My wife and I spent Saturday having a blast with friends and relatives at VirginFest – the first in a hoped-for annual series of multiact festival concerts, held at Baltimore’s Pimlico Raceway. (Insert Altamont Speedway joke here.)
Baltimore was a long way to travel for what amounted to a massive Richard Branson branding event. Not all of the acts lived up to the big stage or the advance hype, and thanks to a fluke or two on my calendar, I’ve actually seen, or am about to see, several of the performers at their own shows this same month (or very recently). So for us, at least, the event was something less than momentous. I also heard through my uncle’s wife, who has connections to some of the organizers, that the show did well enough but was far from a blockbuster.
Still, if all VirginFest accomplishes is establishing a beachhead for 21st Century festival concerts on the East Coast – after the twin disasters of Woodstock ‘99 and the ill-fated Field Day Fest in 2003 – I will be grateful. I’ve watched helplessly over the last five years as Coachella, Bonnaroo and the formerly-traveling, now-stationary Lollapalooza blossomed into beloved all-day (or multiday) events, miles away from anyplace I could get to by car. Not unlike New York rap stars fighting their Atlanta, Houston and L.A. counterparts to win back a genre they invented, festival organizers needed to bring the entire festival-show genre back to the East. God bless ‘em for finally pulling one off.
Here’s a quick rundown of the acts we saw – our experience was far from exhaustive – and how they fared. Let’s start with the day’s undisputed winner.
Scissor Sisters: Relegated to the second stage, and not even to the cleanup slot (that went to Flaming Lips, whom we missed), these queens stole the day away from far more established acts, with a set that was exhilirating, notably polished and damn sexy. Who knew their sleek, Elton John–Leo Sayer sound would translate so phenomenally well live? Token girl Ana Matronic is a charming mistress of ceremonies, multi-instrumentalist BabyDaddy leads a remarkably tight band, and Jake Shears is not only a tornado of a lead singer, he’s so hot even straight boys can’t stop watching him. The early word on their new album, Ta-Dah (out tomorrow), has been good, not great, but Scissor Sisters own the stage like they’re about to conquer the world.
The Raconteurs: The day’s other big winners; my wife grew from disinterest to mild ardor watching them rip it up live. The only things keeping the Raconteurs from replacing the White Stripes as Jack White’s permanent vehicle are his loyalty to Meg and his unwillingness to give them his “A” material. Watching White and Brendan Benson work the stage – with their current array of B+ White songs and A– Benson songs – they already look like pros, and their sound is powerful. This was the second time I’d seen White’s so-called side project, the first being a Tower Records in-store back in April, and I felt again what I felt back then – onstage, White doesn’t hold back, and what feels tentative on the Raconteurs’ album feels bruising and potent live. I’ll be seeing them again tomorrow night at Roseland.
The Killers: Here again, a band I’d already seen (last year at New York’s one-time Across the Narrows festival) didn’t change my opinion of them much. Unlike the Raconteurs, though, the Killers had room for improvement; they have a good rock songbook that’s hard to bring across live. And one year later – as Brandon Flowers & co. prepare to release their massively anticipated sophomore album and are positioning themselves as heirs to Springsteen and U2 – their tepid live presence is becoming a greater liability. My uncle, watching the show with us, put it best when he said that the set started and ended strong but sagged in the middle. Flowers seems to sink into a torpor when he’s not performing one of the group’s big hits – occasionally, even while they are doing a hit, as on their tentative “Mr. Brightside.” But the Killers rallied big-time for the set-closer, “All These Things I’ve Done,” whose “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier” chant was as rousing as if they’d been joined by a gospel choir.
Gnarls Barkley: You’d think that Danger Mouse’s dense soundscapes would be hard to reproduce live. And you’d be right. Gnarls’s set was plagued by a muddy sound mix – a killer when you’ve got around a dozen people onstage, including a string quartet – and the spottiness of their material. Let’s face it, St. Elsewhere is a three-star album surrounding a five-star single, and like the ’60s psychedlic epics to which it aspires, it sounds better as a coherent piece than it does when you pull its songs apart. Keeping with their policy of always playing in costume, Cee-Lo, Danger Mouse et al. came out dressed in Roman regalia; Cee-Lo wore a full centurion getup, and the backup singers and female string players looked foxy in their togas. Having seen Gnarls perform on TV and now live, I get the sense that each of their songs is too knotty to work onstage until it’s been ripped apart, reassembled and then rehearsed continually – which is what made “Crazy,” their hit and the song they’ve performed the most, also the best live cut, with a chill-inducing string intro and a haunting piano line. That and “Smily Faces,” the set-closer, were the most rousing parts of an otherwise spotty set.
WolfMother: Already onstage when we arrived, these loud-and-thrashy Aussies were competent and energetic, but they’re going to need at least another album’s worth of material before they’re worthy of this big a venue. The songs were undistinguished and sludgy and couldn’t distract me from the food tent.
The Who: I go 35 years without ever seeing these guys live, and then suddenly I see them twice in two weeks. Thanks to a well-connected friend, I saw Roger n’ Pete two weeks ago at the North American tour-opener in Philadelphia, and they rocked; they were so good that they overcame any cynicism I had about their umpteenth “farewell” tour or their well-intentioned but hit-and-miss new material. Less than two weeks later, Daltrey looked like the road was already getting to him, with his voice hoarser and his energy level flagging. Townshend was his usual spry self, executing a few jumping guitar moves and playing the hell out of “Baba O’Reilly,” but they both looked like they’d rather be doing their own gig. The hero of the band continues to be drummer Zak Starkey, who looks and plays more like Keith Moon every day (minus, one hopes, the excess and the tantrums). The main highlight of the set for me, having just seen these guys, was the new addition of “Eminence Front,” one of the Who’s very last (1982) and simplest hits – and secretly, one of my favorites.
Red Hot Chili Peppers: We couldn’t stay for the entirety of the Chilis’ show-closing set, because we valued our life spans too much to get stuck in the same ungodly traffic leaving the site that we’d experienced getting there. But I’m glad I managed to catch some of my favorite RHCP cuts, including a hard-edged “Can’t Stop” and a surprisingly rocking “Scar Tissue” (thank you, John Frusciante, still the band’s unsung MVP). The most depressing thing about finally seeing the Chili Peppers live isn’t pondering how much older both you and they are these days; it’s realizing that they will neither fall short of nor exceed your expectations. Onstage, they look like…the Chili Peppers, leaping, pogoing, lurching, and playing like the seasoned pros they are. That might not make them life-changing, but it does make them something like old friends.