No blockbuster, but it still rocks

The Baltimore Sun

For an all-day outdoor "music extravaganza" with two stages and a tent blaring kinetic, wildly eclectic rock, the Virgin Festival by Virgin Mobile at Pimlico Race Course yesterday felt surprisingly laid back. This was especially true before the sun went down. Sure, there was some crowd surfing at the front of the main stage, but that's no big deal.

Walking through the crowd of teens and college-age students, with baby boomers sprinkled here and there, you had to be careful not to step on people sprawled out sleeping on the grass. There were groups kicking around Hacky Sacks, and circles openly passing around a little herbal refreshment, which was easy to do because security wasn't too heavy. Some just strolled around talking on cell phones, completely oblivious to The Raconteurs, one of the better acts and perhaps the loudest on the main stage during the early part of the afternoon.

You would have expected the pitch to be a bit more feverish, given that this is the first time the Virgin Festival has come to the United States and is stopping only in Baltimore. About 40,000 tickets were sold altogether, nearly 5,000 of them yesterday, organizers said. (The capacity for the festival was 60,000.) The event featured more than 20 acts on three stages.

So the Virgin Festival wasn't the blockbuster promoters were hoping it would be. But for the most part, the performances on the main stage were professional and energetic.

Gnarls Barkley was the most visually appealing act. The 11-piece band -- based on the collaboration of eccentric Southern rapper-singer Cee-Lo and musician-producer Danger Mouse -- was outfitted in Roman get-ups: white togas and sandals. Cee-Lo was decked out as a Roman warrior with headgear and faux gold body armor. After a short instrumental intro of Queen's "We Are the Champions," Barkley slid into a succinct set of ingratiating, if slightly paranoid, songs from its uneven debut, St. Elsewhere.

Although the band brought more raw energy to the songs on stage, Barkley didn't expand much. The numbers blew in and out, which was probably for the best because none of the tunes on the album matches the immediacy of "Crazy," the ubiquitous summer pop hit.

Underpinned by Danger Mouse's atmospheric, unobtrusive work on the keyboards, Barkley's set resonated with nervy beats and eerie strings.

Cee-Lo's Otis Redding-meets-Bobby Womack vocals pushed the New Wave-influenced grooves and were especially expressive on the fun, slightly funky cover of the Greenhornes' "There Is an End."

The Who, the marquee rock legends on the grandstand stage, came on as the afternoon turned to a pleasingly mild evening. Lead singer Roger Daltrey, 62, and guitarist Pete Townshend, 61, are not the aggressive, explosive rockers they were in the 1960s. (Do you really expect them to be?) But the two still laid down powerful music. Though he's a bit slower these days, Townshend still does his windmill thing on the guitar, churning out fiery chords. Daltrey isn't the cocky rocker he once was, and his voice reveals some wear and tear, straining on the high notes. The early part of the band's set was dominated by excellent renditions of cuts from 1971's masterful Who's Next: "Baba O'Riley" rocked hard as drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr's son) gave the skins a brutal beating toward the end. And "Behind Blue Eyes" received a more muscular groove. The Who will release its first album in 24 years Oct. 31. Last night, the guys previewed a few cuts between the classics. And while Daltrey and Townshend haven't lost their fire, the new material offers few revelations.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers closed the Virgin Festival's grandstand stage with a high-octane performance with generous instrumental solos. The trend-setting California band has been making records for 22 years now, folding elements of funk and punk into its pop-glossed rock blend. As the quartet blazed through the hits, it was clear that none of the verve is gone. The guys sound more assured these days.

Jumping around the stage, charismatic lead vocalist Anthony Kiedis, 43, looked half his age dressed in a fitted black vest and cropped pants. The only misstep was an affected (thankfully brief) rendering of the Shirelles' "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" But with its propulsive beats and ringing guitars, the Chili Peppers gave a strong shot of energy to an otherwise easygoing festival.

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