Tuesday, September 12th, 2006
…Somehow I Made It Through
Day two of the Virgin Festival was a much shorter one for me – a desperate need for rest and to get through some work prompted me to skip out the first half of the day and only show up for mid-afternoon. Not ideal, no, but necessary.
I got a bit of grief from people for skipping out on Australians Wolfmother at Lollapalooza in August, so I tried to make a point of catching them this time. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a fine enough point because I got there too late to see all but the end of their set. I wouldn’t have made it into the photo pit anyways – there was some haziness in my media status which kept me from getting approval from a few bands to shot from the pit and in the case of The Raconteurs to even shoot them at all, even from the audience. Long story, not worth getting into. Sufficed to say I had to fall back on some contingency plans as far as coverage went.
But as soon as I arrived on the island, I could tell the vibe was quite different from the day before. Besides the fact that the sun was out, there were a hell of a lot more people in attendance and they looked to be having a much better – or at least energetic – time. But that’s what a much more rock-heavy lineup will do for you, I guess. My personal tastes made the day one lineup of more interest to me, but the majority was definitely here for some three-finger devil salute action.
My first band of the day wasn’t what you’d call heavy, but the Sam Roberts Band is perfectly at home on the big stage and he does know how to work a crowd. With his blue-collar, no-frills rock’n’roll, plain white t-shirt attaire, and fist-pumping audience singalongs, I realized that I was in the presence of what probably qualifies as Canadian stadium rock. His stuff has never done much for me, but it beats Nickelback, I guess. And the man certainly gives good photo.
After Roberts’ set, Virgin honcho Richard Branson came by the media tent for a scrum and some pizza. Richest hand I’ve ever shaken. His big “stunt” for the event was riding a Harley onstage, though he was actually just a passenger and they moved about 20 meters, if even. The bar must be set pretty low if this is what gets you the title of “Renegade” billionaire. But the Virgin Unite “Heaven’s Angels” program that a portion of ticket sales went to support seems worthwhile, so I’ll give credit where it’s due.
I wasn’t allowed to shoot The Strokes from the photo pit but at least I could shoot from the crowd. The festival had been doing a good job to this point of staying on schedule but The Strokes managed to torpedo that quite handily by starting 25 minutes late. But apparently they had a good excuse as they were all sick as dogs and that fact also made the calibre of their performance that much more remarkable. Put simply, The Strokes kicked some ass. I hadn’t seen them live in some five years and it’s interesting to note that Julian Casablancas has managed to turn ennui into a stadium-level schtick, but it works for them. They leaned heavily on the old material, AKA the stuff that I knew, and that suited me fine – I heard the later records aren’t terribly special. I’ve no doubt that their sunset slot was the high point for many folks there.
As I said, with no photo permission and not being terribly interested in the band in general, I saw no point in sticking around for the Raconteurs. Instead, I hoofed it over to the second stage to see English electronica act Zero 7. They got off to a very late start and once underway, had technical difficulty after technical difficulty getting their expansive instrument setup to work (though the on-stage bar appeared to be functioning properly). Main vocalist Sia tried to cover with some improvisational cowbell jams but they eventually went with a few acoustic numbers to buy time- an interesting tactic for an electronic band. Luckily for them, there’s a large organic component to their sound and their songs were able to stand quite well on their own without the technology backing it. Jose Gonzalez also sat in for a few numbers contributing classical guitar and vocals, which was a nice treat considering I missed his solo set earlier in the day. Zero 7’s laid back electronic vibe isn’t really my scene but they can make it compelling live, even when their gear’s not working – and that’s pretty impressive. Respect.
Making my way back to the mainstage, I caught the very tail end of the Raconteurs’ set and based on the size and enthusiasm of the audience, I can only assume it was a success. It’s not often/ever that you see a crowd clear out before Broken Social Scene takes the stage in Toronto, but there it was. It’s a strange thing when the appearance of the local heroes on a concert bill is a disappointment, but such was the case when they were called in to pinch-hit for the visa-denied Massive Attack. It’s nothing personal against the band, but Massive Attack would have been something really special and rare whereas BSS… well, you see them around all the time. But whatever, they were here, Massive Attack wasn’t.
To help close out the Summer in grand fashion, they rolled out the entire BSS lineup – Feist flew in from California for the show. With the lineup, set list and fight against enroaching curfew, the show was almost a carbon copy of their triumphant Lollapalooza set but not quite as, well, triumphant. Maybe not being in the underdog position had something to do with that and almost certainly the curfew staring them in the face, but it was still a typically sprawling and joyous event and those who were able to stop feeling bitter about Massive Attack or The Flaming Lips or whatever and just enjoy the moment were treated to a pretty damn good show. As usual, the high point was “Anthems For A Seventeen Year-Old Girl” featuring Emily Haines, Amy Millan and Feist together on vocals. Initially spread out across the stage, the three ladies of Broken Social came together as the song gradually built up and at it’s peak, they were practically nose to nose and ended in a group hug. Come on, that’s special. And considering that there seems to be more weight to the band’s claims of breaking up or going on hiatus or just going away for a while, this was a pretty good send-off – for the band and the festival.
Only a few more photo galleries to add to day one’s, but there’s some choice shots in there, especially of Broken Social.
Virgin Festival wrap-up thoughts after the jump.
So that was Toronto’s inaugural Virgin Festival. I can’t help but to compare it to my Lollapalooza experience a month ago, even though that was on a scale many times larger than this one and was run nearly flawlessly. And I should note that I initially wrote up this commentary on Saturday night after the disappointing end to day one but had to come back and make revisions to take into account the considerably smoother and more succesful second day. The sentiments are still pretty much the same, but the intensity mitigated somewhat.
The thing is, Canada, and North America as a whole to a degree, is not a music festival culture – at least not in the sense that the UK or Europe is. There are certainly succesful fests here, but not on the scale of in the Old World and not on the scale that Virgin probably aspires to. In the UK, festivals sell out before they even announce the bands – people are going for the event, not just for the artists. It’s ingrained in their heritage, it’s a rite of passage for youth. Here, on the other hand, you had people poring over and itemizing the lineup, doing the math as to whether or not so and so was worth the admission price, and so forth. The fact that it was the “Virgin Festival” and carrying the brand name of a big UK fest simply didn’t mean that much, not even in Anglo-mad Toronto. For most, it was simply a big, expensive concert and people wanted to know if they’d get their money’s worth.
My take on it is that it shouldn’t have been two days. The lineup simply wasn’t strong enough to justify it, especially not when you’re being charged $100+ for the whole weekend. The US edition of the fest is running only one day and if you look at the lineup, it’s all big names or relatively big names. You could probably show up as soon as gates open and see a band that would otherwise sell out a good-sized club or hall. The Toronto lineup – simply not so. Instead you had a bunch of bands that you had to look up on MySpace to see if they’d be something you’d be interested in seeing.
On Saturday, you had people not showing up until the evening simply because there wasn’t anyone they wanted to see until the last three or four bands – that meant a whole day of relatively sparse crowds (relative to the space allotted) and a general diminishing of audience excitement and the overall vibe. Don’t get me wrong – there were some good acts on earlier in the days, but no one that would necessarily sell a ticket at that price or get someone to show up earlier in the day just to see them. They were the gravy, but not the meat. I think that for something like this to be a real success, you need to have the crowds there from the moment the gates open. Big bands with big draws on at noon – give people a reason to show up. If the thinking was that 1PM was too early and no one would be able to make it, I don’t buy it. If it’s a performer someone wants to see, they’ll set their damn alarm and be where they need to be in time. But instead, people were given an excuse to write off the first half of the day. It ended up feeling like two or three headliners and a slew of opening bands. If they had combined the two days’ lineups into one and just went with the big guns, it’d have been something to see. But as diluted as it was, it was too easy to make an excuse to show up late or not go at all.
I don’t know what the attendance numbers were – it obviously wasn’t sold out and even though day two’s crowds balanced out the relative sparseness of day one, it never felt overwhelmingly packed (except maybe for The Raconteurs from the little I saw). I mean, it’s kind of nice to not be drowning in sea of humanity but at festivals, the size and energy of the crowd is a crucial part of the experience and if it’s lacking, you can tell. I’m sure some of it was a result of the lineup issues I mentioned above, but there was also the fast that the Film Festival is a tough event to try and steal attention away from and then there’s the weather. Mid-September in Toronto is not a warm time of the year, and more than that it’s psychologically not a time that people are thinking about festivals. I bet if this had been held a couple weeks earlier, it would have drawn far more people. I understand there’s a myriad of logistical reasons why it wasn’t, but that’s beside the point.
But even with all this, I hope that the festival meets whatever benchmark the organizers have for declaring it a success and they do this again next year (and from the sounds of the official party line, it has). Better and smarter, but again. It’s unfortunate that there’ll be some ill will from the headliner incidents but with the right acts and the right price, I think people can be persuaded. And just because we don’t have a music festival culture in Canada right now doesn’t mean we can’t develop one. It probably won’t ever be on the same scale as the UK or even the US, but I don’t think there’s any reason that we can’t find our own particular strata that works for everyone. I suspect that either way, with Richard Branson’s pockets behind it all that it’ll be a go for next year regardless, and that’s good news. This could still be a great thing. Just hold it when it’s a little warmer…?
The Toronto Sun gave day two higher marks than day one while The Toronto Star kept a diary of the weekend and came off more critical and The Globe & Mail argues for more – not less – local content in the lineup for next year. Chart also reports in and NME offers some coverage of both days.