Over on the Twin Peaks stage, Skrillex, the black-clad millionare monster at the top of EDM food chain, was just about to do his Bladerunner-bass thing. Flocks of younger fans, having already gotten their fill of Stevie, were streaming back across the Polo Fields toward him and the other side of the festival.
Wonder had used the hour he'd been onstage not just to play his own songs, but to invoke the whole 20th century of Black American music: He'd tipped his hat to Michael Jackson with a gorgeous cover of "The Way You Make Me Feel." He'd covered the great bluesman Jimmy Reed. Later he would revisit the Temptations' "My Girl." And of course he played his own songs -- which, like "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)," and "Higher Ground," are more like basic elements of the American atmosphere than mere hits, they appear so regularly in everyday life.
Here in front of us was Stevie Wonder, the legend himself, playing them. And we were walking away -- away toward Skrillex, the future, everyone seems to agree, or at least the hot new thing.
Then, around the time we got to the far side of the Polo Fields, Wonder began "Living For the City" -- that achingly sad and pretty and important song about the injustices of urban America -- and triggered in us yet another pang of familiarity.
We stopped walking.
The lineup and scheduling at Outside Lands this year seemed intent on producing such dilemmas, on forcing broadly interested fans to choose between an Old (or older) Legend -- a Neil Young, a Stevie Wonder, a Metallica, a Grandaddy, a Jack White, say -- and a younger, lesser known, but still important (or potentially important) artist: a Skrillex, a Passion Pit, a Santigold, a Washed Out. Organizers say they tried to minimize conflicts between artists whose fans might overlap, but conflicts are inevitable at multistage festivals, and listeners' tastes are more expansive than ever.
Stevie versus Skrillex was the sharpest and knottiest conflict between old and new at Outside Lands. For most of the festival, the old clearly won out -- not just in band name font size but implicitly, through stage placements and set-time conflicts. Men With Guitars dominated the big stage for the entire weekend, and the arrangement of big names meant always having to choose between the old and new. (Of all the headlining artists on Polo Fields, could it really be that Metallica -- which just celebrated its 30th year as a band last winter -- was the youngest?)
If you were unsentimental about what you chose, the lineup could have offered a fascinating display of pop music, from the 1960s to the absolute present moment. (As long as you didn't want much hip-hop.) Think of the contrasts: Metallica played a great set, for example, but in some ways, aren't its sonic advances -- its blinding tempos and huge low-end -- kinda obsolete in 2012? Wouldn't "Battery" seem tame after Skrillex? This would have been the perfect festival to find out.
Except it wasn't, because for us, at least, the choice was false. Skip Metallica playing a greatest-hits set for a hometown crowd in order to be soothed by Sigur Rós? Out of the question. Leave Neil Young and Crazy Horse's ponderous, indulgent set -- and miss the part where they played "Cinnamon Girl" and "Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)" -- to take in Justice? No way.
Technically, these were real decisions, and some fans obviously left Young and Wonder for the other side of the festival (or the exits). We heard Sigur Rós was great. But by dividing the final acts so starkly along the axis of age -- and, frankly, by having three main-stage headliners with such towering, long-running reputations -- Outside Lands put its focus on the past in 2012. That's not necessarily a bad thing. In some ways, it suits a festival in San Francisco, a city that will forever be getting over the hangover of the 1960s, where aged genres like psychedelic rock remain both popular and vital.
The only downside of the legendary headliners at Outside Lands was that experiencing them in full came at the expense of seeing the newness on offer. Had it not been our first time seeing Young and Wonder, maybe we would've been less concerned, and gotten a taste of everyone. As it was, surrendering the new to pay respect to the old proved a tough decision -- for about two minutes. When Stevie Wonder played "Living for the City," we stopped, turned around, and headed back to the big stage. Maybe we would have been just as dazzled by Skrillex. But by the time Stevie got to "Superstition," we were back up in front, dancing in ecstasy.