In the deluge of summer festivals offering slight variations on the same alt-leaning lineup, Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival presented something wholly original, personalized and crowd-pleasing on Sunday: a main stage performance by six puppets.
Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem, the house band for the Muppets, drew one of the biggest early afternoon crowds of the three-day fest, making their “live debut” with a five-song set that could not have been executed more efficiently or joyfully. By the end of the performance, beach balls were being batted around, Electric Mayhem tees were being fired out of T-shirt cannons, smoke was billowing from fog machines, and the Oakland Tabernacle Choir was singing its guts out as iconic pieces of felt took bows to “With a Little Help from My Friends.” The applause was wild; the concept was wilder. Did a puppet show really just open for Third Eye Blind at Outside Lands, and succinctly blow them off the stage?
Of course, Dr. Teeth, Floyd, Janice, Zoot, Lips and Animal are no ordinary puppets. These are beloved characters that have been around for more than 40 years, and their place in pop culture exists at a perfect vertex in which hipsters and dorks can love them equally. Have you ever met someone who hates the Muppets, or doesn’t have at least one cherished childhood memory involving Kermit & Co.? Neither have I.
Trying to figure out exactly what a Dr. Teeth live performance looks like drew a larger-than-expected crowd to the Outside Lands main stage on Sunday afternoon, and that curiosity was met with a nostalgia milkshake propped up on a towering stage that allowed for dozens of puppeteers to silently maneuver underneath. The audience’s favorite characters performed classics by The Beatles and The Band while jittering along with lifelike movement and adorably clunky stage banter. Animal banged on the drums and yelled non sequiturs; Dr. Teeth alluded to gold-tooth hedonism. And we were simply invited to sing along with the 25-minute spectacle while blissfully forgetting that no music was actually being played live by the creatures manning the instruments.
It also helped that those 25 minutes were supplemented with fantastically silly, San Fran–centric video interludes, including the Electric Mayhem’s trip through the city (Animal mistakes the Painted Ladies for actual ladies) and shots of Floyd and Janice’s romance soundtracked by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ “Home.” Everything was highly manicured, of course, but if a joke about sea lions and gentrification slays the crowd, who cares how it was planned or delivered? Breaking up the songs with customized visuals celebrating the individuality of the host city is a great way to get a crowd that was already in the tank for Dr. Teeth to appreciate the care being put into each minute of the presentation. Imagine if every artist showed how much they loved a city, in detail, instead of giving their crowds a quick shout-out during their show. Because of this unique setup, Outside Lands’ host city was able to get a mash note from the Muppets, and the audience lapped it up.
Watching Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem, I couldn’t help but think of the recent attempts to market holograms of deceased artists as must-see live shows. For many, there’s something about watching a re-creation of Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston or Dean Martin that causes queasiness… and yet here was a field full of thousands cheering on inanimate objects on a Sunday afternoon. Aside from the effectiveness of the performance, how much does perception—the idea of clapping for something that is no longer with us versus something that was never with us to begin with—sway acceptance in these scenarios? It was clear that there was not one iota of uneasiness in that Outside Lands crowd on Sunday. The Muppets have not aged a single day in four decades, and that timelessness gives our brains permission to root them on as a live music entity that is not live at all.
“This here is the first stop on our world tour!” Floyd crowed after the opening song of “Can You Picture That?”
“Correction there, my friend—the only stop,” Dr. Teeth countered with a chuckle.
Sunday’s performance was special because it was the first of its kind: Search for anything involving Outside Lands 2016 online, and you’ll find more articles about Dr. Teeth than any other artist, because every other artist has likely played the same set at several other festivals this summer. Outside Lands succeeded in giving the blogosphere something to talk about, but those expecting this set to be a one-off are short-sighted. The generous reaction to The Electric Mayhem will very possibly precede a full-blown tour (or at least future festival appearances), which would attract a cross-generational audience and breathe life into a brand that’s coming off the cancellation of ABC’s The Muppets last May.
Before their show, people in the crowd were carrying totems with Janice’s face blown up; after their show, they were rushing to grab Dr. Teeth T-shirts from the merch tent before they were sold out. These characters were being treated like any other band at Outside Lands because they talked, joked, moved and “played” like all the other bands. And if that continues, then Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem could become a serious cash cow. Can you picture that?
Watch Fuse kick it with the Muppets: