Only a churl would accept a lovely present and complain about the wrapping. Bjork's performance at the opening night of the Virgin Festival was so transporting that I forgive the festival its glaring faults as an event (more on those below).
Bjork has been making strange and beautiful music for a couple of decades, and she's still exploring a frontier that nobody else can find.
Her dynamic show seemed to exist in three tenses at once: present, future and primeval past. Her music from ten years ago (she played several items from 1997's Telegram) sounded as fresh and original as the things she pulled from last spring's Volta. The show was impeccably planned and produced, yet she romped around the stage in her Pierrot-as-baroque-angel outfit as if making everything up on the spot.
No one else could tour with a brass band and make it seem like the coolest sound on earth. The 20 women of the Icelandic band Wonder Brass, and a battery of live percussion, grounded the music in organic tones that gave new point to the boldly synthetic sounds of synthesizers and drum machines. Songs such as Declare Independence and Earth Invaders were wildly spectacular, but for me the most mind-blowing thing was her performance of Cover Me, which with its clotted organ accompaniment sounded like high-church contemporary music of a kind that would never otherwise transfix 25,000 pop fans standing in a dark field.
The day's other big revelation was M.I.A, who tore up the mainstage with a mid-afternoon set of galanga rap from some extra-territorial party zone of fun and social combat.
I've been stuck on this British Sri Lankan's music for two years, but was unprepared for the flirty authority with which she hurled her deeply ambiguous music at the audience. Sheathed in black and pink, she invited everybody to get carnal while contemplating the global cultural mash-up represented by her pungent collage of world music, street sounds and dance beats. When the world is in flames, she seemed to say, the disenfranchised dance on the battlefields.
K-os started my afternoon with a free-flowing set of funky hip-hop, with a mixed ensemble that proved it's possible to swing and rock out simultaneously. He free-styled, he let loose with some messy invigorating jazz-rock fusion, he did a brief a capella of the Wayne Newton (!) classic, Danke Schoen. He was completely himself, and didn't seem at all bothered with whether that fit anybody's expectations. Hard to believe he and his strong recent album were stiffed for a Polaris Prize nomination.
Other boys on the main stage did their jobs and left me feeling only a shade warmer than indifferent. I like the Arctic Monkeys on record, but after three live exposures I can't get excited by their living-jukebox approach. They delivered, but Lord, they must be bored doing the same tunes the same way every time. I've never quite got the deep hold Interpol has on some people, and came no closer to penetrating the mystery on Saturday. Yes, they have a distinctive sound, but they're awfully parsimonious about what they do with it. After half a dozen songs that all treaded the same narrow ground musically and emotionally, I wanted to shout: What are you guys afraid of?
The mainstage went blank for about an hour in the late afternoon, after Kid Koala abandoned his DJ set when the hot sun began melting his vinyl. He was a last-minute replacement for Amy Winehouse (who cancelled three weeks ago), though why the festival thought a DJ set would work on the main stage is baffling. People drifted around during the hiatus, checking out the side stages, whose offerings generally paled in comparison to what was happening simultaneously at the Osheaga Festival in Montreal.
As an event, the two-year-old Virgin Festival still lacks personality. The thing felt utterly corporate, and displayed a rats-in-maze approach to crowd control. Saturday was like a day-long exercise in docility training. I counted eight uniformed cops patrolling the small DJ tent, as if club music + alcohol = guaranteed mayhem. Gee, officer Krupke, we only came to have fun.
another review and source of pictures