Gimme Swelter

By J. Freedom du Lac and David Malitz
Washington Post Staff Writer and
Sunday, August 5, 2007

BALTIMORE, Aug. 4 -- If the Virgin Festival isn't the hottest entry on the summer music circuit, then it's off by only a few degrees. As the two-day rock bacchanalia set off Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, the headliner was the heat: Temperatures pushed into the upper 90s and the heat index pushed past 100 as some two dozen artists including the Police, Modest Mouse, the Beastie Boys and LCD Soundsystem cranked it up to 11. "It is hot like a mofo," declared Adam "Adrock" Horovitz of the Beastie Boys. "We're sweating with you, people."

For those about to rock, we sweat all over you! All 42,000 of you -- the festival's estimated attendance Saturday, according to a spokeswoman.

As darkness and temperatures fell, the Police -- the festival's main attraction -- opened their set with a heated version of "Message in a Bottle." The taut, nervy song was powered by Stewart Copeland's hyperkinetic drumming and Andy Summers's corkscrew riffs. Summers, in fact, was the star of the newly reunited band's set, spiking the songs with sharp-edged fills and pealing solos on songs including the shifty "Can't Stand Losing You" and the chugging "King of Pain."

"Welcome to the Andy Summers show," Sting sang, tweaking a lyric during "So Lonely." Summers summarily unleashed a brilliant lyrical solo. Still, the spotlight stayed on Sting, whose image was beamed onto the giant video screens that flanked the stage. No wonder these guys didn't get along.

Sting was in fine form, though, singing with fire throughout the band's closing set. He even rushed excitedly through some of the old warhorses, including a jazzed-up "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic."

Modest Mouse didn't have the drawing power of the Police, but the band still turned in a headliner-worthy set on the second stage. Though the addition of former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr has been the big story for the group this year, Marr's presence was largely secondary on Saturday. Modest Mouse's most distinctive features remain frontman Isaac Brock's anguished yelp and the group's jagged, percussive songs.

The band employs two drummers, which gives propulsive rockers such as "Doin' the Cockroach" even more muscle. It makes for an overall sound that's sort of tribal indie rock, along the lines of Talking Heads. This was especially true on "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes," one of the most sinister indie-funk songs you'll ever hear. Brock capped the song by delivering a guitar solo with his teeth.

The Beasties played hardcore punk, meandering jazz-funk instrumentals and obnoxious '80s metal numbers. But the group's core competency is pass-the-mike rapping, and in that vein, "Root Down," "Intergalactic" and "Sure Shot" were knockouts, with Adrock, Mike D (Michael Diamond) and MCA (Adam Yauch) trading off crisp but chaotic rhymes as Mix Master Mike punched up the tracks with classic break beats and scratch fills.

While Mix Master Mike showed off his beat-juggling skills, world-renowned DJs Sasha and John Digweed put on a clinic in spinning progressive trance -- every one of their crescendos and seamless transitions met with pumping fists in the crowded dance tent.

Perhaps the hottest performer coming into the festival, at least in terms of buzz, was Amy Winehouse, the superlative retro-soul singer and songwriter whose "Back to Black" is one of the year's most acclaimed albums. The erratic, unpredictable British singer has a growing reputation for skipping gigs -- overseas bookmakers have even been setting odds on her no-shows.

In some ways, though, she wasn't really here. (And no, that's not a reference to the singer's emaciated physical state, though she did look something like a tattooed skeleton in skimpy khaki shorts and midriff-baring tank top.) Performing on the festival's main stage in the mid-afternoon sun -- a curious place to find a woman who looks like a drag queen Elvira -- Winehouse seemed to go through the motions on a good chunk of her self-penned songs. That included some written from a place of real pain, including "Wake Up Alone," which Winehouse dedicated to her husband; even then, she failed to sing with depth or conviction and sounded almost robotic.

As far as robots go, this one has a fine soul-jazz voice. So even when Winehouse mails it in, she still sounds pretty good. And on certain songs, she sounded downright fierce: the sassy, scathing "Me & Mr. Jones," the self-loathing "You Know I'm No Good" and a fiery cover of the Zutons' "Valerie." The deeper into the 40-minute set she got, the more she seemed to drill into the emotional core of the songs. Closing with her defiant, defining song, "Rehab," Winehouse stumbled to the finish line. Was there some other place she wanted -- if not needed -- to be? In her air-conditioned trailer, perhaps?

"I feel good that we have enough shade tents and water and misters to give people relief," said promoter Seth Hurwitz about the Pimlico crowd. "There's the people who don't know how to take care of themselves, and you can't do much for them. But the people who can take care of themselves -- we're ready for them."

Festival officials said approximately 90 people were treated at Pimlico for heat exhaustion and other ailments, with 15 receiving additional treatment at area hospitals. Baltimore City Fire Department's emergency medical service trucks -- which circled the venue like mechanical vultures -- appeared to make frequent stops. Shade tents were full for most of the afternoon, as were the "refresher" domes, with their water misters and showers. (Towels not included.) At the back of the dance tent, some festival-goers napped on blankets -- even as Felix da Housecat spun pulsating, bass-heavy club songs with loud, swelling crescendos.

Pimlico's shaded grandstands were also open to the festival-goers -- a change from the inaugural U.S. Virgin Festival last year, when only VIP ticket-holders were admitted to that area. Around the 140-acre track, there were long lines at the water spouts. And while cold beverages sold briskly, some of the food vendors slumped idly in their booths. Worst sellers? Fried dough, french fries and fried chicken tenders.

Fountains of Wayne proved to be a smart choice to open the festival on the main stage, as the band's sunny pop songs were the perfect background music for people trying to get situated around the track. Performing at the most un-rock-and-roll hour of noon, singer Chris Collingwood noted that he hadn't "been awake this early since the '80s." But it didn't show in the performance, which had enough energy -- and, more important, catchy hooks -- to win over the early arrivers.

Clear across Pimlico on the second stage, the British alternative rock trio Fiction Plane began to play. The group is fronted by singer-bassist Joe Sumner, who happens to be the son of Sting, who happened to be headlining the festival Saturday with the Police. And to think that Fiction Plane has a serious song about nepotism, "Running the Country." Hah! Sumner sounds an awful lot like his famous father in terms of his vocal timbre. And on "Two Sisters," the full band got into the echo game, with drummer Pete Wilhoit playing a jittery, Stewart Copeland-style reggae backbeat behind Seton Daunt's scratchy rhythm guitar as Sumner sang in a high, slightly pinched voice. It was pure Police. Other data points included Pink Floyd and Coldplay.

With no particular stylistic thread tying the festival's lineup together, Saturday offered a smorgasbord of sounds. Incubus played nu-metal that matched sludgy guitars, thunderous bass lines and turntable scratches with Brandon Boyd's howls. The trio Peter Bjorn and John did the twee-pop thing, while Paolo Nutini, a baby-faced singer-songwriter from Scotland, performed soulful pop that seemed to split the difference between James Blunt and Van Morrison.

The Fratellis, also from Scotland, provided a jolt with a tight set of loud, snappy pub punk. Most of the trio's songs -- such as "Flathead," which you might recognize from an iPod commercial -- are about drinking, partying and what results when you combine the two. The sweltering weather wasn't the best for downing brews, but the band sounded fine all the same. Still, the songs began to blend together after 30 minutes, at which point the set lost steam. But that's the beauty of a festival: Just as things turn tedious, the band wraps it up. Or, you can just wander elsewhere to hear another band.

While the Fratellis were stuck on repeat, Cheap Trick was making a marvelous power-pop racket by blending savage, metal-edged riffs with pretty pop melodies. The musicians from Rockford, Ill., were quite a sight to behold -- especially guitarist Rick Nielsen, who wore all black while working his way through a dizzying range of guitars, from a double-neck to a Flying V. The guitars were run through a towering stack of checkerboard amps that happened to light up in the middle of "Dream Police."

Singer Robin Zander, wearing a Cheap Trick muscle shirt, was in fine voice (how is he still hitting the high notes of "The Flame"?), while drummer Bun E. Carlos and bassist Tom Petersson provided a rock-solid rhythmic foundation -- particularly during a driving version of "I Want You to Want Me."

Sometimes, though, leaving a set early proved to be an unwise decision. Halfway through LCD Soundsystem's dynamite set of dance rock on the second stage, the crowd began to thin out -- presumably because the Beastie Boys were about to go on across the infield. They missed a superlative four-song suite as LCD Soundsystem, performing as a sextet, let loose down the stretch. There was "All My Friends," a slowly building epic arranged around a hypnotic piano loop and a New Order-inspired guitar riff. Then came a trio of songs from LCD's debut album -- the pulsing "Tribulations," punk stomper "Movement" and percussive jam "Yeah," whose title summed up the band's climactic finale.

Among the three staging areas, there was plenty of the requisite festival stuff: art installations, including sculptures made from heavy-machinery parts; a wrestling ring; burlesque acrobats; vendors selling straw hats and tie-dyed bikinis; activist groups hoping to save Darfur and help the homeless and plan parenthood; a band playing car parts. There were also official festival participants dressed as shrubs, on roller skates and on stilts.

On Sunday, 22 more artists are scheduled to perform, including Smashing Pumpkins, Wu-Tang Clan, Velvet Revolver, Panic! at the Disco and Bad Brains.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company