At Virgin Fest, a Crowded Field Competes for Fans' Divided Attention
Monday, August 11, 2008; Page C01
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.