Wilting Winehouse at least shows up

The Baltimore Sun

A year hasn't even passed since Amy Winehouse garnered critical acclaim and commercial success with her American debut, Back to Black. But the troubled 23-year-old singer already has earned a reputation for showing up to concerts inebriated - if she shows up at all.

Yesterday however, the British pop-soul revivalist was present and coherent at the sweltering opening day of this year's Virgin Festival, but Winehouse was also apathetic and indifferent.

Looking emaciated in a black midriff tank top and denim shorts, the heavily tattooed singer sported her trademark ratty beehive and bat-winged eye make-up. Winehouse was backed by a swinging, formidable nine-piece band that buoyed the 50-minute set as she mostly phoned in her performance. And the audience - clearly affected by the near triple-digit temperatures - was just as lethargic.

Pop bands Fountains of Wayne and Cheap Trick opened the festival - back at Pimlico Race Course for an expanded second year - with energetic sets, but Winehouse was the first marquee name to hit the main stage.

She fussed frequently with her necklace and hair and pulled at her low-riding shorts. The singer coasted through cuts from the charming (if overrated) Back to Black, including the mournful "Love is a Losing Game" and the sassy "Me and Mr. Jones." Halfway into her set, the music veered dangerously close to 1960s kitsch as her band added cheesy horn lines reminiscent of Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass.

But the band still managed to expertly support Winehouse with fluid music mixing early Motown, 1990s hip-hop and reggae.

The singer seemed tentative at the microphone, though, her richly textured voice cracking through the otherwise sublime "He Can Only Hold Her." She zipped through her signature hit "Rehab" and, after a muffled thank you, quickly exited the stage.

Later in the evening as the sun descended, the Beastie Boys, last night's second big-draw name, gave an exhilarating, relentless performance backed by a DJ and full band.

Gone are the obnoxious frat-boy antics of yesterday. The Beastie Boys - Mike D (Michael Diamond), MCA (Adam Yauch) and Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz) - are all in their 40s now with graying hair. To underscore their maturity, the guys wore suits, ties and fedoras. But soon into the set, the Boys were getting hot and the jacket and hats were gone.

The same could be said about the music. The trio's set seamlessly rolled on like a live mix-tape with a colorful blend of the band's rowdy, 20-year-old punk-rap hits and churning soul-jazz instrumentals, the focus of the group's latest album, The Mix Up.

Polyrhythmic beats fused with choppy rock guitar chords, and all was overlaid with DJ scratches, sharp organ stabs and the Boys' rapid-fire rhymes. Engaging and animated, they still perform with the energy of their late-1980s heyday.

Over in the dance tent, Felix da Housecat spun a bumping blend of progressive electronica and house music in the afternoon.

If you closed your eyes, it could have been 1999 - when this kind of music peaked in popularity. The sound quality was clear and the bass heavy, but the heat kept most of the crowd from moving like they would have in an air-conditioned club.

The New York-based dance punk group LCD Soundsystem delivered one of the South Stage's best performances. Drummer Pat Mahoney delivered rib-cage rattling beats with mechanical precision while lead singer James Murphy's screeching falsetto hit spine-tingling high notes.

Their energetic rendition of the single "North American Scum" made the album version seem almost dull in comparison. And the quality kept building with each song. They closed out their 50-minute set with a blistering, percussion-heavy rendition of the song "Yeah (Crass Version)" off their self-titled debut.

Veteran pop rockers Fountains of Wayne got the festival rolling with a tight 45-minute set on the North Stage. Noticeably absent from their set was the hit single "Stacy's Mom." Instead, they performed songs off their new album, Traffic and Weather, such as "Strapped for Cash" and others from their back catalog.

Lead singer Chris Collingwood's voice started off rough and nasal, but he warmed up a couple songs into the set.

The backing harmonies were spot-on, and the band was pretty much on point. Collingwood summed up the vibe nicely: "I haven't been awake this early since the '80s."


Sun reporter Sam Sessa contributed to this article.

Read more reviews of Virgin Festival shows, including last night's final performance by The Police and the best of today's lineup, in tomorrow's Today section.

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