Isn’t it a little early for an onrush of ’90s nostalgia? Six months ago it was an ill-fated Spice Girls reunion, currently it’s a revamped version of 90210, and it appears that Virgin Festival has hopped aboard the flannel express.After 2007’s progressive and exciting lineup that included Bjork, Arctic Monkeys, and M.I.A., organizers seem to have looked back in time when planning this year’s festival, summoning old heroes like Oasis and the Foo Fighters to headline alongside more youthful bands like Bloc Party and MGMT.The principal theme of the festival appears to be the new British invasion, with the Modfather Paul Weller leading the charge of NME-approved acts like the Kooks, The Fratellis, and The Pigeon Detectives.Altogether, the festival lineup seems to inspire warm and fuzzy feelings in the present, but would have been an absolute blockbuster ten years ago.
As a large-scale music festival reliant on ferry service to transport over 30,000 people on and off the mainland in 48 hours, Toronto’s Virgin Festival could easily turn into a logistical nightmare. Thankfully, all major catastrophes (like those of 2006, when the rickety media and VIP boat began taking on water in the middle of Lake Ontario) were avoided, and Saturday was blessed with warm, sunny weather.This year’s throwback vibe was in full swing upon my arrival, as the recently reunited DC punk veterans Shudder to Think got the festivities rolling on one of the three side stages. The band can be forgiven if their performance was a little tame—they are, after all, pushing 40. Elsewhere, local classic rockers Flash Lightnin’ looked slightly out of place on the Oh Henry stage, which is a far cry from the Dakota Tavern where they built their sizable reputation. In the midst of a barrage of their southern-fried, 70s-style tunes, singer Darren Glover made light of the shameless corporate sponsorship by demanding what he assumed would be free chocolate bars.Over at the main stage, The Constantines came out strong with old favourite “Nighttime Anytime.” The rocking set by the Guelph five-piece injected some life into the subdued main stage crowd, as singer Bryan Webb described ferocious new single “Hard Feelings” as “a song about doing it with your wife, I’m sure some of you know what I’m talking about.”The lengthy delay before the side stage appearance by British space rock outfit Spiritualized threw off the day’s schedule off track, but Jason Pierce finally emerged to lead his band through a triumphant rendition of classic 1992 single “Shine A Light,” ascending into a slow, echoey jam that edged past the 10-minute mark. Regrettably, there wasn’t time to enjoy much else, and my sprint across the festival grounds ended just as Brooklyn’s MGMT took to the stage. As if on cue, the assembled crowd reached for their joints simultaneously, and the main stage vibe morphed from subdued anticipation into one giant contact high. With a set list designed as a rising action, folk-inflected gems like “The Youth” and “Pieces of What” gave way to “Time to Pretend” and “Electric Feel,” a double-shot of up-tempo highlights that succeeded in moving the feet of sluggish stoners.Unlike last year, I actually managed to find food conveniently set up in back of the media tent. Those of us fortunate enough to have media passes were entitled to a meal ticket good for one buffet-style roast beef dinner. Surprisingly tasty for music festival fare.Feeling refreshed and full, I was quickly driven from the main stage by the cock-rock annoyance of Florida’s Against Me!, who have got to be one of the few remaining bands punctuated by an exclamation mark, now that Panic at the Disco famously ditched theirs. I was recently dumbfounded to learn that SPIN Magazine named Against Me!’s New Wave as the best album of 2007, ahead of such luminaries as Arcade Fire, Kanye West and Radiohead, though I’ll say that they definitely deserve earworm of the year for cringe-worthy singles “Stop” and “Thrash Unreal.”If the prime demographic for this year’s Virgin Festival is a bizarre combination of hard-rocking stoners and Union Jack-toting Anglophiles, then The Fratellis were doing their best to hold up the Britpop end. I arrived just in time for their breakthrough single “Flathead,” or more specifically, the ‘ba-da-ba-da’ nonsense that made them iTunes commercial megastars. It may be a featherweight hook, but they’ve managed to make quite a career out of 30 transcendent seconds.The congregation for Wintersleep was the largest I’ve seen for a side stage act in three years of V Fest, evidence that the quality of talent recruited for the side stages has narrowed the gap between stages considerably. A music lover could presumably spend their whole day avoiding the main stage and still leave fairly satisfied, and I heard that the 100 fans who stuck around for The Kooks were treated to a thrillingly intimate set.Everyone else had taken off to see Bloc Party, for whom expectations were huge. A number of gear issues marred their sunset timeslot, and singer Kele Okereke couldn’t get a dependable sound out of his instrument despite the guitar techs scrambling around his feet. After several appearances by the drum tech, it was clear something was wrong, and Bloc Party weren’t pleased.They met the adversity with the distinct air of indifference, phoning in a collection of tracks off their only well-received album to date, 2005’s Silent Alarm. Okereke made a quick reference to what seems destined to be his band’s next mediocre record, Intimacy, which is due for an October release, not that we were treated to any new songs. The band even opted to forgo their only memorable songs of the past two years, “I Still Remember” and the electro-charged one-off single “Flux.” When Bloc Party excused themselves after a scant 40 minutes, the crowd was left in a lull of appalled disbelief. Very disappointing.I took refuge in the VIP area, which, thanks to a large, multi-level wooden deck to the left of the stage, finally offered decent sightlines. To my right I witnessed a few brave souls climb an adjacent tree in an effort to secure a better view for headliners The Foo Fighters, and my thoughts turned to a consideration of Dave Grohl’s legacy.The man fronts one of the most consistently bankable acts in rock n’ roll, yet I often need reminding he was in Nirvana. Even at the ripe old age of 39, Grohl is as energetic a frontman as you’re likely to find among veterans, with a mane of long hair that was definitely grown out with head-banging solos in mind.He castigated concert-goers who were seeing the band for the first time (“Where have you been for 14 years?”) and gave a shout out to a seven-year old kid hoisted on his parent’s shoulders.The day’s highlights came in the form of two old favourites, each slowed down to tug properly on the heartstrings. An acoustic version of “My Hero,” with piano and string accompaniment, got the crowd singing, while Grohl’s pensive solo rendition of his masterpiece, “Everlong,” was exactly the kind of chilling moment large-scale festivals are destined to provide.By the time Grohl cracked open a Coors Light, the party was in full swing. “Monkey Wrench,” “The Pretender,” and “Best of Me” ended VFest’s first day with a mammoth hit parade that was nothing short of triumphant.
The unthinkable almost happened. After lousy weather marred such anticipated events as Kanye West’s Glow in the Dark Tour, Warped Tour, and the Rogers Picnic, Virgin Festival almost fell victim to Toronto’s record-setting ‘Summer of Rain,’ escaping by a thread as storm clouds passed by on Sunday afternoon. The ground was damp, but we were spared a Glastonbury-esque mudfest and the show went on as planned.Just as I stepped off the ferry, the dormant sun emerged just in time for Sebastien Grainger and the Mountains. I suppose ‘Les Montagnes’ simply wasn’t accessible enough for an American audience, and with a new record set to drop in October, Grainger is evidently pulling out all the stops for a second shot at fame. However, songs like “Kid Party” are a far cry from his Death From Above 1979 days, lacking the originality that made them one of Toronto’s most buzzed-about bands of the decade. The new material consists of rollicking, melodic rock n’ roll tunes of the mold that has been ubiquitous since the Rolling Stones. Not that Grainger and his mates aren’t tight—bassist Nick Sewell anchors a strong group of instrumentalists, but even seeing the former DFA drummer lying on floor shredding isn’t enough to make up for the lack of personality in his material.The Weakerthans’ set opened slower than expected with the mournful “Bigfoot!,” but it wasn’t long before they were all smiles, busting out recent singles “Tournament of Hearts” and “Civil Twilight,” introduced respectively as “a song about curling” and “a song about bus drivers.” Old favourites like “The Reasons” off 2003’s Reconstruction Site got the crowd moving, and the band paused before exiting to take a picture of the crowd, which must be one of the biggest that the underrated indie rockers have ever played.A lack of must-see talent on the side stages (read: the snooze-worthy Matt Costa and the positively dreadful Yoav) meant that more time could be reserved to stake out a good spot in anticipation of Oasis. Hanging back was the easier option, mainly because I wasn’t in the mood to fight through throngs of drunken jocks clad in a random assortment of soccer jerseys.Silversun Pickups are a band who fit in with the throwback theme—they’re a young band with a strong imprint of mid-90s grunge all over them. They’ve got all the right elements – a dirty misfit of a frontman, a female bassist, and the kind of angsty, distorted guitar riffs that would probably have scored them a SPIN cover back in 1995. The subdued crowd seemed to wait and wait for “Lazy Eye,” which the band milked to the best of their ability, stretching both the intro and outro into a reverb-washed mass of self-indulgence.I’ll pause here to mention that V Fest’s famed text message ticker was a massive disappointment this year, which I blame on its Motorola sponsor. The font was so big that only two words fit on the screen at once, testing my patience all weekend. It might be a tiny detail, but somehow it wears on you if it’s not perfect.For a band that has not had a hit record in North America for at least seven years, the resurrected Stereophonics boasted a surprising number of dedicated British ex-pats belting out the words to “Have A Nice Day” and the media hate-on “Mr. Writer.” Why can’t Stereophonics break through? Maybe we’re just a superficial continent—after all, the bandmembers were famously judged by London’s XFM to be among the ugliest men in rock n’ roll. They closed with “Dakota,” a song that was a contender for single of the year across the pond, but failed to make much of an impact over here.Paul Weller was next. If you have absolutely no idea who he is, don’t fret—I overheard a photographer in the media tent claim that “Paul Weller is older than my father.” The platinum-coiffed former frontman of British ‘70s rockers The Jam emerged clad in a black American Apparel henley top and promptly ripped through a series of tunes off his latest solo effort, ˆ. The undisputed highlight was The Jam’s classic “Town Called Malice,” revamping the ubiquitous Bo Diddley/Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” guitar riff. By this point, Union Jacks, St. George’s crosses, and even a Brazilian flag were raised high, and the scene was set for the headliners.The media tent was buzzing at 7 p.m. with the news that Oasis had barred nearly all photographers for their set. I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised—their prima donna reputation precedes them. By now, Oasis’ schtick is familiar to everyone. Whether you love or hate them, they’ve successfully made the transition to legends, and Liam Gallagher’s trademark sunglasses and arrogant center stage pose (head tilted back, looking down his nose at his adoring public), is now world famous.The recent rush of retroactive praise for Oasis’ debut album Definitely, Maybe seems to have reached the band, as their set consisted mainly of standards like “Rock N’ Roll Star” and “Cigarettes & Alcohol.” They found time for the Liam-penned “Songbird” before disaster struck. A senseless fan rushed the stage and a scuffle ensued before he was taken down by security guards. When the band dropped their instruments and fled without a word, it appeared that V Fest had ended on a sudden and tragic note.After a few minutes of stunned and confused silence, a stage handler approached the mic and begged the crowd for five minutes of patience, promising the show would go on. I may be of little faith, but I was convinced that it was all over, and the “infamous Toronto stage-charging debacle” would go down as the latest page in Oasis’ dramatic history.But it was not to be. Led by songwriter and guitarist Noel Gallagher, who took over during Liam’s conspicuous absence, the band re-emerged and soldiered on. Liam appeared at the side stage unscathed, leading us through “Wonderwall” and a few select cuts. Noel took back the lead vocal for an emotional acoustic take on personal favourite “Don’t Look Back In Anger.” I suppose we were lucky that Oasis didn’t simply mumble profanities and hop on their tour bus, yet regrettably, their post-scuffle effort seemed half-hearted. As they closed with a cover of The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus,” the mood seemed to be one of relief rather than exuberance. Virgin Festival managed to avoid a riot, but the theme of reliving past glories had reared its ugly head. Without so much as a brawl when the drama went down, the tense atmosphere lacked a climax. Instead, we reached an apathetic compromise. It’s the type of maturity that only comes with age. While the years may have caught up with us, the song remains the same.