hard enough to get them dancing to not just songs they’ve never heard but potentially an entirely new genre.
If there was any down side it would be that none of the lyrics were in English, so few if any people knew exactly what the songs were about; in 2019 that could potentially be problematic to cheer for. But vocalist Merve Dasdemir assured us that it’s about “the lightness of being and the pain of existence. All deep stuff.” And she wouldn’t lie to us, right?
One of the best young guitar-led rock and pop bands on the Outside Lands lineup didn’t disappoint. Wallows may best be known as featuring actor Dylan Minnette (13 Reasons Why), but all three main musicians and two backing members had the chops to make the Outside Lands lineup. And they brought their bigger surprise out first, opening with a cover of the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” that bookended a short rendition of The Beatles’ “Blackbird.” The crowd skewed much younger than any of those songs, but the kids seemed genuinely happy to hear them, some even singing along.
Garage rocker “Sidelines” also impressed, as did the peppy mid-tempo tune “These Days,” which had overlapping vocals that recalled The Futureheads, and “the melodic “Drunk on Halloween,” which had a dual vocal and guitar attack by Minnette and Braeden Lemasters, who is also an actor. The video for “Ground” included home movie clips of a family pup, which was an obviously terrific decision, while most fans present connected best with “Pleaser.”
Los Angeles rapper Felly put on an energetic show for a small contingent of early arrivals. After a DJ set filled with rap airhorns and explosion sounds, Felly himself took the stage and led an enthusiastic singalong to crowd favorites “Maple” and “Pretty Girls” before switching gears to unreleased music off his upcoming album. One of those songs, “Sink or Swim,” had never been performed before and had only been finished last week.
About midway through the set Felly brought out guest Gyyps for “Desert Eagle” and “Above Water,” which the two collaborated on for the studio versions. Taking the stage with an unconventional manbun-and-ironic-mustache look, he thrilled the fans while slightly confusing attendees unfamiliar with their scene.
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