Virgin Mobile Festival
Pimlico Race Track, Baltimore, MD
Aug. 9 & 10, 2008
Words and photos by Carl Noone, Jr.
For the third straight year, Richard Branson and his “Tubular Bells”-fueled brand name, Virgin, brought the American version of the longstanding British V Fest stateside, tearing things up at Pimlico Race Track in Baltimore. Traveling three hours by car from Northeast Pennsylvania proved to be a test in patience as I sat in an hour-plus pile-up outside the capital of Harrisburg, but the thunderous beats of Erol Alkan welcomed us (albeit a little late) as we found a parking spot, helping to ease the tension. By the time I was able to check-in and receive my credentials, the amazing partnership of Donald Glaude and DJ Dan was just beginning, combining the over-the-top, animated, electronic bongo-playing Glaude with the funky, zipperish anthems of Dan’s in a perfect meld of performance and DJ-ing that proved to be the perfect start to an already questionable first day. Standout tracks included new remixes of “Where’s Your Head At?” by the Basement Jaxx and “We Are Your Friends” by Simian vs. Justice.
As Lupe Fiasco kicked off his set with “Kick, Push” to a crushing throng of teenagers, Soulwax took over the dance tent, bedecked in tuxedos, complete with bow ties and cummerbunds, bringing a totally live set of all their best hits, including a powerful shot of “E-Talking”, to the mix. After Lupe was forced to cut his set short due to sound problems, Bloc Party sounded a little weak, with lead singer Keke Okereke's voice straining during tunes such as “Helicopter” and their new single, “Mercury”. However, punk stalwarts The Offspring kept it old school with a bunch crowd favorites such as “Keep 'Em Separated”, “Gotta Get Away”, (my personal favorite) “Gone Away” and “Self Esteem”. Wearing a sailor’s hat and red sequins, Rock n Roll living legend and convicted sex offender Chuck Berry brought the rusty sounds of “Sweet Little Sixteen”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, and “Johnny B. Goode” to a crowd more than half his age with startling accuracy.
With my photo credential scratched for the Foo Fighters, I still decided to enjoy most of their set (unfortunately, exactly at the same time as Jack Johnson AND Underworld), but proved worthy of our time as Dave Grohl and company commanded the crowd, opening with a devastating version of “The Pretender”, then launching right into “Times Like These” and “My Hero”. A solid acoustic version of “Everlong” marked the halfway point in their set before wrapping things up with the powerfully emotional “Best of You”. Of course, I escaped for some time to catch the very last night of Underworld’s U.S. tour, arriving just in time to hear the threesome of Rick Smith, Karl Hyde, and Darren Price perform their beautiful hits “Rez”, “Pearl’s Girl” and “Born Slippy” before a packed tent of smiling faces with hands held high in the air, creating the perfect ending to an eclectic day of great live music.
After a refreshing night’s hotel stay just minutes away (unlike Coachella or Bonnaroo, Virgin Fest has a 10 pm sound curfew and no on-site camping), I was able to make it back bright and early for a healthy dose of Chromeo with my Stella Artois breakfast. Following the two-stepping twosome were Tampa, Florida’s own EDM gods, Rabbit in the Moon. Having seen them perform for more than twelve years, I was dumbfounded by their 1:50 pm middle-of-the-freakin’-day set time. But the Hallucination fellas proved me wrong by bringing the house down with their usual array of performance art machismo and eerie electronic beats. Changing costumes more than Madonna, the blonde dread-locked Bunny had the mostly teenage crowd eating out of his hand, during a stripped-down show highlighted by a crowd member being invited to the stage to don the Makita-grinding steel mask in an overture of raver unity as he yelled out “we are all the same”. Helping the young girl back into the crowd, Bunny then decided to give her the mask as a memento of her obviously mind-blowing experience. Kudos, boys.
But things were just warming up as Paramore’s token hottie Hayley Williams brought her barely-legal brand of pissed-off antics to Baltimore, literally spitting her lyrics out like watermelon seeds, all to the delight of thousands of screaming youngsters. Taking Back Sunday sounded just a tad off, (dare I say) slightly out of key, and never recovered, as lead singer Adam Lazarra jerked around clumsily onstage while his lyrics were mostly unintelligible. But on came Iggy Pop and the Stooges, saving the day on the north stage, and prepping the masses in all his potty-mouthed glory. Forever shirtless and riddled with needle scars, the formerly-known-as James Osterberg slithered and squirmed his way up and down the stage, over the amps and through the woods, as he, Mike Watt (bass), and brothers Ron (guitar) and Scott Asheton (drums) tore through punk classics like “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, “Search and Destroy”, and “Raw Power”.
Meanwhile, back in the dance tent, Deadmau5 (pronounced "Dead mouse" and born Joel Zimmerman in Toronto) donned the tailor made giant Mou5ehead before brandishing some of the hottest beats of the day on his laptop and custom made controller, effects units, and sampling gizmos. For the next two stunning hours he proceeded to force-feed Baltimore…without any cheese. With Richie Hawtin’s minimalist wizardry and Moby’s Old-School progressive anthems right behind, I found it almost impossible to even WANT to wander even remotely from the dance tent.
But the newly revamped and reunited Stone Temple Pilots were calling my almost-40-year-old ass back to the north stage for a stellar 90’s flashback that had everyone playing air guitar and singing along to (literally) every song. Stealing the festival from headliners Nine Inch Nails AND Kanye West, Scott Weiland and company opened their set with “Wicked Garden”, then “Vasoline” and “Plush” as his between-song babbling quickly got cut off by the introduction of yet another hit, one after the other in perfect sync and sounding deadly accurate.
Also this past weekend, attendees could watch a roller derby exhibition match, relax at an oxygen bar, see a circus show or have their hair done up in a funky do. The food was amazing as always, with plenty of crabcake sandwiches and Philadelphia cheesesteaks to feed Darfur. The music is still the centerpiece, but all of these fringe activities help make it more than just a show…they are the ingredients that give the name “festival” credibility.
And as the festival came to a close with Armin Van Buren ripping new life into the thinning dance tent, Trent Reznor could be heard ryming “There's so much drama/ I love my Mama/ I'm pro-Obama” as Kanye West commented to the crowd on the opposite stage. “It's not a rock-and-roll or rap thing, people just love good music.”
- Carl Noone, Jr.