“This is the next song.”
At about 2 PM Saturday, on the main stage at Outside Lands, Tame Impala front man Kevin Parker offers a blunt introduction to the first single off the band’s sophomore album, Lonerism. “Elephant,” a rollicking and distorted anthem, gives concertgoers a taste of Parker’s forward-looking philosophy. “He pulled the mirrors off his Cadillac,” he growls into the microphone, “Because he doesn’t like it looking like he looks back.”
The lyric might as well be a motto for the day. Indeed, if Outside Lands’ Friday concerts were dominated by nostalgia (think Beck shimmying through his ’90s hits, or Foo Fighters blasting through theirs), its second day is about anticipation—about looking forward and breaking new ground.
No band has had better luck this year accelerating from obscurity to national renown than Alabama Shakes, a soulful roots-rock quintet whose lead singer, Brittany Howard, manages to somehow channel both Janis Joplin and Angus Young at the same time. When she belts “I traveled a long way, and it took a long time,” in the song “I Found You,” one gets the impression she’s not joking, though her assessment may leave more weathered musicians a little perplexed.
Howard and her band draw an enormous crowd, and their set includes fan favorites like “Hold On” and “Rise to the Sun.” Before launching into “Boys and Girls,” Howard speaks about having a male best friend throughout most of her childhood—and the perils of wading through others’ judgments. “When we got older, people told us we were too old to be friends,” she said. “And that’s some bullshit.”
If Alabama Shakes seem grateful for their newfound recognition, Thee Oh Sees, a quartet of hyperactive San Francisco garage rockers, seem totally oblivious to theirs. Before launching into their set’s first song, lead singer John Dwyer twitches and curses, joking about everything from his drummer’s bathroom habits to the weather (example: “It’s fucking hot out here, San Francisco!” he exclaims; it is, in fact, a chilly 55, and foggy). The sheer momentum of Thee Oh Sees’ performance is perhaps its strongest point; with guitars slung high, they writhe and wiggle through 45-minutes of up-tempo, distortion-speckled music in what feels like only 15. The overall effect is that of a car breaking apart while barreling down the freeway: Sheer velocity seems to be the only safeguard against a total explosion.
Listeners weary after The Oh Sees’ high-octane ride find a refreshing reprieve in Passion Pit, whose set begins immediately afterward on an adjacent stage. The band opens with “Take A Walk,” the lush and dance-y single off their latest album, Gossamer. After having taken the month of July off to nurture his mental health, lead singer Michael Angelakos appears in top form: he paces from one end of the stage to the other, pointing his microphone outward for audience participation and dancing spastically. As beach balls and inflatable toy airplanes bounce around the crowd, the band delivers buzzing, synth-heavy renditions of hits like “Carried Away” and “Constant Conversations.” When they close the set with “Little Secrets,” the audience pulses and erupts into chants of “Higher! Higher!” Easily the strongest performance of the day.
But how can one talk about strength before seeing Metallica? As concertgoers crest the hill that separates Passion Pit’s field from the main stage, they are greeted with orange wisps of fire and James Hetfield’s demonic smile illuminating twin Jumbotrons. Metallica is by far the loudest band of the festival so far, and their hulking renditions of “Ride the Lightning” and “Master of Puppets” are masterful—they remind us why, after 30 years as a band, Metallica can still headline a sold-out festival geared primarily toward young people.
Before launching into a massive and lumbering version of “Sad But True,” Hetfield says, “We know San Francisco. They like their music heavy! Do you want heavy? Metallica gives you heavy, baby!” One can’t help but wonder just how far into San Francisco Hetfield’s voice is carrying. Or, how many people hearing him do want heavy, whether they knew it before or not.