Words & Images by Michael Jurick
Virgin's V Festival :: 09.23.06 :: Pimlico Race Course :: Baltimore, MD
The stakes were high when the V Fest made its inaugural debut on American soil September 23rd. Over the past 10 years, Virgin's V Festival has become a wildly successful event in the UK, drawing 130,000 fans annually and immersing them in a musical and generational "experience." It seemed then that the promoters faced some anxiety about the need to do everything right to ensure that the American debut did not flop. Before The Who announced their North American tour, the festival snagged one of the greatest rock bands in history to ensure that this would indeed be a generational experience. Choosing the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore was also a strategic move - providing music fans with a 140-acre sprawling site (think New Orleans Jazz Fest Fairgrounds) upon which to plant the seeds for Virgin's growth here in The States. The site was a smart choice - close to cities and colleges along the Eastern Seaboard, located less than an hour from Washington, D.C., two hours from Philadelphia, and three hours from New York City.
John Frusciante - RHCP :: V Fest
Borrowing from the UK playbook, fans had access to a wide range of on-stage talent and off-stage attractions, including a number of installations seeking to extend the Virgin Mobile brand. This festival clearly had no shame in catering to the demographic. Other festival fun included The Freaklounge of side shows, bizarre characters, and Trixie Little. The Charm City Roller Girls were also spreading their derby cheer to all who would gawk at them.
The Killers :: V Fest
However, strip away the neo circus-like theme, and the music is what drew 40,000 fans to the home of the Preakness Stakes Triple Crown. "With all of the great festivals here in the U.S., it was a real challenge to take a different approach," says Seth Hurwitz, I.M.P. chairman. "We wanted to create a show where every act was important - total quality vs. quantity, the absolute best of what's out there as opposed to the most." The lineup was definitely a showcase for "of the moment" artists. The Killers, The Raconteurs, Gnarls Barkley, Scissor Sisters, The Flaming Lips, Thievery Corporation, Brazilian Girls, and Wolfmother were among 20 artists on the bill - and most of them delivered.
Gnarls Barkley played up the festival spirit, appearing on stage dressed in togas, with Cee-Lo dressed in a Roman breastplate and helmet. Opening with "We are the Champions," which segued into "Go Go Gadget Gospel," they certainly earned high marks for visuals, but their live performance had a tough time reaching the sonic heights of their excellent debut CD, St. Elsewhere. Sensing fans' interest in roaming the expansive grounds, the band finally came around and raised eyebrows with their cover of the Violent Femmes' "Gone Daddy Gone." When they launched into their smash-hit "Crazy," the crowd was reminded again why this band is so well-liked.
Cee-Lo - Gnarls Barkley :: V Fest
While The Killers road-tested songs from their new CD, Sam's Town, many headed over to the other side of the track to catch perennial crowd pleasers - Brazilian Girls. I was awed by them at Langerado this past year and had pushed my festival comrades hard to see them live. There is a reason why they've appeared on all the major festivals this past year - they deliver live and consistently entertain. Video screens blasting psychedelic images behind Sabina Sciubba punctuated an in-your-face "Clockwork Orange" flashback that became realized once you got a closer look at her and saw that her face really was covered by a white stocking mask with bright red lipstick. It didn't take long, however, to get hooked into their set, and the band laid down sultry grooves laced with Sabina's very attractive, international voice (she sings in five languages). Highlights were "Me Gustas Cuando Callas" and "Pussy."
If the Brazilian Girls were stirring up the festival pot, Thievery Corporation brought the mix to a searing boil. Thievery, best known as the dynamic DJ duo of Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, have a deep appreciation of past sounds - remixing and adding sparkle to music long gone. However, on this tour, they brought an entire live ensemble that produced fan frenzy as soon as they hit the Clubhouse Stage. Parading a cast of dynamic lead vocalists in front of a 15-piece rhythm section that even featured a sitar, the band cast a spell on the crowd, sailing through Middle Eastern, dancehall, reggae, and house grooves with intensity and ease. As the sun set behind the Pimlico Grandstand, Thievery Corporation made true believers out of those who thought they were merely capable of late night mixing and raised the bar on what you can do with a bin of old school vinyl.
Thievery Corporation :: V Fest
The Who - RHCP :: V Fest
With the sun lowered below the horizon, the stage was now set for the return of true rock & roll royalty. Fans pressed tight against the stage, and soon a collective roar erupted as Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend hit the stage backed by bassist Pino Palladino, drummer Zack Starkey, and longtime keyboardist John Bundrick. The Who miraculously showed little signs of age, launching into an impeccable version of the classic "I Can't Explain." "Who Are You," "Baba O'Riley," "Behind Blue Eyes," "My Generation," and "Pinball Wizard" all sounded incredibly good - in no small part due to the rhythm section wizardry of Palladino and Starkey (who coincidentally received his first drum set from none other than Keith Moon). There are few bands making this kind of music today, and it was important to see The Who bridge the generational gap to the bleeding-edge artists who shared the bill.
Pete Townsend - The Who :: V Fest
So far, the festival had run like a well-oiled machine. As far as festivals go, this one had few hiccups. Food and drink lines were tolerable, off-stage entertainment was plentiful and was enjoyed by many while resting in red inflatable chairs handed out by Virgin Mobile. Text messages exchanged by fans were broadcast live on the festival's giant screens. Virgin's Sir Richard Branson even strolled through the VIP area, stopping to take pictures with fans just before the Chili Peppers' set. If there was one complaint, it was that fans had to journey too far to see overlapping artists. For example, The Flaming Lips were performing on the opposite side of the race track from the Red Hot Chili Peppers - two bands for which fans should not be forced to draw straws.
The festival drew to a close with Red Hot Chili Peppers taking the stage with frenetic energy. Anthony Kiedis bounced untethered around the stage, feeding off the fans, some of whom had been waiting literally all day (gates opened at 8am). The band was impressive. John Frusciante immediately unloaded into an "Intro Jam" that clarified for me why Rolling Stone considers him one of the Top 100 Guitarists. Pretty soon the entire band locked into high-gear driven by Flea's bass. The band played a good sample of songs from their 22-year career. Knowing that I'd close the show with the Peppers, I decided to make the run and catch The Flaming Lips for a few songs. On the far end of the track, at the end of the night, opposite the headlining Chili Peppers, you'd think they'd "call in" the performance, but instead, Wayne Coyne and The Lips made it seem as if it was New Year's Eve. Santas, aliens, giant puppets and hamster balls, dry ice and strobe lights propped up the weary crowd who could have cared less about anything other than the spectacle onstage.
The Flaming Lips :: V Fest
Returning to the Grandstand Stage, I noticed the Chili Peppers worked their way in and out of energy lulls. However, the final 20 minutes of their set really injected the crowd with a dose of hip-shaking funk. "Give it Away Now" proved just how liberating dancing in a giant open field can be.
Flea & Frusciante :: V Fest
Andrew Dreskin, one of the promoters and driving creative forces behind the first of hopefully many more U.S. V fests, must have felt the same way as I did during those final high-energy moments of the Chili Peppers' set, mentioning in a post-show interview that "it was one of the best events I've attended or promoted in my life."
Anthony Kiedis - RHCP :: V Fest
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