Outside Lands: J Balvin, Burna Boy and 5 more we loved Sunday

J Balvin

J Balvin performs at Outside Lands in San Francisco on Oct. 31, 2021. Adam Pardee/STAFF.

SAN FRANCISCO — There are a lot of accolades you can give J Balvin: Global superstar, Prince of Reggaeton, one of Time magazine’s most influential people. But one that doesn’t get enough attention is that the man can absolutely make an entrance.

J Balvin

J Balvin.

Musicians at festivals, even those of Balvin’s stature, are inherently in a tough spot. Unlike a normal concert, these attendees aren’t already all fans. And unlike a normal concert, there are other options to wander to if an artist doesn’t hook someone right away. By that standard, J Balvin has mastered the art.

The amount of pyrotechnics accompanying him as he took the stage and continuing through the entirety of “Mi Gente,” the first song—jets of fire, blasts of sparks from below and showers of sparks from above, jets of smoke seemingly coming from multiple directions, smaller versions of the colored fireworks like the kind you’d see on the 4th of July shooting from the stage itself. It was a symphony of beautiful cacophonic chaos.



It was no surprise, then, that when J Balvin implored the crowd to jump, it did. Thousands of people in perfect unison. It felt like the ground shook, or perhaps that was just a side effect of the explosions so loud that there was a warning about them before the show.

J Balvin

J Balvin.

The pyrotechnics were impressive.

With the hook set and the audience captured, J Balvin did not disappoint, following up with the equally fast-paced and danceable “Reggaeton.” The six dancers he brought out for the song were impressive if only because of the long robes they wore, which can’t make dancing easy.

“This is the first time that a headliner is a Latino,” Balvin informed the crowd, a surprising fact that seems to check out. “All love to immigrants in the United States. I used to work here as an illegal immigrant in San Diego so I know what it all means.”

The sentiment led to the next song, “X.” Even without the introduction, and even without a strong command of the Spanish language, the chain link fences and barbed wire on the screens surrounding the stage made its theme pretty obviously clear.

Back to the dancers: For “Con Altura” they were back but with different unconventional outerwear; sport coats, but with the shoulders at the level of the tops of their heads, making them seem headless. It was a strange effect from farther back in the crowd, not that most noticed while dancing themselves.



The flow at this point was only interrupted by Balvin’s DJ’s gratuitous use of the airhorn. Introduced in Jamacia and a classic part of the dancehall music that reggaeton came from, it’s not out of place and is in fact expected. But to American ears that remember it coming into and subsequently falling out of style in the hip-hop scene, it caused a few snickers from the crowd. A classic and benign case of cultural miscommunication.

Later in the set, Balvin did a trio of songs—“MOJAITA,” “Que Pretendes” and “La Canción”—which were originally collaborations with fellow reggaeton artist Bad Bunny, who was not there and therefore had his verses played in the backing track. It sounded great, but it was a little awkward for an artist like J Balvin, who usually has such a command of the stage, to dance around in silence while listening to a recording of someone else’s vocals.

On the other hand, the Bad Bunny songs were the debut of the laser light show, with lasers so powerful they reached the trees nearly a fifth of a mile away. Nothing is so awkward that lasers can’t fix it.

J Balvin concluded with two of his biggest hits: The Cardi B collaboration “I Like It” (to which he showed off his salsa moves) and his viral hit “In Da Ghetto” (off new album Jose), to which he, his dancers, and many in the crowd recreated the popular TikTok shopping cart dance trend.



Burna Boy

Alongside J Balvin, Nigerian superstar Burna Boy was one of the most unique acts at Outside Lands. Blending African rhythms with Caribbean music like reggae, as well as R&B, jazz and hip-hop, he sang in both English and Nigerian pidgin language.

His extremely talented and large band included a brass section.

Burna Boy

Burna Boy.

He opened with “Gbona,” “Whetin Dey Sup” and “Rock Your Body,” all of which sounded like the aforementioned concoction of sounds, before slowing it down to the smooth and silky “Secret,” which had some sexy lyrics. On “Location,” a Dave song on which Burna Boy has a feature, a backup singer and saxophonist had chance to shine. “Onyeka (Baby),” meanwhile, had Afro-pop-sounding guitar leads.

For “Collateral Damage,” Burna Boy had everyone raise their fists.

“This is protest music,” he said. A video screen behind the performers played clips of military officers and African laborers.

“Ambassador go dey chop/ And Governor go dey chop/ And President go dey chop/ When dem say make we jump, we go jump,” Burna Boy sang.

Following “Wetin Man Go Do”—“a song for all my hustlers”—and “Soke,” he began “Pree Me” a capella before a piano joined in on the ballad. Other highlights include the poppy “On The Low” (which was one of the easier ones to sing along with, and the audience joined in on the refrain) and “Ye,” during which Burna Boy had everyone take out their phones and light up night.



Rüfüs Du Sol

In large part due to its talent but also fueled in part by the desire to move near the end of a long festival weekend, Rüfüs Du Sol had the crowd jumping and dancing throughout its set. Opening with “Eyes” and “You Were Right,” the Australian trio set the tone early for what to expect, and its crowd was feeling it.

Rüfüs Du Sol

Rüfüs Du Sol.

Feeling it so much, in fact, that several songs in, the first time the band paused between songs and singer Tyrone Lindqvist asked, “Anyone out there get a chance to listen to our new record?” a not-insignificant portion of the crowd didn’t actually stop dancing. But at least the band were ready when “On My Knees” began and the rest of the audience rejoined them.

While the performance consisted mainly of three men standing mostly stationary at their instruments while lights and production happened around them, it didn’t matter a lick for the dancing mob.

Rüfüs Du Sol went on with songs including “Live from Joshua Tree” and “Like an Animal,” before closing out with “Innerbloom” and “Treat You Better.”

Hopefully if anyone is still dancing, their friends have removed them from the park.



Brittany Howard

If people thought they were going to see Brittany Howard, best known as singer and guitarist of Alabama Shakes… well, they were right. But they were also going to church. Howard wasn’t preaching religion, mind you. She was preaching love and acceptance, and she was preaching to do what’s right. She brought the rock and roll and the soul to a festival that, to that point, didn’t have nearly enough.

Brittany Howard

Brittany Howard.

Focusing mostly on her solo work, she opened with hits like “He Loves Me,” “Georgia,” and of course, “Stay High,” which won the Grammy for Best Rock Song in 2021. And she belted those songs out, forcing the crowd to figure out how to cheer while stunned in silence all at once.

But where she really shined was in her covers. Her first cover of the night was “You Are What I’m All About,” originally by The New Birth. It was a bit obscure, but when she hit the chorus of her next song, Jackie Wilson’s classic “Higher and Higher,” the crowd really got into it and went crazy. Then she did some more of her own music before ending with a powerful rendition of Nina Simone’s “Revolution” that made her a tough act to follow.

Near the end of the show she said after she left the stage she was going to put on her Snoopy costume and be out there with the fans enjoying the festival for the rest of the night. If anyone saw Snoopy, hopefully you treated them right.



Nelly

Nelly

Nelly.

Helicopter overhead shots showed that the Polo field was nearly entirely full for rapper Nelly. Whether most of the massive crowd was old enough to remember when Nelly was one of the biggest names in hip-hop (as he pointed out himself in a comment about the age of the people at the front), it certainly knew all the words, as hit after hit inspired massive sing-alongs.

Performing with a DJ and his brother, rapper City Spud, he tore through cuts like “Party People,” “E.I.,” “Shake Ya Tailfeather” and “Where The Party At” (a Jagged Edge song on which he has a feature). The latter included a rendition of the Atlanta Braves “chop” chant, on a night that team had a chance to win the World Series.

Many of the songs came in medley form, allowing Nelly to cover more ground. “Batter Up” led to “Country Grammar (Hot…),” which led to “Ride Wit Me.” That song made the crowd go nuts.

He followed that up with “Cruise,” a collaboration with Florida Georgia Line, as well as new tune “Lil Bit,” another partnership with the country duo. Nelly has a new album, Heartland, and he covered a few of the new tracks from it, showing his range.

At one point Nelly mentioned how he’s the only artist in history with No. 1 hits in categories as varied as rap, pop and R&B, and how about 17 years ago he topped Billboard’s country list, long before it was popular for hip-hop artists to explore new ground. That led into “Over And Over,” his song with country superstar Tim McGraw.

As the fervor grew, he covered Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and reached “Move That Body” (which he and City Spud performed into someone’s cell phone), massive crowd favorite and hit “Hot in Herre,” “Dilemma” (with a Kelly Rowland feature) and “Just A Dream.”



Cam

Nashville-based singer-songwriter Cam (Camaron Ochs) embraced her Bay Area roots at her early afternoon set at the Sutro stage, telling several stories about her life growing up in the East Bay. She and her five-member backing band also performed a breezy and entertaining show, starting with “Diane,” on which she sang the first few lines solo and stretched out her pipes. The band then kicked in, turning the song into an uptempo rocker.

Cam then followed that up with bass-and-drum-heavy alt-country tune “Redwood Tree” (she said she had a redwood tree growing up in Lafayette), pop-country number “Mayday” and acoustic-guitar-led “Classic.” She described “Forgetting You” as “a sad waltz about loving someone that doesn’t even know that you love them.”

“If that’s not country, I don’t know what is,” she opined.

The emotional and somewhat solemn ballad “Village,” meanwhile, was about coming to terms with the loss of a loved one.

An interesting turn came with a cover of the Cranberries’ “Zombie,” which spotlighted the fretwork abilities of Cam’s guitarist Ellen Angelico. She kept the momentum going with the fiery and danceable “The Otherside,” before closing out with the intimate love song “Til There’s Nothing Left” and her first-ever hit, “Burning House.”

“This space has made me the free spirit that I am,” Cam said, thanking Bay Area fans for coming out to watch her.



Caroline Polachek

Caroline Polachek

Caroline Polachek.

If Outside Lands was a costume contest, Caroline Polachek won. Her elaborate Marie Antoinette costume, including period-appropriate hair, was spot-on and impressive. Oh, and her music was good, too.

Opening with a simple “bonjour,” Antoinette/Polachek (formerly of Chairlift) kicked off the set with “Into Me” and “New Normal,” with the title of the latter having very different connotations when it was released two years ago.

“Can I play a new song?” she asked prior to “Sunset” to a round of cheers. “Thank you.”

A woman of few words throughout the show, she played another new song, “Too Slow,” her cover of The Corrs’ “Breathless” and “Door” without much if any adieu between. But, perhaps ironically, “Caroline Shut Up” was not her last song; that honor went to “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings.”

This story previous misidentified the language in which Burna Boy sings and the song “Collateral Damage.” We regret the error. 

Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriterFollow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData. Follow photographer Adam Pardee at Instagram.com/adampardeephoto and adampardee.com.

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