Weekend is all over the map, and different than the rest of the fests Different than the rest of the fests

Virgin Fest Observations

August 11, 2008|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,Sun reporter

Three years ago, it would have been another silent summer day at Pimlico Race Course.

But yesterday, the Virgin Mobile Festival brought a stew of sights, sounds and smells to the grassy infield. A steady stream of young people pushed past vendor tents, puffing on cigarettes and smearing their faces with sunscreen. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club cranked out scathing blues rock from the North Stage, and bodies bounced to Chromeo's electro-funk beats in the Dance Tent.

The festival's impact is undeniable. Since 2006, it has grown in size and scope, bringing big-name acts from all corners of the music world to tens of thousands of spectators. And you can bet a huge swath of the youngish crowd had never been inside the racetrack before. Preakness is probably the only other time teens and 20-somethings have been to Pimlico - if at all.

But the Virgin Festival is still very much a work in progress, with organizers trying slightly different strategies each year to appeal to the most fans. Over time, it has evolved from a one-day festival in September with clear-cut headliners to a two-day event in August with a more well-rounded lineup.

This year, Virgin Fest included up-and-coming acts, established rappers, '90s rockers and major European DJs. But there were no headliners with the star power of the Police. Promoter/producer Seth Hurwitz wanted it that way. He didn't want to blow his budget on hugely popular headliners and fill the rest of the lineup with fluff.

As a result, this year's performers were some of the hottest in their respective genres. Did it bring more bodies to the festival? Hard to say. Organizers think this year's attendance was on par with last year, and that appeared to be true.

For the most part, Hurwitz's strategy worked. There was far less filler this year than in the past. The abridged, roughly hourlong sets were perfect for people who wanted to see Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry and Lil' Wayne but didn't want to sit through an entire concert by them.

Unlike the punk-rock-heavy Warped Tour or indie-centric South by Southwest, Virgin Fest has never fixated on any particular musical genre. Hurwitz hoped fans wanted to see a mix of bands they've only heard of, as well as one or two of their favorite acts.

But that also keeps Virgin Fest from having a set identity. It's not the rock fest or the punk fest or the hip-hop fest; it has a little bit of everything.

That part appealed to Kristine Greck, a 21-year-old from West Chester, Pa.

"There's such a range here," she said. "Being able to see a little taste of everything is a really good experience."

It's hard for some people to justify paying $100 a ticket to see one or two bands they like. But Nathan Koransky, a 19-year-old who lives in Fairfax, Va., thought a couple acts were worth the price tag.

"I just came for Lil' Wayne and Kanye West," he said. "Each concert costs like $50, and it's nearby our house, so I just wanted to come."

In past years, lineups had classic-rock staples like the Who, which meant lots of baby boomers and their kids in the crowd. There weren't many middle-agers this time around, though.

Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry were the only acts that would likely appeal to them, and neither one has much drawing power these days. But tons of teenagers and college kids - and more than a few 30-somethings (probably fans of Nine Inch Nails and Stone Temple Pilots) with their children in tow - showed.

Holding the festival in August means organizers run the risk of brutally hot and humid weather. That was the case last year, when some attendees passed out from heat exhaustion and had to be treated in the medical tent. Festivalgoers lucked out this year, with mild temperatures and light breezes.

Another complaint is the rampant commercialization. Most major music festivals have corporate sponsors, but few are named after them. From the get-go, the Virgin Fest made no qualms about its many sponsors.

There were the Dell Dome and the PlayStation trailer and seemingly dozens of representatives from various companies pushing their products on festivalgoers. And yes, an event needs sponsors. But the California Tortilla VIP Shuttle Stop? Is that really necessary?

Unlike many other major music festivals, Virgin Fest ran on time. Most acts took the stage within five to 10 minutes of their scheduled start time - a rare occurrence at such a large event with so many performers. It's crucial considering the festival's (early) 10 p.m. curfew.

True to its name, the Virgin Festival isn't just a series of performances like the defunct HFStival. All of the odd asides and the sprawling infield grounds give it a real festival environment.

This past weekend, attendees could watch a roller derby exhibition match, see a circus show or have their hair done up in a funky do. The music is still the centerpiece, but all of these fringe activities help make it more than just a show.

Though Virgin Fest is a feather in Baltimore's cap (Washington has nothing like it), it incorporates little of the local music scene. Electronic composer/performer Dan Deacon was the only Baltimore act in the festival's history, but he had national buzz when he was booked last year.

And it's easy to understand why organizers would skip over local bands in favor of nationally renowned performers. But there's enough room in the infield for some kind of local music stage, which would give the festival a stronger regional tie-in.

A large-scale music festival like the Virgin Fest isn't critical to the revitalization of a city like Baltimore. But for a couple days in late summer, it brings national attention to Charm City and helps breathe new life into an aging, ailing race course.


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