Three months after purchasing the tickets, the Virgin Fest date had pulled up to the driveway. My colleague and I had all we needed and departed somewhat late, inevitably causing us to miss Fountains of Wayne (something I wasn’t too concerned about). We were about fifteen minutes down the stretch of 95 between DC and Baltimore when Eddie Money’s “Two Tickets to Paradise” came on the radio. My colleague suddenly says “oh shit, the tickets!” I suppose Eddie Money finally did some good in the world by prompting a spark of memory and preventing two concert-goers from embarrassed idiocy at the gates.
Our arrival at Pimlico was greeted by instant sweat and a lot of people on the sidewalk selling a lot of shit at ridiculous prices. Pimlico Race Track is best known as the home of the Preakness Stakes, the shortest leg of the Triple Crown. That’s all I ever care to know about the venue. I reveled in the idea that this lightning rod for yuppie starched collars and people who give a shit about horseracing was destined to become a haven for freaks, bad beer, loud music, and a lot of weed during the weekend of August 4th.
As we wandered around the labyrinth of gates that forced people to take the farthest possible route, I could hear Cheap Trick’s trademark “I Want You To Want Me.” I’m not a huge Cheap Trick fan by any stretch of the imagination, but we decided to at least check out the North Stage while they were still on. As we were making our way over, the band launched into “The Flame,” a quintessential power ballad from the late ‘80s that can get you mushy in two seconds time. After that, Rick Nielson whipped out his fiendish 5-necked monstrosity for “In The Street,” a song that most know as the theme from That ‘70s Show. During the course of the fist pumping chords and Robyn Zander’s wailing mustache rock delivery, I witnessed Jesus walking through the crowd. Of course it was just a dude dressed up like the white conception of Christ, but if people can see Jesus in a grilled cheese, I can see him at Virgin Fest.
Nielson’s wardrobe set the stage for a motif of very unseasonable dress on behalf of the performers. Wearing his trademark all-black outfit and hat that make him look like a bus driver, I’m surprised the Cheap Trick guitarist didn’t pass out from heat exhaustion. From the suit jackets of Peter Bjorn and John to the overcoats of Interpol, there was an unceasing array of mind-boggling dress choices on what was possibly the hottest and most humid day of the year.
It was bloody fucking hot. I can’t even describe it. The combination of high-90s temperatures and saturation-point humidity made for a day of sweaty bodies and recurring ambulances on the racetrack. The worst of it was the absence of free water. Promotions said that there would be drinking fountains available for refilling water bottles, but all I managed to find were a couple of trough fountains in which sweaty dudes were rinsing their faces. Since I didn’t want to have little things swimming in my GI tract or lip Chlamydia, I opted for the bottled water that was being harked all over the track in about 20 different locations. Although I only begrudgingly accepted the available option, I paid Pepsi $12 that day just to survive on their shitty Aquafina at $3 per bottle.
Soul sensation Amy Winehouse took the North Stage after Cheap Trick, with a band of brass, backups, and dancers. The heavily tattooed, spindle-legged, beehive-haired singer took the stage after sharing a long kiss with her boyfriend (who incidentally kind of looks like a male version of her). Amy’s shorts were plunging practically into her never never land and under the oppressive humidity, this sultry-voiced vocalist was certainly the sexiest headliner on the two-day ticket. “Back To Black” had plenty of lowdown jazzy jazz dripping with honey sensuality and the thousand-pound bassline on the groovy “Me And Mr. Jones” was a standout. Winehouse probably had the lowest fan-base out of all the acts on the North Stage, but this curious combination of Kate Pierson, Billy Holiday, and liquid sex certainly earned the respect of the audience with her thick, emotive voice.
There was a ticker above the North Stage that would display text messages sent in to a certain number. There were shout-outs to sweethearts, siblings, and “schmunky” at a glance. I wonder if they edited any of these texts or weeded out the ones that said “Incubus sucks.”
Of the 14 bands I watched over the two day period, Incubus was the only one that even remotely approached suckage. Incubus isn’t a great band to begin with, essentially a Bush for the new millennium with its chunky sound and pinup frontman. The band’s timing was off and Brandon Boyd’s vocals were even more wailing than on their studio efforts. Incubus is a band that has been constantly building itself further into the arena scene since its humble, funk metal origins on Fungus Amongus. By the time the geared-for-tweens “Wish You Were Here” came along, I was ready to head to the South Stage to catch Peter Bjorn and John.
PB&J are a curious trio, playing varied pop music in English out of their native Stockholm. The band opened with “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” from their new album Writer’s Block. With its unmistakable drumline and punchy guitar during the chorus, the band had the small, but growing crowd swaying in a groove. It wasn’t until about midway through their set that I saw a curious similarity in appearance to Joy Division, at least from two out of three of the Swedes. Bassist Bjorn Yttling has the same mop of stringy blonde hair and Fender bass as Peter Hook and drummer John Eriksson’s playing style and appearance was a close match to Steven Morris. Midway through, the trio launched into a stripped-down version of the trippy “Amsterdam.” Yttling punched the vocals with little staccatos over guitarist/vocalist Peter Moren’s warm arpeggios. The icing on the cake of a very solid performance came in the form of the ridiculously catchy “Young Folks.” I missed the voice of Victoria Bergsman on the second verses (Moren sang both parts), but it was a damn good show nonetheless.
Next up on the South Stage was one of the great highlights at Virgin Fest, LCD Soundsystem. The ragtag bunch of house/electronica minstrels took the stage and held the audience engaged the entire time. Al Doyle’s scrachy, hiccupping guitar on “Us v. Them” and “Time To Get Away,” recalled The Talking Heads. Among other standouts were the infectious “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House,” and the explosive four-vocal loudspeaker chant of “North American Scum.”
The driving force behind LCD Soudsystem, James Murphy, oscillated between a look of glassy-eyed stupor and shrieking Wildman, a kind of David Byrne with meat on his bones. In between songs, he asked the audience in a soft-spoken (almost Rick Moranis-sounding) voice:
“Have you guys been to the dome?
Is it like…the future in there?
Where you go from one dome to the other dome?”
Nancy Whang’s thunderclap synth on “Tribulations” led the charge in a merciless song that had everybody in the audience stabbing the air with arms and legs in a kind of Bud Light-laden disco. Doyle’s spine-shearing bends in the bridges made for a sanguine experience. At the conclusion of the song, I was back over to the North Stage to catch some Beastie Boys before TV on the Radio started their set.
The baddest motherfucking Hebrews ever to break out of Brooklyn took the stage wearing suits ripped right from the Blues Brothers. I hung back for this set, since I couldn’t stay on that part of the track very long or else risk missing a good spot in front of the other Brooklyn band taking the stage to the South. In a panorama behind which lay Adrock, Mike D, and MCA, a sea of inflated condoms bounced lazily in the air, like a bizarre Planned Parenthood plea for safe fucking. The Beasties interwove their hour-and-a-half set with a lot of toned-down instrumental bits in addition to their megahits. The highlight of my half hour there was “Sure Shot,” a song where the trio tosses their raps back and forth like busted furniture. Ah, yes indeed it’s fun time, fun time.
Back over to the South Stage for TV on the Radio. With the inflated $175 price tag of two-day admission to the Virgin Fest, this band was one of the ways I justified spending that chunk of my meager disposable income. “Dirtywhirl” showcased the amazing vocal interplay of Tunde Adebimpe’s thick soul and Kyp Malone’s fluttering falsetto. The unique vocal rhythm in the song rode the rhythms in a delicious way. Unfortunately, halfway through the set, I found myself next to a buzz-killing dude who kept vying for my attention. The guy looked like a young Pete Rose, complete with a fire engine red shirt and matching little league cap. As he double-fisted cups of beer, he kept asking me a recurring question with slight variation concerning whether or not I thought TV on the Radio was awesome. As fucking irritating as the guy was, I couldn’t really take too much fault with him since he helped me remember the name of “Providence.” The ascending and descending riffs cemented that great track along with another mesmerizing vocal performance from Adebimpe.
Kip Malone and Tunde Adebimpe
The band was certainly one of the most technically interesting bands of the day, with windchimes hanging off Dave Sitek’s headstock and Jaleel Bunton scrapping his drumsticks to play woodwind. The quirky intricacies of each member of the band came through on the distant “I Was A Lover,” built around a curiously stalling beat from Bunton. The best moment of the TV on the Radio set was the one that was to be expected. “Wolf Like Me” ripped a hole in the crowd. Sweat, spit, and sound careened over the stage during one of the best songs of 2006.
Capping the night was The Police. The Police made some great fucking music in their 7 year career, but I was about two years old when they broke up. Throughout my life, the Police’s music was confined to the airwaves and the only visible performing member remained Sting. The guy’s a talented musician, but his forays into world music, tantric, and general douchedom collectively staved any interest I had in a Police reunion. At the end of the night, it was a choice between The Police or Modest Mouse. Since it was the first time The Police had played together in a long-ass time, I figured this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, regardless of the actually delivery.
The band played all of its major hits after opening with the charging “Message In A Bottle.” Andy Sommer’s kinetic riffing and Stewart Copeland’s crazy high-hat artillery made for a great performance of a tight pop song. Despite Sting’s trademark reggae wail and Sommers’ flash solos, the real focal point of the trio was Copeland. Looking like a high school physics teacher sneered at by the neighbors for kicking a racket across suburbia, he mixed a crazy wad of talent into the gigantic drum setup on the risers.
It was far from a perfect performance. The band’s twisting of the Lolita-inspired “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” was a dull miss. Gone was the smoldering tension of the original recording, replaced by a more subdued approach that gave the song the feeling of a lounge narcotic. The timing was skewed on a couple of tracks, including “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” in which the band took close to a minute to match up their instruments.
When 10:00 rolled around, the crowd began to thin, making a mad dash for the waiting shuttles beyond the parking lot. Between the stage and that destination was a sea of garbage, plastic bottles, sour beer, and crushed chicken fingers. It was a disgusting sight, the kind of thing you read about in a muckraking environmental warning. It’s sad to think that at least half these people rail about environmental destruction, yet still managed to throw about 80 tons of crap on a couple of square miles in 12 hours. After squeezing onto a bus filled with the drunk and exhausted, I was out for the night.