Virgin Fest | 8.09 & 8.10 | Baltimore

Words by: Eric Zimmerman | Images by: Kenny Pusey & Michael Jurick

Virgin Mobile Festival :: 08.09.08 & 08.10.08 :: Pimlico Race Course :: Baltimore, MD

Virgin Fest 2008 by Jurick
The Virgin Mobile Festival takes place annually at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness. The infield is transformed as two monster stages, at the north and south ends, host some of the world's biggest acts in music. But, as the name suggests, Virgin is also one of the most corporate-infused festivals you'll find. Sponsors abounded, from the "Toyota Green Spot" to a humongous Kyocera-logoed balloon to the "California Tortilla Wrap VIP Shuttle." I forced myself to overlook this relentless shilling, however, so that I could enjoy the festival's all-star lineup.

Saturday, 08.09.08

Saturday afternoon, I arrived about ten-minutes into Cat Power's set. Dressed in an army fatigue shirt and loose black tie, Chan Marshall looked exactly as her music would imply: relaxed but precise. Covering Jessie Mae Hemphill's "Lord, Help the Poor and Needy," Marshall shuffled clumsily around the stage. Her performance throughout the set was notably body-centered. She nodded to the beat, twitched violently to the music and doubled over in agony while singing the most poignant lyrics. Yet her emotion did not properly transfer to all her songs. Her cover of "Fortunate Son," for example, conveyed none of John Fogerty's raw anger. Marshall's version lingered amid nowhere. Her voice could not keep pace with her band, which seemed anxious to rev up the song to its proper pace.

Eugene Hutz - Gogol Bordello by Pusey
Following Marshall on stage was Duffy, who, from the first note she struck sounded like a cheap imitation of her predecessors. With her red cocktail dress and doo-wop sway, she tried desperately to recapture an era when either of those things was stylish or novel. "Serious" featured a cooing chorus of back-up singers and a string of cheap, mid-lyric banalities from Duffy: "One more time now!" "Hello Baltimore! You're all beautiful!" Forgive my partiality, but it was more than I could stand, and soon I headed to the North Stage to catch Gogol Bordello.

Gogol Bordello is a kitschy, world music troupe of sorts that seems to revel in their flagrant eccentricities. Their back-up singers were styled in roller derby apparel; the lead singer, Eugene Hutz, wore Capri pants and a long headband, and his thick East-European accent flavored his lyrics. Violinist and singer Sergey Ryabtsev opened a bottle of wing to celebrate "American Wedding," and a small but intense portion of the audience jumped and pointed in rhythm with the music. Gogol Bordello plays up its foreign identity. "Have you ever been to American wedding?/ Where is the vodka? Where's marinated herring?" Hutz sang. At times, their act wears on the listener, but if you can overcome their over-enthusiastic air guitars, there's an authentic core to their performance.

As Gogol Bordello's set ended at one stage, The Swell Season began at the other. The Swell Season provides a dilemma for the listener (and the critic). Gaining fame as musical partners and romantic interests in the movie Once, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova adopted the moniker "Swell Season" as a real life duo, capitalizing on their cinematic success with a trip to the musical stage. But how does one listen to songs that originally existed within the context of a fictional drama? (A few of the songs in Once had been previously recorded, but the audience Swell Season is now targeting largely caught wind of the music from the movie.) Personally, I found myself unable to listen with fresh ears to "Falling Slowly," the near-anthem from Once. I could not re-interpret it from the narrow, romantic function it served in the movie. And so this may have been the first live performance I would have enjoyed more had I known less about the band in question. The duo's cover of Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" was a bit fresher, but only reminded the listener of the vast distance between Morrison's voice and Hansard's.

Glen Hansard - The Swell Season by Jurick
My trek back to South Stage was slightly more fruitful. Bloc Party played a tight, compact set, and if one ignores the polarizing, emo-like voice of lead singer Kele Okereke, their performance had a lot to like. The steady drum and bass combo was soothing, and the guitarists twitched to their own chords, showing an involvement and investment in the music that seemed self-conscious but nevertheless endearing.

Before long I was back at the South Stage for The Offspring. The Offspring is the kind of band whose once-ubiquitous hits remind the listener of a certain time in his life, if only because songs like "Pretty Fly For A White Guy" were once inescapable on the radio. But believe it or not, they've got a new album, Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace. Of course, what was most memorable from their set were the classics: "Pretty Fly," "Want You Bad" and "Why Don't You Get A Job." The last of those, I somehow only realized when hearing it live, borrows heavily (to put it generously) from The Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da." "Self-Esteem" featured a heavy bassline, amplified by the festival's monster sound system. And fittingly, frontman Dexter Holland's voice had the same attitudinal, punk edge during mid-set conversation it has always had in song.

As the sun began to lower over Pimlico Race Course, the Virgin audience was treated to one of the most bizarre performances imaginable: Chuck Berry and the Silver Beats. I say "bizarre" for two reasons. First, the two artists played separately, never appearing onstage together. This alone was intriguing, but the whole scenario was made even more confounding when you consider that The Silver Beats are a Japanese Beatles cover band! In a perverse sense, this pairing makes sense. Chuck Berry, of course, was one of The Beatles' most immediate influences. But, to pair the godfather of rock 'n roll with an artificial (though indulgently entertaining) cover band of rock 'n roll's most important band, seems incongruous.

Chuck Berry by Jurick
The Silver Beats draw their name from The Beatles originally moniker, "The Silver Beetles." The four performers on Saturday donned black suits with slender ties, The Beatles' trademark look circa 1964. Opening their set with the ever-recognizable intro from "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," The Silver Beats quickly segued into "Day Tripper" followed by "Drive My Car" and "I Feel Fine." These were all satisfactory and actually - blasphemy! - entertaining. But the further into the Fab Four's repertoire these cover artists dove, the more unbelievable they sounded. I'm thinking primarily of numbers like "Glass Onion," "Come Together" and "Hey Jude." These are late-era Beatles songs that require more than a superficial knowledge of technical skills. They are historical, speaking to the ethos of an era and demanding a degree of seriousness not possible from a lighthearted cover band, no matter how entertaining. Of course, early Beatles are similarly significant, but those songs are ultimately accessible pop, indicative of a band still toying with its own skills and, in the end, just having fun. Nevertheless, that the four Silver Beats - from halfway across the globe - knew every word of The Beatles' lyrics, despite their admittedly broken English, was both respectable and poignant.

Of course, The Silver Beats were a mere prelude to the event that was to follow: Chuck Berry. Berry sauntered onstage in a sparkly red jacket, a sailor's cap and a lariat. Launching into "Roll Over Beethoven," Berry initiated a surreal moment. The Virgin Festival included artists from Andrew Bird to The Black Keys, meticulous indie to raw blues. All of the weekend's artists, however, would not exist in their current form if not for the indelible influence of Chuck Berry. Seeing Berry perform on the same stage as these artists was both wonderful and awful. The man is a true living legend, and so it was hard to judge his performance on its own merits, to separate the music from the event of his appearance. But Berry successfully made each song sound fresh despite their ubiquitous status in popular culture. "School Days" was as energetic and inspirational as ever, especially Berry's now legendary refrain, "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n Roll!" Hearing "Sweet Little Sixteen" reminded one of how constant certain cultural tropes are: we're still scandalized by youthful sexuality, and it's only the decades that have passed since this song was first released that make it non-threatening and non-subversive. "Sweet little sixteen/ She's got the grown up blues/ Tight dress and lipstick/ She's sportin' high heal shoes."

Wilco by Jurick
In one of the tougher decisions of my life, I left Berry's stage early to catch Wilco on the north end of the field. I arrived in the midst of "Handshake Drugs." Like many of my Wilco favorites, the song lulls the listener into a soothing state while simultaneously shaking their sense of identity: "Livin' poorly, I felt like a clown/ I looked like someone I used to know/ Was feelin' alright/ And if I ever was myself/ I wasn't that night," Jeff Tweedy sang. It was the perfect song for dusk on a summer evening. Accentuated drums added an edge to "I'm The Man Who Loves You," and Glenn Kotche seemed to revel in his heightened role, standing up with his arms in the air during a brief interlude. My personal favorite, however, was "Hoodoo Voodoo," a Woody Guthrie composition from Wilco's collaboration with Billy Bragg on Mermaid Avenue. Tweedy's slight rasp, coupled with the playful and almost nonsensical lyrics were the perfect accompaniment to lukewarm beer and a trampled grass field.

Of course, evening time at a music festival means headliners, and soon enough Foo Fighters took the South Stage for an intense though slightly disappointing performance. I've always had a bit of tolerance for Foo Fighters if only for Dave Grohl's past membership in Nirvana. But Grohl's performance Saturday demonstrated all the worn out stereotypes of a rock frontman either past his prime or pandering in the worst way. Clad in all black, Grohl sprinted back and forth across the stage, climbing on speakers and spewing out gratuitous curse words for really no reason. I'm not being a prude - his vulgarities really were pointless. "Fuck YEAH!" the red-faced Grohl would yell randomly. "Times Like These" stood out, if only because the intro chords echoed crisply through the massive crowd. The same was true for "Learn To Fly," but, for the most part, Grohl's exaggerated effort came off as a bit outdated and a bit too eager.

The second Saturday headliner was Jack Johnson, an artist I've always had a fairly paradoxical relationship with. On the one hand, I tolerate his somewhat monotonous surfer-chill aesthetic more than others, but I'm repelled by the banality of his lyrics, especially his more recent work. His performance Saturday only reinforced my more negative perceptions. The substantive fluff of "Sleeping Through The Static" - "Who needs 'please' when we've got guns?" he sang, taking a bit too seriously his faux-profundity - was made all the more unbearable by his near comatose state. In a surfer t-shirt and baggy jeans, Johnson spent the entire performance in a two-foot radius, swaying back and forth in a daze. "Flake" and "Sitting, Waiting and Wishing" maintained their floating-in-the-breeze pleasure, but even the meager hour and fifteen minutes organizers provided Johnson was far too much, and I left actually despising the idea of a Hawaiian vacation.

Continue reading for Sunday coverage of Virgin...

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