Virgin Festival Toronto 2009, Saturday – Review and Photos

September 5, 2009

Virgin Festival 2009 Toronto, Ontario at the Molson Amphitheatre
Festival review and photos – words by Liz Keith, photos by editor Brian Banks
– September 5, 2009

With a lineup that seems as though it were randomly pulled out of a hat, “eclectic” barely begins to cover it – scattershot seems more apropos. General attendance for the bands were greatly off balance, with the massive crowds coming and going as though to the pull of Nine Inch Nails’ and The Pixies’ orbit, and yet if you only showed up for those two evening shows, you might miss out on a few hidden gems. But that’s how it is at these things…

Gig/Concert: Sunday at V-Fest Ontario, Toronto, 2009
Venue: Molson Ampitheatre, Toronto, Canada
Date: August 30, 2009
Headliners:  Pixies
In one word: Pneumatic

The Pixies at Virgin Festival Toronto 2009 - photo by Brian Banks, Music Vice

SATURDAY, AUGUST 29 (for a review and photos of Sunday at V Fest, click here)

Mates of State open the weekend to a sedate turnout that barely covers the main pit area, with a few folks lounging around on the lawn. Raucous upbeat near-minimalist pop consisting of drums and keys, they start the fest off fairly quietly, but not disagreeably so – kind of like having tea first thing in the morning when you’re used to jet black coffee. They finish off their set with an agreeable cover of Tom Waits’ Long Way Home.

An hour later waiting for the next band, my ass is bouncing around on some cherry-red inflatable cushion that’s just begging to be stolen – really, it’s got “I was stolen from the Virgin Music Festival” written on the side. I’ll do my best to oblige, you pneumatic little ass pillow, you! Unless someone else beats me to it…

Lights comes on after MoS, a time-warped 80’s-tinged pop sound sung by someone who hardly looks old enough to have been around for it the first time… but no matter. She has the right kind of spacey quality to her voice to pull off the sound, and although I’d say she’s perfectly marketable to the Hannah Montana set, this does not send me fleeing in the opposite direction(!). Brian tries to convince me that she’s on the cusp of The Big Time. I think it’s the beer talking. Still, I have yet to get any sort of groove on. Moving on…

I am distracted from the beginning of Grizzly Bear’s set by the overwhelming urge to tackle the guy dressed up as Waldo (or Wally, as the stripy geezer is known in the UK). I have seen guys in similar getups at other non-Virgin sponsored events, so at first I figure it’s just some random dude who has figured out the next best thing to taking your puppy for a walk in order to make yourself a chick magnet… but no, he’s actually just a V-Fest employee. Or something. Between him and the kids dressed up as trees – who bob around the venue in groups of two or three, possibly to dissuade any anti-mascot rage – we’re doing fairly well raiding the costume department.

Grizzly Bear at Virgin Festival Toronto 2009 - photo by Brian Banks - Music Vice

Moody, at times channeling diverse sources from The Smiths to Yo La Tengo, Grizzly Bear play straight-up indie-rock that pretty much kind of flits all over the place, style-wise. Some songs are very spacey, very moody without falling down a well… good summer afternoon in the grass music, with drifting melodies. But – as I discover through the rest of the weekend – sometimes having such a broad range of artists works against the flow of a music festival, making the arrangements of the different sets seem more fractured than complimentary…

Thunderheist at Virgin Festival Toronto 2009, Molson Amphitheatre, August 29, 2009 - photo by Brian Banks - Music Vice

And while we’re visiting the complaints department, I have to say that the amphitheatre, as choice of venue, while I realize it was last minute…really… REALLY… NOT IDEAL. While it may be fine for an evening event, stadium seating is not conducive to day- or weekend-long events; you’re faced with the choice of spending all day with your ass going numb in those hard plastic seats, or squinting down from the lawn (although it still offers a good view); and beyond that you lose some of the intimacy, the communal vibe that open-air festivals are all about. I like wandering around freely from stage to stage, which I discover is another missing point when I try to head over to see Thunderheist at the Virgin Radio stage, and find out that I can’t bring my overpriced beer past the gates, as I have to travel – briefly – through the CNE grounds. I chug what I can – it was freshly opened, and I’m not 16 anymore – and then give up and just stash the rest in my purse. Thank god this thing’s bottomless…


Finally the sonic caffeine I’ve been waiting for hits me as I finally make it to the other stage… damn! Where were they two hours ago?! I keep hearing of this band, and keep missing them, but not today. Thunderheist is MC Isis and Grahm Zilla, from Toronto and Montreal respectively; collectively they are thumping beats and heavy pop-techno sliced with sassy lyrics that gives your ass no excuse not to get shaking… Onstage they deliver the wake-up call the crowd needs, with Isis diving back and forth from the stage to the crowd, taking advantage of the photo-pit guard’s gallantry to help her get back on stage. Goddam it is one hot set, from the tease of Isis’s workshirt dress and equally cheeky lyrics to Zilla’s smooth sometimes-retro beats (I caught a streak of the Eurythmic’s Sweet Dreams slipped into suenos 2k8). I missed half the set so for me it’s over too soon; hoping to score one of their CDs I find out later that there was a mad rush for the merch tent at the end of their set, and all were snapped up. No matter. I’ll be sure to catch them later.

Paulo Nutini at Virgin Festival Toronto 2009 - photo by Brian Banks - Music ViceAfter Thunderheist, I am 20 minutes late to catch longtime CanCon pop icons Sloan. Longtime favorites from my musical heyday – the golden time known as the early nineties – Sloan came out of the Canadian – specifically Haligonian – indie pop scene, survived the now-they’ve-made-it-we-hate-them backlash, and now… where *is* everybody? I haven’t kept up on their last album.. but.. the music of my youth…. damn. But still I catch a few old favorites, mostly from the Twice Removed EP, arguably one of the most solid indie pop albums around. With lead singer Chris Murphy still recovering from a hit-and-run accident nearly a month previous, I’m impressed they’re even here… they pull off a good set, nevertheless.

Up next, Paolo Nutini… kinda like a bluesy Rod Stewart with a bit more soul and backed up by The Little Big Band… Not bad. Clearly the contingent of flag-waving Scottish expats are loving it, going nuts for the bluesy – big band kinda rock. He’s got a great voice, all husky croon and personal lyricism but the sound isn’t really my thing, although their closing cover of The Coaster’s Down in Mexico is balls-out good.

The crowds are finally filling out to some sort of decent capacity… ish… could it be that Franz Ferdinand’s set is near? Fuck yeah. Kicking it out with Dark of the Matinee off their first album, and tossing in a few tracks from their latest offering Tonight, they inject some much needed energy into the day and seem to feed a symbiotic exchange with the crowd, like a hyperactive child that suddenly goes apeshit in the middle of what would otherwise have been a fairly sedate day, causing everyone else to do the same. (I love it when that happens.) With a few exceptions, actually, the day was kind of exactly like that… FF play quite a few earlier hits, kick stomp through the raucous Take Me Out and thunder to a close with what ends up starting a trend for the weekend: the tumultuous all-band dogpile on the drum kit – with lead singer Alex Kapranos telling the crowd “Sometimes it’s alright… to just go fucking mental.” Cheers.

Sometimes it’s alright… to just go fucking mental!

The tide is in, bringing with it the rest of the crowd, in varying vintages of Pixies t-shirts and stories of I-saw-them-whens. What to say? It’s the effing Pixies. Frank Black is all cranky frontman, Kim Deal is super-sweet, constantly thanking the crowd; the tunes are classics and are performed spot-on. There is no rust on this machine, and no deviation from the high expectations set up for them. It kinda of feels like a best-of touring show, but still, I can’t complain. It’s the fucking Pixies.Frank Black of The Pixies at Virgin Festival Toronto, 29 August 2009 - photo by Brian Banks - Music Vice

Battling the receding tide of concertgoers after The Pixies finish up, we catch up with The Rural Alberta Advantage, only one member of which is actually from Alberta… who, like me, fled east to the great smokestack in the sunrise (although I headed a little further east for some decent bagels). Most of their songs have some sort of reference to the province, however, and they do my fair homeland justice. They are, however, crushed into Virgin Fest’s version of intimacy, the Boardwalk Stage – is the name a reference to its size? – which is a small vendor’s tent in the middle of…. other vendor’s tents. Twenty feet behind me is the beer stall, where annoyed alcoholics vie with annoyed hipsters for space (imagine *my* sense of conflict). The small space is packed, and unless you’re three feet from the tent, you can’t see any faces to put to the fast-paced organ-fringed thumpy indie-rock. It’s a shame. I predict RAA will rise above this indignity, to stake a claim to larger stages, mine more hearts and minds, and then inadvertently drown a bunch of ducks in a toxic tailings pond. No, wait. But they do have a lot of passion to back up their promise, and now I will have my own I-saw-them-when to tell about RAA, of this I am sure.

You know those awkward moments, when you feel like you should apologize, but you really just want to run? After The Pixies’ set, half the stadium promptly emptied, no excuses made; just a lot of seats, emptied, as the stage was set up for the next act. I am not overly familiar with Ben Harper, in any incarnation, but damn….ouch. I stick around while the remaining loyalists crush in tighter for Harper’s set, but I make it through half an hour before calling it quits. I’m just not getting into it, and I need my rest for day two…

© Liz Keith

Brian’s view: For me day one at Virgin Festival was all about one band: The Pixies. Undoubtedly they were the band that people had came to see on Saturday, as was evident when followed by Ben Harper a.k.a. Captain Buzz Kill, who caused a mass exodus. Having Harper as the Saturday headliner was a VERY strange call that nobody I spoke with during the weekend could seem to fathom, but no matter: The Pixies were brilliant and I’ll never forget standing just a few metres away in the photo pit as I was walloped by a wall of ear-piercing combined guitar fuzz from Joey and Frank’s line of Marshall stacks. It was an eerily beautiful concert moment when they played “the Fight Club song” Where Is My Mind with everyone immersed in the sound and the moment, as guys and girls up in the standing areas and on the lawns danced their crazy dances. Brilliant.

I enjoyed a lot of other music before the Pixies, with thumbs up for Thunderheist, The Rural Alberta Advantage and Grizzly Bear, as well as a couple of swaggering displays from my compatriots Paulo Nutini and Franz Ferdinand. But yeah, the Pixies! Wow…pinch me. – Brian, Editor.

Photos from Saturday of Virgin Festival Toronto 2009

(click thumbnails to enlarge)

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One Response to Virgin Festival Toronto 2009, Saturday – Review and Photos

  1. […] school terms, and much less than some of the machine-gun camera clicks that I heard to my sides. I stopped and stared the last time I saw Pixies in 2009, too. Sometimes you just have to appreciate and be in the moment, and as I exited Massey Hall with the […]

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