Monday, August 31st, 2009
Virgin Festival Ontario day one with Pixies, Franz Ferdinand, Grizzly Bear and more
Frank YangFor a while early last week, it looked like fate wasn’t going to be satisfied with just making the Summer leading up to this weekend’s Virgin Festival Ontario at the Molson Amphitheatre miserable, but it was going to apply the proverbial final kick to the groin by dumping upwards of 40mm of rain on the fest on its first day. Mercifully, the forecast improved incrementally each day and by Friday, it was looking like the rains would fall overnight and miss the festival entirely. By no means did this preclude the possibility of locusts descending during Franz Ferdinand’s set, but at least it would be dry if they did.
Thankfully, sun was the order of the day for the most part, and even if the could cover hadn’t broken then the festival’s first act – Mates Of State – would have done their best to warm up the sparse early birds with their general adorable-ness. The husband-and-wife keys-and-drum duo filled their half-hour set with oughta-be hit after oughta-be hit, wrapping with what was either a Daniel Johnston or Tom Waits cover – they put it to a crowd vote and I wasn’t sure which won out, nor did I recognize the tune. But pretty much everything else in the set came from their terrific last two records – Bring It Back and Re-Arrange Us – and really, made for the best way to start the day I could think of.
Photos: Mates Of State @ The Virgin Mobile Stage – August 29, 2009
MP3: Mates Of State – “My Only Offer”
MP3: Mates Of State – “Fraud In The ’80s”
MP3: Mates Of State – “Think Long”
Video: Mates Of State – “My Only Offer”
Video: Mates Of State – “Get Better”
Video: Mates Of State – “Like You Crazy”
Video: Mates Of State – “Fraud In The ’80s”
MySpace: Mates Of State
One of the perks of having had most/all the acts consolidated on the mainstage, save those on the top 40-friendly Virgin Radio stage, was that generally speaking, I didn’t have to run around between stages – I could just camp out at the main Amphitheatre stage and let them come to me and also watch entire sets for a change. And so while under other circumstances I probably wouldn’t have bothered seeing Lights, that there wasn’t really anything going on anywhere else was enough to keep me around. I’d seen her at last year’s V and while it was clear that I wasn’t the target audience for her wide-eyed, synth-pop, there was no denying her charm. And that was pretty much the take-away from her set on this day as well, all sugary pop confections delivered via keytar. But on a couple of tunes that she introduced as coming from her new record The Listening, out September 22, she broke out some decidedly big beats designed for the dance floor and I realized that if she wanted to, she could be Little Boots. The similarities between their two personas are striking, all Lights would need to do would be to ease up on the sugary, PG-rated balladry made for malls. Of course, that tact has served her quite well so far so the reinvention probably isn’t necessary – I’m just saying that it wouldn’t take much.
Photos: Lights @ The Virgin Mobile Stage – August 29, 2009
Video: Lights – “Drive My Soul”
Video: Lights – “Saviour”
Video: Lights – “February Air”
The last time I saw Grizzly Bear was in August 2008 opening for Radiohead, also at the Molson Amphitheatre. And this time, like that time, they played to a small crowd scattered throughout the venue. But while it’d have been nice to have seen more people on hand to take them in, the open expanse did compliment their airy sounds and ghostly harmonies, allowing them to drift out over the field and lake (and highway). I’ve accepted that I like Grizzly Bear as much as I’m ever going to – which is not nearly as much as most, not even their much-fawned over new record Veckatimest – but I’ve always enjoyed seeing them live and just seeing four talented individuals work, today being no exception.
Photos: Grizzly Bear @ The Virgin Mobile Stage – August 29, 2009
MP3: Grizzly Bear – “Cheerleader”
MP3: Grizzly Bear – “Two Weeks” (live on Letterman)
MP3: Grizzly Bear – “Deep Sea Diver”
MP3: Grizzly Bear – “While You Wait For The Others” (live at KCRW)
MP3: Grizzly Bear – “He Hit Me”
MP3: Grizzly Bear – “On A Neck, On A Spit”
Video: Grizzly Bear – “Two Weeks”
Video: Grizzly Bear – “Knife”
MySpace: Grizzly Bear
I had to double-check past lineups to verify that this was indeed Sloan’s first appearance at a V Fest, which surprised me considering their “elder statesmen” stature in the firmament of Canadian music. But here they were to bring the first proper dose of rock for the day, and with an expanded lineup to boot. It wasn’t deliberate that they were performing as a seven-piece, but necessity – singer/bassist Chris Murphy had broken a collarbone less than a month ago after being hit by a car and was recovering from surgery (surgery? I’ve broken both collarbones and didn’t need no surgery. Of course, I also now have deformed collarbones) so while he was able to sing, his bass and drum duties were handed out to friends of the band. And while the extra players probably added a sense of fun for the band, it also increased the amount of slop in the performance significantly. They managed to keep it mostly together through a set made up of hits from throughout their career, a solid reminder that they’ve written some of the best pure pop songs this country has had to offer in the past 15 years or so, but by the time they made it to set closer “Money City Maniacs” – featuring a genuine manually-operated air raid siren – they were basically falling apart, missing cues, playing to different tempos and generally making a hash of it. Naturally the crowd ate it up, though not quite to the point of offering a, “SLOOOOOAAAAAAAN” chant. Still not enough of them out there to build up the necessary critical mass.
Photos: Sloan @ The Virgin Mobile Stage – August 29, 2009
MP3: Sloan – “I’m Not A Kid Anymore”
Video: Sloan – “Witch’s Wand”
Video: Sloan – “The Other Man”
Video: Sloan – “Money City Maniacs”
Video: Sloan – “The Lines You Amend”
Video: Sloan – “The Good In Everyone”
Video: Sloan – “Coax Me”
After Sloan’s set, the order of the day became finding something to eat and getting as far out of earshot from Paolo Nutini as possible. To that end, I headed over to the Boardwalk Stage, a euphemism for the third stage set up in the vendor’s concourse for some of the smaller bands on the lineup to perform. It amounted to little more than a vinyl tent, smaller than the space allotted to the on-site hairdresser, but did have location going for it being located right in the middle of a lot of foot traffic. I got there in time to see The Superstitions, a fresh-faced new band whom I’d almost caught at NXNE (but didn’t, obviously). Musically, they were pretty good, trading in garage-ish pop tunes with a good balance of hook and grit, but performance-wise they didn’t have the charisma or confidence to really deliver them effectively. If they manage to develop the proper attitude (preferably a bad one), they could be an act to watch.
I think I’ve mentioned the sparse crowds in every band writeup so far, and it’s too bad that that’s necessary but it was hard to miss the expanses of empty seats with any glance back at the audience. Normally, you’d focus on the people actually in attendance but in this case, the vacancies were a constant reminder of how many people were not The problem wasn’t necessarily in the numbers but where those numbers were gathered. You had the general admission pit and 200s pretty well filled and the same for the lawns, but the 300s and 400s in between were like a dead zone – hardly anyone there and really dampening the communal vibe that you’d normally expect at a festival. . This wasn’t a surprise – that’s how the seated venues go – but one couldn’t help thinking that if you’d taken everyone in attendance and dropped them, oh, in a big field, it’d have looked and felt a lot better.
And by the same token, I couldn’t help thinking that if Franz Ferdinand were bigger than they are and the size of the enthusiastic crowd up front was multiplied two or three times over, it’d have been an epic-sized party. The Scottish foursome, back for their third Toronto show in less than nine months, clearly knew how to play a festival set, packing their set with hits and a rarity or two for the hardcores and delivering it all with massive amounts of attitude and energy. I had largely lost track of their recordings since their self-titled debut and hadn’t seen them live since their Toronto debut at the Horseshoe back in February 2004 but watching them up there, absolutely destroying their set (literally, in the case of the drum kit demolition at set’s end), I had to ask myself why these guys weren’t my favourite band in the world? Super-tight, confident and utterly in their element, Franz were the first to make the day feel like a proper festival. Brilliant.
Photos: Franz Ferdinand @ The Virgin Mobile Stage – August 29, 2009
Video: Franz Ferdinand – “Can’t Stop Feeling”
Video: Franz Ferdinand – “Ulysses”
Video: Franz Ferdinand – “Jeremy Fraser”
Video: Franz Ferdinand – “Wine In The Afternoon”
Video: Franz Ferdinand – “Eleanor Put Your Boots On”
Video: Franz Ferdinand – “This Fire”
Video: Franz Ferdinand – “Take Me Out”
Video: Franz Ferdinand – “The Dark Of The Matinee”
MySpace: Franz Ferdinand
Though Pixies were only the penultimate act of the main stage, to many/most they were the real headliners (all due respect to Ben Harper). And while I was bummed to not have been granted photo accreditation for their set, I was still happy to sit back and take in the whole of their 90-minute set. Some seemed disappointed that this wasn’t going to be one of the much-ballyhooed Doolittle sets, with that album played in sequence, but there was no way they weren’t going to play all the highlights from it along with the rest of their repertoire so whatever. It’s not like they’ve got any new material to air out.
This was the first appearance for the Boston legends since 2005 at this same venue, and while I missed that show I did see one of their dates at Arrow Hall on their first reunion tour back in November 2004 and this set had very much the same feel as that one – it sounded great and felt almost completely heartless. This isn’t necessarily a slag – it’s no secret that they got back together for the money and they’re by no means phoning it in, they’re playing everything the customer wants to hear and playing it really well. But if you were looking to feel some love or get a sense of occasion from their show, you probably wouldn’t have found it. They were up there to do a job – play some classic-ass songs to crowds who may not have had the chance to hear them before – and do it well. In a sense, it’s preferable to those reunions where they purport to be taking care of unfinished business or have buried all hatchets, and yet you can see them looking daggers at each other on stage. And so another 10,000 people or so can say they heard “Head On”, “Wave Of Mutilation” and “Gouge Away” live and Pixies can make another payment on their houses. Everybody wins.
Post-Pixies, it was time to head out but not before a nightcap back at the Boardwalk Stage for The Rural Alberta Advantage. I had been afraid that the crowds would have settled in at the main stage for the big names of the night and wouldn’t be roaming the other stages, but there was a large crowd around the tent even before the band had started to play. This was my first time seeing the Hometowns heroes since they broke big back at SxSW in March and while I had been following their whirlwind rise to buzz-dom since them, it was great to be able to actually see them play again. And while they turned in basically the same set I’ve seen them play many times before, they still seem to take real joy in playing and in turn, never fail to make me happy. But even better was seeing how excited the audience watching them were – there was a real sense of discovery on many of the faces, doubly-pleasing because big festivals like this are generally assumed to be about the hoary old veteran acts rolling out the hits. To get people stoked about something new, to see them lining up to thank the band after the set, invite them to play their cities and ask about buying a CD, was immensely satisfying.
Photos: The Rural Alberta Advantage @ The Boardwalk Stage – August 29, 2009
MP3: The Rural Alberta Advantage – “Frank, AB”
MP3: The Rural Alberta Advantage – “Don’t Haunt This Place”
MySpace: The Rural Alberta Advantage
And then I went home and wrote all this up before day two. God I need some sleep.