Horses for Courses: Virgin Mobile Festival 2008, Part One

9 August 2008: Pimlico Race Course, Baltimore, MD + Forward to Part Two Baltimore’s Virgin Mobile Festival is one of those concert events that attempt to please nearly every faction of the musical market. The line-up reads like a quick scroll through an FM radio: Post-grunge (Stone Temple Pilots, Foo Fighters), vintage rock (Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan), hip-hop (Lil Wayne, Kanye West), indie (Bloc Party, Wilco), and NPR musical interludes (The Swell Season, Rodrigo y Gabriela). This scatterbrained assortment leads to some interesting audience crossover — hip-hop heads fidgeting impatiently through She & Him’s breezy, living-room-appropriate performance in order to get close for follower Lil Wayne, for instance — and some downright unjust scheduling decisions, as in Cat Power opening for the soul upstart Duffy or current garage heroes the Black Keys overlapping with original garage hero Iggy Pop.

But playing musical either-or was actually the most difficult aspect of attending this event, which was held at the Pimlico Race Course, home to the annual Preakness horse race. In nearly every respect the festival was exceptionally well run: Festivalgoer’s encountered numerous and relatively clean porta-potties, moderately expensive (as opposed to outrageously expensive) concessions, and plenty of water fountains and shade-providing tents. Perhaps the most agreeable non-musical factor was one over which the organizers had zero control — the weather. Last year’s Virgin festival was plagued by temperatures in the high-90s, and left many fans dehydrated, sunburned, and questioning the decision to hold an outdoor musical event during the proverbial dog-days of summer. This year, though, most were left wondering where August’s menace went, as blissful breezes and moderate temperatures beset the racecourse.

CAT POWER / Photo: Mehan Jayasuriya

Cat Power might have taken her festival-opening time-slot as an insult, but the smoky-voiced crooner managed to give one of the most engaging and soulful performances of the entire weekend. Appearing just after noon with a backing band featuring members of The Dirty Three, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and the Delta 72, the singer otherwise known as Chan Marshall ran through a collection of her own songs as well as cuts from her recent covers album, Jukebox. Opener “I Don’t Blame You”, Cat Power’s elegy to Kurt Cobain, was transformed from a sadly plodding piano ballad into a slow, sultry waltz. Fans clapped loudest for songs from Marshall’s classic Memphis investigation The Greatest, including “Could We” and “Lived in Bars”. The coda from “Lived in Bars”, a cheery, double-timed segment of doo-wops on the album, became more of a raucous guitar jam in the festival environment. Most of the songs Cat Power performed bore little resemblance to their original versions. When Marshall and her accompanists brought out a cover of “Fortunate Son”, a song sure to stir the passions when played in such close geographic proximity to the home base of the current crop of silver-spooned warmongers, they endowed Creedence’s screed with an even more sinister context by matching the song’s lyrics to the tune of “Sympathy for the Devil”. It is likely that none of the DJs at the festival’s dance tent produced a more poignant mash-up all weekend. Marshall’s stage-fright freak-outs are notorious, but to someone watching her live for the first time she seemed to be enjoying herself mightily, if not completely comfortably. Her awkward, dance-like mannerisms might be a coping mechanism, or they might be an honest attempt to boogie, but the question of why Marshall moves like that is academic. What matters is that she gets through an entire set singing like the love child of Ella Fitzgerald and Delbert McClinton. Marshall’s voice is one of a kind, and her Virgin Mobile set proved that all she really wants to do is share it. After Cat Power’s final song, it was clear Marshall was reluctant to leave. As roadies and technicians carted away her band’s equipment, the singer kept finding things to throw to the audience — water bottles, flowers, copious amounts of blown kisses — who, judging by the continued applause, was similarly resistant to Marshall quitting the stage.

GOGOL BORDELLO / Photo: Mehan Jayasuriya

New York’s Gogol Bordello may be lumped with the luminous, burlesque DeVotchka under the genre description of gypsy-punk, but the group has more in common with the Dropkick Murphys in that it takes the elements of an ethno-musical tradition and pumps them up with the drunken, directionless energy of American pop-punk. Front man Eugene Hütz may have a remarkable mustache, and his violin- and accordion-flailing band mates run around the stage with considerable energy, but the band seemed a little too fight song-y and a little too one-note. Take the way Hütz liked to faux-strangle his female backup singers or his show-ending percussive climax, dropping his microphone in a bucket and beating the bucket with a drumstick, as examples of macho exuberance that quickly became tedious. Gogol Bordello’s exclamatory lyrics are apparently a mix of Ukrainian and English, but from what one can tell from their live delivery, the words might as well be “Go! Fight! Win!” or “Drink! Drink! Drink!” One hates to call music with such pronounced non-Western influence primitive, but there you have it. The bewildering choice to follow up Gogol Bordello’s mosh-inspiring racket was the conscious rapper of the year, Lupe Fiasco. Rapping with a live band that convincingly reproduced the Kanye-style tracks from his albums Food & Liquor and The Cool, Fiasco gave an impressive if perfunctory performance. “Kick, Push” and “Go Go Gadget Flow” were highlights, as Fiasco seemed to gloat breathlessly through his hyper-literate verses with vocal assistance from a single hype man. Watching Fiasco’s effortless hip-hop workout, it became easier to believe that the rapper was actually serious when he mentioned plans to retire after recording a third album. Mastering hip-hop has been entirely too easy for him.

SHARON JONES / Photo: Mehan Jayasuriya

If there was any performer from Saturday’s festivities who would be truly offended by the charge of slacking off, it’s Sharon Jones. Backed by the stellar R&B horn-work of the Dap Kings, Jones is doing her best to inherit the title of “hardest working woman in show business” from Tina Turner. The set from Jones and the Dap Kings came as the sun was reaching its zenith and temperatures were at their hottest, and it was exhausting simply to watch this former Rikers Island corrections officer strut her stuff and belt out tunes from her three vintage-sounding LPs. Jones’ tireless footwork is as thrilling to behold as her vocal explosions, and even the veritably broiling stage surface could do little to slow her down. Dap King guitarist Binky Griptite laid a couple of towels down to cool the floor before Jones slipped off her high heels to present an interpretive dance of her mixed Native American and West African ancestry, a moving statement that places the power of soul music in the historical context of slave trafficking, all while the backing band kept apace with furious funk-making. Later, as a nod to her recently deceased and similarly indefatigable forbear who was unafraid to say “I’m black and I’m proud,” Jones covered James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”. Such tremendous live performances are what fuels Jones’ rapidly growing reputation. The Mexican classical guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela probably arrived at Pimlico with few fans in the audience, and yet they undoubtedly converted anyone who stuck around after Sharon Jones finished her to set to avoid the Offspring’s mid-’90s cheese on display at the other stage. Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero grew up playing metal in Mexico City before relocating to Ireland and finding an audience for their intense, rhythmic take on flamenco. Quintero is somehow able to strum with her fingers while simultaneously keeping time by padding her palm on the body of her guitar. Seen up close on the jumbotron, her hand looked like an amazing blur. Rodrigo y Gabriela were unquestionably the providers of the most pleasant surprise of the day. Which brings us to the most unpleasant surprise of the day: There are lots of people who are still into The Offspring. Shockingly, Dexter Holland and company drew one of the festival’s largest crowds to hear their dumbed-down rip-offs of punk, grunge, and the Beatles (it should still boil the blood of any Fab Four fan to hear “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” bastardized into the ridiculous “Why Don’t You Get a Job?”). The graying perma-teenagers in the Offspring supplemented their set of suburban-angst anthems such as “Self Esteem”, “Gotta Get Away”, and “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)” with idiotic intra-song banter along the lines of “Baltimore’s got balls,” “Baltimore’s sexy,” and — this is the worst — “Not only am I going to get to laid tonight, we’re all GOING TO GET LAID TONIGHT!” that seemed to rile up the moshing minions. Virgin’s organizers had erected a temporary skateboarding ramp in view of the main stage where local skaters were attempting ollies and kickflips all weekend. From the vantage of the skatepark, with Holland howling “Come Out and Play” in the distance, all that was needed to complete a mid-’90s MTV flashback was an appearance by Dan Cortese. A dramatic crowd shift occurred after the Offspring finished, as a group reaping the benefits of Generation X’s nostalgia was switched out for one kindling the musical synapses of the Boomers in attendance. Although the lineup listed Chuck Berry & the Silver Beats as a single performance, the timeslot was split between a mini-set each by the biggest Beatles cover group in Japan and the octogenarian Godfather of Rock and Roll. Unfortunately, catching Wilco meant skipping out on the Berry’s half, but the Silver Beats did not fail to disappoint. Running through a wide-ranging set that included hits from nearly every Beatles period, including “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Glass Onion”, and “Get Back”, the Silver Beats proved world-class imitators, and the Japanese John Lennon bore an especially uncanny resemblance, physically and vocally.

WILCO / Photo: Mehan Jayasuriya

Whatever Wilco sacrificed in sonic experimentalism on last year’s uneven Sky Blue Sky, everyone seems to agree that Jeff Tweedy and his band have at least gained an unassailable ability to jam on all cylinders. “Shot in the Arm” and ” I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, emerging early in Saturday’s set, retained their loopy, groovy tenacity, and audience members genuinely went crazy for the migraine-mimicking passages of static thrown into the mix as well as Nels Cline’s guitar strangulations. Tweedy, in a green pinstriped blazer, exhibited a minimal level of crabbiness, and as the sun went down and the group perambulated through an extended tour of “Impossible Germany”, the Virgin Mobile fest reached Saturday’s high-water mark for good vibes. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You”, both led by Tweedy on lead guitar, furthered the rock. As is the case with Radiohead’s oeuvre (with the possible exception of its debut), each of Wilco’s albums (with the possible exception of its latest) can make an argument for being the group’s best. Though all of its songs save two were neglected on Saturday, Being There‘s rollickingly exuberant “Monday” and “Outtasite (Outta Mind)”, coming near the show’s end and with help from the Total Pros horn section, supported the case that Wilco was best circa 1996, when it was delicately dancing along the line separating alt-country and sunshine-pop. The fact that Wilco’s weathered onslaught was only a prelude to the soporific humming of Jack Johnson, one of the day’s two headliners, beggars belief, and is hardly worth considering further lest it cause someone an aneurism. That the alternate option was another ’90s alt-rock nostalgia trip, the Foo Fighters, deepened the depression and only sowed anticipation for Sunday’s appealingly crowded lineup. For legitimate fans of the Foo Fighters (judging from the turnout, there are plenty of these to go around), Saturday’s set was probably somewhat thrilling. Dave Grohl plays like an un-caged animal — screeching, head-banging, running wildly around the stage — and his band can sustain the fireworks of stadium rock that is increasingly rare these days. Foo Fighters’ performance must have seemed a perfect finale for those attendees who had moshed the day away under the thrall of Gogol Bordello and the Offspring. Everyone else was likely either snoring along to Jack Johnson or already on the way home. Forward to Part Two.