Festival starts on a retro note

The Baltimore Sun

The first day of the third annual Virgin Mobile Festival at Pimlico Race Course offered an appealing potpourri of sounds on the two main stages - but with a slight retro slant. Musically, most of yesterday's acts self-consciously looked back at, well, yesterday.

Cat Power and Duffy opened the North Stage with sets that evoked dusty Memphis soul and uptown '60s pop, respectively. Power drew heavily from her latest album, Jukebox, a brooding, slightly nocturnal set of obscure soul and pop covers. The Georgia singer-songwriter is a much more nuanced vocalist these days, imbuing her songs with husky wails and gnarly phrasing. But the haunted subtleties of her approach were better-suited for an intimate club setting, not a big festival stage in the middle of the afternoon.

But Duffy, the latest pop sensation from Britain, followed with a bombastic throwback style. Her songs crackled with more rock energy.

Without the stuffy, overproduced Phil Spector-like Wall of Sound heard on her acclaimed debut, Rockferry, her tunes had room to breathe.

Though Duffy's thin, quivery voice is still an acquired taste, she was effortlessly charming as she worked the stage in a tomato-red mini dress and spike heels. It also helped that she was backed by a six-piece band that supported her well, adding more punch and a muscular bottom to the performer's wide-eyed, self-penned tunes of sweet and sour love.

Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, the unassailable afternoon highlight, has the retro-soul thing locked down. Little wonder, though: Jones has been singing gospel-suffused soul semiprofessionally for more than 30 years. But she worked the stage yesterday - dancing in an orange, sleeveless dress and silver heels - like a woman half her age.

The needle-sharp, eight-piece Dap Kings, which include three horn players, spurred her on with zigzagging brassy riffs and thick, slinking grooves that sounded as if they were lifted directly from a James Brown record circa 1965. Throughout their sweaty set, the group and Jones channeled the swinging funk of the Godfather of Soul. They even ended their exhilarating show with a Brown tribute, a churchy rendition of "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" that Jones invigorated with a sanctified spirit.

Lupe Fiasco, the only hip-hop offering of the day, also adhered to a throwback approach - kind of. The Chicago rapper employed a full band and a DJ (something most mainstream rappers aren't doing these days) as he generously dipped into his two albums: the promising Food and Liquor and the ambitious but flawed The Cool.

The fuller sound, blazing with touches of rock guitar here and there, added a new dimension to Fiasco's raps. But although he bounded across the stage a lot, shadowed by a hype man who echoed his rhymes, he still seemed aloof. His set was temporarily marred by mic problems.

Not long after that was corrected, the bookish rapper breezed through the remainder of his businesslike set and was gone.

Given the retro vibe permeating most of the day's lineup, it seemed fitting that Chuck Berry, one of the originators of rock 'n' roll, played the South Stage later in the evening. Following a cheerful, tuneful mini-set by the Silver Beats, a Beatles cover band from Japan, Berry strolled onstage glittering in a red sequin shirt and a white captain's hat. Spry and well-preserved at 81, Berry kicked off with "Roll Over Beethoven," his blues-drenched guitar riffs still fervent and stinging.

But his three-piece band sounded rather under-rehearsed, missing beats and rushing tempos here and there. The bassist especially was sloppy.

Berry's magnetism - the powerful guitar work, the sly humor of his greatest hits - rose above it all. Still, the legend deserved a better backing band.

On the north end of Pimlico, after the sun was gone, Jack Johnson crooned his straightforward tunes whose easy, flowing melodies recall '70s AM pop. The native Hawaiian and former surfer, dressed in faded jeans and thong sandals, looked as relaxed as his summery music. For an hour, Johnson strummed, strummed and strummed his guitar, eyes closed. He was backed by a three-piece, anonymous-sounding rhythm section.

Though technically sound, the performance was the sleepiest one of the evening.

This show was counterbalanced by far more energetic shows from Wilco and the Foo Fighters on the South Stage.

After ambling through the first half of its set with its celebrated alt-country sound, Wilco changed up the groove and ventured into driving pop-rock, bolstered by a punchy horn section. The Foo Fighters, the post-grunge band fronted by rock's most ubiquitous star, Dave Grohl, launched its set with a few blistering, full-throttle rock cuts before briefly flipping over to the acoustic side.

The four core Foos were joined by a violinist, percussionist, pianist and an acoustic guitarist, giving the lighter songs a fussed-over feel. But Grohl and the Foos didn't linger there long as the band quickly returned to the rave-up rock of its mid-'90s material, replete with Grohl's demonic screams. It was a fitting cap to the day, a hard rock band gloriously recreating its past.


Sun reporter Sam Sessa contributed to this article.

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