Virgin Fest juxtaposes genres with success and failure

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Music festivals used to be a gathering of like-minded fans, getting together to share the sun, some tunes, and a spot on the grass in front of the stage with their favorite bands.

But increasingly festivals seem to be put together with a more haphazard approach and less of a coherent theme.  While some of the larger festivals only dip their toes into this pool of randomness, the Virgin Music Festival (August 9 & 10, 2008) in Baltimore, Maryland, has cannon-balled into the deep end of the pool in each of its three years and sought to stretch the connections between the bands gracing the grounds at Pimilico Race Track. 

With 31 bands on two stages throughout the weekend, this year’s line-up moved from the "what the fuck" (Gogol Bordello), to the "why the fuck" (Taking Back Sunday & the Offspring), to the "old as fuck" (Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan), to the "fuck yeah" (Wilco, Nine Inch Nails) to the "please shut the fuck up" (Kayne West).

Much like Lollapalooza in Chicago, Virgin Fest takes place within city limits as opposed to some remote location that involves lengthy drives that end with lines of cars waiting hours to get into the festival grounds.  Pimilico’s location poses a challenge to festival organizers and offers a different look to festival goers as they approach, passing by houses and row homes until the track and festival site suddenly rise up from the middle of the neighborhood tucked away in the northwest corner of the city.

Using its unique location, convenient access to public transportation and lack of parking to its benefit, Virgin Fest has tried to establish the most efficient “green” event possible.  In addition to what is becoming standard routine for large festivals and music events (recycling, using eco-friendly materials, using biodiesel and solar power as much as possible), Virgin Fest tried to provide as many alternative methods of transportation to the site, including a steady supply of shuttles to and from metro-train stops that seemed to the overwhelming choice of transportation, with people catching the metro from all spots of the city and leaving their cars at home.

The ladies got things started early Saturday with Scottish crooner KT Tunstall on the South Stage, and Cat Power on the larger North Stage.  Cat Power’s set, as has been the trend lately, was full of covers and included a pretty straight forward take on The White Stripes “Seven Nation Army.”  Following Tunstall was crazed gypsy punks Gogol Bordello, and they provided the first highlight of the weekend.

For a large number of people in front of the stage, this seemed to be their first taste of Gogol Bordello as they were content to sit on blankets and stay back from the stage.  It was not long though before lead singer (and impressively mustached) Eugene Hutz had everyone up off their blankets, jumping in unison to the onslaught of high-energy accordion blasts and rapid fire violin work that defines Gogol Bordello’s music.  Looking like Borat on steroids, and sounding similar with his thick Ukrainian accent, a shirtless Hutz prowled the stage from side to side, occasionally taking time to attack the acoustic guitar slung high on his chest or beat a fire bucket that was placed over his microphone stand into submission.

011.jpg Following Gogol Bordello was Lupe Fiasco and his minor hit “Kick, Push,” which provided the first of many instances throughout the weekend that made me wonder whether whoever put the schedule together was a cross-marketing genius or a sick individual who enjoys the odd convergence of completely disconnected musical scenes.  If the latter is true, they surely got a kick out of Sunday when rapper Lil’ Wayne ran 40 minutes over his scheduled time, cutting short The Black Keys set, which prompted guitarist/ singer Dan Auerbach to remark, “We only have two more songs.  You can thank Lil Wayne for that,” before adding, “Fuck Lil’ Wayne.”

But I did not stick around to see what happened as worlds collided during Lupe Fiasco and instead kicked, pushed myself towards the North stage.  Soul provocateurs Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings were next, and Jones brought it like a reincarnated female version of James Brown, reminding the crowd, “When I have a microphone in my hand I just got to dance,” before exploding across the stage as the Dap Kings laid down groove after deep groove.  Jones closed things out with a perfect version of Brown’s “It’s Man’s World” that only served to deepen the connection between Jones and the Godfather.  Sharon Jones the Godmother of Soul?  Indeed.

042.jpg Emerging shortly after Jones, Mexican heavy-metal-folk-rockers, Rodrigo Y Gabriela, played to a criminally undersized crowd, as a large number of people had slipped out during Jones’ set to catch The Offspring (why?).  Without singing a single word and only uttering the odd “Thank You” every now and then, the seated duo attacked their acoustic guitars with a flourish of hand-slaps and intense strumming.  Rodrigo Sanchez took time to stand and work the crowd, while Gabriela Quintero instead stayed seated, head bowed over as if trying to stare a hole through the heart of her guitar.  The crowd threw up devil horns in response to let the two know how hard they were rocking.  Near the end of their set as they launched in to “Diablo Rojo” it left me wondering one thing, how do you say, “kick-ass, acoustic, heavy metal-folk” in Spanish?

051.jpg Large festivals are all about choices, and I chose to pass up one guitar legend, Chuck Berry, to see another in the making, Nels Cline, from Wilco.  When Wilco first burst onto the music scene they wrote interesting country-rock songs and had a grumpy lead singer.  Then human powerhouse drummer Glen Kotche and soul shredding guitarist Nels Cline joined and they became a band who wrote interesting country-rock songs with a grumpy lead singer who was now capable of melting your face as the addition of those two turned them into a live beast.  With the sun setting in their eyes, and the band squinting to see the crowd, the 12-minute guitar work out during “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” proved to be proof plenty of their live powers.

  Apparently it was against the rules to hold a major festival this year and not have Jack Johnson headline, and Virgin Fest followed the law of the land as the mellow-mood-surf rocker closed out the main-stage on the first day.  It was a nice relaxed way to end the day, and it made everyone’s girlfriends happy.

Sunday morning started slow, providing a chance to roam the festival grounds and check out all the attractions – batting cages, DJ tents, and a skate ramp that were scattered around.  An early afternoon set by Andrew Bird found him previewing material from his new album (due out next year) with his wholly unique approach in which he moves from violin to guitar to glockenspiel, carrying along each song with his rhythmic whistling.

059.jpg Folk-rock duo She & Him followed Bird.  Comprised of actress Zooey Deschanel and indie-guitarist M. Ward, they were an unexpected highlight for the early afternoon.  There is always that deep sigh and rolling of the eyes that seems to accompany the news that another actor/actress/sports superstar has decided to make an album, but the debut from She & Him is exceptionally well done and seems to swim against the norm of ego driven projects from actors and athletes.  The inclusion of Ward gives the album an immediate stamp of authenticity.  Ward laid back for most of the set letting Deschanel loose to work the front of the stage.  Outfitted in a bright-blue dress that left all the teenage boys who were pressed up against the railing drooling, Deschanel led the crowd through most of their new album as well as the odd cover or two, including a version of the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins classic “I Put a Spell on You” that was just as creepy as the original.  Ward did step forward for a stripped down take on his own “Magic Trick.”

Iggy Pop & the Stooges blasted onto the main stage and every band that plays live needs to watch them and take notes.  One of the most often overlooked front-men, Pop is a non-stop barrage of energy.  He spent the majority of their set, which was packed with classic Stooges material, down in the pit area in front of the stage dancing and singing with the crowd, while bassist Mike Watt was thrashing away and humping a speaker on stage.  They may sing “No Fun,” but Stooges shows are anything but.

Contrasting Iggy & the Stooges unlimited energy was the restrained approach of another aging (aged?) rocker.  Bob Dylan did what Bob Dylan does: he mumbled his way through some of his classics – reworking them almost to the point of not being able to recognize them; he ignored the crowd, but reminded everyone present that he is still a bad-ass as he spit out “The Ballad of a Thin Man” with a venomous tongue.

018.jpg The weekend was finally brought to a close with Nine Inch Nails on the main stage (though technically the last band was the walking ego that is Kayne West, who apparently learned nothing since his appearance at Bonnaroo and again took the stage late, finishing his set on the other stage thirty minutes after NIN).  NIN might not be your thing and Trent Reznor may scare the bejesus out of you, but the power of seeing them live can not be understated.  Touring with what is arguably the most impressive light show currently on the road; NIN blew out retinas and expanded minds with their intense aggressive array of screens and lights.  They covered all twenty years of their career, from early songs such as “Terrible Lie,” “Closer,” “Wish,” and “Head Like a Hole” to instrumental tracks off of this year’s release Ghost I-IV, before finally bringing things to end with “Hurt.” Reznor remarked how the song was now more Johnny Cash’s then it was his, and as he sang, “Everyone I know, goes away in the end,” and as the lights went down, that is exactly what everyone did.  They got back on their trains and went away at the end.

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