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Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

Virgin Festival Ontario Day Two

Virgin Festival Ontario day two with Nine Inch Nails, Pet Shop Boys and more

Photo By Frank YangFrank YangGrey skies, cold winds, threatening clouds… was there any doubt that Trent was coming to town?

It was a foregone conclusion that day two of Virgin Festival would end in a blinding and deafening display of aggression and angst courtesy of Nine Inch Nails, so I rather liked that the day would begin with the gentle piano-pop of Coeur De Pirate. Ms Beatrice Martin utterly beguiled at her Toronto debut during NXNE, and to anyone who complained about booking an act with such buzz behind her into a room as small as the Dakota Tavern, well here you go – is the Molson Amphitheatre big enough for you? And speaking of big, Coeur de Pirate as a live entity was now a five-piece band, which helped fill out not only the mix but the stage. Her two-piece setup at the Dakota befit the cozy venue, but here in this massive space, the addition of the rhythm section really helped carry her tunes out over the sparse crowd. I’ve been completely won over by her self-titled album since that NXNE show so I was more than happy to get to see her live again, and her Rihanna cover was much, much better than the Katy Perry one she’d closed with in June. It was probably a safe guess that most of those there for gate time were NIN hardcores bound and determined to be up front, so the fact that everyone who was there for 1PM seemed to respond to Coeur de Pirate most enthusiastically was a pleasant surprise.

And in what would be a recurring theme, probably more a comment on my own stereotypes than anything else, was how supportive those ultra-keen Nine Inch Nails fans were of all the other acts on the day even though many/most were of a style completely not RIYL NIN. I suppose if you’re going to be camped out on a concrete floor pressed up against a metal barricade for 10 hours you may as well have a good time. But still, kudos.

Photos: Coeur de Pirate @ The Virgin Mobile Stage – August 30, 2009
Video: Coeur De Pirate – “Comme Des Enfants”
Video: Coeur De Pirate – “Ensemble”
MySpace: Coeur De Pirate

Gentle pop was out the window for act number two, Norwegian electro-ironists Datarock. Clad in their signature red track suits, they were all about the audience engagement (and shilling their new album Red) as they tried to get the party started with their clownish stage antics and super-tight, uptempo tunes. As schticks went, theirs was entertaining and the half-hour set was just long enough to please without getting old. Datarock are undeniably goofy, but obviously don’t intend to be taken too seriously. After all, there was enough seriousness coming later in the day – for now, some fun.

Photos: Datarock @ The Virgin Mobile Stage – August 30, 2009
MP3: Datarock – “True Stories”
Video: Datarock – “True Stories”
Video: Datarock – “Fa-Fa-Fa”
Video: Datarock – “Bulldozer”
Stream: Datarock / Red
MySpace: Datarock

I have never been able to get a good handle on Mew, the Danish prog-pop ensemble who were capable of shifting from indescribable tweeness to unrelenting aggression at the drop of a hat, all the while remaining simultaneously weird and accessible. Their September 2006 show at the Mod Club remains one of the most singularly odd shows I’ve ever been to, to say nothing of the most frustrating to photograph – and not for poor light like most shows. Read the review for specifics. Anyways, their new record No More Stories still hasn’t grown on me, seeming to be much less focused than And The Glass-Handed Kites, and on top of that they seemed to be having sound issues both on stage and in the house, Jonas Bjerre’s vocals being largely inaudible. Oh, and he still has the worst mic technique in the world, again largely foiling my attempts to get anything resembling a flattering photograph. But the set was salvaged by a majestic reading of “The Zookeeper’s Boy” from Kites that very much demonstrated why, even though they can be confounding, Mew are still worth paying attention to. When they hit it, they hit it hard.

Photos: Mew @ The Virgin Mobile Stage – August 30, 2009
MP3: Mew – “Repeaterbeater”
MP3: Mew – “Introducing Palace Players”
Video: Mew – “Introducing Palace Players”
Video: Mew – “Special”
Video: Mew – “The Zookeeper’s Boy”
MySpace: Mew

I didn’t know anything about New Orleans’ MuteMath prior to their second Virgin Festival appearance in Toronto (they also played in 2007 but I missed them), but everyone told me they put on a great show. And that they did. Visually, they were tremendously entertaining – anytime you have a drummer who needs to duct tape his headphones onto his head, you’re in for a good time. And it wasn’t just for show – Darren King was a monster on the kit and great to watch and his bandmates not far behind, particularly frontman/keyboardist Paul Meany who gave great photo, striking poses with his keytar and showing off his dental work. Musically, they weren’t as impressive – decent radio-ready modern rock, but nothing that really stuck with me after their set was done. But hell of a performance.

Photos: MuteMath @ The Virgin Mobile Stage – August 30, 2009
Video: MuteMath – “Spotlight”
Video: MuteMath – “Typical”
MySpace: MuteMath

I skipped out on the Cold War Kids blog buzz back in 2006 or so, and watching them dull up the stage on this afternoon, I was at a loss to understand how I was in the minority then of those who wasn’t impressed. Shouty and aimless, the best Cold War Kids could muster from the audience was polite applause and general indifference. If looking for positives, they were one of the more mobile acts I’d seen this weekend, all four of the band members endlessly roaming the stage while they played and swapping up instruments. But beyond that, not much to report.

Photos: Cold War Kids @ The Virgin Mobile Stage – August 30, 2009
MP3: Cold War Kids – “Hospital Beds”
Video: Cold War Kids – “We Used To Vacation”
Video: Cold War Kids – “Something Is Not Right With Me”
MySpace: Cold War Kids

The token hip-hop act on the mainstage for the festival was N.E.R.D., who came with a pretty impressive CV including a Shortlist Prize and extensive top 40 production/writing credits via Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo’s work in The Neptunes. I got this from asking people around me, “so who are these guys?”, just to be clear. But if the crowd needed waking up after Cold War Kids – which they did – N.E.R.D. were the ones to do it. Their set was basically a big party, with dancers recruited from the audience, crowd-baiting shout outs and pandering to the hometown by yelling, “TORONTO!” a lot. It was pretty cheesy but wholly effective – this was a crowd that wanted to get excited. Like Franz Ferdinand the night before, N.E.R.D.’s set was a clear indicator that the evening was ramping up and it was now prime time. Which, with Our Lady Peace up next, meant dinner.

Photos: N.E.R.D. @ The Virgin Mobile Stage – August 30, 2009
Video: N.E.R.D. – “Everyone Nose”
Video: N.E.R.D. – “Sooner Or Later”
Video: N.E.R.D. – “She Wants To Move”
Video: N.E.R.D. – “Rock Star”
MySpace: N.E.R.D.

For many, The Von Bondies are best known for a certain physical altercation with a certain fellow Detroit band a few years back – who, incidentally, were covered/sampled/quoted by N.E.R.D. earlier that afternoon – but for the throngs of V Festers who gathered around the Boardwalk stage around dinnertime, they were known as the band who put on a thoroughly kick-ass rock show and looked to be having the best time doing it. Though an act who’s been around as long as they might have had legitimate complaint about being relegated to the baby stage (they even took the trouble to build a riser for the stage so people could see), there was no grousing from the quartet – just grins, jokes and flat-out rock. They’ve already played Toronto twice this year in support of their new album Love, Hate And Then There’s You but I suspect if they return again, they’ll have a lot more fans in attendance.

Photos: The Von Bondies @ The Boardwalk Stage – August 30, 2009
MP3: The Von Bondies – “This Is Our Perfect Crime”
MP3: The Von Bondies – “Pale Bride”
Video: The Von Bondies – “Pale Bride”
MySpace: The Von Bondies

I had a friend in high school whose favourite band was the Pet Shop Boys. I never understood that until Sunday night. I’d always liked the handful of songs I knew, and certainly had no aversion to the synth-pop, but until Pet Shop Boys were announced as part of the V Fest lineup, I’d never really gave them a second thought. In the weeks leading up to this show, I took the time to brush up on my musical education and before long, I was supremely excited for their set. I didn’t realize just how masterful Messrs Tennant and Lowe were with the pop song, but everything I listened to – whether I knew it beforehand or not – was instantly embedded in my skull. Add in the fact that they’re just as well-known for their elaborate live shows and there was no way this wasn’t going to be great. I know most everyone there was going to be waiting for NIN, but for me the night was all about PSB.

And by god they did not disappoint. With a set comprised of a wall of giant white boxes, Lowe and Tennant took the stage with cubes on their heads and accompanied by a pair of dancers also in box couture. From there, it was an almost non-stop, meticulously choreographed and executed technicolour dance-pop extravaganza of costumes, dancers and massive video wall projections. The set wasn’t quite the greatest hits package I’d expected, but to be fair their latest album Yes did chart at #4 in the UK – hardly the sign of a band needing to rest on past laurels. But still, they busted out “Suburbia”, “Go West”, “You Are Always On My Mind”, an unexpected cover of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” and they closed their main set with an exquisite, silver glitter confetti-exploding “It’s A Sin”. And for a second, I thought that might have been it but when roadies in white lab coats and hard hats came out with brooms and vacuums to clean up the confetti, it was obvious it wasn’t over. Of course not. There still had to be “West End Girls”. And they returned and there was “West End Girls”. And it was brilliant.

I think it’s safe to say that Nine Inch Nails has never had such an opener before, and to their credit Reznor’s army of black-clad fans seemed to eat it up for the most part. I would bet that Trent was watching from the side and had his head bobbing at the very least. If you did not love this set then you must put far too much energy into being a sourpuss.

Photos: Pet Shop Boys @ The Virgin Mobile Stage – August 30, 2009
Video: Pet Shop Boys – “Love Etc”
Video: Pet Shop Boys – “Suburbia”
Video: Pet Shop Boys – “Go West”
Video: Pet Shop Boys – “Jealousy”
Video: Pet Shop Boys – “What Have I Done To Deserve This”
Video: Pet Shop Boys – “Always On My Mind”
Video: Pet Shop Boys – “Where The Streets Have No Name”
Video: Pet Shop Boys – “West End Girls”
MySpace: Pet Shop Boys

While my weekend had peaked, for most everyone else the main event was still to come. I never liked Nine Inch Nails. Back in high school, I was less about aggressive angst and more about mope angst, and that’s not even mentioning the memories of pub nights in university whenever THAT song came on and the floor filled with the jock types who just had to sing along with THAT chorus because, well, it spoke to them. You know what I’m talking about. But since then my attitude towards NIN has softened somewhat and Reznor, for his part, seems to have found a sense of humour. I still haven’t listened to anything he’s released in years, but I bear him no enmity. So while I had no real intention of sticking around for his full two-hour set, I did want to see what was sure to be an impressive performance to say nothing of the sense of occasion, this being the last Nine Inch Nails show in Canada – perhaps ever, if the publicity people are to be believed.

And it really was something to see. A massive light show, huge sounds and the mighty roar of the crowd – still not completely sold out, but enough to make a racket. Reznor and company played the dynamics of the set masterfully, moving from a clenched whisper to hoarse scream and still, after all these years, sounding like he really means it. Impressive. Also impressive was that in the time I stuck around (just under an hour), I heard two songs I recognized and one I actually liked – “March Of The Pigs”. The other was THAT song. Yeah. Anyways, when Reznor decided it was time for a piano recital, I decided it was time to go home.

Photos: Nine Inch Nails @ The Virgin Mobile Stage – August 30, 2009
Video: Nine Inch Nails – “The Perfect Drug”
Video: Nine Inch Nails – “The Hand That Feeds”
Video: Nine Inch Nails – “Wish”
Video: Nine Inch Nails – “March Of The Pigs”
Video: Nine Inch Nails – “The Day The World Went Away (Quiet)”
Video: Nine Inch Nails – “Closer”
Video: Nine Inch Nails – “Hurt”
MySpace: Nine Inch Nails

Finally, agonizingly, the fourth Virgin Festival in Toronto was in the books. For all the complaining that went on leading up to it – justified and not – and the potential for fiasco, it actually went pretty well. The talent assembled was unique amongst the year’s festival circuit and solid to great, though there wasn’t quite enough of it to offer many options to attendees. While some – myself and my feet included – liked being able to stay in one spot at one stage through the day and still get to see most of the acts, it didn’t really feel like a proper festival. Also not helping the vibe was the venue – as mentioned yesterday, the assigned seating left huge tracts of real estate empty for most of the day, and that just suffocated any chance for a real festival vibe to develop. Sure it was the best they could do on short notice and in that context, it was fine – an empty Burl’s Creek would have been even less vibey – but it’s hardly a desirable locale for future events. And I’m really hoping that the festival and brand survives this annus horribilis, learns some valuable lessons and is able to maintain or win back the the faith of festival-goers put off by any number of things surrounding their five events this year. But also keep in mind that people like to complain. Complaining is fun. But put together the right lineup and even the haters will show up again. See you next year, I hope. Islands again? Downsview? Somewhere with wide, open spaces please.

Reviews of the weekend can be found at The Toronto Star, Toronto Sun, National Post, Spinner and ChartAttack.

By : Frank Yang at 8:27 am
Category: General

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

RSS Feed for this post5 Responses.
  1. Ben says:

    Cold War Kids are one of the most curious success stories of the past several years, in my opinion. I did pay attention to the early blog buzz, and I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Sounded like clunky, fairly tuneless, generic rock to me.

    Thought maybe seeing them live would change my mind. Nope. Actually, it had the opposite effect. They were pretty lousy.

    Count me in on not getting the Cold War Kids.

  2. Tony Ronzer says:

    Sorta funny that in a virgin posted review of the event, the reviewer left the headliners set before it was over…

    This pretty much echo’s the same response from most of the audience…Toronto didn’t really earn/deserve NIN’s performance. If anything, he should have played his own private show instead of joining up with a festival to give his best efforts to those who truly appreciate his talents.
    The fact that NIN came to Canada for the Wave Goodbye tour shows that there was some sort of respect that was met by Reznor, and that he found a stop in Toronto was worth his time.

    Too bad we let him down.

    30 song setlists have been played for the majority of this tour…now I don’t know if this was the result of the festival having to end early…or perhaps because Trent was just downright disappointed in the crowd response…but a 22 song set just proves that Toronto was TREATED by Mr.Reznor and he didn’t have to give us anything more.

    All I know is that when I looked at Trent’s face while I was in the pit (a soft one at that), despite his best efforts, it was clear that he was disappointed in our city, and in the end, we got what we deserved…

    At least I waved goodbye.

  3. Frank Yang says:

    yeah, Virgin picked up a link to my review of their own accord, nothing to do with me. And I don’t owe NIN anything – have never been a fan so hardly obliged to stay and genuflect. Sorry you didn’t enjoy it. Reznor has been on the record as saying he did this show because the fee would subsidize the smaller, money-losing shows he’s been doing everywhere else. So it’s hardly like he didn’t know he was getting into a festival situation where everyone plays shorter than normal sets.

    anyways.

  4. Tony Ronzer says:

    Well it’s awesome that you were able to get some exposure for your blog…and nothing personal of your review, which is well done…it’s only that your statement pretty much summed up the generic attitude of some of the festival goers…they weren’t there for NIN, which is why this show would have faired better as a stand alone performance in terms of the viewership and audience.

    And I never said I didn’t enjoy it…on the contrary…it was a phenomenal experience…and from the 8 and 1/2 shows I’ve bared witness to, I could say with confidence that this may quite possibly be my favorite one from them all. Partially due to the fact that I know he will not be back for quite some time, and partially due to fact that he played ‘Closer’ into ‘Ruiner’ (followed by the fury of ‘Burn’ and ‘Gave Up’) which topped it off for me.

    And although I wholeheartedly agree that when he picked up this show, he knew what he was getting into…my dissapointment only stems from the fact that it could have just been that much better had the people of Toronto been more respectful and responsive.

  5. Melissa says:

    2 weeks late…

    These are great reviews, I was there for both days and had a great time. Franz Ferdinand were the big draw for me on day 1, and PSB on day 2. I acquired some new bands into my library but I do have to say that I was disappointed with the crowd on day 2, particularly during the PSB set (most likely due to the entire crowd being there for NIN). Your photos are great too, thanks for covering the fest! Hopefully next year’s will be better organised!