It was 40 years ago, right in the middle of the Summer of Love, that San Francisco played host to the Monterey Pop Festival, an event that would define the hippie era and change the way rock ’n’ roll was presented to huge audiences. The massive success of that weekend laid the foundation for countless other rock festivals that have since become legendary. Just as California has Coachella, Tennessee has Bonnaroo, and upstate New York had Woodstock (until Limp Bizkit inspired mass rape and arson in 1999), Toronto has been fortunate enough to have the Virgin Festival. While music nationalists point out that Broken Social Scene had already done “the big Toronto Island concert” three times before the first V Fest last September, and music socialists are quick to criticize the high ticket price and the nauseating amount of corporate sponsorship, V Fest represents the best chance for Toronto to develop its own legendary music festival. So, while it’s still a far cry from the indie-Mecca of Coachella, this year’s V Fest did sport a solid lineup of local and international talent. Here’s our report from a weekend that was jam-packed with great music.
Day One (Saturday, September 8)
I couldn’t help but notice the positive vibes that were all over the island. From the group stretched out on the grass sharing a bottle of wine, to the no more than ten loyal fans watching the smaller acts get the day rolling, people seemed to be having a blast.
The first act I saw was local hip-hop popster K-OS, who took to the main stage a little after 3 p.m. Ever the rabble-rouser, he displayed his flair for audience flattery by yelling out “All the ugly people be quiet!” Mr. Congeniality he ain’t, but that didn’t matter much once hits like “Crabbuckit,” “Man I Used to Be,” and “Sunday Morning” started to flow.Next to hit the main stage was Sri Lankan- British rapper and singer M.I.A. Fresh off the release of her amazing new record Kala, this girl came to party. Bouncing around in hot pink sunglasses, M.I.A.’s eclectic mix of grime and dancehall got most of the girls (and a few of the boys) dancing up a storm. The definite highlight was her cover of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” which turned the main stage at V Fest into a sweaty club, with the sizzling sun as our disco ball, and grass our dance floor.While the day was by all accounts entirely peaceful, it came closest to a riot when M.I.A. called for audience members to join her on stage. Brothers Enrique and Alfredo Gaudite (both U of T students) were two of the first to jump the barricade.“M.I.A. said, ‘We’re the only crazy motherfuckers up here!’ and there was a mass rush to the stage,” says Alfredo. Enrique added, “The security guys couldn’t hold me down. It was pure energy and sweat.”Looking around I caught a glimpse of headliner Björk sitting quietly in the sound booth taking in M.I.A.’s set. Conversation was definitely off-limits however, because she looked like she was seriously “in the zone.”While I wasn’t ready to jump on stage just yet, I was ready to hate on Bostonian nu-cock-rockers Bang Camaro. That is, until I saw them play. The four guitarists backed by 10 singers (seriously, there are 10 “lead” singers in this band) played to about 40 people and wreaked absolute, glorious havoc. Tack on their drummer, and that’s a cool 15 band members headbanging their way through a set of throwback ’80s hairmetal. Also on the side stage were local Arts & Crafts kids The Most Serene Republic who debuted material from their sophomore album Population, which drops in less than a month.In case you’ve forgotten, the first Virgin Festival last September was marred by mishaps concerning both headliners: The Flaming Lips had their sound yanked early into their set, and Massive Attack, were forced to drop out after being stopped at the border.This year, I’m pleased to report that the festival’s organizers managed to avoid any major meltdowns, save for the Saturday 5 p.m. slot on the main stage. After initial act Amy “Overdose” Winehouse checked into rehab (“I won’t go, go, go…” yeah, right), festival organizers made a last-minute phone call to book Montreal DJ and Gorillaz collaborator Kid Koala to fill in. His set seemed to be under control until the blazing sun reportedly melted his vinyl records, causing them to stick to the turntable! Burn.For me, the day would not have been complete without a healthy dose of raw, guitar-driven indie- rock, and brit blokes Arctic Monkeys and NYC’s Interpol were both on hand to deliver just that. While the lads from Sheffield blazed through a ton of material in their hour-long set, Interpol rotated tunes from their three LPs, closing with the show-stopping combination of “Not Even Jail” off of 2004’s Antics, and “PDA” from their 2002 debut Turn on the Bright Lights.By nightfall it became clear that everyone was anticipating the day-ending set by Icelandic avant-garde songstress Björk. A collection of tattered red-and-green flags were hoisted up to make the stage resemble a medieval court, and a huge brass band provided an interesting contrast to the futuristic sounds being emitted by a round electronic instrument that screamed out high-pitched frequencies.While many fans preferred her up-tempo, electronic numbers, I felt that her ballads represented the evening’s most arresting moments. Songs like “Unravel” and “Joga” set the scene for a finale that had the potential for real greatness.Amazingly, she chose to end the set with the moving “Hyperballad,” which would have been a perfect conclusion had the strings not dropped out of the mix halfway through and been replaced by a pulsating heap of beats that turned her best composition into a disappointing attempt at a club anthem. While Björk didn’t exactly send me home with a tune in my heart, it would be wrong to call her rare appearance anything short of awe inspiring.
Day Two (Sunday September 9)
Regrettably, it was clear from the morning cloud cover that Day 2 would not be the same kind of sun-drenched affair that was Saturday afternoon. When we last heard, Sunday at V Fest was nearly sold out, which was hard to imagine, given the sea of music fans we encountered yesterday.
It was business as usual in the Beer Garden, with legions of “fans” paying more attention to getting wasted and looking cool than actually listening to the music.London newcomer Jamie T arrived looking a little like Dylan at Newport, and his band the Pacemakers sounded like a grime version of the Clash. Famous for his bedroom recordings that were nominated for the Mercury Prize, Jamie T proved that he rocks both in and out of the house, closing his set with a stellar version of his single “Sheila.”Not surprisingly, local buzz-band Tokyo Police Club secured a spot on the main stage, leading off a triple-shot of bankable Canadian indie-rock. Breaking down a Tokyo Police Club set leads one to realize that they really are the flag-bearers for the ADD generation, in that each song is two minutes long, ditching epic themes for manic hooks and boundless energy.On the side stages, New York’s Blonde Redhead made a strong case to be included on the main stage, thanks to their insanely tight rhythms and intricate guitar work. Tastemakers were out in full force for their set at the Future Shop stage, and they’re definitely a band to check out if you haven’t already done so.Second in the string of local heroes were Stars, who hit the stage and miraculously brought the sun out with them. Singer Torquil Campbell sympathized with fans who came in from Scarborough for the occasion, saying, “I’ve almost been killed 25 times in Scarborough, but it’s okay, you can move away.”Metric had by far the freshest festival tracks, alternating between unrecorded material that will appear on their next release and a hit parade from their earlier discs.The crowd actually broke through the barricade in advance of Springsteen wannabes The Killers, which we think could either be a dangerous sign of anarchy or excitement for what was to come.More drama ensued in the media tent when The Killers banned photographers from snapping at the start of their set, in which the mustachioed ones roared through a set consisting mostly of their Top 40 hits. For those who thrive on celebrity gossip, let it be known, for the record, that Killers drummer Ronnie Vannucci is now freshly shaven. Oh—my—gawd!I really have to hand it to the V Fest organizers this year. It’s an impressive feat to set up an outdoor event for thousands of people and make it run like clockwork. The event was fan-friendly to a surprising extent, with lots of free swag that wasn’t trash (free iTunes downloads!). They even brought back the extremely popular text message ticker, in which fans send text messages to Virgin and have them displayed one by one on a big screen— truly a great way to kill time between sets at the main stage.My only complaint about the weekend was the food service. Separate tents were set up to purchase and pick up food items, and it would have made more sense to save fans the second 20 minute wait by sending them immediately from one tent to the other.Come to think of it, getting a meal proved difficult even for those of us lucky enough to have a coveted Media/VIP pass. Organizers gave us media types a free meal ticket that read, “We care about you and don’t want you to go hungry.” However, we did go hungry, because not a single one of the organizers that we spoke to was able to properly direct us to the correct food tent. At one point, we wandered backstage in a starved stupor and came upon a huge spread of grub. Killers bassist Mark Stoermer was led into the tent just as they kicked us out, citing our improper wristband colour. But whatever, it’s noble to suffer for one’s art.Regardless of what you think of the Smashing Pumpkins’ disappointing reunion album, it’s a thrill to hear their old hits in a live setting. The majority of the crowd couldn’t have been more than 10 years old when the Pumpkins were in their heyday, so it was the first chance for many to see the band play live. Highlights such as “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” “Stand Inside Your Love,” and “Tonight, Tonight” were nothing short of triumphant. The whole original band might not be together, but Billy Corgan has always been a control freak, and they’re his songs anyway, right?The weekend as a whole was worthy of a festival that is slowly developing its legend. Toronto Island is an under-appreciated gem, and it’s convenient enough that you can take in a world-class music festival and still make it back to your own comfortable bed before midnight. It’s pretty cool that our city can host a festival like this, and the gigantic crowd is evidence that the Virgin Festival was a complete success. Organizers assured the crowd that they will be back next year, and with any luck, I will be too.