BALTIMORE — As far as British music fests go, this weekend’s Virgin Festival was pretty tame.
There were no cataclysmic mudslides, gatecrashers or hooligans, nary a lager-fueled punch-up or life-affirming (and probably chemically aided) live set, and absolutely no one burned their tent down. Because there was no camping.
This daylong mega-concert wasn’t held in a muddy field in Chelmsford or Weston Park or Glastonbury. It didn’t even take place in the U.K., for that matter. Rather, Saturday’s Virgin Fest was plunked down in the infield of the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
And as such, the concert — the U.S. debut of England’s massively successful V Festival, which was started back in 1996 by eccentric billionaire Richard Branson — had a rather puzzling feel to it. Sure, the bill was packed with acts that have sold millions on both sides of the Atlantic (the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Who, Gnarls Barkley, the Killers), and all the staples of both the U.K. and U.S. festival experience were represented in full (booming DJ tent, circus sideshows, poorly attended booths trumpeting various social causes). But the whole thing kind of felt like an American rock radio fest trying really hard to be a manic, anything-can-happen U.K. music fest.
That was due mostly to locale, the incredible commercialization of the whole thing and the undeniable American-ness of cameramen continually featuring the bikini-clad girls in the audience on the massive stages flanking the main stage. Because certainly, everyone else was trying hard. Nineteen bands jammed long and hard on the fest’s two stages, and more than 40,000 packed Pimlico and partied just as hard as their English counterparts.
Brit chart-toppers Kasabian kicked things off at the un-rocking hour of noon, yet still bounded through an anthemic, electro-heavy set that boomed around the half-full infield — things would get more packed as the day went on — but still had many in attendance hoisting their first (third?) beer of the day skyward.
Wolfmother rocked harder than any three-piece should, the Raconteurs made up for their substandard stage banter — co-frontman Brendan Benson barely addressed the throngs, offering up a half-hearted “Hello. Good Morning. Good Afternoon” mid-set — with sheer volume, and Gnarls Barkley pretty much stole the show from the minute they strode onto the stage, thanks in no small part to their choices of opening number (Queen’s “We Are the Champions”) and costume (thoroughly awesome Roman gladiator gear). As sweat poured down his face — and onto his breastplate — Cee-Lo toasted the crowd, shimmied a bit and rasped his way through Gnarls’ hit “Crazy,” truly the day’s first audience-uniting moment.
Then, as clouds floated overhead, the Killers — appearing before their largest audience since finishing Sam’s Town (see “Killers Album Preview: Massive Sound, Epic Ballads, Big Ideas Fill Sam’s Town“ ) — took the stage, determined to let some of Sam’s tunes stretch their legs. Which may or may not have been a good idea.
While some of those songs (current single “When You Were Young,” the foreboding “Uncle Johnny”) clearly connected with the audience, the title track, with its gratuitous and spacious keyboards, left many scratching their heads. And their Hot Fuss hits (“Somebody Told Me,” set-closing “All These Things That I’ve Done”) drew huge rounds of applause from their opening riffs and had most of the crowd singing along loudly.
And while Gnarls and the Killers had their supporters, the day’s most hyped acts were undoubtedly the Who and the Red Hot Chili Peppers — which is probably why their T-shirts were going for a princely $45 at Virgin Fest merch stands. Both delivered thunderous and proficient sets.
The Who’s Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend are still consummate showmen, and they played the band’s time-tested hits (“Baba O’Riley,” “Who Are You,” “Behind Blue Eyes”) with Daltrey striking rock-star poses and Townshend windmilling away on his ax. The only problem with their set: When they performed “My Generation,” it bordered on self-parody — especially with the line “Hope I die before I get old.”
Darkness descended over Pimlico during the Who’s 75-minute set, and while the Peppers’ gear was being loaded onstage, fans flocked to the other side of the infield to bound along to an effervescent set by the Scissor Sisters and then a perfunctory performance by the Flaming Lips involving streamers, smoke, balloons and dancers in Santa costumes.
But the opening riffs of RHCP’s “Can’t Stop” quickly had the masses migrating back to the main stage. And make no mistake about it: People were pumped for the Peppers — so much so that they even cheered wildly when frontman Anthony Kiedis big-upped Baltimore’s “many estuaries” and belted out an ill-conceived rendition of the Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” And they bounded along to hits like “Dani California” and held lighters aloft during guitarist John Frusciante’s many fret-bending solos.
Then promptly at 10 p.m., after 90 minutes onstage, the band eased into a cover of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” which gave way to a fiery “Give It Away,” complete with Frusciante and Flea trading solos. And then the Peppers called it a night.
The thousands at Pimlico headed to the exits — happy and weary from a day’s worth of music — and back onto the motorways and home to their flats. Or apartments. Whatever they call them here in the States.
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.