Live Review: Virgin Mobile Festival 2008

It was a weekend filled with neon sunglasses, booty shorts, and inappropriately shirtless dudes. Thankfully, it was also a weekend filled with really fucking spectacular performances. The Virgin Mobile Festival was my second festival of the year, and while it was not the cleanest, hippest, most enjoyable (hi, Coachella, the apple of mine festival-going eye) of festivals, it did manage to surprise me, more often than not in a good way.

Saturday was more of a warm-up than anything else. My friend Laura and I arrived late in the afternoon, and headed immediately to the dance tent for Soulwax. The band dazzled in their white suits with black Colonel Sanders ties, not to mention their voluminously beatific songs. The dance tent, which would prove infinitely entertaining for various reasons, was enthralled, and so was I. But Soulwax was just the start. After wandering around, we settled with pizza and flashed back to the 90s while sitting and somewhat listening to the Offspring. It was at that moment where for the first time (yet not the last) that weekend I felt like I was back at RFK Stadium for one of the HFStivals I attended all those years ago. Which isn’t, by the way, necessarily a good thing.

The reverie of retrospective reminiscence was short-lived, as the Silver Beats soon Beatlemania’d themselves onto the stage in their matching skinny ties and suits. The Japanese Beatles were delightful, making their way through “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band,” “Daytripper,” “Drive My Car,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” “Get Back,” “Come Together,” and “Back in the U. S. S. R.,” with studied yet gleeful diligence. They were a pleasure to see, but when Chuck Berry didn’t appear, we headed over to the North Stage to take our places for Wilco (later we found out that Berry did about a 20-minute set, after the Silver Beats went through a full set of their own). Oh, and speaking of Wilco, just in case you were wondering they were sublime. As a casual fan, one who hadn’t ever seen them live before, I was really blown away. I just tried to stand there (and after a few songs, sit there) and soak in what I was witnessing. And that was a very nice green blazer, Mr. Tweedy.

The last action of Day One took us back to where we had begun, the dance tent. It was packed, and for good reason, as Underworld was about to begin. I’m a casual Underworld fan at best, knowing them for the most part for “Born Slippy (Nuxx),” which anyone who has seen “Trainspotting” would instantly recognize. Mouthpiece Karl Hyde shimmied and bounced his way around the stage in his outlandishly sparkly jacket, as the beats kept on coming and the ground heaved with the swirl of dancers. After a few songs we left, just in time to see Dave Grohl’s face on the South Stage jumbotron as the Foo Fighters played to the masses.

Day Two was daunting, fantastic, grueling, and one hell of a day. It began at 10:45 in the morning, when we slowly made our way to the North Stage for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s noon set. I’m not sure about the state of affairs in the world when BRMC plays earlier in the day than Paramore, and don’t even get me started about certain rappers going on after Bob Dylan. Black Rebel’s Robert (whom I saw wandering around amongst the masses several times over the course of the day) quipped that he had “never been up this early before,” and he wasn’t “gonna make a habit of it.” In the interest of not gushing too much, and since there’s so much else to write about, I will merely write here what I had written in my notes about their set: fucking amazing. Those of us who were there saw something really special. Here’s what they played: “666 Conducer,” “Weapon of Choice,” “Berlin,” “Shuffle Your Feet,” “Ain’t No Easy Way,” “Salvation,” “Six Barrel Shotgun,” “Spread Your Love,” and the added bonus, since they had a few extra minutes, “Whatever Happened to My Rock & Roll.”

I had just enough time to pick my jaw up off the dusty, grassy field when Shudder to Think took the stage. Basically, it was too much goodness to early in the day. My brain almost couldn’t handle that much ridiculously wonderful rock. Shudder to Think sounded great, and once more I felt like I was seeing something rather special. We migrated over to the South Stage for some Andrew Bird next, and please pardon me for sounding like a broken record but Bird and his band were also dynamite.

One of the biggest, most pleasant surprises to me was due up immediately after Andrew Bird, in the form of the Zooey Deschanel/M. Ward pairing She & Him. To quote the Kills, they absolutely fried my little brains. Live Deschanel’s voice takes on an almost Patsy Cline-esque quality, far more so than on their album, and I found myself hanging on her every note (not to mention coveting her adorable royal blue frock). After She & Him, it was over to the overpriced food for some expensive yet rather tasty quesadillas. We took refuge in the dance tent, and sat in the shade while Deadmau5 caused the tent to rattle for quite some time.

And then it was time, time for what I would say was almost definitely my set of the weekend: Iggy & the Stooges. It was insane. Iggy tried to incite stage invaders, but the security staff successfully rebuffed all but one intruder. “TV Eye,” “1969,” “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” and my favorite “No Fun,” were all shredded and elicited roars of approval from those of us who appreciated what we were seeing. Iggy Pop thrashed, pirouetted, and contorted his way around the stage, just as one might expect. And it was, ladies and gentlemen, breathtaking.

The Black Keys, as good as they were, just couldn’t fully capture my attention, sandwiched as they were between the Stooges and Bob Dylan (with a slight stopover in the dance tent to see Moby’s smiling face). Dylan was, well, not the same Dylan of yore. The voice definitely sounds worse for wear, but being in the presence of his greatness was honestly good enough for me. He could have gargled for an hour and I probably would have been in awe. I couldn’t believe how many people left during his set, and it vexed me considerably. But it just goes to show that some people have no taste.

The final set of my festival experience nearly knocked the Stooges off the top of the heap. A very, very impressive Nine Inch Nails set was the perfect way to end the weekend. They were shockingly good. I’d seen them live once before, a few years ago, so I knew they were good. But Mr. Reznor and his cohorts really outdid themselves this time. Besides gaping at how hot Reznor is these days, we were also rendered speechless by an hour of NIN attacking their songs, and playing them with power and authority that it was hard not to be captivated. They were the epitome of showmanship, and it was only the thought of the long drive back to Richmond that tore us away.

All in all, the performances by the band (and the gorgeous weather) were the saving graces of the weekend. There were many things about the Virgin Mobile Festival that left a lot to be desired (the mess, the fighting, the scheduling of bands, etc.), but as far as the music goes, the weekend was a success. But while he might have been knighted, Sir Richard Branson’s Baltimorean folly has a long way to go before it reaches the spectacular heights of a festival like Coachella.


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