Of nostalgia and laptops

Outside Lands festival in San Francisco was a crossroads of old and new

Two sides at Outside: Sir Paul and Zedd (below).

Two sides at Outside: Sir Paul and Zedd (below).

PHOTO by Jeff kravitz

Outside Lands
August 9-11, 2013
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

In an interview with BBC 6 Music in July, The Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft observed that music festivals have become “dominated by nostalgia,” maintaining that it’s difficult for new bands to establish themselves when “big dinosaur acts” are “mopping up all the money.”

In attending this year’s Outside Lands art and music festival in San Francisco (held Aug. 9-11 in Golden Gate Park), I certainly left with the impression that nostalgia is trumping new music. However rockin’ an up-and-coming band might be (see Foals, an English rock band that crushed it early Sunday afternoon), it’s difficult to compete for a headlining slot with names like Paul McCartney, Nine Inch Nails and the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the festival circuit. Other prominent slots were dedicated to Jurassic 5, Willie Nelson and Family, and Daryl Hall and John Oates, all of which have been established, touring acts for at least a decade. Of the main attractions (outside of DJs), only Phoenix and Vampire Weekend could truly be considered currently at the height of their glory.

That’s not to say my festival experience was diminished; in fact, some of those dinosaur acts brought dazzling spectacle to the Land’s End Stage. From Paul McCartney’s over-the-top fireworks display during his classic James Bond theme “Live and Let Die” to Nine Inch Nails’ fittingly haunting use of shadow and light (and lasers!), the headlining acts presented themselves well.

DJ/producer Zedd at Outside Lands.

photo by taylor hill

Even the Chili Peppers, who have historically opted for modest setups compared to some of their rock peers, came prepared with a massive backdrop displaying a series of colorful animations. Watching them play hits like “Under the Bridge” and “Otherside” with such a background—and a bit of extra-dramatic fog rolling in off the Bay—was mesmerizing.

Outside of the headliners, the most intense crowd responses were doubtlessly reserved for the DJs. Zedd, a producer and DJ specializing in electro-house and dubstep who performed Friday on the Twin Peaks Stage, produced a particular fervor. For those unfamiliar with dubstep, a signature of the dance genre is building tension—usually via an increasingly high-pitch digital squeal—and releasing it with a bass drop (a moment of silence followed by pounding bass to freak out to).

I enjoy pretty lights and enormous beats as much as the next festival-goer, but Zedd repeated the formula roughly every two minutes, making for an utterly boring set with no surprises. Still, the Twin Peaks crowd went insane for each repetition, raising arms in anticipation during vamping sections, and hopping in unison to each robotic bass groove.

As I watched, I also couldn’t help noticing that for a crowd attending a dance-music act, few were actually dancing. Rather, they faced the stage as if it were an involved musical performance, enraptured by a solitary artist stationed behind a computer screen. For all we knew, he just hit his laptop’s space bar and danced for an hour without actually doing shit.

Seeing McCartney (who, even with a noticeably diminished vocal range at 71 years old, sounded amazing) and Zedd in such close proximity to one another made for an interesting juxtaposition. On one stage was a former Beatle who, despite limited technology, embraced the spirit of musical experimentation to the fullest extent as a member of one of the greatest acts in the history of music. On the other stage was a dubstep DJ who, with infinite tonal possibilities at his fingertips, chose to limit himself to not just one genre, but a specific dynamic of that genre. Strangely enough, if crowd reaction is any measure, the two seem equally adored at this juncture in music history.