- The Washington Times - Friday, August 8, 2008

When the HFStival was a fixture of Washington’s live-entertainment landscape, Seth Hurwitz used to daydream.

“They’d book a lot of lousy bands that had a song on the radio,” he recalls. “I always thought, ‘Wow, if I could book a festival, this is what I’d do.’ I didn’t know exactly what I’d do - I just knew I could do a better job.”

Then, in 2006, he got a call from a concert-promoter friend, Andrew Dreskin, who had been helping reps from the British conglomerate Virgin find a Mid-Atlantic site where the company could launch a sister to its popular annual V Festival in Staffordshire, England.

The pairing - of the stubbornly independent Mr. Hurwitz with Richard Branson, Virgin’s irreverent chairman - was an immediate hit.

Mr. Hurwitz, co-owner of the 9:30 Club and I.M.P. Concerts impresario, has seen his festival reverie become a reality staged annually on the giant expanse of Pimlico Race Course’s infield.

Since its debut two years ago, the Virgin Mobile Festival, which kicks off Saturday, has expanded into a two-day, two-stages-plus-a-dance-tent event and quickly become a major regional attraction.

As a co-promoter of the festival, Mr. Hurwitz has to deliver bodies to Baltimore. As its primary booker, he also has to deliver a slate of bands that not only will attract those bodies, but will do so in a way that distinguishes the Virgin Mobile Festival from an increasingly crowded market of multiband summer showcases.

It has proved a tricky task.

Festivals in Southern California (Coachella) and Chicago (Lollapalooza) have cornered the market on alternative rock. The Bonnaroo festival in rural Tennessee has become the ne plus ultra of jam-band extravaganzas.

This is to say nothing of even fresher-faced newcomers such as the Mile High Music Festival in Denver and the Pemberton Festival in British Columbia (both held last month), the Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco (Aug. 22 through 24) and the All Points West Festival in Jersey City, N.J., which will compete directly with Virgin Mobile this weekend, and in close regional proximity.

How does Virgin Mobile hope to stand out?

Mr. Hurwitz’s aim is to assemble an eclectic lineup anchored by time-tested powerhouses. This year finds rock legend Bob Dylan, rapper Kayne West and alt-rockers including Foo Fighters, Stone Temple Pilots and Wilco sharing the spotlight.

“I’m looking for a great sampling, without it being directionless,” he says.

The booking process brings out the ex-disc jockey in Mr. Hurwitz.

“Iggy Pop is one of the best live performers ever, and he never had a hit record,” he says. “The fact that I can put him onstage in front of tons of people who’ve never seen him is very gratifying.”

It’s a delicate balance Mr. Hurwitz hopes to strike - between a festival that tries to be all things to all people and one that caters exclusively to the most refined sensibilities of rock connoisseurs.

“I don’t have much tolerance for people who think that if something’s gotten too big, it’s not cool anymore,” Mr. Hurwitz says. “I like to encourage people to abandon their holier-than-thou attitude without abandoning their pride in the music they like.”

“We feel like we put on the biggest bands in the world,” says Mr. Dreskin, a co-promoter of the festival.

Along with those A-list acts, inevitably, come touchy egos.

Once the festival’s running schedule is announced, the calls start coming in steadily, Mr. Hurwitz says.

“Every year, there are always bands that don’t like where you put them. They say, ‘We’re bigger than that other band,’” he laments. “It’s ridiculous, but that’s certainly their prerogative.”

Ego-massaging aside, Mr. Hurwitz strives for the attention-grabbing billing - as with 2006’s sequence of classic rockers the Who playing immediately before the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

“Only Seth could have dreamed up putting the Who before the Chili Peppers,” Mr. Dreskin says.

Similarly boldly, this year Mr. Dylan will warm up for Mr. West, who, festival organizers are confident, will find the Virgin Mobile south stage to his liking. (The rapper, citing difficulties with his elaborate stage set, riled fans at Bonnaroo this year by delaying his appearance by two hours.)

The national festival scene has benefited from popular live attractions such as Wilco, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Radiohead that happily hop from festival to festival. The latter appeared at Lollapalooza and will headline All Points West this weekend. Another Lollapalooza headliner, Nine Inch Nails, will close the curtain on the Virgin Mobile Festival Sunday night.

Acoustic rocker Jack Johnson will perform Saturday at Pimlico and commute to New Jersey Sunday for All Points West.

The Virgin Festival has yet to attract the 60,000-plus concertgoers Pimlico can accommodate each day, but Mr. Hurwitz says sales have climbed each year.

Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert trade publication Pollstar, says, “They haven’t all been sellouts, but we haven’t had any major financial disasters.”

The Virgin Mobile Festival has attracted concertgoers from 49 states and up to a dozen countries.

The lone holdout so far this year: South Dakota.

“We’ve noticed that,” Mr. Hurwitz says, adding, with a laugh, “so we’re stepping up our marketing efforts there.”

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