With dense crowds, long lines and weather that can turn on even the most well-prepared, why would anyone go to Outside Lands? The answer, of course, is the music, which in its breadth and sometimes overwhelming plenty, never disappoints us.
After a 14-year hiatus, the soul visionary and notorious recluse finally emerged from hiding, and damn, did he bring the goods. For those unable to catch his sold-out-in-seconds show at the Fox Theater in Oakland earlier this year, D'Angelo's set at Outside Lands was a swampy, jubilant salve, backed by a 10-piece band. When we managed to take our focus off the man himself -- D'Angelo could clip his fingernails onstage and it'd be mesmerizing -- we gawked at bassist supreme Pino Palladino, blazing guitarist Jesse Johnson or the thousands in the crowd grinding, gyrating or just stone-cold making out. Save for "Brown Sugar," the set pulled entirely from D'Angelo's new album Black Messiah, and not a nod at all to 2000's Voodoo or its biggest hit, "Untitled (How Does It Feel?)," which the teeming field clearly wanted as an encore. Leave 'em wanting more, the saying goes; D'Angelo could have played for three hours and never lost the crowd.
2. St. Vincent
Still riding the crest of last year's excellent St. Vincent, Annie Clark emerged from the wings in a black jumpsuit that looked as if it'd been rototilled. She then proceeded to rototill the entire Polo Field with jarring rhythms, reaching-for-the-heavens melodies and a backing band that worked alternately like an industrial scythe and a Moroccan snake ritual. As the nation's collectively dropped jaws can attest, Clark's angular guitar solos are a dazzling thing in and of themselves; when paired with her excellent band and intricate songwriting, they become eruptive. Year after year, she puts out great records and yet is still reduced to garbage headlines like this which ignore her music entirely; there's no way anyone who saw her Friday left talking about anything but.
3. Tig Notaro
Bands, bands, bands. At least once during the weekend each year, a trip to the comedy tent is recommended to change up the pace. Tig Notaro, a brilliant master of timing and deprecation, changes the pace wherever she goes. After a stellar opening set by James Adomian (his Louis C.K. impression was eerily precise), and a complete bomb of a set by Andy Kindler from Everybody Loves Raymond, Notaro made masterpieces of misfortune. After promising that "I don't typically talk about things that are upsetting to people" -- counter to the fact that her most famous performance was about having cancer, being dumped and her mother dying -- someone shouted "Liar!" Taking the cue, Notaro continued: "So I want to tell you about a time when I should have been molested, but then I wasn't." Everybody laughed, but she wasn't kidding: she told the story -- and it was hilarious.
4. Amon Tobin
There are plenty of works of art throughout the festival grounds (shout out to KQED's own Kristin Farr, whose designs flank the Sutro stage this year) and with nine new large murals created on-site each year, Outside Lands has amassed an impressive collection. But the biggest piece of art on Friday was Brazilian producer Amon Tobin's gigantic ISAM 2.0 stage set, a cubist sprawl that's reminiscent of the excrement-deposited-by-a-giant-concrete-dog-with-square-intestines Vaillancourt Fountain in the Embarcadero. With dizzying landscapes and patterns projected in 3D upon its surface, and with Tobin housed inside performing a cross-pollination of EDM and the suicide nets at Foxconn, the set is legendary in electronic-music circles, but intriguing enough to the casual passerby. When I saw it at the Warfield in 2011, I surmised that it belongs in a museum. The assessment stands.
5. Lindsey Stirling
A chipper, vivacious and semi-confusing Lord of the Dance for the seapunk generation, Lindsey Stirling kicked and twirled her way into the hearts of the crowd Friday afternoon. Stirling is a YouTube violin sensation who plays a manic sort of Celtic-inspired fiddle, flanked by four backup dancers and various props (e.g., a tombstone bearing the name of Piers Morgan). Though repetitive, her set provided a welcome respite from the hordes of unshaven guitar-slinging mopes with lovelorn choruses and vintage tube amps so plentiful at any music festival. A Riverdance revival with pink hair, a pirate chest, a pantomime of a sailing ship and a death wish for boorish race-baiting late-night hosts? Sign me up.