Overcast early in the morning, then pissing rain just as we get ready to leave home. It's gonna be a hit-and-miss day for the weather. No umbrellas. Great.
We embark on the short ferry ride to Center Island pretty close to our noon-time target. First on the agenda...find a pamphlet with all the bands and all the start times. Can't see everybody so there's choices to be made. No telling who didn't make it over the border last night. Not counting Massive Attack.
As fate would have it...no, it's got nothing to do with fate and everything to do with my OCD regarding time, we arrive before gates. They are well organized and within 20 minutes we've cleared a cursory bag check and are on our way across the wide, muddy, waters. 7 and a half minutes later, we arrive.
The sun came out as we were making our trek across Lake Ontario and the grounds, though damp, were not soaked. We have been spared a mud-fest. They are a little behind on the main stage getting set up due to the earlier downpour. Second on the agenda is finding a booth to purhcase food and drink tickets. There's a line up for everything here. One to get money. One to get tickets. One to get food. One to get drinks. One to enter contests for various Virgin products. One for the bathroom.
Michael and I find ourselves at the only spot without a line-up, in front of the main stage to see the opening act, ohbijou. Now that's the best thing about this
group, it's name. We've already peaked and the music hasn't started. 'ohbijou', went whispered softly, is the pet-name my French-Canadian mother used when trying to soothe her ill, or despondent, children. It translates loosely as 'oh, my little jewel'. The band's music is similar. Soothing. Calming. Nap inducing.
Yet there they stand on this huge stage, which they fill out pretty well with their 8 or nine bodies, but not so well with their chamber music catalogue. These guys, and girls, they are primarily a girl-band, belong in a club like Top O' The Senator, or The Drake, or Hugh's Room, some kind of yuppie enclave where people like to have a soundtrack to accompany their merger-and-acquisitions foreplay talk.
Yet there they stand, valiantly working their way through a set of songs that would have given James Taylor a boner. A band out of time. Decent enough artists, if not nipple-hardening in the excitement column. Lead singer admits to being nervous and excited and nervous. Biggest stage they'd ever played on. My guess is at around 153 people, biggest audience too.
WISTA rating: (would i see them again rating) I may be there if they play my funeral. They'll have to learn some Dylan though.
I decide to tape the second band, solely on the fact I heard somebody mention interest in their set while we were coming over on the ferry. Another large band with strange tools. What's with the violins, trumpets, flutes and african stringed instruments everyone has to play these days? Who took the rock out of "and roll"?
The set gets off to a less than stellar start when the VFest-cryer, who always goes on-and-on about SIR f*cking Richard Branson and all the Virgin stuff you can buy before each band, shows that he cares more about your pocket than getting it right by introducing the band as "the mean spiders!" They are more than that doofus, they are mean RED spiders . I think the 'red' comes from the hair colour of the lead songstress. The 'mean' comes from the guy on the boat who was talking this set up. The 'spiders' comes from the creepy-crawly feeling you get that makes your feet want to wander. Pretty sure it's a Muddy Waters song too. Another very EMOtive band. Girl-emo though, it's not as stomach turning, doesn't come across as a whine, more like a plea. Actually they call it "dream-rock" and that juxtaposition should explain the difficulty this band had in raising pulses. Too soft to get a concert of this size, stature and duration off the ground.
I'm two hours into standing still and soon my feet will grow roots. They did have one song of note, it could have been a cover, or it could have been an homage
to Judy Collins. Contained the refrain: "trains and birds and planes took you away from me," pretty well sung to the tune of Both Sides Now.
WISTA rating: Not on purpose.
ill Scarlett takes to the stage with their combination sound of pop/punk/dub/ska - light-hearted fare. Good for a start in the bright light of day. The volume has been increased, the band is excited and some of this starts to rub off on the crowd, now awakening and growing. Think of these guys as 'Rancid-lite'. They further spark up interest by throwing out packages of zig zag papers for the assembled multitude. The goal, I thougt, is to get everyone to light up during their hit song, Police State. I understand the politics but the very fact you can pull a stunt like this pretty well proves we don't live in a police state. In fact, the Island is a great place for a concert because there's plenty of room to roam. There arepicnic benches set up facing out into the lake or back towards the Toronto skyline, yet well away from the stages, where you can quietly and privately indulge. My days of waving a red flag in the face of 'the man' are well past me. Turns out it was for the set closer, Mary Jane. Silly me, stuck in the '60's. An excellent set that will stand up as one of the best "small act sets" of the entire weekend.
WISTA rating: For sure. They should be good and mature by next spring.
Time to head over to the "Future Shop" stage, everything is sponsored here. Others that pitched in with money and 80' advertising banners were, NOKIA, Bell and the Hemp Wagon. While taking a piss I was reading an add for 'concert colostomy bags' on the wall.
Buck 65 - i'm waiting for this guy to team up with Fi'ty Cent for the $2.15 Tour. Straight out of Halifax, yo, influences range from Woody Guthrie to CCR to KISS to NWA. Been at it about 15 years, had an early release on Sloan's murderrecords before signing with Warner. Almost jumped the shark in an interview where he claimed to hate hip-hop and the hip-hop culture. Bad career move when your fanbase consists of fans who love hiphop. He doesn't deny sayin' it, he just wishes he could take it back. Who hasn't been there, eh? There is plenty of 'hop' to the music and Buck65 is very 'hip', but he's more like Beck than eminem.
Anybody who lists Bob Dylan's Masters of War as the greatest song he's ever seen performed live can't be all bad. Sparse stage setup. He has a drummer hidden behind a curtain and is using canned music and scratch-tables for his band. Normally that would put me off but there's something so 'roots' about this guys demeanor, his stage persona and his set that I'm instantly enthralled by his delivery and not concerned at all about the lack of acoutrements. A pleasant change from the two ensembles we'd seen on the other stage.
Very good stage presence, he regales us with the story of the sinking barge the artists were taking over to the Island. Upset him no end, almost dying in the cold dark waters of Lake Ontario. You know you're stretching your karma alottment when you need thrash-metal rockers Starsailor to be around to save your ass.
Smart music for people who like to think. And dance. Which, admitedly might narrow his target audience somewhat.
WISTA rating:As soon as I can!
We return to the mainstage, where they are highlighting bands that have a large number of personnel. On-stage now are The Hidden Camera's. Not too well hidden.
I can see about 10 of them. The set, led by the construction guy from Village People, closes and soon roadies are dissembling yet another experience.
The next band is no different than the previous, as a large contingency, bracketed by two girls on keyboards (the inside part looks like a rock band) takes to the stage to impress us with how impressed they are of themselves.
The Dears - the cream of Montreal's sub-pop crop. They spent the better part of 2002 bogged down by their sense of self-importance. They dropped members, spent over a year doing a record that sucked and had to go back to the mixing board to salvage something while they heard the rushing sound of their 15 minutes going down the drain. Having survived that scare it'll be interesting to see if anybody's listening.
Some French people next to me were happy to be here. For me they brought nothing to the stage that 10,000 other bands don't already do. Nothing unique about either the sound or the act. Proficient? Yup. Trying hard? I think so but there girls didn't seem near as engaged as the lead singer.
WISTA rating: Only if they are an unannounced opener will that happen.
It's about this time i realize I'm going to pay dearly for not having taken a seat yet today. My 50 year old hips are starting to burn. I had been planning on staying
here to capture the Muse set but it was scheduled to end at the same time Eagles of Death Metal were taking the stage at the other location. The distance isn't far, it takes only 5 minutes to go from one stage to another...or it did 5 hours ago. Now I need a rest-break a third of the way. I pass on an opportunity to hook up with some 'Toronto tapers' until tomorrow, where I'll be sitting in a bar near the main stage all day and meander over to the Future Shop stage for the last two acts of the day, Eagles of Death Metal and local heroes, alexisonfire.
In order to catch those acts I've chosen to pass on the smash hit band of the summer, Gnarles Barkley and the Flaming Lips, argueably the biggest band booked
into this festival. I've only got so much capacity for taking interest in new bands. Gnarles is definitely a 'flash-in-the-pan' kind of band. They've got a funky
sound, a ton of energy and a monster hit in 'Crazy'. Ride that wave as long as you can boys. The Flaming Lips deserve a little more respect, I guess. They are a
fully-developed headlining act, with all the flare and chutzpah you need to command the main stage. They've been on the radio here for the better part of the
last 5 years but none of their material has jumped out at me and said..."you gotta find out who that is!" That's usually how I come to like new bands, unconsciously.
I hear one song...turn up the music. A month later I hear another and wonder who it is. Then I hear a third and find out the same band did them all...they might
be worth checking out. That's how I came to like Offspring, Green Day, The White Stripes and countless others. Almost invariably when I get 'told' about a band,
either by friends or through media hype, I don't have the same kind of attraction. Added to the equation is the fact they are running behind schedule and seeing
that act would mean leaving the island sometime around 1 am. I will take a pass for today and next time i get the urge to go see The Dears, I'll check out where
the Flaming Lips are instead and make a night of it. On another note: if those bands are all they are made out to be why are there not one, but two acts following them at the Baltimore version of VFest?
At the small stage I catch the closing minutes of Starsailors 'thrash-rock' set.
The volume is through the freakin' roof. At one point the 'sound police' called
the mixer-guy down to request the volume be dropped. They were measuring the decibel levels, recording them and doing their best to keep it civil. They have a problem with the rich people who live on the Toronto Islands. Island lands are leased to a few well-placed families. Quite the nice place to live, just across the pond from the lovely Toronto skyline. Does that make them happy? No. They stay active making sure we don't build a land bridge to the largest public park in the city because it would increase the traffic flow and disrupt their little piece of tax-payer subsidized heaven. The rest of their time they spend suing the Docks, a huge nightclub/concert complex that sits on the mainland directly across from their homes. They've managed to get the liqour license suspended just this past summer, which will surely end in the closure of those venues, due to 'noise violations'.
And now we're in their backyards. Didn't think they'd take to that.
With the noise suitably dampened but spirits still high, Eagles of Death Metal take to the stage promising to deliver some rock n roll. What i know of this group
is tangenital at best. I believe their drummer toured with Peaches in front on NIN this summer. That band, Peaches, also had a key-tar player from Le Tigre, who I'd seen in Amsterdam back in the fall of '03. Still sounds like a thrash-rock band, not so much a fem-lib-left band. They didn't have much to remind you of The Eagles in their set. Maybe the Joe Walsh version of The Eagles. They seemed more like a cross between Sha-Na-Na and Metallica. They rocked. They rolled. They called the audience out repeatedly. Also delivered a decent cover of Brown Sugar. Like Buck 65 they had a harrowing tale to tell about almost being drowned in the SeaKing that transported them to the island. I'm beginning to hope the Raconteurs have spent some time at the local pool.
WISTA rating: If they were to open a show I was attending I'd definitely catch their set.
My son has been following the next band since the days they could not sell out the small Opera House venue in Toronto. They've found themselves a little niche on the alternative scene here. Think of an agitized Trent Reznor and you got the lead singer. A little melody buried in their songs but you have to search for it. With alexisonfire I anticipate a higher volume of more thrash-rock. Call it 'srceam-O'. Popular band on our alternative radio station their latest release was a #1 record in Canada upon release, just bumped from that spot by Bob Dylan's new offering, Modern Times. That's a different neighborhood than a half-filled basement. And that's what we got, scream-O extreme-O. Mike seemed to enjoy the set and if you can measure a band's worth by the fun their hardcore fans have at a concert, then these guys are big. They do have to work on their stage patter though. Find a way to be funny without denegrating something, or someone, else. It was mostly the rather rotund lead guitar player who took time to note the two things he hates most is: "white guys with dreadlocks and beach balls at a rock concert." Some people like beach-balls, there were hundreds floating around emblazooned with the Virgin label, I even picked one up as a memento. The next couple times he thought to fill some dead air with more dead air he was poking fun at French people and gay people. Now I'm pretty sure that gay, French, beach volleyball players with dreadlocks are not part of the demographic of their fanbase, but still, why alienate anybody? Unfortunately we miss their encore (who the f*ck does an encore at a festival?) while scurrying to beat the masses to the ferry. Not too disconcerting because you don't want to be late for this, the last of many lines for the evening, because it's one thing to bring 25,000 people THIS was over the course of 12 hours...quite another to move them THAT way when they all show up at once.
WISTA rating: Not unless their development takes them towards the likes of NIN.
Great end to a great day. Tomorrow it's all the headliners, most notably, The Raconteurs!