Pimlico Special
At Virgin Fest, a Crowded Field Competes for Fans' Divided Attention

By J. Freedom du Lac and David Malitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 11, 2008

BALTIMORE, Aug. 10 -- Attending the Virgin Mobile Festival is a mind-toggling experience.

Whereas some music festivals aim for a narrowly defined niche, V-Fest producer Seth Hurwitz books a broad range of acts, more or less daring festival-goers to make sense of it all. That approach -- used every year since the event launched in 2006 -- made for some fascinating if jarring juxtapositions during the two-day music bacchanalia at Pimlico Race Course.

Sunday night, as Kanye West emerged on the smoke-shrouded stage for a show-closing, Obama-endorsing, Takoma Park-name-checking performance of ambitious arena-rap, something like a Gregorian chant floated out of the dance tent, where a Dutch DJ, Armin Van Buuren, was midway through a two-hour trance-music set. On the northern edge of the infield, Trent Reznor -- the heart and (tortured) soul of Nine Inch Nails -- was singing bleak, raging industrial-rock anthems about alienation, anger and pain.

Each set required festival attendees to be in a decidedly different musical head space -- though West had a different take.

"It's not a rock-and-roll or rap thing. . . . People just love good music!" he declared near the end of the night. "Kanye West and Trent Reznor, we the exact same artist, in different genres."

Earlier, Bob Dylan performed his set-opening classic, "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," at roughly the same time that the reunited '90s band Stone Temple Pilots was powering through "Interstate Love Song," a file-under-alternative hit that sounded closer to something from the classic-rock canon.

And while Lil Wayne drawled and croaked his way through nonlinear raps set to stuttering beats, Richie Hawtin's hard, spare techno songs spilled out of the dance tent while Iggy Pop and the Stooges slashed and burned through a set of scorched-earth rock.

"How many people out there love rock-and-roll?" Wayne asked in the middle of his 45-minute set, for which he'd arrived 38 minutes late. The dreadlocked rapper needed to be more specific, though, as the festival featured countless iterations of rock -- among other genres.

The Day 2 performances began with an offensively bad mask-wearing rap-rock band (Hollywood Undead), then featured a psychedelic blues-rock trio (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club), which was on at the same time as a vocoder-drenched electro-funk act (Chromeo) and a British sextet that blends raps, cheerleader chants, Sonic Youth-style noise rock and '70s funk (Go! Team). The Go! Team was on immediately prior to Andrew Bird, a violin-playing singer with a penchant for punctuating his chamber-rock songs with whistling.

And that was just two hours out of 20 during the two-day festival, which featured more than 40 acts. Among them: A Gypsy-rock band, the well-oiled Wilco machine, two retro-soul singers, three rappers (four, if you count the sing-songy style of Citizen Cope's Clarence Greenwood), 13 electronica acts and Rodrigo y Gabriela, a brilliant instrumental duo that specializes in classical guitar songs played with the breakneck speed and ferocious energy of heavy metal.

"This is a CELEBRATION!" announced Scott Wieland, the slithering, sinewy frontman for Stone Temple Pilots, which performed all of its hits ("Big Empty," "Plush," "Vasoline") during a satisfying set of hard and heavy rock with big hooks. Time has been neither cruel nor kind to STP, whose songs still sound derivative but plenty catchy, insubstantial yet memorable.

"Wicked Garden," from their 1992 debut, "Core," ignited a frenzy of flying beach balls, a decent microcosm for STP's fun but nonessential tunes.

West wasn't the most gifted rapper at the festival (Lil Wayne and Lupe Fiasco are ahead of him), but as an entertainer, he's in a league of his own. His set was flat-out electrifying, featuring a superstar at the peak of his powers.

And doesn't he know it? The megalomaniacal rapper repeatedly declared his own greatness. But he backed it up with his performance, during which he claimed ownership of the two-day mega-concert. Indeed, one got the feeling that West didn't think of this as a festival but rather a Kanye West show that happened to feature a bunch of opening acts.

Does Kanye love himself more than Trent Reznor hates himself? Probably a coin flip.

"Help me get away from myself!" Reznor pleaded in the depraved "Closer," over a throbbing electronic drum pattern whose low-boiled cadence suggested a slow death march.

Reznor was the festival's dark knight, and he was backed by a band that played (mostly) hard-charging, confrontational songs filled with dissonant guitars, pealing licks, violent synth stabs, echoing drums, tricky changes and a remarkable amount of sonic texture. (Didn't hurt that the sound was perfectly mixed -- no small feat at an outdoor festival.) The performance was at once terrifying and thrilling.

Dylan's set didn't feature any truly revelatory moments. But for a 21st-century Bob Dylan concert, it was a winner. His voice was in fine form (Lil "Weezy" Wayne's was wheezier). There was no croaking, just the playful rephrasing that's become Dylan's norm. The songs from his recent trilogy sounded best: "Rollin' and Tumblin'," "Spirit on the Water" and especially "Highwater (for Charley Patton)" were excellent showcases of Dylan's new version of retro Americana, made all the better by Stu Kimball's stinging guitar leads. "Highway 61" was a fun romp, and "Ballad of a Thin Man" remains a lyrical powerhouse even the reinterpretation made it impossible for festival-goers to sing along -- no doubt to Dylan's delight. (A festival spokeswoman said attendance figures weren't yet available for either day.)

Sunday's lineup was headlined by Jack Johnson, the Foo Fighters and Underworld, three artists who couldn't possibly be any more different.

Johnson is the new king of soft rock, specializing in slight, breezy songs that have about as much edge as the beach balls that a Baltimore radio station was giving away during the festival. His music is the very definition of anodyne: Mellow vocals, wiki-wiki guitar strums and laid-back, island-inspired grooves that tend to sound soporific. Perhaps that's why he was allowed to perform past the 10 p.m. Pimlico curfew: His music was putting the neighbors to sleep.

The Foo Fighters were the big draw on Day 1, as evidenced by the dense crowd and the frenzy when the band tore into "The Pretender" and "Times Like These." Dave Grohl's band is an ideal festival headliner, drawing on a seemingly endless supply of hit singles and rock-star charisma. Sometimes, he went a little too far, as with the drawn-out band-intro segment that included a triangle solo. (In a way, it was perfect. Since there was no music being played, one could hear the twitchy electronica anthem "Born Slippy" booming from the dance tent; if so inclined, one could have raced over there in time to catch the euphoric Underworld anthem.)

The lineup actually had a healthy -- or, depending on your worldview, unhealthy -- dose of '90s alt-rock, between STP, Nine Inch Nails, the Foos and the Offspring. Makes sense, since the teenagers of that era are now disposable-income-having young adults.

What doesn't make sense is the enduring appeal of the Offspring's big, stupid songs. How could a guy who was so close to getting his PhD in molecular biology (singer Dexter Holland) write such mindless, aggressively simple songs? That's not to say that the hits of yesteryear, including "Gotta Get Away" and "Come Out and Play," aren't catchy. But it's the worst kind of catchy, with songs such as the "Ob-La-Di" rip-off "Why Don't You Get a Job?" relying on cheap, expletive-filled lyrics for their lowest-common-denominator appeal.

One of the festival's most galvanizing performances came earlier on Day 1 -- just before Chuck Berry's streamlined set of proto-rock-and-roll -- and it was delivered by a most unlikely source: the Silver Beats, a Japanese band that plays perfect note-for-note re-creations of classic songs from the great Beatles catalogue.

If you took your eyes off the stage, you'd swear you were listening to a nonexistent bootleg of a 1969 Beatles show. And if you opened your eyes? You'd see heshers, kids, parents, teenagers, yuppies and everyone in between smiling and singing along to "A Hard Day's Night."

A best-performance contender? Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Jones is a soul-singing dynamo, with a voice of a long-lost Stax artist and the sort of stage presence that would have made the Godfather of Soul proud. "When I get the mike in my hand, I lose my mind sometimes!" she said on Saturday before letting loose with some ants-in-my-pants moves that brought a roar from the crowd. Why isn't this woman a major star?

The most original act on the bill was probably a Mexican duo that shredded through a stunning set of something that might best be described as heavy-metal flamenco, with Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero trading leads, their fingers fluttering at incomprehensible speeds. Their playing was at once highly technical and deeply soulful, a potent combination that earned devil-horn salutes from a guy with a Metallica tattoo on his arm.

Not everybody was so distinctive, of course; artistic echoes were in abundance throughout the festival.

Bloc Party came off like a lighter-weight Gang of Four, with its spiky, dissonant guitars, dance-rock beats and occasionally political lyrics. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's dirty, druggy music -- all woozy, effects-laden guitars, sludgy bass lines and droning vocal harmonies -- recalled T. Rex, the Jesus and Mary Chain and "Their Satanic Majesties Request"-era Rolling Stones. STP's "Sex Type Thing" was a Nirvana-type thing.

The young Welsh singer Duffy was also derivative, in perhaps the worst way: She's a technically sound singer with a torchy, powerhouse voice that seemed to hit all the right notes in a set of retro soul-pop that fell somewhere between Shirley Bassey and Dusty Springfield. But she sounded studied, coming across as an unconvincing, emotionally empty Winehouse-come-lately who views the whole retro-music thing as a good career move, not a lifelong passion. (One exception: "Mercy," a frisky organ-fueled romp that she sold particularly well.)

Much more convincing was Cat Power's Chan Marshall, who performed sad, sorrowful indie-torch ballads and rockers that were mostly down-tempo and downcast. Her originals and covers (including Joni Mitchell's "Blue," which might well be Marshall's theme song) were gorgeously gloomy, driven by dark, dreamy music and, of course, Marshall's melancholy voice -- a parched, ethereal instrument that sounded both haunting and haunted.

Lil Wayne's performance was thematically focused, even if he himself wasn't, as he rapped almost exclusively about cash, girls and his own hotness, with multiple "get money" refrains. His performance was perfunctory and listless at the start. The 25-year-old rap star eventually snapped out of his funk, however. By the time he tore off his shirt for an explosive performance of "A Milli," he'd transformed himself into a commanding presence. And then, the capper: "Lollipop," his chart-topping sex jam during which West made a surprise cameo.

The Belgian electronica outfit Soulwax sent a surge through the dance-tent crowd with a detonative drum-and-bass pattern and a looped vocal sample: "The party on the weekend/never dies," an exotic, robotic female voice said repeatedly. And the group did, in fact, dress for a party, wearing matching white tuxedos.

Iggy Pop came out shirtless and then acted like an insane person for an hour, contorting his body, leaping onto amplifiers, howling like a madman. Not bad for a 61-year-old. The Stooges' set was heavy on songs from their 1969 self-titled debut, and "Fun House," "T.V. Eye" and "Loose" all sounded plenty powerful nearly 40 years after their release. Ron Asheton didn't move any muscles except those in his hands, which meant he still played his crushing power chords and blazing solos. Mike Watt looked like a man possessed on bass -- although it was nothing compared with Iggy.

Some artists had a tough sell -- not least Shudder to Think, the newly reunited D.C. band. As in the old days, the band seemed to befuddle much of the audience, especially the teenagers who were staking out prime spots for the Paramore/Taking Back back-to-back.

The Swell Season struggled to be heard over the festival din, but they were up for the challenge, with Glen Hansard even ending the set with the most daring encore in the festival's short history: The former busker leaped off the stage and into the crowd for a truly unplugged performance when his microphone wouldn't work.

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