Friday, August 10, 2007

Virgin Festival: Day 1

The North Stage

Festivals are funny things. Upon reading accounts made by festival goers more timely than myself, I've been struck by how, in some cases, it was as if we attended completely disparate events. While the great appeal is the sheer volume of groups playing, there are inevitably divisions, seemingly arbitrary, but pretty effective at slicing up the crowds into thinner demographics. Which is to say, despite the astonishing number of bodies crammed into Pimlico Racetrack, there was a sense of belonging.

We arrived shortly before noon on a sweltering Saturday, allowing for a brisk walk around. I was really impressed with what I saw; aside from the obligatory overpriced food and drink vendors, merch tents and portapotties, there was a slew of charitable organizations, artistic exhibits and, much to everyone’s relief, mist tents. While the density of the schedule and, perhaps more importantly, the neurotic desire to see as many sets as possible dissuaded us from enjoying many of services throughout the festival, it was nice to just collapse in between sets on the continually yellowing grass and take in the spectacle of thousands of people hanging out.

The South Stage

Virgin Festival was partitioned amongst a North Stage, South Stage and Dance Tent, and my two days were pretty much divided amongst two stages. On day one, the Dance Tent ruled the early afternoon, while a slew of bands on the South Stage dominated the evening. With that in mind, we finally found the aforementioned dance tent, which wasn’t so much the labyrinthine temple to rave that I’d envisioned, but a more accessible, daylight-exposed affair.

Shout Out Out Out Out - Dance Tent, 12:00 - 12:50

What an awesome way to kick things off. Shout Out Out Out Out was energetic from the onset, with vocoder-warped vocals and two drummers approximating the band somewhere between Tussle and Battles. Those synth effects that I love so dearly snarled and twisted their way through an entirely danceable affair while beach balls - a constant during the festival - bounced merrily throughout the crowd. If the band was fatigued from playing NYC the night before, they didn't show it, as their dual drummers offered upraised and twirled drumsticks when they weren't busy pounding away on their kits, a stadium-sized gesture that the scrappy group made their own. The band was very personable, thanking the crowd throughout the set and offering both self-deprecating remarks ("I work in a basement in Canada and get about ten hours of sunlight a year…this is my first time wearing a tank top since I was a fetus”) and water bottles. Speaking of vocals, there was something really tonally pleasing about their robotic delivery, with lines such as "You all need to simplify" taking on a technological anonymity that was infectious. Great set.

Check out B(oot)log for a live session from the band.

MySpace: Shout Out Out Out Out
Official Site: Shout Out Out Out Out

Miguel Migs / Petalpusher - Dance Tent, 1:00 - 1:50

I wasn't sure what to expect from the ambiguously billed Miguel Migs aka Petalpusher, but I figured sticking around in the Dance Tent couldn't be a bad idea. Far from the solitary DJ I was anticipating, the octet were introduced as a plural Petalpushers, included a pianist and two vocalists. Judging from the credits of the recent Those Things, I believe they were Lisa Shaw and Junior Reid. Miguel was on the bass, but this was a singer-driven set, based around the soulful deliveries of Lisa and Junior. The crowd didn’t dance so much as swoon along to these sunny, smooth tracks, and in retrospect, this set was among the most melodic of the festival. While there’s no shortage of lounge-friendly groups such as Zero 7, Thievery Corporation and, of course, the immortal Massive Attack, there’s a reason they’re fixtures at these festivals. I think something would be lacking if there wasn’t a chilled out group at a summer event, and Petalpusher(s) filled that role nicely. I was very pleasantly surprised.

MP3: Petalpusher - Rely On Me (Aquanote's Vocal Voyage)
MP3: Petalpusher - Surrender
MySpace: Miguel Migs

Booka Shade - Dance Tent, 2:00 - 2:50

After seeing bands with six and eight members respectively, it was refreshing to see the sleek minimalism of the duo Booka Shade. The group set up in all its German technological glory with a set of electronic drums stage right, and various programming stuff on the left, much of which was wrapped in LCD-enriched material. The screen behind the band broadcasted suitably abstract images, but Walter Merziger was really the visual spectacle of the set, as he banged on the drums as if he was auditioning for a punk band. The songs from Movements, so atmosphere in their album forms, churned away with massive bass and crunching percussion, but still retained their ghostly qualities thanks to the various effects on top of the beats. The crowd lived up to the album title, making an experience that my friend Rebecca would later describe as “intense” (not to mention in tents). One of the best electronica sets I’ve ever witnessed, mainly because it broke out of the introverted confines of what we expect in a DJ set.

After three plus hours of dancing (in the loosest sense of the word), we exited stage left and took a load off in view of the South Stage. As I recall, it was actually around 3:15 when we actually got out, and Paolo Nutini was in the midst of his set. While he seemed to be a more than capable performer, I can’t say his material made much of an impression on me. We would eventually make our way around the festival, and then started our residence at the South Stage for the remainder of the day.

Peter Bjorn and John - South Stage, 4:00 - 4:50

PB&J performed a set that highlighted the band at its loudest and softest moments. “Amsterdam” was sung virtually acapella, while closer “Up Against The Wall” provided for a cathartic, fuzzed out finale. The highlight was, of course, “Young Folks” (which a fellow audience described as “the song that everyone knows”) in which the lack of female vocal was compensated with a three-part harmony towards the end, as well as with the incorporation of bongos. Apparently Nikki from Silversun Pickups sang during their Lollapalooza set, which is all sorts of awesome.

MP3: Peter Bjorn and John - KEXP at SXSW 2007 Set
Official Site: Peter Bjorn and John

The South Stage was decidedly the smaller of the two, and while my earlier impressions were that getting close would be difficult, there was a surprisingly yielding crowd. While there’s no way to determine the ratio of diehard fans and curious newcomers, I think it’s safe to assume there was a fair bit of both. The Dance Tent was more or less dominated by people that wanted to get down, with deserters generally sidling out unnoticed among the constantly in-motion floor. On the other hand, there wasn’t nearly as much room on the outdoor side of things, and I generally contented myself with head bobbing, foot-tapping, and if I was feeling adventurous , shoulder tilting (not to say I was doing much more in the Dance Tent). Anyways, when someone wanted to leave, he or she had to really wind through the crowd, usually as the people standing behind tried to force their way forward. As the majority of my time has been spent in single-stage, enclosed venues, the possibility of anyone leaving their spot is generally remote, so this was a bit different.

LCD Soundsystem - South Stage, 5:30 - 6:30
LCD Soundsystem had what was probably my favorite set from Day 1. Their music is really suited towards this setting, and while the epic length of many of their tracks might have devolved into a jam session, James Murphy’s affected delivery and the band’s overall tightness kept things focused. Most of my favorites were present, including “Tribulations,” “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House,” and “North American Scum,” although I would’ve killed for some “Disco Infiltrator” or, even more indulgently, “Losing My Edge.” But as fun as all those songs were, it was “All My Friends” that really made the biggest impression. I’ve generally viewed LCD Soundsystem as a fun, really technically excellent group, but “All My Friends” conveyed a sense of emotion that really hadn’t come across in the albums. While its lengthy chorus makes for a grandiose live statement, the very real emotions of uncertainty and longing weren’t just danceable, but downright moving. Incidentally, James Murphy has to be one of the most unflappable guys ever; his dialogue pretty much consisted of introducing the bassist over and over, and mentioning that the Beastie Boys were playing over the North Stage. Gotta love hipsters.

Official Site: LCD Soundsystem

TV on the Radio - South Stage 7:15 - 8:15

Respecting a band is one thing; liking a band is arbitrary. This is going to come off as a list of disclaimers, but realize that I think TV on the Radio is a very worthy group, that they’re doing something interesting, unique and deserving of critical appreciation, and Return To Cookie Mountain is one of the better albums from last year. Having said all that, I’m still not to the point where I really enjoy them. Call me easy, but I really go for slick hooks and snazzy beats, while TV on the Radio offers something a little more…intricate.
Nonetheless, I had high hopes for this live set. I was blown away by their Letterman appearance, and “Wolf Like Me” was suitably gratifying, and “Staring At The Sun” was a great closer. But I didn’t find what happened in between to be that compelling. There were nice moments, as when the band invited a bunch of people on stage to help out, including a member of Dragons of Zynth and my friend Maria, but I remain on the fence about this band.

MySpace: TV on the Radio
Official Site: TV on the Radio

Modest Mouse - South Stage, 8:45 - 10:00

Frown. There were a few things going against MoMo here: the band was fifteen minutes late, which isn’t so terrible, but on top of the half hour in between sets and the increasingly excruciating combination of ankle injuries and air pollution, I wasn’t feeling too open minded. Music has incredible rejuvenating qualities, and I found myself responding to the two-drummer kick and the anthemic – if inscrutable – vocals at the beginning of the set. However, after the high point of “Float On,” the band became mired in a couple of slow burners, and Isaac Burker’s lack of melody became increasingly tiresome. I felt a twinge of guilt, but figured I had gotten plenty out of the rest of the day, and we made our exit, winding our way through the crowd as the band played on.

MySpace: Modest Mouse
Official Site: Modest Mouse

Ending aside, one of the greatest days of musical consumption in my life. Day two would be even more awesome, so stay tuned.


mjrc said...

great reviews, roland! i love your honesty. : )

Anonymous said...

You speak of Miguel Migs (aka Petalpusher) as if he may continue to exist now that you have retracted your cynicism. As if the middle-aged (and in her prime) Lisa Shaw was holding her breath! Well ten years ago Migs was a god of underground deep house too, and you might have been what, 8-9 years old? Do some homework beyond MTV emo hour before you yap away little puppy...

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