If there is a loose theme to be plucked from the wildly disparate collection of artists at this year’s Outside Lands music festival (when was the last time Skrillex and Stevie Wonder shared a bill? When could it possibly ever happen again?), it’s aging: how we come to terms with it, how it bends our expectations and alters our abilities; what it means for a musician to “grow up.” On the festival’s opening night, as mossy dollops of fog sailed above the sold-out crowd, questions of mortality provided a backdrop for nearly every act.
Beck, whose performance included well-worn hits like “Devil’s Haircut” and “Where It’s At,” at first seemed the antithesis of a withering rock star. His face was boyish and perplexed as ever, and his band rattled through the material with an almost adolescent vigor. But when he dedicated the slower—and newer—“Lost Cause“ to deceased rapper Adam Yauch (AKA MCA) the 42-year-old musician finally began to look his age. He added that the first time he played in Golden Gate Park was during Yauch’s Tibetan Freedom Concert series. That event, and the release of Odelay, Beck’s breakout album, occurred 18 years ago.
Out of earshot of most Beck fans (and presumably under the radar of many who came to Outside Lands to see big-name acts) was Papa, an impressive LA-based trio who combine elements of dance, pop and classic rock to produce hook-heavy songs that sound, well, youthful. The last song of their set, “I Am the Lion King,” was particularly infectious. They are still in the process of finding their stride, and it shows in their slightly bashful energy onstage; but they are also indisputably talented—and perhaps experienced enough to play a bigger stage at next year’s festival.
Directly following Papa’s performance was Of Monsters and Men, another young band with a knack for cranking out beautifully orchestrated pop jaunts. But where Beck at least honored the ideas of death and impermanence before launching back into fan favorites, Of Monsters and Men do not yet have the repertoire—or confidence—to explore such dark things. Their work thus far is a polished and wide-eyed rejection of aging; why think about such things, they seem to ask, when they are so far away? Still, their arrangements were as tight as ever—especially renditions of “Dirty Paws” and “Little Walks” from their album My Head Is an Animal.
In the spaces between of Monsters and Men’s orchestral flights of fancy, a feline screech could be heard sailing across the festival grounds. This voice belonged to Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, whose method of addressing questions about his own status as a forty-something rock star was simple: pummel them ruthlessly. In what was perhaps the most hyper-precise set of the evening, Foo Fighters raced through a diverse array of songs from their catalogue, closing the set with “Everlong.” Jumping and howling and thrashing across the stage, Grohl seemed determined to cling to his every second on earth.
Closing the evening was Neil Young and Crazy Horse, who provided a neat case study in career pacing. After decades in the spotlight, Young appeared unhurried, unapologetic and slightly amused by the thousands of screaming fans at his feet. He joked that he had written the classic “Cinnamon Girl” that morning, and, during a new song titled “Ontario,” he didn’t mind dragging the audience along on a 10-minute guitar “solo” that consisted of one note played over and over (and over). Throughout the evening, he stooped over his guitar and jabbed it downward, as if digging a grave. Nonetheless, his band exuded power and purpose—and Young, for all his wrinkles and missing hair and droopy flannel shirts, can still teach all of us a thing or two about rocking.