Virgin Music Festival
on Toronto Island
September 8-9, 2007
By John Hastings
Photo by Tavishe Coulson
Day 1 – Saturday
Last weekend I went to the Virgin Festival on Toronto Island. Now you’d think that, with a name like that, there’d be several thousand 20-something males in short shorts and sweat bands sporting clumpy, unattractive facial hair arguing about who is the most uncool and whether Devendra Banhart will ever be as great as he was two years ago. You’d expect some comic book geeks. You’d expect the 40-year-old virgin at VIRGIN FESTIVAL. But great expectations lead to great disappoints and sometimes great underestimations lead to exciting and unexpected adventures. Virgin Festival was not what it seemed, and I’ll tell you why.
I can’t vouch for the virginity of anybody but a few close friends last weekend, but I can say that there were all sorts of people boarding the ferry and crossing the harbour to check out this summer’s most anticipated outdoor mega-concert. Despite reports of two-hour lineups, I was able to basically walk onto the ferry at Harbourfront because we waited until about 4pm to head across. As a seasoned outdoor festival-goer, I’ve learned that most people don’t actually think about the logistics of getting into the concert until they’re already several hundred people deep in a massive line with no nearby washrooms and not a beer tent in sight. I like to sacrifice seeing a couple of early bands just to save myself the anxiety of waiting for three hours just to have my ass patted down. That, or I’ll go wicked early for the same reason and catch every band the festival has to offer.
Anyway, the crowd on Saturday was a nice mix of people. We met a couple with a newborn on the ferry who couldn’t wait for their daughter to experience her first concert. There were young and old, blond and brown, drunk and sober and everyone seemed to be enjoying the decent weather. After all, it was pretty much the end of summer last weekend and I think we all were counting our lucky stars that the rain had held off. I was pretty hyped to get to the island, and my first order of business was to get into the beer tent.
This is where things went a little south for me at Virgin Festival. You’d think that a huge corporately-sponsored rock concert would be well-stocked and well-oiled, but it wasn’t. First, you had to line up to get beer tickets. Then you had to jump in a queue to have your identification scanned and inspected. If you passed that test, you got into the beer tent where you had to line up again to get a beer. This process took anywhere from 15 to 40 minutes depending on when you attempted it. It was infuriating and very poorly-manned. Food was basically the same process. Plus everything cost a fortune. Not really in the spirit of rock n’ roll in my opinion.
There were four stages set up at Virgin Festival. I can’t comment on three of them because in all honesty I only watched shows on the main stage. I realize that there were a lot of great artists that didn’t grace the “Virgin Stage,” but I went with a large group of friends and really just wanted to have a few beers and see Arctic Monkeys and Interpol on Saturday. We just missed M.I.A. who I heard was probably the best act of the weekend, but anyway. With Amy Winehouse’s cancellation there was an hour of nothing before Arctic Monkeys hit the stage just after 6pm. They were loud, energetic, and pretty much played all the good songs from their two studio albums, including the crowd favourite “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” and my personal favourite “Fake Tales of San Francisco.” I saw a decent mosh pit frothing near the stage – when they called it quits, the crowd was sufficiently pumped for the arrival of Interpol. This band was the main draw for me and they didn’t disappoint. I was initially a little disappointed with Interpol’s newest album Our Love To Admire, but seeing some of it performed live has totally changed my opinion. They opened with an awesome version of “Pioneer to the Falls” and had me mesmerized for the remainder of the set. “Evil” and “C’mere” were definitely highlights and I’d have to say that Interpol was my favourite act of the weekend.
After Interpol wrapped up we snuck into a VIP tent which was anything but. A huge two-storey deck was constructed with handicap access which I thought was awesome, but someone in their infinite wisdom put a VIP tent BEHIND it, so needless to say we didn’t stay long. Bjork was the headliner on Saturday and opened with a killer laser show that, in hindsight, I would have liked to have seen more of. Despite the fact that I have nothing but respect for her and her music, we ducked out and left about four songs in. This was by far the best move of the weekend as we only waited for about 20 minutes for the ferry back to the mainland. I was safely home by midnight, and although I’d not been impressed with the logistics of the festival, I was pumped to get back to the island on Sunday.
Day 2 – Sunday
Sunday was the big day at Virgin Festival. The return of The Smashing Pumpkins in Toronto seemed to be the main draw, though a dozen awesome acts graced the stages that day. Again, I didn’t end up visiting any of the side stages, despite some stellar appearances by bands like The Clientele, Blonde Redhead, Explosions in the Sky, and Editors. It probably would have been a better idea to watch these bands on the second stage for most of the afternoon. We arrived in time to see Stars put on a fairly lacklustre 30-minute set that really disappointed some of my friends that love the band. Metric followed up with one of the worst performances I’ve seen in recent memory. It wasn’t that they sounded bad, but a massive outdoor concert is not the place to showcase drawn out songs that nobody knows and then follow up with forgettable tunes from the discs you’ve already released. I honestly almost fell asleep. The only saving grace for Metric was that Emily Haines (as always) looked super sexy rocking out in the late afternoon sun.
With Metric’s departure came a sense that the day was ruined. When you go to a concert and only watch the main stage big name bands and they suck, it’s a huge kick in the stones. We lined up for what seemed like hours to use the washroom, had a couple more beers and hoped deep down inside that The Killers would do something to bring the day back around. They hit the stage around 7:15 and totally enlivened a crowd that seemed ready to go home. I absolutely love The Killers and they absolutely rocked. I heard a lot of people bad-mouthing Brandon Flowers and Co. over the weekend, but I have to say that they know how to put on a show and I really think that it’s only rock-snobbishness that prevents people from appreciating them. Their set was awesome and turned a dour afternoon into something charged with energy.
The Smashing Pumpkins closed out the Virgin Festival on Sunday night. I’d seen them twice before in Toronto over the years and had been badly disappointed. I told my friends that they would probably suck ass and not to expect too much. I was wrong. Billy Corgan (looking older and more decrepit, if that’s even possible) put on a show that was both original and diverse. They played the expected four or five tunes off of their comeback disc Zeitgeist but intermingled the set with classics like “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “Zero,” “Hummer” and Billy Corgan doing “1979″ acoustically. There was a 20-minute long HARD ROCK mélange that really utilized the lights and took the band to a space that wasn’t new or old, but just cool as crap. The Smashing Pumpkins came back for an encore of “Today” and apparently were set to play “Muzzle” but were ushered off because of the Toronto Island’s curfew policy. What a sham.
Sunday was fun, but with the end of the show came 20,000 people lining up for one ferry to get them home. This was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. Talk about dragging people down at the end of something special. We didn’t even bother lining up with the masses. Instead we waited for an hour for a water taxi and ended up actually just paying some dudes with a houseboat to take us to the mainland. I was exhausted and angry and I have to say that despite some great performances, I will never go to a show on the island again. I usually go to small shows at small venues around Toronto, but when I pay to actually go to a huge corporate mainstream show, I expect that it’s going to at least run smoothly. Virgin Festival 2007 had its highs and lows, but not being able to get home for three hours after the show pretty much made it one of the crappiest weekend festivals I’ve ever attended. Maybe I should have spent less time in the beer tent and more time checking out the side stages, but for those fans who just went to chill and see the main stage, it was more of a hassle than anything. Kudos to the Pumpkins for putting on a rocking respectable set, and to Interpol and The Killers for really turning things up a notch. All in all: music good, venue brutal.
Oh yeah, and the tickets were nearly $150 each and I spent over $100 on food and beer for the weekend. Next summer I’m just gonna play some CDs on my deck and get a keg.