We arrived at Pimlico around 2:00 in the afternoon; a couple of songs into Matisyahu’s set on the South Stage. The bearded Hasidic reggae artist extraordinaire had already drawn a sizeable crowd by the time I arrived. Matisyahu has gained fame for being a novelty act for sure, but the man can certainly dish out rhyme and groove. His beatboxing on “Late Night In Zion” was the highlight of his set, dropping several jaws in the audience.
During the instrumental bridge on one of his songs, the lithe Matisyahu scampered up a stack of speakers to the right of the stage and clung to the scaffolding, waving out to the crowd. This was probably the most prominent stage antic I witnessed on stage prior to seeing Yeah Yeah Yeahs perform on the North Stage later that day. For the most part, the artists were complacent and weren’t keen on leaping into the crowd, spitting blood, or busting their instruments. After hearing a few songs, my next destination was the North Stage to catch Spoon.
Since the rest of the day’s bands I cared to see were performing on the North Stage and it wasn’t as hot as Saturday, I was able to keep pressing forward toward the stage after each band wrapped up. Spoon was the first step in my mission to get to the front row by the time the Smashing Pumpkins went on at 8. I’d only heard a couple of the Austin band’s songs prior to Sunday, but Spoons new album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, has gotten pretty ubiquitous praise. I was curious.
Spoon fits the bill of the stereotypical indie band down to the wire in terms of dress, gear, and general appearance. Singer Britt Daniel actually looks a bit like a cool Clay Aiken without all the talentless, limp dick connotations. They’re a tight bunch and they craft some very memorable hits with their simple, yet varied use of their instruments. Jim Eno pulled a Steve Shelly on one of the songs, drumming with a maraca in one hand and a drum stick in the other to create a cocktail shaker rhythm. Eric Harvey switched between keys and strings, adding a lush percussion to the straightforward riffs.
“Don’t Make Me A Target” was a standout, with its slap-bang verse chords and sauntering piano. At points during the set, Daniel would fall to his knees and suck feedback from the amps into his guitar like a vampire. During the sinister “Beast And Dragon Adored,” Daniel committed assault and battery on his telecaster, beating that shit senseless and tearing forth a searing sound. The high point of the performance was the disaffected march of “I Summon You.” A hell of a snapping beat got everyone in that crowd clapping their hands.
By the time the band wrapped up, I could smell a thick odor of Bacardi and weed about me. Not a bad combination. Behind me were two dudes inflating a ribbed Trojan to the size of a genetically-engineered watermelon or a Trident warhead. They couldn’t tie it off because of the lube. That was kind of sad and humorous at the same time.
Panic! At The Disco took the stage to the most thunderous applause of either day with the exception of The Police and The Pumpkins. It was during the Panic! set that I suddenly felt extremely old. I’m only 24 years old, but being surrounded by tattooed girls who couldn’t have been older than 15 shouting along to the songs made me a bit self-conscious. This was exacerbated by the nebulous nature of my feelings toward the band. I want to hate them because of their stupid mascara poses, top hatted videos, and skeezy brand of mall punk. At the same time, Brendon Urie has a stellar knack for crafting songs that could animate a dead pope. They’re that catchy.
As the band launched into “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage” (Christ, that’s a dumbass name), you could instantly tell that probably 1/5 of the entire crowd at Virgin Fest had come for the express purpose of seeing Panic! play. “Time To Dance” was probably the band’s most frenetic and enjoyable track, with Urie skittering around the stage like a methed-up howler monkey. By the time the band played an enjoyable cover of “The Weight” by The Band, I had witnessed some pretty disturbing things. Quick bit of advice for all the teens out there: if you’re going to crowdsurf over a sea of drunk and horny 20-40 year-old dudes on the hottest day of the year, don’t wear a thong and a miniskirt. Thus began my irritation with crowdsurfing at the event, and at one point, I found myself in the middle of a sort of staging area for surfers, where the crowd had parted to allow for maximum leverage.
At the last note of the last song of the set when the audience was erupting into deafening applause, there was one more crowdsurfer being loaded onto the launch pad. The girl, in her teens and pushing past 200 pounds, must have finally worked up the courage to ride the groping freeway at the last second. Unfortunately for me, most of the burly dudes around me had their arms in the air clapping, not waiting for such a challenging task. I braced myself, bending my knees and sticking my ass out like OSHA training back at the warehouse had taught me. The girl was hefted airborne in my direction. I knew my spindly wrists would not hold the weight, and they didn’t. Rather than risk shearing tendons, I yielded and the girl spiraled out of the air, falling down by back. After catching a foot to the head, I fell alongside her into the dust.
The crowd thankfully ebbed once Panic! left the stage. Covered in caked dust, bloody fingernail scratches, and sticky sweat, I decided to recede from the crowd a bit before the Yeah Yeah Yeahs came on.
Like Spoon, I had not listened to a whole lot of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ catalogue, but even if I did, the music would have taken a backseat to the performance. Vocalist Karen O seemed to leave trails of flame and burnt heels as she careened over the stage, spitting lyrics into the microphone like it was an ex begging for her back. O took the stage wearing something that looked like a combination wedding/funeral veil, black fishnets, and a masquerade mask. The bizarre, yet utterly sexy combination of Pat Benatar, Siouxsie Sioux, and mod superhero pulled out some memorable tricks. At one point she started thrusting a speaker, then laid down on it for a span of nearly a minute before rocketing back across the stage and fountaining beer over her own face.
The apex of the set came when O dedicated “They Don’t Love You Like I Love You” to “summer fucking love.” The spikehammer notes from guitarist Nick Zinner underpinned O’s aching vocals. At the conclusion of the band’s performance, O cracked the mic on the ground like a whip, battering the poor machine into oblivion. I’d be willing to put money on the idea that at least a handful of people in the audience were wishing that they were that microphone.
When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs left the stage, it was time for my surge forward through the crowd to get a good spot for the penultimate band, Interpol. Interpol occupies a special place in my heart, mostly because they’re one of the few bands that actually rips off Joy Division well while still leaving a distinct and riveting mark on their music.
Interpol took the stage just as a thick smattering of rain hailed down from the skies. It was an odd coincidence that the gloomiest band of the Virgin Fest lineup got such a natural synergystic gift from the gods. Dressed up in their usual smart suits, the New York band launched into the dark dreamscapes of “Pioneer To The Falls” from their new album, Our Love to Admire.
Interpol oscillated between their more morose, ambient tracks and their punchy radio hits. The latter were the most enjoyable, as the band whipped out “Slow Hands,” “The Heinrich Maneuver,” and “Evil.” Daniel Kessler pounded out the chords on his hollowbody guitar while Carlos Dengler (looking like a mafia Wyatt Earp with his mustache, dark shades, and overcoat) thumped the beat.
By the end of Interpol’s set, I had managed to squeeze myself into the fifth row of people behind the steel barrier in front of the stage. Even in the half hour interim period, things were getting intense. I couldn’t move more than an inch in any one direction and felt like my body was in contact with about five different asses. It was a tad uncomfortable to be sure, but nothing like what was to come.
After a parade of soundcheck guys who looked like Billy Corgan body doubles wandered about, the tall, vampiric frontman finally emerged to the biggest applause in the entire two days. Almost immediately, the 20,000 or so people behind me tried to move forward, exerting tremendous pressure on our mass of people in the first few rows. I was no longer in control of my body, and often neither one of my feet touched the ground.
By now I was in the third row, slowly and unintentionally migrating to the steel railing toward the center of the stage. The pressure was intense, enough to make me gasp for breath a several times. I felt bad for anyone wearing sandals in those first few rows, as there were probably crushed toes galore. As crowdsurfers moved forward to the stage, our rows couldn’t support them because we couldn’t move our arms. People were falling out of the sky and sending a shockwave of imbalance over the people nearby. People fell, jabbed, grabbed, screamed. It was carnal chaos as “Today” filtered into the crowd.
I don’t quite remember all the songs that were played in that period of near-suffocation. The music was ambient at that point and watching the stage played second fiddle to watching the skies for a drunk sneaker on a head trajectory. I definitely recall “Zero” being played, with its characteristically evil harmonics and spitting vocals. Corgan also mined the depths of the band’s catalogue with “Starla,” a song off Gish that he explained to the crowd was conceived when the band was under the regular influence of shrooms.
After the band finished up “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” (which whipped the entire crowd into a searing fury) I was seeing spots as the crowd crushed me into the steel. As broken pieces of sunglasses were digging into my thigh and my bony frame was feeling the crush, I felt it was time to get out of there. Catching the attention of a staff dude, I was hoisted bodily out of the pit and deposited on dry ground. Corgan was probably only ten feet away from me at that point, but I was too disoriented to notice.
I wandered off to the left side of the stage, where middle-aged people and frenching couples had set up their blankets. I had to fall onto the ground since my stiffened back wouldn’t really allow for much else. There I stayed for the rest of the set. Corgan toned things down as I enjoyed probably the best cigarette of my life during the aching “To Sheila” off of Adore. The song was the Pumpkins at their most piercingly emotive, and as I lay there I found myself missing, needing, and wanting.
The band ended on a cringing note, melding Machina’s “Heavy Metal Machine” with Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” The dull riffing of an already dull song was made worse by the endless noodling by both Corgan and guitarist Jeff Schroeder. The band could have brought down the house with a tight charge of a known track like “Cherub Rock” or even a dreamy number like “Drown” or “Rhinoceros.” Instead the crowd got a track off of the Pumpkin’s most forgettable album.
After Corgan’s last bows, the night was over, and once again it was a scramble, 35,000 strong, to get to transportation out of there. All I wanted was a slurpie, a bad movie, and some herb. Motivation can lend patience, and as others were shouting curses on the heads of the bus drivers, I didn’t quite give a shit. The weekend was one for the books.