The Police, TV on the Radio, Incubus, Ben Harper perform on day one at Virgin Festival - Rolling Stone
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The Police, TV, Ben Harper Enthrall Masses at Virgin Festival Day One

“If you want to write about what it was like to be here, two words: hot and sweaty,” says a fan wiping his brow at the Virgin Festival at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course. It’s 100 degrees with no breeze, and Amy Winehouse is onstage feeling the heat. The British singer tugs at her beehive as she skims through nearly every track from her Back to Black in front of an estimated 40,000 people. She thanks the crowd after each song, not offering a word more, or a smile. She fidgets more than she shimmies and looks a bit bored while her proud, shirtless husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, videotapes her set from the side of the stage.

A bit later, beach balls fly and girls in bikini tops are passed over people’s heads as Incubus take the stage with “Wish You Were Here” and jam through a hard-hitting extended version of “Pistola.” Drunk, dizzy and exhausted fans are being carried by medical staff to a tent with cots, while onstage, Brandon Boyd is shirtless, eyes closed, playing the conga drums.

Ben Harper takes the main stage next and sings a rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” like it’s his own. Footage of African villages and streets plays on the big screens, while Harper and his Innocent Criminals spread a peaceful message about healing the world. An extra-extended version “With My Own Two Hands” seems like it’s never going to end and the crowd, pushing their palms up towards the sky, seem like they hope that it never does.

Across the dusty field, past the wafts of weed smoke, girls hula-hooping, and couples passed out on blankets, electro wizard James Murphy and his LCD Soundsystem are making sure the South Stage audience catches the spirit too. The scruffy Murphy yelps, yowls and boogies as he plays the tambourine with gusto to super-charged tracks like “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” and “North American Scum.”

Back at the main stage, the Beastie Boys are rocking black suits and the mic. Mix Master Mike blends in current hip-hop tracks here and there, meaning Mike D, Ad Rock and MCA get a chance to rhyme over Jim Jones’ “Ballin.'” Loosening up, Ad-Rock takes off his blazer, Mike D un-tucks his shirt, and they spit “Brass Monkey” like it was 1986. The Beasties have Baltimore shouting out their favorite New York borough on “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” while Brooklyn’s own TV on the Radio are turning out one of the day’s most outstanding performances on the South Stage.

TV on the Radio frontman Tunde Adibempe is a man possessed as he jumps and wails, bouncing with every note he sings. During the haunting “Dreams,” a small circle of sweat on his chest quickly takes over his entire T-shirt. “Goddamn, it’s fucking hot!” he heaves and rests on the mic before diving into favorites like “Young Liars” and “Wolf Like Me,” while his bandmates and fans do an impressive job trying to keep up. A guy in the crowd, shaking his head, sums it up, “That’s so heavy! Oh my God!”

Fans at the South Stage are so absorbed they don’t even realize that back at the main stage the Police are about to begin. Dressed in all black, Sting is in top form, and Andy Summers unleashes an amazing series of solos. “They’re kinda mellow now, the songs are slower,” one fan observes as the band pops into “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” and a gorgeous rendition of “Wrapped Around Your Finger.” Their stage set-up is minimal, but their impact is massive.


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