Along with the requisite singalongs and the exuberant cheers, Sharon Van Etten has noticed a new element in the crowds upon her return to live music after a lengthy hiatus: tears.
“I definitely saw way more people crying in the audience — not necessarily in response to my songs, but just by the idea of finally sharing this moment together,” said Van Etten, an indie rock veteran who recently moved to Los Angeles after a lengthy stint in New York. “I have to fight back my own tears when performing, because I won’t be able to sing out. But it’s intense.”
Van Etten will be one of the more than 75 artists performing Oct. 29-31 at the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival, in what is surely to be an emotional homecoming to Golden Gate Park following the event’s repeated cancellations and delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours of the event will be required for festival-goers, and masking will be recommended for all those attending. A cathartic reintroduction to live music will be married with strict health precautions — a scenario that is the new normal for everyone involved in the performing arts.
“I recently played at the Newport Music Festival, and it was this absolutely amazing experience, but also one with a lot of uncertainty,” said Van Etten. “All the musicians had masks on, and we were kind of keeping our distance, not knowing whether we could hug each other or not. I just think that’s where we are going to be for a while as we figure this out.”
Fans who pass the required health screenings will be in for a special experience on the opening Friday, when Van Etten performs; The Strokes, Lizzo and Tame Impala headline the three days, respectively.
In 2019, Van Etten released “Remind Me Tomorrow,” one of the year’s most acclaimed records and an assertive, performative statement that built upon the more austere indie rock sound that marked her earlier releases. Powered by anthemic rockers like “Seventeen” and “Comeback Kid,” “Remind Me Tomorrow” represented a culmination of a decade’s worth of growth and exploration for Van Etten.
After touring extensively behind that album in 2019 — a string of dates included performances at an old barn at the Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma and an arena opening for Bon Iver at the Chase Center — Van Etten’s plans for additional shows were detoured by the pandemic, and she returned to the same sense of uncertainty that confronted every other musician in her position.
With the unexpected free time, she decided to reissue her masterful sophomore album, “Epic,” with a deluxe edition that featured covers of the album’s songs by artists like Lucinda Williams, Fiona Apple, Justin Vernon and Laetitia Tamko of Vagabon. Van Etten said she was reticent at first to ask other artists — including living legends like Williams and Apple — to play her music, but she was longing for connection with other musicians in her position. Apparently, that feeling was mutual, as Van Etten said that every artist she reached out to agreed to join the project almost immediately.
That mission to find kinship during a time of isolation and uncertainty also led Van Etten to connect with Angel Olsen, a singer-songwriter with a similar career arc. While the two had exchanged numbers in the past and briefly ran into each other at festivals, they never collaborated. This summer, Van Etten reached out to Olsen about working on a song and they ended up releasing “Like I Used To,” a towering, slow-burning ballad that might be the best track of 2021.
Both Olsen and Van Etten will be performing at Outside Lands, and while nothing has been confirmed, one could speculate (dream?) that they will share a stage at some point for a stirring rendition of “Like I Used To.”
While Outside Lands offers fans the unique opportunities to see two revered musicians at the peak of their powers performing together, it also provides a platform for lesser-known artists to elevate their profile with the chance to play in front of thousands of fans. One of those rising musicians is Taylor Vick, an Oakland-based artist who performs as Boy Scouts.
Vick, who was added to the Outside Lands lineup in late September, recently released her sophomore album, “Wayfinder,” a beautiful and unremittingly candid collection of ruminative folk, Americana and indie-pop songs. Gleaning the finest elements of Elliott Smith, Jenny Lewis and Meg Duffy of Hand Habits, “Wayfinder” asks big questions about death, mortality, acceptance and the mysteries of human connection.
While she always had the basic themes in mind for “Wayfinder,” its heavy topics took on greater importance during mournful times that marked the pandemic. Vick seized upon those ideas and combined them with a newfound interest in self-help books that deal with death and dying to formulate the album’s foundation.
“The last year and a half definitely enhanced all the things that were swirling around in my head,” said Vick. “I kind of wonder what this album would have sounded like if the pandemic didn’t happen. I think I was on this track regardless, but all those elements took on a more significant meaning and they definitely played a role in how this album turned out.”
Vick will likely play “Wayfinder” songs at two Outside Lands events marking her return to live music after nearly two years. Today she opens for Nap Eyes (along with the Red, Pinks and Purples, another Oakland band with an amazing 2021 album) at the Balboa Theater in a festival night shows. On Saturday, she’ll hit the Panhandle Stage for her official OSL debut.
For years, Vick lived in the Sunset District, and she often could hear OSL headliners from her home just outside festival grounds. For numerous fests, she was a Clean Vibes volunteer, helping promote recycling and sustainable practices. With that history, she said that being asked to perform was a surreal moment.
“I first got asked if I wanted to play the pre-festival show at the Balboa, and then someone from Another Planet Entertainment said that the Outside Lands offer would be coming soon, and I was like, ‘What do they mean? Do they mean the festival?’” said Vick, who will be joined onstage by her brother Travis and Stephen Steinbrink, who helped produce her album. “It was crazy. I had no idea it was coming. I’m just really looking forward to playing.”
Even though she’s a veteran of dozens of major music festivals, Van Etten shares Vick’s youthful awe for Outside Lands — a testament to the special nature of the idyllic event.
“I’ve played at plenty of festivals that were just kind of dirt and no personality,” said Van Etten. “But that’s clearly not the case with this one. The grounds are incredible, the views are incredible, the sightlines are incredible — it’s so comforting to be outside with your friends in such a natural, beautiful space. It’s like something out of a ‘60s movie or something.”
Like all great movies, there’s certainly a degree of uncertainty and tension with this year’s festival. But here’s hoping that it has a happy ending — one where everyone’s crying tears of joy as the credits roll.
IF YOU GO
Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival
Where: Golden Gate Park, 30th Avenue at Fulton Street, S.F.; for box office in Marx Meadow, enter from 25th Avenue and Fulton Street
When: Friday through Sunday
Tickets: $165-$375 for one day; $395-$855 for three days (sold out)
Boy Scouts with Nap Eyes, Advertisement, and Reds, Pinks and Purples
Where: 3630 Balboa St. S.F.
When: 7 p.m. today