Horses for Courses: Virgin Mobile Festival 2008, Part Two

10 August 2008: Pimlico Race Course, Baltimore, MD + Back to Part One If the Virgin Mobile Festival’s first day ended with an underwhelming split between the singer of Curious George‘s soundtrack (Jack Johnson) and Kurt Cobain’s squalid legacy (Foo Fighters), the second day would surely end on a much higher note. The live shows of headliners Nine Inch Nails and Kanye West have earned considerable acclaim, and with a varied slate of support acts such as absurdo-gangster Lil Wayne, esteemed violinist-slash-whistler Andrew Bird, the eternally rolling stone Bob Dylan, and many more, the lineup was significantly stronger than the previous day. And although official attendance figures have not been released, it appeared from the size of the audience that Sunday was a more popular choice for purchasers of single-day passes.

Early birds arriving at the tail end of church-hour were subject to a rude awakening on Sunday morning — a set by the winners of Virgin’s “Book the Band” contest, whereby an online vote determined who would open the second day of the festival. Hollywood Undead, a crass combination of Insane Clown Posse and Good Charlotte, garnered 285,000 texts and mouse clicks in its favor, and the dudes in the band made the most of their first-ever festival performance by enthusiastically rap-rocking about getting wasted at the bar and getting crazy on the dance floor.

THE GO! TEAM / Photo: Mehan Jayasuriya

First up on the bill of actual musicians was The Go! Team, the British fusion of rap, funk, and indie that is still evolving rapidly from its 2004 inception as the bedroom project of Ian Parton into a fully functioning band. Parton’s players evinced manic energy by bouncing around the stage, pounding synthesizers and beating on two drum kits while emcee Ninja kept up a steady stream of Sugarhill Gang-style vintage hip-hop rhymes. More people were dancing than might be expected given the early start time, but the Go! Team’s set felt slightly forced. There was little ascension or nuance in their attack, and Ninja’s get-this-party-started flow was buried too deeply beneath horn-samples and guitar fuzz, which also lessened their effect. One got the impression that the Go! Team are more in their element performing to an already-excited crowd late at night in a small club, which is nearly the complete opposite of what the band faced on Sunday.

ANDREW BIRD / Photo: Mehan Jayasuriya

Andrew Bird followed with his violin-laced visions of imminent apocalypse and the scientific randomness underlying human existence. It’s the kind of stuff probably meant to inspire sun-baked crowds to introspection rather than dance, and for the most part it worked. Bird’s touring ensemble is small, but he employs a league of looping and sampling gadgets to reproduce the busy sound found on his records. A song usually began with Bird whistling or sketching a refrain on the violin, looping it, and then picking up his guitar and addressing the microphone to begin in earnest. Tunes from Bird’s two most recent albums and one new song made up the set. “Fake Palindromes” was a crowd-pleaser even though Bird put kinks in the sing-along by dramatically changing the phrasing in the chorus and giving the accompanying music a marching throttle. “To save all our lives you’ve got to envision the fiery crash,” came the prescription in “Fiery Crash”, which was appropriate to the festival’s environmental emphasis. Much obliged for the advice, Professor Bird, one felt compelled to answer, but where will you be when Lil Wayne sets this place on fire?

SHE & HIM / Photo: Mehan Jayasuriya

Because as nice as the sets by Andrew Bird and the Go! Team were — and there was even another polite indie rock act to follow, She & Him — the afternoon belonged to Lil Wayne, even when he wasn’t performing. Down front of the stage it was practically all anyone could talk about. Nevertheless, Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, the pronouns in the aforementioned She & Him, ambled on the stage probably unaware that most of the audience was only waiting them out with hopes of being in prime spitting position for Weezy. That said, She & Him were great. If their debut album Volume One seemed a bit dilettantish on the first spin, revisit it. Deschanel showed on Sunday that she has the vocal and songwriting chops to make music-making her primary vocation. Meanwhile M. Ward played the charming, meticulous sideman to a tee, leading the band on his own “Magic Trick” and duetting with Deschanel on stirring covers of “You Really Got a Hold on Me” and “I Put a Spell on You”. As far as movie-star indie indulgences go, Deschanel continues to be way out in front of Scarlet Johansson.

LIL WAYNE / Photo: Mehan Jayasuriya

Unfairly or not, She & Him received the loudest applause when they exited the stage. And with that began the waiting game for the rapper of the year with the rap album of the year. One would hardly be shocked were Lil Wayne to forgo altogether his first concert appearance on the east coast since Tha Carter III dropped and choose to simply not get out of bed. For about forty minutes after his scheduled start time on Sunday afternoon, it seemed that was what had happened. And then, sans the lengthy, hype-heavy introduction one has come to expect at rap concerts, Lil Wayne strode unannounced onto the stage in a white t-shirt, jeans, and black University of Texas cap and commenced a rapid-fire, career-spanning set of songs and song-snippets from his collection of albums, mix-tapes, and guest appearances. If anything, Wayne’s performance was uncluttered and surprisingly consistent. He may have brought a posse onstage with him, but they remained in the wings, and he held the only microphone. This was not a thug-life celebration, or an ego-flossing spectacle, or a contractually-obligated PR meet-and-greet with music: This was a thunderously loud communion between a weird little man and thirty thousand or so people who love his art. Wayne amicably showed off most of the gemstones in his career’s deep pocket — “Go DJ”, “Fireman”, even “Tha Block Is Hot” all made appearances — while also paying attention to lesser-celebrated fetishes like “I Feel Like Dying” and the chorus to “Duffle Bag Boy”. Of all the songs performed, “I’m Me”, off this year’s The Leak EP, summoned the fiercest recital from the rapper. The most exquisite detour came when Wayne performed a beat-box-accompanied version of “Pussy Monster”, a David Banner-produced track that has only cropped up on MP3 blogs in the past week. Weezy’s bawdy pantomime recalled something from a twisted turn-of-the-century stage-show transplanted to today’s raucous rap environment. Only near the end of the set did Lil’ Wayne choose to feature songs from his recent opus. “Mrs. Officer”, “Got Money”, and “Comfortable” came and went to mild fanfare, with Weezy rasping over the R&B hooks. As the opening synth notes to “Lollipop” slipped out of the speakers, though, the thousands trembled with delight. The tremble turned to a howling roar, all but drowning out the song, when Kanye West emerged on stage in a Louis Vuitton backpack to iterate his verse from the song’s remix. Who knows how it sounded, but when Kanye had exited and things simmered, Wayne re-birthed pandemonium by tearing off his shirt, unlocking his dreads, and ripping into “A Millie”. “My name ain’t Bic / But I keep that flame”: Wayne’s set was both viciously abstract and hilariously personal, and his reign as hip-hop’s king weirdo will only be lengthened by such live performances.

THE BLACK KEYS / Photo: Mehan Jayasuriya

If the audience at She & Him suffered from Lil Wayne butterflies, the Black Keys suffered from a Lil Wayne hangover. That or everyone who is into garage-rock guitar slinging from Midwestern cities was already watching the self-mutilations of Iggy Pop across the way. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney deserved what they got even less than Deschanel and M. Ward, a shortened set and a lackluster turnout, but they made the most of it with their usual shit-kicking arsenal of white-boy blues howling. If Bob Dylan knows who Alicia Keys is, he must know who Lil Wayne and Kanye West are, right? If so, what would the man who introduced weed to the Beatles say about sharing the stage with a lyrical wizard and a globetrotting techno-populist? Dylan’s albums have become increasingly hermetic, inhabiting an eternal 1930s leavened by existentialist humor, and his live shows have grown accordingly dim and abstruse. In Dylan’s universe, communing along some spiritual plane with Mississippi John Hurt and Bessie Smith, he could be anywhere, but to those watching it is impossible not to be gleefully cognizant that you are watching one of the all-time greats still rocking through his sixth decade. Opener “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” gave the crowd the opportunity to shout “Everybody must get stoned!” in collective joy even though Dylan’s rendering of the famous line was usually a beat away or before. The terrific supporting players were spot-on as usual, looking svelte in matching suits and backing Dylan with a hip precision that is so old it’s become timeless. Dylan’s supposedly arthritic fingers tore up the organ lines on “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” and waxed Garth Hudson-esque on “Ballad of a Thin Man”. Possibly the most profound song from Dylan’s late period, “High Water (For Charlie Patton)” was delivered with eerie grace, and was the highlight of the set. How perplexing that the one of the festival’s rare encores came from the aloof Dylan. It’s highly likely that in five years there will not only be a brand-new rap superstar to headline Virgin 2013, but there will be the same Dylan singing an awe-inspiring “Like a Rolling Stone” as his finale. If Bob Dylan’s set was something of a tribute to the 20th century, Kanye West’s was a celebration of the 21st. It’s hard to think of a musician who has had a larger impact on the current decade, from The Blueprint to Graduation, and his ultra-expensive stage show, with live backing band and spectacular lighting, was a thrill to witness. All of the hits were present, sung to an enraptured, age-spanning audience: The propulsive horns of “Touch the Sky”, the gospel-booming “Jesus Walks”, and the electro climax of “Stronger”. As West has been one of the ablest portrayers of anxiety ever in the rap game, there was plenty of drama, too. He free-styled about paparazzi intrusion, his mother’s death, and the presidential race. He lectured on the unfairness of concert promoters’ habits, as Virgin was the second festival this summer where West was scheduled directly against Nine Inch Nails, and Trent Reznor’s stage show is something West has always wanted to experience. As uniquely bizarre as Lil Wayne’s performance was, West’s was on a whole other level of artistic fortitude. For he has turned his personal story and tastes into a mega-musical extravaganza, and yet at the heart of it all lay his expertly crafted pop songs.