Lessons From Outside Lands: Don't Be Boring at Festivals

Radiohead is a great band. There are few people who would argue against that, and anyone who did better bring some pretty serious proof to back it up.

But Radiohead is a pretty terrible band to have headline a major multi-genre music festival.

On Saturday night, Thom Yorke and company closed out the second day of the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and most of the people who are honest with themselves were bored nearly to sleep.

Musically, it was fantastic. The band sounded as layered and complex as ever. Yorke's croon mumbled both clearly and appropriately distortedly over the droning guitars. Songs went on for an extended amount of time just to end on a perfect abrupt note. The few dozen (maybe 100) truly diehard Radiohead fans got exactly what they wanted in a two-hour set that didn't feature “Creep,” “Fake Plastic Trees,” “High and Dry” or any other megahit before closing with “Paranoid Android” and “Karma Police.”

For everyone who doesn't know every word to A Moon Shaped Pool, the set mostly consisted of watching tunes you couldn't even really tap your foot or bob your head to. Of course, many of them will tell you how wonderful it was for fear of seeming uncool, but it was essentially like ending the night with a symphony for tens of thousands of people who wanted to go to a raucous party.

At giant music festivals like Outside Lands (and Coachella, Lollapalooza, et al.), most of the crowd isn't going to know most of the music. It's one of the many problems with current festival culture, and it's not going to get better anytime soon. So how do you appease the most people? You shoot for the lowest common denominator.

Katy Perry doesn't carry the same stature in music history that Radiohead does (at least not yet), but she would've been a better fit for the headlining slot. LCD Soundsystem did a great job of keeping the party going until the lights came on the night before. Even Lionel Richie played with more energy the following night. At some point, it becomes more about entertaining the army of folks who paid hundreds to see you perform than the music itself.

Which brings us to the exact opposite of Radiohead: Major Lazer.

Diplo and his two other friends might not be the musical geniuses of Radiohead, but they know how to throw a party. They took the main stage at Outside Lands on Sunday afternoon, and a crowd formed that wasn't much smaller than what Radiohead drew the night before.

Now, I'm not much of a fan of electronic music and can honestly only name a pair of Major Lazer songs, but I knew from the last time I saw them that I wasn't going to miss the trio perform this weekend.

Within seconds of Major Lazer and their dancers appearing on stage, much of the crowd was already losing its collective mind. Even those who had no interest in the music whatsoever turned to see the spectacle of lights, smoke, and gyrating dancers that had fans dancing on picnic benches halfway across the field.

By the time Diplo got into his giant inflatable gerbil ball and rolled on to the audience (a move everyone who's ever seen a Major Lazer show or highlight reel knew was coming), the rest of Outside Lands was practically a ghost town. Artists like Ryan Adams and Miguel performed for their diehard fans, as just about any casual listener was at the main stage and throwing their shirt in the air at Diplo's command.

Other than the sheer amazingness of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, Major Lazer was undeniably among the most entertaining sets at Outside Lands. Ultimately, that's what everyone is at a music festival for: to spend a weekend entertained and distracted from all of the horrors and tragedies of their real life. They're supposed to be fun, and Radiohead isn't really a “fun” band.

In the future, here's hoping we get a lot more arena shows from Radiohead, but let's leave the festivals to the bands who actually make people want to be there. Let's face it, festivals are more about partying than music these days anyway.

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