- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 24, 2006

The last time there was a mass gathering at Pimlico Race Course, at May’s Preakness Stakes, a young champion thoroughbred suffered a devastating, career-ending injury.

At Saturday’s Virgin Festival, rock legends the Who proved they’re not quite ready to be put out to pasture.

From the moment Pete Townshend windmilled the opening chords of “I Can’t Explain,” the band had the crowd’s rapt attention — even that of the youngish horde that packed the stage area in anticipation of headliners Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The Who played a pair of tracks from the forthcoming miniopera “Endless Wire,” but it was the classic tracks that wowed the audience. Roger Daltrey’s voice, while gravelly, has aged well; he brought plenty of style to songs like 1981’s “You Better You Bet,” and his nimble harmonica work stood in for the fiddle of “Baba O’Riley’s” coda.

“Pinball Wizard” kicked off a mini-“Tommy” set with intense energy that cooled effortlessly into the repose of its “See Me, Feel Me” sequence.

When Mr. Daltrey let go that shriek at the end of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” he proved that song’s last two lines: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

It was a tough act for the Chili Peppers to top. Maybe that’s why they didn’t try. They sounded terrible (excepting, perhaps, guitarist John Frusciante’s beautiful back-up singing). Each member seemed to be playing as if the others weren’t there.

Attendees would have done better to move to the second stage and end their night with the Flaming Lips. The strange and talented alternative band boasted a stage full of Santa Clauses along with some of the day’s most beguiling music.

“I can’t wait to see them. My parents used to listen to them,” Chris Trevino, 17, said of the Who. He was part of an ebullient group of youngsters who trekked to Baltimore from Fredericksburg, Va., — a comparatively short trip for some in the audience Saturday.

Ellen Donahue, 29, came from Seattle, although the putative reason for the trip was to visit an East Coast boyfriend. The prospect of seeing the Who and Red Hot Chili Peppers in the same sitting was an added sweetener.

Given the nightmarish parking situation that greeted many in the crowd of 40,000, ailing Pimlico seemed a spectacularly ill-chosen venue for the first annual U.S. Virgin Festival, the baby sister of Britain’s popular V-Fest. Once inside, however, all was forgiven, as the eccentric sights — and illicit smells — instantly created a familiar carnival atmosphere: peaceful, loud, comical, druggy, insanely frustrating.

And exhausting.

Not even the passionate, out-of-tune yowling of Alec Ounsworth could stir those who snoozed through Brooklyn indie darlings Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s uneven, nearly inaudible set.

The music and merchandising took place on the racetrack’s vast infield, with bandstands anchoring each end. A “dance tent” for DJ performers such as Carl Cox and John Digweed provided a hot pit stop. The staggered scheduling of the 14 bands created a giant human seesaw as the crowd lumbered from one end of the grounds to the other.

DJ duo Eric Hilton and Rob Garza, aka Thievery Corporation, were the only regional talent on a strong trans-Atlantic bill that mingled revered acts such as the Who with fresh imports like Australian metalheads Wolfmother and Brit-rockers Kasabian.

An early sensation was the Raconteurs, a sideline project led by Detroit rock revivalist Jack White. With songwriting partner Brendan Benson, Mr. White revealed his latent pop and psychedelic sensibilities on irresistibly hooky songs such as “Steady, as She Goes.”

Following the Raconteurs was the equally sensational duo Gnarls Barkley, featuring singer Cee-Lo Green and producer-masher Danger Mouse. Mr. Green was dressed in celery-green body armor — like Russell Crowe’s “Gladiator” on St. Patrick’s Day. On songs such as “Crazy” and an incandescent cover of the Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone,” the duo blended processed bits of hip-hop into an R&B-soul; margarita mixer. A three-piece string section, clad in togas, added to the Roman atmosphere of the party.

Most music festivals are tied together with a genre — Lollapalooza’s alternative rock or Ozzfest’s heavy metal, for example. Not the eclectic Virgin Festival.

Yet, a close listen reveals that many of these disparate bands have one thing in common: They wear their influences on their sleeves. Take Australia’s Wolfmother. Its current single, “Woman,” sounds so much like Led Zeppelin that some fans have mistaken it for a cover.

Mr. White’s Raconteurs are similarly inspired by vintage pop and rock. “Together” sounded surprisingly like 1970s-era Elton John.

The Killers had a crystal ball installed on frontman Brandon Flowers’ keyboards. The bland “When You Were Young,” didn’t bode well for the band’s forthcoming sophomore album “Sam’s Town.” But the album’s title track, which opened the show, finds the boys from Las Vegas as melodic as ever. Mr. Flowers’ strong singing, not to mention an outfit that may have been pilfered from the set of “Deadwood,” outshone the day’s competition.

The Who, on the other hand, has influenced more bands than the rest of the Virgin ticket could ever hope to. “We’re privileged to be here to play for you,” Mr. Townshend said with characteristic modesty.

The privilege — and, alas, the hassle — was ours.

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