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Outside Lands 2018: The 12 Best Things We Saw
If Florence Welch tells you to turn to your neighbor and climb up on their shoulders, you listen -- even if the guy you're standing next to is a complete and total stranger.
For Florence + the Machine's headlining set on Saturday night (Aug. 11) at Outside Lands, Welch did just that, and hundreds of people complied: the packed stretch of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park was soon peppered with a bunch of wobbly, beaming people waving back at the flame-haired mistress of ceremonies, and the waving served the additional benefit of helping them keep their balance in this impromptu bout of acrobatics. As far as unpredictable stunts at music festivals go, this one was pretty tame, but nonetheless endearing, and it spoke to the overall tone of the weekend.
Outside Lands descends on Golden Gate Park as festival season hits the wind-down point every summer, and that's one of the best things about it: the vibe is far more chill when compared to the giant-ness of Coachella and Bonnaroo, or the hype of Governors Ball, without scrimping on the talent front. Artists hit the stages here with sets so well-honed that they can practically pinpoint when and how a song will hit with an audience that came to cut loose and escape the noise of the outside world for a minute -- and getting away from that feels a lot easier when you're surrounded by towering trees and Flo, here, is telling you to make friends in the goofiest way possible, and quickly.
That was just one highlight in a weekend full of them. Here are the best performances we caught at Outside Lands 2018.
Florence + the Machine
She came; she saw; she made everyone hug each other, hold hands and climb up on the strangers of shoulders, and she conquered. Florence + the Machine are the perfect headlining act for this particularly fractured moment in time (and the festival’s first female headliner, period), in that Florence Welch knows a rallying cry doesn’t need heat or vitriol for it to be effective. Her set -- which plucked hits from 2009’s full-length debut Lungs and more recent smashes like “Hunger,” the lead-off single from June’s High as Hope -- offered catharsis by way of dance and audience participation, as she really did ask everyone to get on the shoulders of friends and strangers alike for her rousing performance of “Sweet Nothing,” her 2012 collaboration with Calvin Harris. She encouraged everyone to pocket their phones and “share the experience” during the euphoric bounce-along chorus of “Shake It Out,” and the song’s wise refrain ("it’s always darkest before the dawn") was a necessary reminder for all present.
The leader of the Rhythm Nation reprised her stellar headlining set from New York City's Panorama nearly to the letter -- and no complaints here, because Ms. Jackson was a powerhouse from the start of her festival-closing performance to its breathless finish. About half an hour into the performance, which included “Nasty,” “Feedback” and an avalanche of smash singles, she paused to take a breathe and furrowed her brow. “It’s a lot of hits, isn’t it?” The crowd was all too eager to agree, and she moved on to underline that statement by singing and dancing through her career-spanning set. The towering monitors made it possible for those at the back of the huge field in Golden Gate Park to see every flawless move, but she made a point to walk to the soundstage mid-set to serenade of her 1998 chart-topper “I Get Lonely.”
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Carly Rae Jepsen
No inflatable swords made their way to Carly Rae Jepsen’s stage this time around, though a couple were spotted in the audience. Jepsen must’ve seen Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again in between festival gigs, as the popstar donned gleaming white platforms straight out of a Scandinavian touring closet in the ‘70s and some Abba-worthy fringe-flashing pants for her Friday afternoon performance. “Call Me Maybe,” “Run Away With Me” and other effervescent favorites were sung right back to her by her beaming crowd, but it was the grand finale of “Cut to the Feeling” that left a lasting, joyful impression. Dancer Mark Kanemura -- known for his viral, rainbow-painted videos soundtracked by the song -- joined Jepsen in a flurry of glitter and a pile of wigs to twirl and thrive throughout her 2017 hit.
Justin Vernon remains the only dude alive who can rock over-ear headphones outside a studio without putting forth too much of a “schlumped out of Uncle Larry’s basement ‘cause he lets me write my soundscapes down there” vibe, and did so to great effect before the sun set over the Land’s End stage on Saturday. Bon Iver’s road outfit added a few members by way of Trombone Paradise, the quintet of brass-blasters from Richmond, V.A. who frequently moved Vernon to halt his own playing to take a knee or sit down on the stage to better hear them. Tortured, heartbroken strains of 22, A Million tracks aside, Vernon was lighthearted and warm in his sparse moments of banter: at one point he quipped that if you “start smokin’ weed, you stop having dreams,” which, considering the locale, made plenty of people balk before he clarified that he wasn’t talking about “bigger dreams,” but “sleeping dreams.”
Leave it to Margo Price to take an instrument as benign as a tambourine and wreak utter havoc with it, as the outlaw country queen could’ve split the cymbal on her drummer’s kit into shards when she started pounding on it halfway through her set. Thoughtful, faithful covers of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” were fit right in with songs off her most recent album, 2017’s American Made, and Price spent her hour onstage shifting between her guitar, the stage’s second drum kit (which she fully bodied) and her microphone. A vocal advocate for gender equality in the industry, Price made sure to shout out Florence and the Machine and Janet Jackson, this year’s top-billed talent at the festival: “We gotta work twice as hard to prove we can headline festivals, here.” She’s a straight-shooter in her lyrics and off the cuff, and her Outside Lands crowd saw that in spades.
Abel Tesfaye and his powerhouse backing band didn’t need to do much to turn the Friday night audience into a gyrating, ecstatic mass of people who absolutely had no feelings in their faces whatsoever, likely because all sensations fled in shock and awe once the bass and pyro showed up on the main stage. In spite of a blustery chill that set in after the sun went down, which Tesfaye laughed about before launching into “The Morning” off 2011’s House of Balloons mixtape, he took a minute to show love for his Bay Area crowd. He shared that he played “one of the greatest shows of [his] entire life” in San Francisco in support of Balloons, and that the city -- and XO fans living there, especially -- would always have a special place in his heart.
A busted foot in a Louis Vuitton-designed medical boot didn’t keep the “Ocean Eyes” singer from leaping as high as she could during her Friday afternoon set. She got as close to her fans as possible, running along the periphery of the photo pit at one point and singing “Bored” with her legs flung over the edge of the Land’s End stage. Eventually, she conceded that she was physically pushing it with her injury, but the positivity wafting her way made a difference: “I’m in a lot of pain and very out of breath. Can you guys make up for that?” Elated screaming ensued, and a cool, calm cover of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” with Eilish on the ukulele brought the mood -- and her heartrate -- back down to a content chill.
Whether she’s singing as Django Jane, Cindi Mayweather or herself, Janelle Monáe always delivers -- and in vagina pants, too. After a brief delay thanks to a gnarly bout of food poisoning that apparently had the performer puking backstage, Monáe eventually made it to her stage and immediately set about working through old faithfuls (“Electric Lady” and “Q.U.E.E.N.” popped, especially) and new favorites. When “Make Me Feel,” “Django Jane” and “Pynk” were released in the months leading up to the release of her 2018 album, Dirty Computer, they hit the ear as fantastic jams on their own, but with transcendent potential come festival season. To watch “Pynk” -- complete with a costume change involving the labia legs from the music video -- and “Make Me Feel” play out in a setting tailor-made for these choruses that can move whole fields of people to dance was nothing short of stellar, pre-show vomit be damned.
Father John Misty
Josh Tillman doesn’t need a whole lot to command any given locale, even a sprawling, leafy one like Golden Gate Park, and Outside Lands saw him in perfect (and perfectly-tailored) form as he writhed while unpacking the brutal jokes of humanity on the festival’s Twin Peaks stage. His latest LP, God’s Favorite Customer, dropped in June, and the new material has quickly provided new highlights for his live show: the heady, haunting “Mr. Tillman” swelled into a rock tsunami, and “Date Night” got the psychedelic treatment as the screen filled with multiplying technicolor Mistys behind him. He employed a local string and horn section for the festivities, who fleshed out “I’m Writing A Novel” and other cuts from Fear Fun (2012), I Love You, Honeybear (2015) and Pure Comedy (2017).
Anyone who can take the stage in a dandelion, tulle-covered leotard complete with matching scrunchy and train, a bottle of Patron, a generous spirit and a voice to carry a crowd deserves that main stage spotlight. Lizzo definitely earned hers on Sunday afternoon. “Good As Hell” went over exactly that well with the early crowd that assembled to break it down with her, and the boisterous MC deserves additional props for not only taking a ton of tequila to the face, but doing so while sprinting up and down along the barricade without missing a single note.
If listening to a Californian band blissing out with grooving instrumentals in a sun-dappled woodland grove on a Saturday afternoon is wrong, a few thousand people have a lot of grievances to answer for, thanks to Poolside. If synth-surf was a thing, or Coppertone Funk, for that matter, the L.A. duo of Filip Nikolic and Jeffrey Paradise have planted firm flags in both pursuits. Outside Lands provided the ideal setting for “Everything Goes” off their 2017 self-titled LP, which they played for the first time before a live audience, and graciously thanked the approving crowd for making that run through a “good test.” They threw in their 2012 cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” too, a fitting tribute as the rock icon wrote the classic while living in the Bay Area.