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Popped Cherry

Jefferson Jackson Steele
BEEN HERRE: Gnarls Barkley's Cee-Lo is off to the races

By Jess Harvell | Posted 9/27/2006

Virgin Fest

Pimlico Race Course, Sept. 23

Outdoor festivals are horrible. No one wants to spend 10 hours at Pimlico baking in the sun. No one wants to see some dude projectile vomit his pit beef during the climax of the Killersí set. No one wants to spend $7 on a Bacardi "Raz" so they can be girl-drink drunk at 6 p.m. watching two teenagers freaking each other to Thievery Corporation. No one wants to see ugly America sprawled over a muddy field like so many pale, sweaty, shirtless manatees.

And yet thereís something appealing about them, too. Even sunburned and shell-shocked, Virgin Fest was fun. A few times, the fun was even related to music. Maybe itís just the "mass" in mass culture, but (very) occasionally itís nice being in a big, shouty crowd at the lung-shredding, guitar-smashing height of a stadium-sized rock show. The problem was that the crowd spent most of the day slumped in inflatable chairs. Attendance felt thin, even with the half-hour lines at the ATM and at least one hair-pulling slap fight in response to line-cutting at the porta-potties.

In England, people still flock to these things, and maybe thatís what made benignly obnoxious billionaire Richard Branson think he could export his hit festival to the States. But this past Saturday proved two rules that someone as well traveled as Branson should have already known: 1) America ainít England, and 2) The í90s are long over, though some days youíd have a hard time proving it in court.

Now, weíre in an economic downturn, and music sales are in the toilet no matter what the genre. But surely the lineup had something to do with the crowds at V-Fest, or the lack thereof. The headliners were the Who and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, two geriatric touring acts with built-in sales potential. The rest of the festival, spread across two stages and a DJ tent that smelled like a petting zoo filled with boiled spinach, was neither outright indie-rock nor superstar pop-rock. Which raised questions such as: How many more tickets would have been sold if Jack White had shown up with Meg instead of Brendan Benson? And, do you want to see the Drive-By Truckers burn through a rave-up cover of "People Who Died" up close and personal in a club or while taking a swing at the official Virgin Fest batting cages? And, what would it be like if Mojo magazine had sponsored this yearís state fair?

Virgin Fest at least gets an A+ for people watching. There was the beefy ex-wrestler in the homemade jack white is my homeboy T-shirt. A gentleman was on a mission to tell every Charm City Roller Girl he could find that he wanted to "sniff [her] tattoo." And a guy in a Skeletor costume danced to Tom Jones in the "Freak Lounge." If you got bored, you could amuse yourself with the stream of visitor-sent text messages scrolling across the big stage--thanks, Virgin Mobile--like "Grandma, I want to marry you" and "Tard, will you to go to the prom with me, love Maggie."

But címon, there was way too much going on to get bored. At one point a troupe of Heidis traipsed by in full lederhosen as an airplane circled overhead with a banner flapping behind it reading save a horse . . . ride a virgin. Even the beer vendors and the guy selling the $20 airbrushed trucker hats seemed a little dazed by it all.

And hey, there was music, too--if you, you know, felt like it. Even if the sound was terrible, a tinnabulating hiss that actually got better the further away you got from the stage. At least the outfits and the ADD camerawork of the guys operating the jumbotrons almost made up for it. Gnarls Barkley bounded onstage as the cast of the disco musical version of Ben Hur. The crowd screamed for "Crazy" and got more beer during the album cuts. Hey, thatís an iPod world for you. The Killers managed to get people singing along for a record three songs, and even with Brandon Flowers rocking the look of a Deadwood extra, complete with little Snidely Whiplash moustache, they were the best band of the day. (Despite the vomit.)

But the second stage was a steady stream of homely looking/sounding indie-rock bands--whether the manic Steven Wright look-alike fronting Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, whose yelping take on Crazy Rhythms was one of the dayís purely musical highlights, or the doughy boys of the New Pornographers, who were downright sluggish and without an ounce of the bounce that makes them so enjoyable on record. Of course, you could see these bands on any stage in town with better acoustics and fewer assholes. This was just an odd flashback to those heady days when corporations actually thought they could sell ex-library assistants and grown-up record store clerks to millions of people.

Whether it was the Pavlovian response of 2,000 white people to the opening bars of "Blue Monday" or Wolfmotherís generic grunge (which shouldnít even be dignified with a Sabbath reference), you got not just a ticket with your $97.50 but also a pass to a 1995 that promised to never end. (Old-school Pearl Jam and Nirvana T-shirts were very popular, and even the DJ tent was manned by elderly trance dudes like TiŽsto and Digweed.) Virgin Fest was Lollapalooza stripped of that festivalís even half-assed attempts at challenging its audience.

And like the format change at WHFS last year, and like the several abortive attempts to get Lollapalooza going again, Virgin Fest was like watching í90s alt-rock culture stagger around on a couple lame legs waiting for someone to take it behind the shed. Meanwhile, Pimlico still easily draws more people for the Preakness--well, ponies are more interesting than the Flaming Lips--meaning maybe somebody should put this nag out of its misery already. Still, you want to see something like Virgin Fest succeed in Baltimore. Maybe next year Iíll finally get to meet MTVís John Norris. Lord knows I tried.

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