Pet Shop Boys @ Virgin Festival: photo by Michael Ligon
Day two of Virgin Festival was more successful in it's festival vibe compared to day one with both the crowd and the bands basking in each other's enthusiasm. Even if I wasn't totally enamored with some of the acts performing it was at least satisyfing to see the crowd as well as the bands having fun.
First act of the day was French Canadian acoustic pop artist Coeur De Pirate but unfortunately I didn't arrive in time to catch her. I'd arrived a little after her set ended with grey clouds looming overhead although next act Norwegian electro-rock act Datarock did their best to bring some sunshine metaphorically to the festivities. Decked in red track suits, they brought a party vibe to the small crowd on hand with their set of electro-rock tunes, augmenting their sound with sax, guitars, keys, beats and drums. I'm not too keen on them myself but I'll give them props for their success in getting the small crowd on hand into it.
Danish band Mew, handpicked to open dates for Nine Inch Nail's current tour, were fortunate enough to also be added to Virgin Festival. I do commend Virgin Festival organizers for including them, especially as a main stage act, considering how obscure they are here in Canada. While they might be generally unfamiliar to Canadians at least their sound fit right in with the largeness of the venue. Mew's sound alternated between an epic, sometimes atmospheric quality with washes of synth and guitar, and a more succinct sound with clearer punctuacted guitar and drums, but it was vocalist Jonas Bjerre's higher-register vocals which tied it all together. Hey did anyone think Jonas looked like what Joel Plaskett might have looked in his youth? Someone dig up Plaskett's high school yearbook photo. Difficult to read how well-received they were by the half empty venue but I liked it.
My first foray of the day to the Virgin Radio stage was to see Toronto's Fritz Helder and The Phantoms. Quite a thin crowd at the beginning with the numbers only increasing slightly as the set progressed, it didn't seem to phaze the band at all. Even with guitar, bass, keys/programming and drums, there's a thin quality to their glammy, electro disco rock sound but they made up for it with an energetic and visually entertaining stage presence, as much in their dancing, voguing as in their outrageously glammy wardrobe and make-up. They're like Madonna, Prince and T-Rex, with a little hip-hop flavour all rolled up into one. How could you not be entertained by that?
It was New Orleans outfit Mutemath that I next caught over at the main stage. They specialized in a proggy brand of emo rock, with humming, moaning keyboards infiltrating the more conventional guitar rock histronics. Many seemed enamored with them and not only because vocalist Paul Meany at one point successfully handplant-flipped over his keyboard without killing himself nor because of the band's final raucous collaborative drumming outro. But such things made it definitely a memorable performance. And yes, they got a standing ovation from the crowd on hand.
I've read a few reviews of Cold War Kids' set at Virgin Festival and the consensus seems to rest with pondering why this band had such blogger buzz a year or two ago. But based on their Virgin Festival set, their general lack of charisma, and plodding indie rock tunes you have to wonder what all the fuss is about. Not terrible by any stretch, but sometimes being average is worse. Actually, they had one Gang Of Four-ish song that was actually decent but other than that I wasn't terribly impressed. If anything, they may have fared better on a small stage. Don't get me wrong - my general lack of enthusiasm for them wasn't necessarily the crowd's reaction as I'd observe more than a few persons who were definite fans of them.
An unknown entity from the outset, Montreal's Silver Starling played the Boardwalk stage with a good degree of success. With the sonics balancing melody with a bit of guitar histronics and subtler sounds like glockenspiel, there was also the benefit of male and female vocals. There was a bit of an atmospheric quality at times but at the same time there was a succintness to their which kept their sound from floating off into the stratosphere.
The party really started with N.E.R.D. back at the mainstage with the band's fusion of hip hop and rock influences. But moreso than the music, it was lead singer Pharrell's constant frontmanship that kept the crowd pumped, giving the ok to bring random fans, both guys and girls, onstage to party with them and his constant shout-outs to Toronto. Whether your a fan or not, they're the time of band that every music festival needs.
Back to the Boardwalk Stage it was for me to catch Toronto's The D'Urbervilles and really anytime you can catch their spastic indie rock and bespectacled lanky frontman John O'Regan's equally spastic dancing it's always a good time.
Hopping back to the main stage, I decided to sit in for Our Lady Peace's set. I'm not particularly a fan of there's at all but their tune "Somewhere Out There" does connect with me on one level. They played a mostly greatest hits set plus some other tunes I didn't recognize including a new song called "Paper Moon" which they introduced as inspired by Neil Young. It was most admirable to have witnessed frontman Raine Maida run up to the 300's when his prompting for the 300's and 400's sections to stand up didn't exactly transpire but once he got up there the sections stood up en mass, mostly to snap a photo of Raine up close. When the band closed with "Naveed" the sun finally started to peak out.
Back to the Boardwalk stage it was for me to catch that stage's final act of the day, Detroit's The Von Bondies. While garage rock isn't necessarily my thing these days, The Von Bondies did it more than well. They shredded, although not necessarily devastated the Boardwalk stage, but of the bands that played the Boardwalk Stage that weekend, The Von Bondies were probably the only band that could have played the main stage and fared more than well.
80's alternative dance-pop outfit Pet Shop Boys were a band that I'd always admired and liked although they were never at the level of any other 80's bands I loved like New Order, The Smiths and Echo and The Bunnymen. Their Virgin Festival set did nothing to change that but on the other hand their live show was absolutely spectacular. The stage production was fantastic featuring video screens, cool lighting, dancers, costume changes and a lot of geometric patterns. Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant was in fine vocal form sounding as good now as ever and with the band pulling out the band's synth-pop hits ('Suburbia', 'Go West', 'It's A Sin', 'Always On My Mind', 'Left To My Own Devices', 'West End Girls') it was a flashback to the eighties which I truly enjoyed.
Preceding Nine Inch Nails headlining slot, there was enough time to catch Boardwalk Stage headliners Plants and Animals. I was excited to see them after becoming more of a fan of them after seeing them play in Barcelona, Spain in June - yes, there was the novelty of seeing a Canadian band in Spain, but their performance(which was an outdoor one in a park as part of the Primavera Sound Festival) did much to convert me to their music. There's a jamminess that intermingles with melody but overall they present a joie de vivre that's so terrific to witness. And when they sing "Bye Bye Bye" and then the crowd joins in in unison it's so undeniably beautiful. Fortunately for the larger crowd that had gather for their set they'd set up their instruments outside of the tent playing under the blanket of a starry night with a few lamposts and a few stage light illuminating the area. Lovely.
At long last, Nine Inch Nails took to the stage for what had been billed as their last large-scale show ever, pulling out all the stops with an incredible light show and an emphatic musical performance. Whether it was fierce goth rock anthems like "Head Like A Hole", "Closer" and "March of The Pigs" or more subtle, audience-lighter-inducing songs like "Hurt" it was awesome to witness even if I'm not the biggest NIN fan. Particularly angst-ridden lyrics like "Head like a hole, black as your soul, I'd rather die than give you control" and "Bow down before the one you serve, your gonna get what you deserve" don't necessarily resonate with me on any level but man are they sure fun to sing.
So ends another instalment of Virgin Festival. Even with all it's problems I truly miss the festival vibe atmosphere of the Toronto Islands. Molson Amp just doesn't cut it in that respect. Perhaps they should have made the entire venue general admission which would have promoted a more communal vibe, allowing spectactors to wander around. But when you have security guards to confront every where you walk, it really stinks. I'm happy that Virgin Festival even happened at all but musically I wish it could have better - compared to the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona, and Osheaga Music and Arts Festival in Montreal which were two other music festivals I'd attended this year, Virgin Festival drastically pales in comparison. Oh, and I was disappointed that there wasn't a dance/DJ tent this year - there's something comforting about hearing beats off in the distance. This year we had to contend with hearing people play Beatles Rock Band. It just isn't the same.
Photos: Virgin Festival @ Molson Ampitheatre (August 30, 2009)
MySpace: Fritz Helder and The Phantoms
MySpace: Cold War Kids
MySpace: Silver Starling
MySpace: The D'Urbervilles
MySpace: Our Lady Peace
MySpace: The Von Bondies
MySpace: Pet Shop Boys
MySpace: Plants and Animals
MySpace: Nine Inch Nails