- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008

You can’t have a music festival these days without the promoters attaching a deeper significance to it.

The 2008 Virgin Mobile Festival’s theme is environmentalism; garbage bins are accompanied by recycling bins, of course, but also compost bins.

Signs dot the landscape trumpeting just how many tons of trash from last year’s extravaganza were saved from the landfill. And, in a unique touch, Virgin sponsored a series of cell phone recharging stations that were powered by stationary bikes.

However, judging by the huge number of improperly discarded plastic cups and bottles on the ground - we in the green movement call that “littering”- attendees had bigger things in mind than saving the Earth.

They were there to rock - and they’d come to the right place.

The two-day festival, which began Saturday, took on a slightly different feel this year. Instead of a main stage for bigger names and a smaller stage for less popular acts, both the north and south stages were treated as main stages: They were of equal size and featured top notch acts. (And then there’s the dance tent - though there’s something absurd about a daytime rave. How are the glow sticks supposed to glow?)

The stages seemed to target different audiences, at least on Saturday. The south stage drew a younger crowd with acts like Lupe Fiasco, the Offspring, and Foo Fighters.

The north stage, meanwhile, serenaded an older, mellower crowd with the acoustic stylings of The Swell Season, Rodrigo y Gabriela and Jack Johnson.

The competing star power made for a long day, replete with numerous trips up and down the Pimlico infield. But those with the stamina were treated to an exciting mix of music and carnival (and even a little consciousness-raising).

The south stage housed, by far, the more energetic crowd. Things got crazy early, with the Gypsy band Gogol Bordello. It’s not often you see an accordion-wielding, fiddling band with a lead singer who bears a striking resemblance to “My Name is Earl’s” Jason Lee play in front of thousands of people at a horse track. Small wonder they got the crowd all riled up.

It was quite a change to jaunt over to the north stage to see The Swell Season, the acoustic duo that has risen to prominence in the wake of the indie flick “Once.”

Irish guitarist Glen Hansard drew some laughs when he said, “the only thing I know about Baltimore is ‘The Wire’ … we got lost on the way here, and I think we drove into the set.” But he quickly squandered any audience good will when he cussed out the cameraman filming for the Jumbotrons. “He’s just doing his job, man,” one festival-goer behind me yelled.

Back at the south stage, Kanye West protege Lupe Fiasco struggled with technical difficulties - and audience indifference - but got the job done. Yet he was nothing compared to Bloc Party - the Britpop band killed, blowing away an audience that seemed relatively unfamiliar with their work and was just waiting for The Offspring to get started.

The Offspring led off with a string of radio hits, and the crowd responded; consisting largely of young, shirtless men, the mosh pit exploded, getting off on the aggressiveness of “Come Out and Play” and “Bad Habit.”

Fleeing all this sweaty teenage suburban angst, I returned to the northern end in time to catch the end of D.C.-raised Citizen Cope’s set; his bluesy sound was a good fit for the stage, and a nice warm up for Wilco.

It’s easier to see what Wilco is going for with their studio albums when you see them live. Nels Cline practically attacks his guitar. He seems legitimately upset with it, as if it will only produce the proper sounds through negative reinforcement.

Mr. Cline really let the strings have it during an extended, 20 minute version of “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” The song lends itself well to improvisation, and was easily the highlight of the first day.

Until the Foo Fighters took the south stage, that is. Dave Grohl is, simply put, the best frontman currently working in rock ‘n’ roll.

He’s a consummate pro, doing wind sprints up and down the length of the stage to keep the crowd involved. It doesn’t hurt that he and his band mates have a never ending string of hits to draw from; the Foos kicked things off with “The Pretender” and “Times Like These,” working the pit into a frenzy.

Still, Mr. Grohl managed to get the audience just as excited for songs off the new album as they were for the hits: “Cheer Up Boys (Your Make Up Is Running)” drew almost as much noise as “Learn to Fly.”

But the highlight was an extended version of “Stacked Actors,” featuring a constant stream of solos that never devolved into self-indulgence.

After that, Mr. Grohl began an acoustic set; figuring that I might as well check out the guy who’s known for acoustic stuff while the Foos were unplugging, I wandered over to see Jack Johnson, showing up just in time for “Bubbly Toes.” Remembering why I had avoided Mr. Johnson in the first place, I quickly retreated to the Foo Fighters set.

Attendance at Saturday’s show seemed a little lighter than promoters might have liked, but both stages crackled with energy and excitement. If you didn’t like the music, you could always check out the pyrotechnic shows, the Charm City Roller Girls, or the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus - not to mention the environmentally friendly cell phone recharging stations.

cFull coverage of Sunday’s Virgin Mobile Festival appears on www.washingtontimes.com.

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