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The New-ish Breed

Virgin Festival, Pimlico Race Course, Aug. 4 and 5

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Amy Winehouse

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 8/8/2007

The real story at this year's Virgin Festival was not--despite what the dailies would have you believe--the oldies acts such as the Police, Wu-Tang Clan, the Beastie Boys, Cheap Trick, and the Smashing Pumpkins. Far more interesting were those bands that have released important new rock albums since last year's fest. The question was whether Amy Winehouse, Fountains of Wayne, Spoon, Modest Mouse, and LCD Soundsystem could reproduce the magic of their studio sessions in the saunalike conditions of an August weekend in Baltimore.

Winehouse didn't even try. Sporting a towering bouffant that could have won her the Miss Honfest title on 36th Street, the British R&B singer halfheartedly mumbled her way through the same songs that had crackled with such drama on her breakthrough Back to Black album. Even her band was infected by the singer's ennui; they regularly drifted off-key.

Fountains of Wayne did a good job of re-creating their savvy new disc, Traffic and Weather, but it didn't really matter. Singer-guitarist Chris Collingwood and bassist-producer Adam Schlesinger rely too much on the kind of ironic lyrics and subtle harmonic shifts that get lost when you're playing on a cavernous stage before a meadow of sunbaked kids at lunchtime. The quintet saved its biggest hit, "Stacy's Mom," for an encore that never materialized.

Spoon called out its former bassist, Oranges Band frontman Roman Kuebler, to help sing "Lines in the Suit" and "The Fitted Shirt." But the older songs sprinkled through the set merely highlighted the great leap forward the Texas quartet has taken on its new album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Lead singer Britt Daniel is writing sharper melodies and lyrics, and keyboardist Eric Harvey is fleshing them out with surprising chords.

In fact, it often sounded as if Spoon was two different bands onstage. Daniel led a garage-rock trio that pounded out simple, catchy songs such as "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb" and "Don't Make Me a Target." Just as each number started to get repetitive--as garage rock always does--the one-man band known as Harvey would jump in with piano or synth parts that stretched the harmonies and gave the song new life. He couldn't fully re-create the horn and string parts that made the studio versions so dizzying, but he came close with his synth samples.

Johnny Marr of the Smiths was there at stage right when Modest Mouse closed out the first day, and he added sparkling guitar fills and vocal harmonies, but there was never any doubt that this was still Isaac Brock's band. Standing at stage left in a railroad engineer's cap and scraggly reddish beard, the singer-songwriter often sounded as if he were strangling on the contradictions when he sang the verses of his songs. Just as often, however, his throat would clear and he'd lead the band--and sometimes the audience--in a tuneful, optimistic chorus.

It was a brilliant bit of rock 'n' roll tension and release, and songs such as "Fire It Up," "Dashboard," and "We've Got Everything" were even more stirring live than they were on the recent album We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. With two guitarists and two drummers on every song--and sometimes two bassists--Modest Mouse created this odd doubling effect, where the same instruments played parts that went in and out of sync, thus echoing the tying and untying of the knots in Brock's voice.

The biggest revelation of the weekend, though, was LCD Soundsystem. The band's latest album, Sound of Silver, was an impressive bit of electronica, but the quintet surpassed that achievement on the Pimlico stage. For one thing, the live instruments were more prominent, commenting on the programmed beats with smart, stimulating variations.

But mostly, it was James Murphy, unshaven and wearing a sweat-drenched white T-shirt, stepping forward as a great rock 'n' roll singer. On an epic arrangement of "All My Friends," his song about the great dreams and poor follow-through of his pals, his yearning tenor pushed through the jittery beats as if he could will his friends into action.

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