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A Day At The Track

Virgin Mobile Fest, Pimlico Race Course, Aug. 9-10

Frank Hamilton
Iggy Pop feels the raw power at the Virgin Festival.

By Neil Ferguson | Posted 8/13/2008

First things first, this is most definitely not your average jam band hippie fest. Indeed, it seems hard to pinpoint exactly whom this festival is aimed at, with its weird, disconcerting mix of the old (Nine Inch Nails), the ancient (Chuck Berry), and the presumed dead (Stone Temple Pilots). And whoever decided to bill a back-to-back lineup of Bob Dylan and Kanye West is either a stone-cold genius or quite possibly on the strongest hallucinogens known to man.

Arriving at Pimlico on Saturday, part of this cultural schizophrenia is embodied by a large truck, situated next to the dance tent, providing nonstop PlayStation 3 thrills--which begs the question, Who in the name of holy fuck comes to a festival to play computer games? The mind boggles. What's more, said truck is crammed with an overwhelmingly male clientele who obviously lack meaningful social skills and a sense of adventure, and quite possibly have an aversion to personal hygiene.

Meanwhile, over on the South Stage, Gogol Bordello proves that it is, in essence, the perfect festival band--its manic collision of Russian-Gypsy-punk-folk madness is just the thing to kick-start an early afternoon crowd. It careens through a set that recalls nothing less than an unholy mix of the Clash, the Pogues, and the wedding scene from The Deer Hunter: a triumph from a band that you feel would be equally at home playing sweaty dives, bar mitzvahs, and enormo-domes.

In complete contrast, on the North Stage, the Swell Season is going through the motions of an interminably dull-but-worthy acoustic set. It's enough to make a grown man cry--it frequently makes the likes of Coldplay sound like Mastodon.

The sight of Maryland Lottery vendors only further compounds this ongoing depression. The Lottery. At a festival. This is starting to make the infamous Woodstock '99 look like the last gasp of the Aquarian age. Fortunately, sanity and solace are provided by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, an unashamedly retro soul revue--moonlighting as Amy Winehouse's backing band--who manage to veer away from pastiche through sheer raw talent and chutzpah. Plus, Jones herself is nothing short of a force of nature, a pocket-rocket "110 pounds of pure soul." Why isn't she bigger? Oh, yeah--she isn't a photogenic, crack-addled, white English tabloid train wreck. Oh well.

My god, is the Offspring still a going concern? Apparently it is, and suddenly it's 1998 all over again, and the crowd is in rapture. Credit where credit's due, the Offspring do exactly what's expected of it, and all around it's (aging) frat boy heaven. Midway through its patented set of SoCal pop-punk, singer Dexter Holland exclaims, "Baltimore's sexy! Not only am I gonna get laid tonight, we're all gonna get laid tonight!" Hell yeah! Two thousand bankers-in-waiting collectively come in their supersized pants while their assorted girlfriends give an almighty collective shrug. I'm now reminded why I hate this band so very, very much.

One of the great things about festivals is that the old, the infirm, and the terminally uncool are given a chance to redeem themselves in front of a field of sunburnt youngsters. On this occasion, however, Chuck Berry blows it. Despite his advancing years, his voice still holds up, but performance-wise, he's all over the place, out of tune, sloppy, and you rather suspect he doesn't give a shit. Still, when you consider his status as one of the great pop poets of the 20th century, why should he?

Likewise, on Sunday, Bob Dylan's set does nothing whatsoever to redeem his musical reputation--although it's safe to say the assorted Bobheads here would vigorously disagree, such is the reverence they afford him. Dylan's band is watertight, resembling a bunch of hired gunslingers, and Dylan does his whole enigmatic genius shtick, but all around you can see looks of bewilderment on younger fans faces as they try desperately to play Guess that old-time classic needlessly butchered and bastardized beyond belief.

It's left then to a bunch of (relatively) fresh-faced kids and a manic old pro to save the day. The Go! Team's deranged blend of (deep breath) the theme tunes from Sesame Street, The A-Team, Charlie Brown, block party beats, double-dutch chants, and Evol-era Sonic Youth guitar squall, with two drummers (just because they can), is nothing short of inspired. And it makes being in a band look like the most fun ever, and that's no mean feat.

But it's Iggy Pop and the re-formed Stooges who truly destroy the crowd, leaving them all panting for more. Pop remains an absolute force of nature; he should be carved into Mount Rushmore. He's part chimp, part ungainly fawn, part gibbering loon, and he's adored for it. He invades the crowd, he grins, snarls, shimmies, and twists like a demented ballerina, with a body fashioned, apparently, by a severe regime of "daily tai chi and vigorous sexual intercourse." And he's older than your dad. It's an absolute master class in barely controlled mayhem and the undisputed highlight of the weekend.

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