In the Virgin Fest, A Bacchanal at The Starting Gate

About 40,000 people came to see the bands at Pimlico, though the 140-acre racetrack could have accommodated 20,000 more. In the crowd were people dressed, among other things, as shrubs, pirates and disco queens.
About 40,000 people came to see the bands at Pimlico, though the 140-acre racetrack could have accommodated 20,000 more. In the crowd were people dressed, among other things, as shrubs, pirates and disco queens. (Tracy A Woodward - Twp)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 24, 2006

BALTIMORE, Sept. 23 -- Dressing like a doofus is a longstanding tradition at rock festivals. It's not enough to just be there for some festival-goers; it's also important to be seen .

And so something of a freak parade broke out at the inaugural U.S. Virgin Festival at Pimlico Race Course here on Saturday. There were people dressed as shrubs and pirates and disco queens, along with an army of Swiss Miss girls accompanied by two guys in lederhosen. There were also grown men in Dr. Seuss-style top hats, and two teenage girls wearing shiny video-hoochie hot pants and halter tops and holding handmade signs that read "Free hugs."

And there were also a couple of Romans who brought nearly a dozen toga-wearing friends to the daylong rock bacchanalia. Of course they were actually among the featured attractions: The two outrageous-looking gladiators were Cee-Lo Green and Danger Mouse, the principals in the gloriously warped hip-hop/soul outfit Gnarls Barkley. Clearly, they came dressed for the occasion. When in Rome and all that.

"We'll be your entertainment for the evening," the charming, charismatic singer-rapper Green announced in the middle of the afternoon. "We are the Chariots of Fire."

Despite the silly stage banter and outfits, Gnarls Barkley is a serious group whose live performances are no laughing matter. Backed by a 12-piece band that included the enormously creative if quiet producer Danger Mouse on keyboards and a four-piece electric string section, the rotund Green wailed and warbled through 11 songs about paranoia and split personalities and such. Not least was pop music's single greatest song of 2006, "Crazy." The sharp ode to mental illness sounded every bit as good live as it does on CD, with the band expertly replicating Danger Mouse's studio production and Green's soulful shower-singer vocal style translating easily to the stage.

Even a stage set up on a 140-acre race track. Especially such a stage.

"Raise your beers," Green shouted. "This is a celebration. Let's drink to a beautiful day of good music."

Where some rock festivals aspire to make grand cultural and/or aesthetic statements, V-Fest organizers didn't have such a goal in mind when they assembled the lineup for the first stateside Virgin Festival, a spinoff of Britain's massively successful super-concert. Instead, the aim was simply to create a blockbuster event featuring a bunch of artists that the promoter happened to like.

No shame in that, even if it did mean classic-rock stalwarts the Who would share a bill with, among others, the campy New York dance-rock band Scissor Sisters, superlative British deejay Carl Cox and the indie-rock dullards Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Not the most likely pop-music foursome around.

There were 14 bands and five deejays performing in three different spots on Pimlico's expansive infield, and if there was one major complaint about the schedule, it was that the competing set times demanded festival-goers to make some hard choices, which didn't end with band vs. band. There were also major stylistic differences.

As Kasabian was opening the festival by performing its Stones-meets-Happy-Mondays brand of British rock on the main stage, for instance, the Drive-By Truckers were on the secondary stage, playing a decidedly American style of rock that drew upon the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd and that Southern band's arch-nemesis, Neil Young and Crazy Horse. (This is to say nothing of the Killers, an American band that played British-style new wave along with new songs from a forthcoming album that follow U2's arena-rock model.) The Australian trio Wolfmother played heavy classic rock that harked back to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and V-Fest co-headliners the Who, and the young group did so rather loudly, producing a roaring wall of sound built around sledgehammer guitar riffs and thundering rhythms and Andrew Stockdale's howling vocals.

On the other end of the infield, the New Pornographers performed smart, buoyant indie-rock that relied on nuance and multi-part vocal harmonies far more than volume. The band featured twice as many players as Wolfmother but created about a quarter of that group's sound. (Crank it up to 11? More like 1.1. Although, it should be noted, there was no bleed-over from Wolfmother's set on the main stage.) All the while, the deejay RJD2 was beat-juggling vinyl records and crafting hip-hop instrumentals in the dance tent.

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