- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008

Mother Nature was kind to the planners — and attendees — of this year’s Virgin Mobile Festival. Temperatures never rose above the mid-80s, and the thunderstorms threatening the Baltimore region on Sunday passed right around Pimlico.

Of course, it’s telling that the first thing that comes to mind about day two of the festival was that it didn’t rain.

After a rousing opening day, Sunday was an anti-climax. With the exception of the pop-punk outfit Paramore, who put on a blistering hour-long set, the undercard was underwhelming. With one notable exception, the headlining acts weren’t a ton better.

Hot on the heels of performances by ‘90s staples The Offspring and Foo Fighters the day before were sets by Stone Temple Pilots and Nine Inch Nails. “It’s like listening to KROQ in 1994 all over again,” joked DJ/electronica superstar Moby.

He had a point. Listening to the first half of STP’s set did indeed feel like junior high all over again: “Vaseline,” “Wicked Garden,” “Hole in Your Head,” “Big Empty,” “Plush” and “Interstate Love Song” were among the first tracks played.

Noted headcase and lead singer Scott Weiland has never had the greatest pipes, but he sounded even worse than usual on Sunday. He was also stripping off an item of clothing after every song; by the time he was down to an undershirt, a tie, and a pair of pants that seemed dangerously close to falling off, I decided it was time to get out of there.

On the way to check out Bob Dylan’s set, I stopped by the dance tent to see Moby DJ. “The first time I ever DJed at a rock festival it almost seemed like an oxymoron, and I had no idea how people were going to respond, and ironically people went crazy,” the turntablist had told me earlier, about an hour before he went on stage. “Even though it was ostensibly a rock crowd, people seemed to be having more fun in the dance tent than at the rock stage.”

It became clear what he meant when I got to the tent: Though smaller in size than the crowds for STP and Mr. Dylan, Moby’s listeners were far more energetic. There was a tight bunch in the middle, perhaps 20 people across and 40 people deep bouncing up and down with fists upraised. Off to the side were a series of smaller circles, where three or four people would show off moves more identified with house music — random hand movements, herky-jerky body contortions, etc.

Moving on to Mr. Dylan, I was greeted by a blast of harmonica and a nasally drawl. Switching from STP to techno to Dylan in less than a quarter of an hour was almost too much. My sense of dislocation wasn’t helped by the crowd’s largely indifferent reaction to Mr. Dylan. Groups of teens near the stage were sitting down and chatting, waiting for Kanye West’s set.

This is what happens when you schedule a folk-rock legend to open up for the biggest hip hop act in the world. Promoter Seth Hurwitz takes pride in his funky pairings - in the inaugural festival he had The Who leading into The Red Hot Chili Peppers. But there is significant overlap in those fanbases; there is far less between Mr. Dylan’s and Mr. West’s.

Mr. West was late getting started — not his fault this time: Lil’ Wayne had gone on almost 45 minutes behind schedule, delaying the three acts that followed him. During the delay, I hurried back across the infield to catch the start of Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor and co. were so involved with their music that they didn’t seem to notice the audience at all as they ranged seamlessly across genres — all-out rock, industrial music and a softer acoustic sequence that prominently involved a xylophone.

Ironically, that softer moment provided the soundtrack to the nastiest moment of the festival: A fight broke out right in front of me and ended when one of the participant’s eyebrows was split open after a brutal blow to the head. That ugliness aside, it was a relatively calm two days; one of the nurses told me that medical incidents were down by half over last year. The cooler temperatures helped, with very few suffering from heat-related problems.

Returning just in time for the start of Kanye West’s set, I was stunned to see the sea of humanity in front of me, easily the biggest crowd of the weekend — people were lined up 150 deep in the center.

Mr. West’s act featured a nine man backing band, four massive spotlights shooting into the sky and an array of alternating blue and red lights illuminating the front of the stage - not to mention the obligatory rock show strobes. But even with all the help, there was no doubt as to the star of the show. Mr. West bounded around the stage, leading off with the first track off his most recent album and never looking back.

It takes a special talent to put on a show that gets a crowd that riled up after a weekend full of music — as the self-enamored Mr. West would be the first to admit.

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