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In the Virgin Fest, A Bacchanal at The Starting Gate

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.

Whereas Gnarls Barkley came dressed to party (as did the Scissor Sisters, whose glammy frontman Jake Shears wore a spangly black tuxedo), the Who -- touring for the first time since the 2002 death of bassist John Entwistle -- were ready to work: Pete Townshend sported a black T-shirt and slacks, and Roger Daltrey wore jeans and work boots. With Pino Palladino replacing Entwistle and Zak Starkey in for the late Keith Moon on drums, the group, which also included longtime keyboardist John Bundrick, played a crisp, exceptionally well-mixed 80-minute set that was loaded with classic material ("Baba O'Riley," "Won't Get Fooled Again," "My Generation") but also featured new material from a forthcoming album.

Never mind the group's advanced age vis-a-vis the rest of the V-Fest field; the Who sounded more vital than any of the bands that played before them, tearing through their rich catalogue with abandon. Daltrey's voice was frayed and parched after so many years of braying onstage, but it added new texture to the old standards. And the windmilling Townshend can still summon wicked riffs with the best of them.

No wonder so many of the festival's other performers watched the set from stage left, mouths agape.

"We're proud to play on the same stage as the Who," said Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea. As the V-Fest co-headliners, the Peppers had a tough act to follow. And while they're among the best big-festival bands in America, they couldn't quite measure up to the Who -- in part because of the erratic pacing of their freewheeling set, which was heavier on slower psychedelic and blues-based material than it was on the group's signature up-tempo funk-punk. Spasmodic singer Anthony Kiedis also sounded sharp but seemed somewhat detached.

Still, guitarist John Frusciante's searing, almost otherworldly Hendrix-inspired licks were among the festival's musical highlights. Ditto for Flea's playing, which included a filthy disco bass line that would have made Chic's Bernard Edwards proud, if not downright jealous.

Between the three stages, there was the requisite festival stuff, and plenty of it: Graffiti artists creating spray-can art on plywood walls, vendors selling toe rings and tie-dye shirts, activist groups pushing for a free Tibet and solar energy. There was also a "Freaklounge," for offbeat performance art. And there were long lines for the port-a-johns, plus the pungent smell of marijuana, which overpowered any equestrian odors. In fact, aside from the grandstands that loomed over the finish line, the venue hardly resembled a horse track. Instead, it felt like just another grassy field.

The 40,000 who passed through the gates were a fair number, but a far cry from a sellout: Pimlico could have accommodated 60,000. Still, organizers insisted they were happy with the turnout.

"It's great for the first year," said Donna Westmoreland, a vice president with festival promoter I.M.F. "Obviously, the venue can hold more. But most Americans didn't know there was a U.K. Virgin Festival. So this is a brand-new event for them. We're still trying to build it up."

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