Baltimore City Paper

The Virgin Mobile Festival: Vergin' on a Good Time

By design, the Virgin Mobile Festival aims to present two days of music of roughly equal value; otherwise, they wouldn't charge the same steep fee for a one-day pass either day. But even with big names and small on both days of the festival, there's no accounting for personal taste. And in my personal taste, Day 2 had a far superior bill to Day 1 this year. So I took it easy on Saturday, showing up late to see just a handful of headliners and conserving my energy for a full Sunday. And after a few hellish July weekends spent pounding concrete at street festivals, the grassy fields of Pimlico and unexpectedly cool weather turned the big corporate clusterfuck of a festival into a more pleasant experience than we would've otherwise expected.

While I've never much cared for Wilco, the band went way up in my esteem when the great avant-garde guitarist Nels Cline joined in 2004. Wilco was still kind of boring on the North Stage on Saturday, but occasionally on songs like "Impossible Germany," it let Cline cut loose with a long, gorgeous solo. Either way, it was pretty fun to watch a once obscure figure like Cline play rock star to a festival crowd of thousands.

Over on the South Stage, the Foo Fighters cemented their rep as modern rock's most reliable hitmakers, laying down so many radio staples that they could alternate harder-edged singles such as "The Pretender" and "No Way Out" with lighter fare such as "Learn to Fly" and "Times Like These." And though the band is the definition of tight and workmanlike onstage, they've developed an unfortunate pattern in their live arrangements: playing the bridge of almost every song as a quiet lull, mainly for the purpose of Taylor Hawkins playing fills on some dinky roto-toms before the band roars back to full volume for the last chorus. Still, frontman Dave Grohl was as personable as ever, noting that, as a Washington-area native, Virgin Fest was as close as he'd get to a hometown show in his current tour, and he crammed as many expletives as possible into both his stage patter and a cover of the Who's "Young Man Blues."

Since the festival organizers made the controversial decision to put each night's two headliners onstage at the same time--one North, the other South--we caught just part of the Foo Fighters before heading North to see Jack Johnson, of whom the missus is a fan. ("Bubble Toes" is her ring tone.) The singer/songwriter is by far the least established of this year's headliners, but his good-natured acoustic rock still pulled a good number of people on Saturday for radio hits such as "Flake" and "If I Had Eyes." At one point, Johnson messed up the lyrics to a tune and began improvising new ones: "I don't know the words to my own song/ that was the second verse and this is supposed to be the first." The piano player in his band then helpfully jumped in and sang the verse he couldn't remember. Johnson's pianist also sang lead on another tune later in the set.

On Sunday, I got to Pimlico bright and early to get a full helping of the day's entertainment. After wandering around and disinterestedly sampling bits of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (boring retro rock), The Go! Team (annoying "fun" dance rock), and Chromeo (boring "fun" retro dance), we staked out a spot up front for Shudder to Think on the North Stage. The Washington postpunk act was perhaps the most surprising booking at Virgin this year; after breaking up for a decade, the band had only played a couple of low-key reunion gigs in the past year. And while the festival was full of modern buzz bands and 1990s alt-rock stars, Shudder to Think's one minor radio hit, "X-French Tee Shirt," hardly has the nostalgia cachet of Nine Inch Nails or Stone Temple Pilots.

Aside from singer Craig Wedren and guitarist Nathan Larson, it was unclear who else, if anyone, from the five-piece lineup on Sunday played in Shudder to Think in its original run, but it was still great to hear any incarnation of the band rip through its old songs. Starting with one of its most accessible numbers, "Red House," and then working through some of the strangest and proggiest material from 1994's classic Pony Express Record, STT went over surprisingly well with the emo kids who had gathered in anticipation of Paramore and Taking Back Sunday. Wedren, who seemed to be sporting a look inspired by Rick Ross (white sunglasses, facial hair, shaved head), remains one of the most unique and inimitable frontmen in rock, with his warbling falsetto, impish sense of humor, and bizarrely abstract lyrics.

The aforementioned following act, Paramore, is a group of Tennessee teenagers who released a fantastic pop-punk album last year called Riot! and proceeded to sell a million copies of it. And while many Warped Tour-type bands tend to suck live no matter how slick they sound on record, Paramore turned out to be a pretty tight live unit. Opening with a drastic rearrangement of one of its best songs, "Born for This," with a lengthy instrumental introduction, tiny red-haired frontwoman Hayley Williams finally bounded out to huge applause. It seemed strange when, as the band's set wound down, Williams introduced the band's last song and it wasn't their breakthrough hit "Misery Business." But a few minutes later, she found out that they wouldn't have to cut their set short, and they rolled right through the anthemic track. Afterward, we wandered over to the South Stage to catch another female-fronted act, She and Him. And it was unclear if there was any reason why such a dull, generic indie band that had just released its first album a few months ago should play a big festival opposite a platinum act, other than that the lead singer was movie starlet Zooey Deschanel.

Things ran pretty smoothly and on time for most of the weekend, at least until a couple of tardy acts hit the North and South stages, respectively. And surprise, the culprits were the two guys on the bill most known for being drug-addled fuckups: Lil Wayne and Scott Weiland. Wayne was not only 40 minutes late but managed to anger the audience further by having a DJ spin some of his hits during the delay while his giant entourage stood around onstage, waving at the crowd and acting like they, too, were famous rappers. And when he finally arrived, he used the full hour he'd been allotted anyway, sometimes playing his many hits, sometimes boring everyone to tears with indulgences: babbling about "Lil Weezy's poetry hour," delivering a gruelingly long a cappella song titled "Pussy Monster" while humping the stage, and incompetently twiddling on the guitar he's been playing during concerts since last year. Lil Wayne occasionally trumpeted a "very special guest," only to bring out one of the young rappers who'd been standing on stage the whole time to deliver a verse, like Mack Maine, as if he was known for anything other than working with Lil Wayne. Toward the end of his set, however, Wayne did finally bring out a genuinely famous guest, Kanye West, for the remix of his hit "Lollipop."

Onstage, Lil Wayne constantly paid lip service to his gratitude to fans, ending his performance by saying "10 words: thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you," and then, "three more words," before cuing up the chorus of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" (note: that's five words, not three). But without any word of acknowledgment of his lateness, Wayne came off as unapologetic about his faux pas, or perhaps oblivious. Meanwhile, a number of audience members stood with middle fingers extended for the duration of his set and chanted "fuck Lil Wayne" when the next band, the Black Keys, mentioned the reason they had to play a shorter set than scheduled. Wayne would've done well to note the backlash suffered by his friend when West's set started late at the Bonnaroo festival earlier this summer. Of course, West started a bit late at Virgin as well, but it was generally understood that that was only because Wayne had set the whole South Stage behind schedule.

By comparison, the Stone Temple Pilots were downright considerate about their arrival onstage more than 20 minutes late, managing to end their set right on time anyway. And even though STP played much less than the 75 minutes of music they were scheduled to, including an unnecessary encore break, the band managed to run through nearly all their major hits, peppered with popular album cuts like "Dead and Bloated." Weiland had gotten some unflattering attention for his performances on STP's reunion tour this summer, including an infamous YouTube video from just a week before the Virgin Fest, in which he flubbed lyrics and stumbled backward into Eric Kretz's drums. On Sunday, however, he was on relatively good behavior, lateness aside, making bizarre incoherent remarks between songs but still generally hitting all his marks and singing as well as he ever has. And though STP was a pretty easy band to hate at the height of its popularity in the mid-'90s, it's actually a welcome presence on the festival circuit now, especially with no lame new material to dilute an all-killer-no-filler set list.

The North Stage closed out with the longest set of the festival, nearly two hours from industrial-rock vets Nine Inch Nails. After years of sporadic releases, frontman Trent Reznor has been on quite a prolific streak since cutting loose from the major-label system, releasing two albums directly to the internet in just the last few months. Both releases took up plenty of the band's set, which opened with the blistering anthems "1,000,000" and "Letting You" from The Slip, and featured a lengthy interlude of quieter material from the instrumental Ghosts I-IV in the middle of the show. But there was still plenty of room for all the big hits: "Closer," "Head Like a Whole," and "The Hand That Feeds" all killed, with the band adding subtle, fuzzed-out new textures to the songs' original arrangements. Reznor even looked happy for once, talking about how much fun he was having before joking, "and now, here's a really depressing song" and beginning "Hurt." But simply by virtue of having one of the best-sounding sets and best-looking light shows of the whole weekend, Nine Inch Nails did turn out to be a feel-good closer for the Virgin Mobile Festival.

See this Wednesday's City Paper for Neil Ferguson's take on the festival.