Nils Edenloff of RAA @ Virgin Festival: photo by Michael Ligon
For Virgin Festival's fourth annual installment in Toronto it took place down at Molson Ampitheatre moving from the relative comforts of Toronto Islands which hosted the event the first three years. On the other hand, this year's Virgin Festival wasn't suppose to take place in Toronto at all but rather at Burl's Creek Park in Oro, Ontario just north of Toronto. However poor tickets sales and complaints about the location evenutally led to the change of venue to Molson Ampitheatre. For better or worse, that's where it took place over the weekend. Thanks to the folks at Segal Communications (handing the media accreditation requests for Virgin Festival Toronto) for approving me a reviewers pass for this year's festival [a photo pass would have been nice but hey whatever].
Although mostly overcast weather conditions predominate the weekend I'm thankful that the rain kept away although if it had come, the one good thing about the main stage being at Molson Ampitheatre was that it was covered and I had seating in an area which was mostly covered as well. But otherwise Molson Ampitheatre really sucked the energy out of the crowd for many of the acts that played its mainstage - no offense, but many of the acts weren’t seasoned enough to play such a big stage and it would have been more enjoyable to see them on the the second stage(Virgin mobile stage). So with iPhone in hand I hastily jotted down random thoughts about the acts I say as the day went on.
Unfortunately, I missed first main stage act Mates of State - I hope they weren't too discouraged to play to a mostly empty venue but I'm sure their sunny keyboard-drums driven pop music was enough to put a smile on at least a few faces. It was with Toronto's Valerie Poxleitner aka Lights, playing the main stage that I started my day off with. Whenever it happened, I'm glad she's lost the Wonder Woman-esque headband that I used to see her wear cause she looks so much more adorable without it. I think I caught a tune of hers on Much Music, a radio-friendly synth-pop ditty that I didn't think much of but while her live set does maintain her radio-friendliness, it also displayed that she does exude a certain amount of charm and likability and a level of musicianship(on keyboards and keytar) that proves she isn't just a pretty face. If I were to heard on the radio sometime, I won't be so quick to change the station.
Brooklyn's Grizzly Bear were the next band I saw. Quite frankly they'd have fared much better playing the much smaller second stage (Virgin Radio stage). Although I'm not too familiar with them I appreciate their creative approach to pop music. I'd refrain from calling them pop music although they do have underlying pop sensibilities. Their music encompasses vocal harmonies, subdued rock instrumentation and has a an ebb and flow, building to crescendo quality. As much as I appreciated it, and as I'd also heard other people vocalize their appreciation, I think they'd have been better off playing the second stage.
Speaking of second stage, it was off to the Virgin Radio stage (located on the Ontario Place grounds) where I went to check out Toronto's Thundereist. I'd caught them earlier this year playing the WinterCity festival in the most frigid temperatures imaginable - perhaps much of there energy during the performance was just to keep warm, but it was also a fun spectacle to witness especially with the b-girl dancers the band brought along for that show. This time around it was just the Thunderheist duo of producer Grahm Zilla and MC Isis as well a live drummer that joined them for the show. MC Isis admitted that it was a little weird playing during the day [and having to play a stage that overlooked a waterslide, no less] but whether it be the daylight or the subdued crowd, there was a lack of excitement to the set. Perhaps more of the blame should go to the crowd - MC Isis put in some effort with some funny banter and even climbing to the edge of the stage to sing over the crowd the Toronto's notorious reputation for mannequin-like non-responsiveness once again prevailed.
A certain part of me is saddened that Sloan's ranking in the main stage lineup couldn't perhaps have preceded headliner Ben Harper or even penultimate act Pixies. Rather Sloan were relegated to fourth last act of the night, preceding Paolo Nutini. I only wish they were much more popular than they really are, especially with them approaching 20 years in the music industry. As with all the acts on the main stage leading up to that point, it was just disheartening to see all the empty seats in the 200-400 sections. But what the biggest indie band Canada did prove was that they had some appreciative and devout fans in the audience especially responsive to the band's biggest hits like "Everything You've Done Wrong", "The Lines You Amend", "The Good In Everyone" and closer "Money City Maniacs". For the most part the crowd seemed a bit subdued - even during a fan-favourite like "People Of The Sky", the crowd seemed eerily still, and not much crowd participation seemed to take place, even during the 'ba, ba, ba, ba ba' part of the song. Three additional members joined the band adding an extra presence although the crowd seemed laid back only finally until set-closer "Money City Maniacs" prompted the crowd to finally start clapping.
Scottish born Paolo Nutini was next up on the main stage. With a crack band accompanying him that included trumpet, sax, harmonica, ukulele, guitar, drums and bass Paolo's music spanned bouncy folk rock, ragtime-ish numbers, breezy, summery folk pop and blues-tinged rock with his slightly vibrato-tinged vocals guiding the songs along. I'm not too partial to his music but neither is it the worst thing I've heard. For the record, there were many in the audience that were enjoying the set. In particular, there was a group of bare-chested dudes as well as several girls wrapping themselves with large European flags who were dancing enthusiastically during most of the set. Such evidence of fan appreciation does showed that his third-last-act-of-the-night ranking in the lineup behind Pixies and Ben Harper was perhaps well-deserved.
It was then off to the third stage (Boardwalk Stage) to catch Toronto's The Superstitions. The female-led young four piece played a set of garage pop tunes that were enjoyable on first impression. Melodic yet gritty they do have a tight set of tunes which I found surprising from such a young band. Lead vocalist Nyssa who sang for most of the set barefoot has the sort of voice that's mature beyond her years, and one gets the impression that she does have the capability to really belt it - if only she did it more often.
A real festival atmosphere started with Paolo Nutini's set with the venue starting to fill in and the audience becoming more enthusiastic but it really kicked in to high gear with Franz Ferdinand. Franz Ferdinand kept things uptempo for their entire set playing hits like "Take Me Out", "This Fire" and "Ulysees" and once again frontman Alex Kapranos proved his arguably the best frontman of any rock band out there at this moment, at least in my honest opinion, providing visual stimuli with his energetic stage presence and guitar playing as well as backing it up with his thoroughly energetic vocals. Although I consider "This Fire" as one of the best set closers in recent memory, it made an earlier appearance in their set this time around. But really, to see the audience fist pumping in unison and singing along to the song's chorus ('This fire is out of control, I'm going to burn this city, Burn this city') it was a pleasure to see the crowd finally really having fun.
Who better to follow up then Pixies. I'd seen them twice in the past - November 2004 at Arrow Hall and prior to that in May 2004 at Coachella in California - it's been a while. As with those past shows, The Pixies continue to churn out the hits for fans. Kicking off with a fierce rendition of "U-mass"[so, so good to hear Frank Black scream "It's Educational!"], they played practically everything I wanted to hear ("Head On", "Wave Of Mutilation", "Planet of Sound", "Here Comes Your Man", "Debaser", "This Monkey's Gone To Heaven", "Where Is My Mind", "Gigantic"). In perhaps a nod to Canadians, they also included their wonderful cover of Neil Young's "Winterlong". The crowd was pretty much enraptured with their whole set. The Pixies were definitely should-have-been headliners. If you wanted more proof you'd have witnessed the mass exodus of people exiting after The Pixies finished. Poor Ben Harper.
Before Ben Harper and Relentless 7 took the stage, some like myself made a bee-line to the Boardwalk Stage to catch Toronto's own The Rural Alberta Advantage. Already a crowd on hand and actually the band starting a tad earlier than their 9:10 pm set time, I managed to eventually get right to the front (perk of having a media wristband!). The crowd being a mix of current fans and I'm positive, new converts, the band were as convincing as ever playing a selection of tunes from their debut full-length "Hometowns". Armed with what's their bread and butter, that is acoustic guitar, drums, glockenspiel, tambourine, handclaps and vocals, and maybe a few other things, they played their indie acoustic folk tunes with as much enthusiasm as you'd expect from bands that are amplified. But really it's the melodies and lyrics that are the ultimate selling points. I'm sure they won over a few new fans.
Out of a sense of completion rather than enthusiasm, I stuck around for headliners Ben Harper and Relentless7. The crowd had thinned out more than a bit after The Pixies but there still remained a devout number of music fans that made it a little less discouraging for Mr. Harper. Thank God it was dark - I could only imagine how empty the lawns might have been at this point. It's not that I don't think Ben's talented. On the contrary, he's very talented as he displayed with his soulful vocals and virtuostic skills on the steel lap guitar. His band Relentless 7 played the blues-rock angle although less about technical virtuosity and more from a casual rock n' roll angle. For those who remained back for his set, many were enthusiastic for Ben as he and his band wandered through various styles and tempos. An enthusiastic response from the crowd brought back Ben and band for a one song encore which was a cover of a heavy metal song, whose title can't place but the chorus goes like 'a ah ahhhhhhh ahhhh, a ah ahhhhhhh ahhh ah' (I know The Roots also covered it at Osheaga at the beginning of August). And so ended Day One.
Photos: Virgin Festival @ Molson Ampitheatre (August 29, 2009)
MySpace: Grizzly Bear
MySpace: Paolo Nutini
MySpace: The Superstitions
MySpace: Franz Ferdinand
MySpace: The Rural Alberta Advantage
MySpace: Ben Harper and Relentless7