Scan the big names of the Outside Lands lineup this year, and you could be forgiven for thinking you'd been transported back to 2003, or deposited in an MTV Buzz Bin circa 1993. (Hell, two of the three main-stage closers were doing their thing back in '83.) Once again, Outside Lands was less a survey of what's happening in music now than a sampler of All That Has Come Before, where skipping from one stage to the next landed you in '80s New York, '90s L.A., '60s Liverpool, and '70s Austin.
There are a number of reasons for this, but the primary one is economic: To draw 65,000 people to Golden Gate Park for three days requires casting the net as wide and far — and far back — as possible. Organizers want older fans with the disposable income for $229 VIP passes and $13 glasses of pinot noir, so they book Hall & Oates in addition to Matt & Kim. And in this fragmented age, there aren't many new bands with the broad draw of even a younger Red Hot Chili Peppers, much less a lot of Future U2s. (Which is why Phoenix seems to play every festival nowadays.) The effect was festival-as-time machine at least as much as the lineup poster suggested — a self-guided tour through nearly 90 acts that offered elation, boredom, glee, and no shortage of surprises along with all the nostalgia.
Chic wasn't even supposed to play until D'Angelo canceled days before, but closing out the Sutro stage on Friday, Nile Rodgers' band alluded to its role in dozens of songs you've heard somewhere, plus Daft Punk's "Get Lucky." A mid-set medley had Diana Ross's "I'm Coming Out" melt into Sister Sledge's "We Are Family." But the true mind-fuckery came when the white-suited crew pounded through the pure funk of "Good Times," then twisted it into a live version of "Rapper's Delight." Both songs came out in 1979, but the leap from one to the other was a leap through eras, from the live band model of the modern age to the omnipotent DJ of the postmodern one, with no loss in danceability. Chic let us look upon the future from the perspective of the past.
Close your eyes while listening to Paul McCartney and you wouldn't know he's aged a day past Abbey Road. The cute Beatle mostly accepted his role as the ambassador from Planet Greatest Band Ever, and to simmer in his nearly three-hour set was to feel anew the heat and light from songs we all know far too well. There was no struggle, only joy Friday, as "Let It Be" inspired mass singalongs, and fireworks streamed into the sky during "Live and Let Die." How fitting at a festival held in honor of rock's past that we would get such a large helping of the best of it.
But not all parts of history are held equal: Based on the numbers fleeing the scene, apparently very few had the stomach for Nine Inch Nails' unbridled loathing, despite it fueling the most invigorating 90 minutes of the entire weekend. You might think of this band as a '90s leftover, but like McCartney's voice, Nine Inch Nails' industrial rock (if not its disposition) has hardly aged. The spare synth lines and crackling pulses of new songs like "Came Back Haunted" and old songs like "Terrible Lie" fit perfectly into the beat-friendly musical landscape of 2013, even if Trent Reznor's anger evidently doesn't. We didn't see this band in 1992 or 1994, but we'd be surprised if "Wish" and "Closer" have ever sounded bigger and harder and sharper — and, hell, more necessary — than they did at Outside Lands.
If one nostalgia act may be relegated to the dustbin of history, please let it be Daryl Hall and John Oates. The very idea of reprising soft rock in this already-middling era is suspect. Even worse were the band's simpering delivery and apparent lack of awareness that all festivalgoers wanted to hear was a handful of bouncy hits they already know really well. The band could have cut right through Sunday's foggy chill with "Kiss on My List" or "Private Eyes." That it chose not to shows a clear ignorance of how these retro-malls known as music festivals really work.
It was a popular hobby at Outside Lands this year to rip on Red Hot Chili Peppers' lumbering bro-rock. But we'd by lying if we didn't admit to harboring affection for, yes, "Under the Bridge," and to enjoying the band's thumping take on "Higher Ground." The hit-filled Sunday headlining set felt like one continuous spin of the alt-rock radio dial from like 1994 to 2008, though it was more fun than that might sound. We were honestly disappointed that their show — and thus the festival — ended 10 minutes early.
If Major Festival Headliner is the postmillenial status equivalent of MTV's old Buzz Bin, Vampire Weekend is the upstart success you can't help but love, no matter how many others do. The princes of Prep-Rock showed up clean-shaven in comfortable sweaters, and set about proving that their privileged backgrounds and Paul Simon worship are but distractions from a larger truth: They are really good at what they do, and what they do is rip ideas from many decades, locales, and styles of music and fuse them all into a delightful strain of earnest pop. The late Sunday afternoon set capped Outside Lands both in terms of quality and creativity, and proved the most powerful counterpoint to the festival's otherwise obsessive retromania: Here were some of the youngest of the young'uns, borrowing from the elders we'd heard all weekend, and doing things many of them couldn't. Maybe there is hope for the future.