Pimlico Racecourse, Baltimore, Maryland
August 4, 2007
Catching Day one of Baltimore’s Virgin Fest was a bit of a surprise. A friend had tickets she couldn’t use, so she gave them to me. With that bit of kind good fortune, I headed off to Pimlico with Ray (of The Metal Minute) for 10 hours of rock n roll in the hot summer sun.
In order to enjoy the music, there is a lot of logistics that go into a successful festival of this scale. For the most part, Virgin Fest succeeded. The grounds at Pimlico were spread out enough that neither the two large stages nor the dance tent and smaller performance spaces interfered with each other. It also provided plenty of “in between” space to get a break from the crowd. Food and merchandise were all easy to find. They had several mist tents (Re Generation Domes) to cool off and all were easy to get into any time I tried. There was a definite focus on recycling with recycling and composting bins at every trash receptacle. Plus, a lot of the trash generated by the festival itself was compostable and they did use at least some “green” energy. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a step in the right direction. There were plenty of spot-a-pots and I really didn’t see a lot of lines, although I didn’t have to use them myself despite drinking over three liters of water (it was just that hot). On the down side, water fountains were a little sparse and the lines were long. The stage schedules were the most problematic thing I faced. I had to make a few tough decisions when sets overlapped. Merch prices were outrageous ($35 festival t-shirts, $20 posters, etc. etc.), but that wasn’t much of a surprise. All in all though, the festival was well-organized and ran smoothly.
The schedule was on the web, so I planned ahead and picked out who I wanted to see. Some acts I really wanted to see and others I was just curious about. In the end, it didn’t matter, because circumstances and my own changing views modified my pre-determined schedule anyway. I made two important decisions going in: First, I was going to cut out on the Beastie Boys 20 minutes early to ensure that I saw the entire TV on the Radio set. Second, I wasn’t going to see the Police, because I can’t stomach Sting no matter how much I love the music. These two decisions would end up playing off each other in determining what I actually saw and how I felt about it.
I didn’t expect to catch any of Fountains of Wayne, because 15 minutes after they started, Fiction Plane would play on the South Stage. But the crowd wasn’t too bad for Fiction Plane, so I ended up strolling over and catching a few songs from Fountains of Wayne. I don’t really care much for them and the two and a half songs that I saw were just what I expected. The live edge made them a little better than they are in the studio, but not enough to keep me there in lieu of Sting’s biological and musical son’s band.
I caught most of Fiction Plane’s set. In many ways, they were a very good band. They were very tight and their energy was genuine. They did a scorching version of “Sadr City Blues” that really got the crowd stirred up, especially considering how early it was. The problem was they sounded just like the Police. I understand that some of that is just genetics, but the similarities run much deeper than the vocals. The songs themselves sounded like second-rate Synchronicity. I have to wonder why a band as good as Fiction Plane would settle for being a knock-off when they have the potential to be a great band in their own right. Nonetheless, it did raise the question of who was a better Police at this moment, Fiction Plane or the reunited Police themselves. Despite earlier misgivings, I decided at this point to catch a bit of the Police’s set just to answer that question.
From there, I headed back to the North Stage to see Cheap Trick. I’ve never cared for them aside from “Surrender,” but I’ve always heard they’re a fantastic live act. They had all the trappings of a great rock act. Rick Nielson went through guitar changes like a boy band goes through costume changes. His banter with the crowd was a perfect mix of arrogance and tongue-in-cheek humor. They really seemed like they hadn’t missed a beat since they regularly played shows this big all those years ago. They touched on all the big hits (including “Surrender” which gave me cold chills to hear live) and threw in a new song as well just to show they were still making new music. They proved that they’re still a very good rock band who even now puts the power in power pop.
Spending the whole 50 minutes with Cheap Trick came at some cost. I missed the first half hour of the Fratellis, who I suspected had the potential to put on a fine performance. While they didn’t make me wish I’d bagged on Cheap Trick, they certainly made me wish the bands hadn’t overlapped. The Fratellis high-energy garage rock borrowed just enough from rockabilly to make things interesting.
I trekked back across the infield to catch Amy Winehouse. I like her voice, but her propensity for being erratic (not in the good way) kept my expectations fairly low. It’s a good thing too. Winehouse certainly seemed to be in another world. Her backing band was a solid outfit, but she was unemotional and timid even. At one point, her mike came unplugged. She seemed baffled, laughed uncomfortably and then fumbled to plug it back in. A better performer wouldn’t have missed a beat. Amy Winehouse, however, is not that good.
It was off to the dance tent next. While I was hoping to see Sasha & John Digweed, there were other conflicts, but during the lull that was Paolo Nutini and Incubus, neither of which interested me in the least, we caught part of Felix Da Housecat’s set. Dance music isn’t quite my thing, but I’ve been told that in the right atmosphere anyone will dance. Maybe that’s not true or maybe this wasn’t the right environment, but I didnot dance. Still, the crowd seemed to be feeding of of his energy and vice versa. It was a decent performance, but not one that will make a convert out of me.
While walking back across the field, we spotted some performance artists with a band backing them. Grandchildren played some pretty out-there avant-jazz that really hit me. It was good enough to skip Peter Bjorn and John on the South Stage to hang around for their set and pick up their CD.
Another band off the beaten path was Center Stage performers Motormorons. The Baltimore band included a guy who played power tools, a vocalist who contributed to the power tool section with some fine work on the metal can grinder. They were completely bizarre, mixing industrial noise (the tools, not the genre) with barely competent art rock a la Flipper. During their first set, the bass died, but they just kept going. The ability to play under adverse conditions is really the sign of a great band. I ran back over to see their second set between Ben Harper and the Beastie Boys.
Jam bands aren’t really my thing, but knowing that Ben Harper is a fantastic musician and that his band would be capable of backing him, I was sure it would be worth seeing. The band’s reggae/funk blend was super-tight and some of the percussion work was among the day’s best. Harper’s voice had great movement making it the core of the performance. As good as his voice was though, it was topped by his slide playing. Overall, the performance was very good, occasionally reaching the level of greatness.
I approached the Beastie Boys with mixed feelings. On one had, I wanted them to be as good as I hoped. On the other, I wished they’d be disappointing, because I knew I was going to miss the last 20 minutes of their set to head over to TV on the Radio. The Beasties ran through the breadth of the styles they incorporate. They hit the instrumentals, the live band songs, the old school punk and of course, the rap. Their ability to nail all of these genres without breaking stride was just dumbfounding. They left little doubt in my mind about their greatness.
Leaving the Beastie Boys early was tough and they were good enough that it almost certainly set TV on the Radio up to be a disappointment. I decided to take the chance of banking on the future rather than the past and present. That gamble paid off huge. TV on the Radio are not just the future, but the very bridge to get there. Unlike some of their post-rock contemporaries, the term “post” doesn’t really apply, because it indicates that they don’t rock. Their set at Virgin Fest leaves no doubt that they do. It occurred to me how interesting it was that I left a band who had once been that bridge themselves to see the new bridge, the one we’ll all be crossing, some sooner than others. Their ability to translate into a live setting answered the one question left in my mind. Seeing the future also allowed me to deal more easily with the past as I headed over toward the Police.
I headed from South to North once again, this time to catch just enough of the Police to compare them to their almost-cover band, Fiction Plane before getting back to see Modest Mouse. I could hear “Synchronicity II” as I came over. The closer I got, the harder it was to forget that I love the Police no matter what I think of Sting. Little did I know at that point that I wouldn’t even see Modest Mouse. I began to consider that I may have been wrong, maybe Sting does have some soul left. Maybe it’s just buried under his tremendous ego (you know, it’s the one that makes him think that his solo work isn’t just lite-jazz crap, or lite-renaissance crap as the case may be). Early in the set, one of the many flying beach balls landed up on stage near Sting. This was it, the deciding factor as to whether he really had anything inside. He let it sit and I thought, “Ahh, I’m right. He just goes through the motions, completely disconnected.” Then, he pulled back his leg and kicked it back into the crowd. It was a small thing, but it made a big difference to me. It showed me that he did in fact have some connection to the crowd. From that point on, there was no leaving. I knew right then and there, that Modest Mouse really didn’t matter, but the Police, or at least their songs, still do.
Their sound was usually very crisp and clean. I was easily reminded of why Stewart Copeland is one of rock’s very best drummers and why Andy Summers is one of its most underrated guitarists. Maybe it was just the songs I love, the night and a chorus of tens of thousands singing along, but all my obstinacy couldn’t drag me away any longer.
They had some new arrangements and we all know what happened the last time the Police offered us a new arrangement: “Don’t Stand So Close to Me ’86” was even worse that some of Sting’s solo work. A few of these did have problems, but nothing nearly as bad. “Wrapped Around Your Finger” struggled the whole way through despite treating us to Stewart Copeland’s fine percussion work. Likewise, “King of Pain” was largely reworked less than favorably. Other songs were stretched out with new parts, but left the rest mostly intact. These fared better. About thirty minutes before the end of their allotted time, the Police walked off. It was just their staged encore though and they came back and played their remaining time and then finished with “Next to You” as a second encore. I’m of the opinion that encores in general should be abandoned and this one was particularly planned since everyone knew the time the festival had set aside. It was easily forgotten though, especially as they played the rocked-up and extended “Every Breath You Take.” In the end, to answer my question from earlier, the Police are still the best Police.
So what kept me there, watching a band I said in advance I wouldn’t watch, fronted by a man whose soulless music and lightly veiled hypocrisy in the post-Police years make me sick? The bottom line was the songs. I loved them 25 years ago and I love them still, even performed by a band re-united after all this time. I’m glad I stayed and watched. I don’t regret missing Modest Mouse in the least. For what it’s worth, I never clapped for the Police, but I sang along a lot. The songs don’t care if I clapped.
One last thing. I have to thank The Children’s Health Fund for the apples. Just for getting on their mailing list, they gave out nice juicy Granny Smiths that just may have been the best thing of the day!