SAN FRANCISCO — The third and final day of Outside Lands 2019 featured music legends Paul Simon and Mavis Staples in addition to country queen Kacey Musgraves, pop star Bebe Rexha, rockers Judah & the Lion, R&B acts PJ Morton and Leon Bridges, and many more. Thought not as crowded as Saturday’s record-breaking Childish Gambino set, tens of thousands braved the hot sun and crowded Golden Gate Park to enjoy the music and other entertainment.
The day’s headliner was Paul Simon, who noted during the show that all his proceeds from the performance were being donated to the San Francisco Parks Alliance and the Friends of the Urban Forest. He opened his set by showing off his horn section with Latin-inspired 1980 single “Late in the Evening” and set the tone of his sense of humor: “I can’t tell you how happy I am to be here. But I just did tell you. So that’s the first lie of the night.”
Just a few songs in he got to the most recognizable classics with 1975’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” A different mix than the studio version is to be expected with a live band, let alone nearly 45 years after that studio version was recorded, but what’s not expected is that the live version would be a bit better. The danceable, uptempo run of songs would continue with the accordion-and-washboard-heavy “That Was Your Mother,” keeping the fans all moving despite their wide range of ages; from teenagers to people who had likely seen Paul Simon at Bay Area festivals in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
A few slower songs culminated in a song he modestly described by saying, “This next song I wrote a long time ago. I finished it and thought, this is better than most. I was about 28.”
That song was “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” which he explained he hadn’t sung for many years but decided to “reclaim” from the numerous artists who had covered it at the festival. And reclaim he did, silencing everything but the pounding bass from the Anderson .Paak show on the other side of the hill.
Simon closed out the pre-encore set with his 1986 smash hit “You Can Call Me Al,” which got just about everyone dancing—Simon included. The blaring horns playing the iconic riff made it nearly impossible not to move. It was such a great performance of an all-time catchy song that even piccolo and bass solos got cheers.
For the 30-minute encore, Simon slowed it down a bit, playing a couple of his solo ballads before closing it out with some Simon and Garfunkel classics. He brought his longtime friend Bob Weir, cofounder of the Grateful Dead, for their first-ever performance together. The two played 1969 classic “The Boxer” with Weir taking over for Art Garfunkel.
Finally, everyone but Simon cleared the stage so he could play 1973’s “American Tune” and the iconic “The Sound of Silence” to close out the show.
Folk-pop superstar Kacey Musgraves provided a master class in the late afternoon on the Land’s End stage. Musgraves excelled at the afternoon’s festival counter-programming with a set focused less on big-time bombast and more on musical and lyrical subtlety. Donning all black with some rainbow accents, Musgraves enraptured the crowd with her smokey vocal authenticity and relatable songwriting that had the large crowd singing word for word, occasionally louder than the singer herself.
In a large festival setting, juggling so many different musical tastes, it can be difficult to get complete buy-in from a crowd, but Musgraves managed to accomplish just that. Opening with “Slow Burn” and “Wonder Woman,” she looked almost cinematic on the stage’s massive projections screens. Musgraves’ band, all dressed in matching brown jumpsuits, was adept at keeping right in the pocket and delivering the musical subtlety that bolstered the singer’s vocal performance. Musgraves continued with “Butterflies” and “Lonely Weekend” before referencing a distinct smell in the air and diving into “High Time.”
At one point Musgraves referenced that she had not had the greatest of days and asked for a some extra energy and support from the crowd, which she received in spades. Before breaking into “Velvet Elvis,” she threw a pinch of shade at the Coachella crowd from earlier in the year which now infamously failed the ‘Yee-Haw’ call and response for the signer. She continued with “Love is a Wild Thing” and a cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Musgraves finished with rousing singalongs “Rainbow” and “High Horse.”
Closing out the evening on the Twin Peaks stage was Norwegian DJ and songwriter Kygo. It’s become a tradition of sorts to counter-progam a living legend on the Lands End stage with an electronic juggernaut at Twin Peaks, and this year did not disappoint. The Twin Peaks area was absolutely jammed in the moments leading up to Kygo taking the stage, and only got worse after Anderson .Paak concluded his set—also at capacity—at the Sutro stage.
The refreshing part of Kygo’s heavily visual set was his emphasis on striving to be more than simply just pressing “play” and vibing to his own mix. He brought up guest vocalists, included his own occasional instrumental flourishes and paid tribute to the artists he was spinning through the stage’s projection screens. From a production standpoint, the set was a full-on EDM spectacle. Lights filled the stage and the surrounding grounds, and the performance was supplemented by pyrotechnics and smoke cannons that shot billowing columns into the air. Lasers bolted as far as the eye could see into the sky. The magnitude of the visual audacity rose several notches after the sun finally went down.
In terms of song selection, Kygo kept it varied and moved along at a frenetic pace from track to track, occasionally taking a moment to introduce the song and the artist who wrote or recorded it. Kygo spun tracks by Imagine Dragons, Tiesto and Ellie Goulding. The set even featured musical tributes to Avicii and Whitney Houston along the way. Kygo seemingly hit all the right notes, with the crowd jumping and dancing from the first notes, many crescendoing with the familiar bass drops.
Judah & the Lion
Tennessee rockers Judah & the Lion provided flash and flare, and a little bit of surprise along with their midday Land’s End stage set. While frontman Judah Akers introduced his band as “folk rock,” that classification understates everything the band did during its superb set. Supporting its new album, Pep Talks, the band took the stage with a heavy sports vibe, with each member donning a different brightly colored sports jersey.
Akers personality, as well as the band’s ace musicianship, shined as bright as their stage-wear throughout their eclectic and varied set. Opening with “Pep Talk” and “Quarter Life Crisis,” Akers worked double-time to engage the crowd and get fans singing and participating with call-and-response commands. The band, flanked by three additional touring musicians, tore through songs like “I’m OK” and “Suit and Jacket.” While he’s experienced his share of personal family struggle recently, Akers was consistently positive, motivating and inspiring. Not only was the band’s set a load of fun, it also featured some fun toys including the most rock and roll keytar ever and the tiniest Fender Stratocaster-like ukulele.
Judah & the Lion concluded “Reputation” with an extended musical outro that seemed to include musical references to Gloria Estefan’s “Turn the Beat Around.” Immediately following that, the band kicked in to a cover of a song Akers said was “one of our favorite songs from the ’90s,” Blink-182’s “All the Small Things.” The song was faithful to the original but also featured some roots-flare that made it feel fun and unique.
The percussive “Don’t Mess With My Mama” also featured a highly entertaining support music video. The band covered a snippet of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll (Part 2),” a song familiar to fans of San Jose Sharks hockey, before moving into “Alright (frick it).” The conclusion of the performance had to be seen in person to understand: the band running off stage before quickly returning in matching leotard track suits and gym shorts to do a parody choreographed dance on stage.
Judah & the Lion then finished with “Take It All Back,” that had the band members and crowd going off together in an over the top dance-along. The band was the epitome of why fans attend massive rock and roll festivals: to have a good time.
Legendary soul singer Mavis Staples blew the doors off the main stage, which is especially impressive because it’s outside. Eighty years old but not looking a day over 60, she was helped to center stage by an assistant before belting out vocals so powerful she didn’t even need the mic—and that’s not hypothetical. On a couple occasions she stepped away from the microphone and could still be heard at the back of the crowd.
Opening with Staple Singers classic “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me),” she then jumped all the way to 2016 with “Take Us Back” before going back to the ’80s with “Slippery People.” But the temporal inconsistency didn’t matter. She could have sung the ingredients to a microwave dinner and it would have been utterly compelling.
An activist for half a century, it’s’ not surprising she got political performing in San Francisco. But an artist of her stature didn’t need to mince words. Her 2017 protest song “Build a Bridge” got a raucous reception, especially for the following verse: “When I say my life matters/ You can say yours does too/ But I bet you never have to remind anyone/ To look at it from your point of view.” But she was only getting started. She closed her set by being a bit more direct during “No Time for Crying.”
“We got a man in the White House who don’t know from nothing,” she said to wild applause. “I know what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna go up to that White House. I might just run for President myself! If he can be President, I can be President!” From the reception she got, she may just have a chance to win.
Partway into her set, pop star Bebe Rexha referenced that she was worried about how many people would come to see her perform. Those worries proved to be unfounded. Rexha amassed a sizable throng and rose to the occasion to provide some of the biggest pop thrills at Outside Lands. Rexha spent no idle time, engaging the crowd every moment of her hourlong set with commands to sing, jump, or get involved and connect.
The staggering thing about Bebe Rexha is that while she is a pop star in her own right, a good portion of concertgoers may have only known her because of her features or those she wrote for others. In fact much of Rexha’s setlist was rooted in her performances in varying capacities beyond strictly her material. Opening with the G-Eazy collaboration “Me, Myself, & I,” Rexha got her crowd to sing with the infectious chorus almost immediately. She kept it going with her own spin on Eminem’s “The Monster” and Post Malone’s “Better Now.”
Her band, a trio, provided electricity and drama behind her, churning out rock-influenced takes on the material. Rexha’s two back-up dancers were on the top of their game, adding an extra degree of intrigue. Rexha’s vocals were spirited, full and soaring. She also premiered a new song, “Heaven Sent,” with a driving verse that fell somewhere between a pop
Maroon 5 keyboardist PJ Morton kicked off the day with a killer full band set of his solo music on the main stage. The Grammy-winning R&B artist, flanked by band members and backup singers wearing all white, opened with “READY” from his new album, Paul, released just two days prior.
“Not too long ago people said I should be doing something different, or doing it another way,” he said. “But I realized the best thing I can be is myself.”
He then launched into “Claustrophobic,” a song about some of the advice he got from executives. His smooth vocals let the lyrics and the story carry the song, something not easy to do from such a big stage in an outdoor setting. As the set went on he went through the rest of his hits, from “Only One,” his collaboration with Stevie Wonder, to his Grammy-winning cover of the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love,” though neither Stevie nor Barry Gibb, the sole surviving Bee Gee, made an appearance at a noon festival set.
Denzel Curry opened his set with “ZUU,” off his album Zuu, wearing a merch T-shirt from the Denzel Curry Zuu Tour, under a sign that said “ZUU” in enormous letters. There was a clear theme, but we just couldn’t put our finger on it.
Despite the aggressive branding Curry has a lot of talent. While his lyrics could be less than complex (the line “I’mma eat the pussy like a cantaloupe” in “Aloha” raises more questions than it answers) his musicality was among the best of the festival’s hip-hop offerings. “Black Balloons” especially was a genuinely good song in every regard, and he rapped the end of “Speedboat” without any beat or backing and absolutely owned it.
His interaction with the crowd was also among the best of the festival. At one point, with the sun beating down, he had security guards hand his provided water bottles to those in the front since “I feel like y’all need these more than we do.” He also didn’t let someone throwing a shoe on stage slide, calling them out by name.
“Yo, I saw who threw that!” he exclaimed, holding the shoe. “It was you with the glasses! You caught it and threw it on up here! Come on. Throw that shit back.”
Rapper Sheck Wes, from Harlem and currently living in Los Angeles, started off telling us about himself: His parents came from Senegal and he really cares about his art. But what really told the story about his music was the first song he played, his new track “Bill Clinton.” While most rappers will drop a former President’s name as shorthand for one notable action or scandal—or a face on a bill off currency—Sheck Wes seemed to have a real grasp on history, incorporating pieces of Clinton speeches and relating them to his life in the lyrics. It’s a level of sophistication often missing in popular music.
Then again the next song began with the lines “Chippi chippi, I ain’t get high in a minute/ I can’t fuck with shorty, she got too many feelings.”
L.A. indie rockers Cherry Glazerr took to the Sutro stage for a high-powered set fueled by no-frills rock and roll. The trio, led by singer-guitarist Clementine Creevy, may have evolved its sound from their early days of lo-fi garage rock, but that early influence played a strong presence in the band upbeat and heavy-hitting set. The band let the music do the majority of the talking, opening with “Ohio” and ripping through cuts like “That’s Not My Real Life” and “Grilled Cheese.” A little bit grunge, a little bit indie rock, Cherry Glazerr was a little bit Nirvana and a little bit Radiohead, with a heavy dose of punk and ska. Creevy’s impressive guitar chops were also on display mixing in some dirty and melodic solos and riffs along the way.
Singer-songwriter Natalie Mering, better known as Weyes Blood (a reference to Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel ‘Wise Blood”), opened Outside Lands’ final day with sounds that were easy like Sunday morning.
Mering’s sound varied from soulful rhythms in the vein of Sara Bareilles to lush Great Plains folk. Mering and her steadfast backing band provided gorgeous full harmonies on most of the material. Mering would flip the script on the occasional track and drop in a more experimental or psychedelic-influenced song more akin to Arcade Fire. The resulting set was a highly enjoyable and eclectic mix of cuts like “Every Day,” “Seven Words” and the spacey “Andromeda.” Mering dedicated her closing tune, a cover of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” to the boomers in the audience.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData. Follow writer Mike DeWald at Twitter.com/mike_dewald. Follow photographer Joaquin Cabello at Instagram.com/joaquinxcabello. Follow photographer Martin Lacey at Facebook.com/martinlaceyphotography and Instagram.com/martinlaceyphotography.