Virgin Fest 2008 Review: Saturday

I was not expecting too much from the Saturday line-up, and this proved to be true. Indeed, I was not expecting too much from Virgin Festival at all, aside from a few select acts.

It would also be the first large-scale music festival since my early-to-mid teens years spent at HFStivals. Oh, how I was enamored by what I saw then, and how annoyed by most of what I saw now. Was it a function of maturation, or have things really gone that down hill since I was 14?

It would also be the first “mainstream” show I had attended in some years. I anticipated the crowd being radically different than what I was used to seeing–not really a value judgment, just an objective assumption. I also realized how much I have changed since freshman year of high school, both in regards to musical taste, and also life outlook.

Just for shit-and-giggles I dressed Saturday to blend in with the crowd. Not that I’m super fashionable in the first place, but I thought it would be nostalgic fun to don the old high school lacrosse practice singlet (get the pun? You would if you went to my high school). It turns out this was the goddamn uniform for the large portion of guys in attendance (if they were wearing shirts at all). It made me feel really old when kids asked me what year I graduated, I answered, and they looked at me like I’m old. Then they asked me to buy them beer. In all fairness I remember being 16 and thinking early twenties was old, too.

I arrived at the start of the Gogol Bordello set. In theory I would love this band, with their multi-ethnic gypsy punk background. But in practice they have always failed to impress me as much as I feel they should. Some may consider this an unfair comparison, but for my money Manu Chao blows Eugene Hutz and crew out of the world music/eclectic-punk water.

I would have expected a larger band for Gogol Bordello. They seemed spread out across the large South Stage, and not just spatially, but sonically as well. Some music requires space, but density favors Gogol Bordello. Also, the music seemed slightly out of context. I imagine that Gogol Bordello would be incredible to see in a small venue, one where the band and audience are compacted together. But Virgin Festival was setup with the arena rock paradigm in mind, and this left front man Eugene Hutz largely unable to engage the crowd as one could as a gypsy band playing in a tavern.

Hutz seemed to like a caged animal in front of a crowd at the zoo–so much explosive wild animal power, reduced to pacing back and forth, jumping up and down, and an occasional roar. In a display of what he could be capable of doing, he mocked chocked both his female backup singers as they screamed. Some may call this misogyny, but I think it was all to play up his image a shirtless, mustached wild man. Still, that energy never spilled over into the audience, and the performance floundered short of an all out gypsy mayhem.

I thought Lupe Fiasco would be the sleeper hit of V Fest. His recorded material is strong, and I somehow had the notion that he would be an endearing performer. One thing that irked me right off the bat was his backing band. Why does so much of hip-hop opt for large, cumbersome bands with that glossy studio sheen now? I much prefer my beats from a drum machine, an mpc, or from a DJ. When did hip-hop need live guitars? I was secretly hoping Lupe would forgo this recent trend, and go for a more classic approach–which would be keeping with his whole shtick. “Kick, Push” lost a great deal of meaning when presented in this manner. I would think a song about skateboarding would stick close to that DIY aesthetic.

The big fiasco came when Lupe’s monitors went out, then the mic. He was becoming visibly frustrated, and seemed a little uncertain what to do. The off-the-cuff crowd interaction was forced (not that I could do better, but I’m not on stage, nor get paid the money he gets). He muttered some things without the mic next to his mouth, but I’m almost certain it was “I’m not coming back here. I’m never coming back to this place.” Whoa.

When things finally did get situated, Lupe seemed to snap back into it. He began to sing a cappella the lyrics of “Daydreamin’,” which features a sample and lyrical quote from “Daydream in Blue” by I Monster (which, itself, samples from “Daydream” by the Gunter Kallman Choir, which is in fact a cover done of the Wallace Collection original. Whew.) Lupe had a point. Saturday was a beautiful day, no doubt about it. And whatever criticism of V Fest, or V Fest performers I had, I could be calmed by the fact that I a). wasn’t paying for the tickets, and b). It was a beautiful fucking day, one we normally don’t get in August.

On to Bloc Party. I think it is the nature of their dance-y pop brand of music that it will always be at least pleasant, but then again, rarely amazing. Up to this point in the day Bloc Party seemed the most genuine in their obligatory claims to “Love Baltimore!” “We love being here!” “We had steamed crabs last night!” Kele Okereke did a good job of getting the crowd to move. I’m sure a lot of 17 year-old girls that watch MTVu and listen to XMU had a grand time. In all honesty, I kind of enjoyed myself too.

Aside from popping in the dance tent for a couple minutes (DJ Dan and Donald Glaude aren’t worth mentioning) almost all my time was spent at the South Stage. For Rodrigo y Gabriella I made my first trek to the North Stage. This act turned out to be the gem of the day.

I loved their single “Tamacun,” but had never ventured a further listen. I think it may have been the fact that there are only two people in the group, the North Stage was much less crowded, and also that Rodrigo and Gabriella were seated so close to the edge of the stage, but it all felt oddly intimate for an out door festival.

The duo hung around the stage tuning their guitars, then left to make their grand entrance. The crowd was actually going crazy, and let out a roar when Rodrigo and Gabriella stepped back on stage. They immediately tore into a fast rhythmic set on their classical guitars. Keep in mind these two met while playing in a metal band, so this ain’t Manuel Barrueco.

Rodrigo Sanchez plays lead guitar with a pick, while Gabriella Quintero plays rhythm. She strums downward with her fingernails, then muting fast with the palm of her hand. This is all done in a blurred motion because her hand is moving so fast. Gabriella is truly the highlight of the show.

I can’t stress how much this music makes you want to move. Polyrhythms abound in a way almost too complex for just two people with only guitars. Rodrigo would break away from picking, and begin drumming on his guitar, while Gabriella would provide a strong 4/4 with the palm of her hand (the guitar were amped-up, and the sound carried through the speakers was as deep and pounding as anything coming from the dance tent that day!). She would also go into quick strumming to stress certain beats more.

A large portion of my family is involved in horse breeding and training, so I grew up at Pimlico (the venue for Virgin Festival) taking horse on training runs around the track. To listen to Rodrigo y Gabriella made me think of the metaphor of a horse hitting his stride in that first straightaway, then the exhilaration of rocketing around the final turn. The horse loves it; absolutely loves it, and only wants to go faster. I thought of Rodrigo and Gabriella as Thoroughbreds thundering through the set, and being true musicians, they loved every second of it. The amount of power behind the group also calls to mind a horse, even from slim Gabriella. And to continue the horse imagery, Gabriella could be the dam to my foal any day.

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