In its eight years, San Francisco’s Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival has landed some of the biggest acts in music history, from Paul McCartney to Radiohead to Elton John. Yet what makes the festival truly special is how it gives smaller artists the chance to shine, most evidently at the Panhandle stage, tucked into a hollow near the east end of the grounds, removed from the main thoroughfare.
Two years ago, the stage presented a memorable performance by Chromatics, playing sleek electronic rock as the sun set through the trees in Golden Gate Park. In 2014, Big Freedia’s unstoppable energy stole the show.
On Friday at 6:05 p.m., The Drums, Brooklyn-based indie rockers (the band’s workmanlike, critically acclaimed albums sadly have not gone mainstream) played for just 45 minutes to a small crowd. Yet they made every moment count.
Led by Jonny Pierce — a sauntering, magnetic presence — The Drums did everything a mid-level band could hope to accomplish at a large festival. In a vintage performance that deserved more attention, the band used every minute wisely, playing songs from its three albums. All were warmly received by a slim audience that seemed to know the material.
Other highlights from the 2015 festival’s first day included St. Vincent’s afternoon set at the big Lands End stage. An inarguable guitar goddess, St. Vincent captivated the large gathering with her histrionics, giving a primer on how to wield a six-string in the most badass ways imaginable.
Wilco, which began as an alt-country act and is now celebrating 20 years, closed its often experimental rock set in strong fashion with emotive renditions of “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart” (its greatest song), “Via Chicago,” “Impossible Germany” and even “Box Full of Letters” from its first album. Frontman Jeff Tweedy admitted he wasn’t pandering when he told the crowd: “I don’t like audiences, but you guys are all right.”
Mumford & Sons’ hit single “I Will Wait” will always remind Tig Notaro of Outside Lands. Mostly because it was blaring through the walls of the comedy tent where she was performing.
Blame the mostly well-organized festival (this year event even offers live streaming of the evening sets) for sticking the Barbary tent too close to the headliner’s stage, but the comedian managed to wring hilarity from the sonic onslaught while she mused over whether she could drown out the earnest Irish rockers with jokes about kittens and dead grandmothers.
The star of the new Netflix documentary “Tig” didn’t talk about the double mastectomy or sudden loss of her mother, which informed her Grammy-nominated comedy CD “Live” in 2013. Notaro — whose sets were so popular event staff fretted over turning away many fans who braved massive lines — riffed on blood-soaked tales of dentistry and heartbreak, as well as an impromptu game of audience Mad Libs that produced a “very stupid” saga of a flatulent cow in space.
As Mumford & Sons cranked it to 11 on the main stage playing hits and new songs, too, D’Angelo (playing with his hot band The Vanguard) showed why he’s enjoying a career renaissance at the Sutro stage. The son of a preacher man’s latest album, “Black Messiah,” has drawn attention for its lyrics about racism, violence and personal introspection, but the thrilling, varied artist — whose jazz, rock and soul is alternately reminiscent of James Brown, Al Green and Prince — pulled off the feat of also making his music danceable as hell.
He was a wild contrast to what preceded him on the stage: affable troubadour George Ezra, the 22-year-old English singer-songwriter with the sing-along hit “Budapest,” and the meandering electronic, indie rock of Glass Animals, another English act.
While Mumford & Sons enthusiastically shut down the big stage with two hours of seemingly endless soft rock, Amon Tobin closed out the Twin Peaks stage with the confounding “ASAM 2.0.” The Brazilian electronic artist promised Friday’s performance of his 2011 concept album would be his last, which is reassuring. While the blinding light show and computer-generated graphics dazzled, only a centipede waving a hundred tiny glowsticks could find rhythm in “ASAM’s” collection of samples and sonic trickery.
Oh, well. It was only Day 1, and the beer tent and torso-sized-cotton-candy-cone tent were just steps away.