It was a perfect October day for a near-perfect festival. And much as the sun shone brightly before storm clouds threatened (but in the end only brought relief and an autumn crisp), the difference between a good set and a great one was, more often than not, a mere matter of luck: getting a good spot, being at the right place at the right time, finding warmth amid the chill, knowing some limits, and holding onto the light, lest ALL be swallowed by darkness!
Pulling up to Columbia MD’s tailgate-friendly Merriweather Post Pavilion is generally fine times and smooth sailing, and on this beautiful day, parking was no exception. Despite tens of thousands of concertgoers filing in for Saturday’s all-day 2012 Virgin Mobile FreeFest -- over 30,000 officially reported, though some suspect well over last year’s 50,000 mark -- all went without hiccups. Overflow traffic was directed clearly from the main lot (South Entrance) to a free North Entrance garage, and wouldn’t you know, the detours and concrete enclosures didn’t appear to deter the tailgaters’ pregaming in the slightest?
Just beyond the North Entrance was the eternal boom of the Dance Forest. Lucky last-minute addition, D.C. hometown boys VOLTA BUREAU, were warming up the festival crowd with some serious dance tunes. U Street Music Hall co-founder and longtime pillar and champion of the District’s dance music community, Will Eastman, and his Volta Bureau bandmate, vocalist/DJ/producer Bernard Farley, a.k.a. Outputmessage, were both on the decks, spreading good vibes with great sound; crowds of gathering revelers shook it among the stately trees, and with plenty of space to spare. Between one another, Eastman and Farley toggled mixer channels; disco house, breakbeats and progressive; and DJing skills with a side of audience interaction -- most notably in the form of a smiling Eastman batting beach balls into the crowd, dousing dancers with water, sharing stickers, singing, clapping, and showing love for D.C. and FreeFest, all while Farley deftly manned the mix. In a day chock full of talent, such exchanges were the key to crafting a memorable performance; Volta Bureau closed their set with chart-topping 2011 favorite “Alley Cat” and should be credited for nothing short of saving the day after DAS RACIST’s strep-induced last-second cancellation.
Opening the West Stage was Baltimore’s own FUTURE ISLANDS, who did not disappoint with their charmingly off-centered brand of dramatic electropop. They represented their latest effort, On The Water, with animated dance moves reminiscent of the Charleston and an energy somewhere on the Jack Black spectrum -- certainly not a bad thing. Discovered during Future Islands’ set was the West Stage’s left-side P.A. issues that would continue over the course of the day, including but not limited to a notable echo present at the far left wings (ferris wheel side) of the West Stage area.
Clear across the venue, on the Pavilion Stage, the bluesy soul of ALLEN STONE reportedly delivered the goods as well. They, along with many of the day’s acts (Sorry, Justin Jones and Trampled by Turtles!), warrant more words than mere two-footed, single-bodied mortals, even working in pairs, can at times provide. Forgive us in advance for that. As with any festival, we must all accept there will be metaphorical (though hopefully no literal) casualties.
Back at the Dance Forest, Brooklyn’s PENGUIN PRISON was rocking out to a video art backdrop and an ever-growing crowd. Funky slap bass married synth hooks and MJ-esque vocals for some fresh yet retro electropop akin to a Maroon 5 with more indie cred and pot jokes. Though with songs like “Don’t Fuck with My Money,” they seem well primed to take things to their logical pop-shiny post-indie end. Keep an eye on these guys.
PORTUGAL. THE MAN started their West Stage set without too much fanfare but to large crowds and dark clouds. As a front swept overhead and temps dropped, the high-voiced bluesy jammy rockers from Alaska, who seemed to epitomize festival-music-as-such, drew in scores of their notoriously loyal road fans. They also officially kicked off our first witnessing of the day’s drama unfolding, when Howard County Fire & Rescue rushed into the crowd to tend to an incident during a cover of “Helter Skelter.” This led, as it does, to its logical conclusion: ambulance sirens going off in the not-so-distant horizon -- an end seemingly befitting this hard-working and talented band somehow reminiscent (though not completely) of Rush meets The Black Keys.
Up next on the West Stage: D.C.’s very own THE DISMEMBERMENT PLAN, who did not look or sound at all like a band that had spent the better part of a decade broken up. These beyond-tight indie math rockers of yore, armed with both new material and classic fan favorites, were embraced and whole-heartedly adored. Bass (/keys) southpaw Eric Axelson rose above some technical difficulties with grace early on in their set. Down-to-earth attitudes and masterful chops were only part of the equation: D-Plan’s rapport with the audience was so human it was golden -- completely comfortable and at home in every sense; it easily made for the best band banter of the day. Humble though capable frontman Travis Morrison made constant self-deprecating jokes about everything from his own use of ballet lingo to observing the utmost in shoelace safety; he even fired himself well before a) anyone else did; b) a triple do-over due to lyrical screwups, made both endearing and enjoyable. Meanwhile, drum ace Joe Easley made moments of eye contact and nonverbal communication with the band’s family far above the stage in the rafters, signaling to a tiny person in headphones matching his own, whom we could only assume was his son. This combination of raw energy, talent, humility and utter humanity, when channeled through their tunes -- including The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified’s “The Ice of Boston,” Emergency and I’s “You Are Invited,” and more (well representing their ! debut all the way through to the new D-Plan album now in progress) -- handily made new fans of those who somehow slept through college radio in the 90s.
Ben Folds Five rocking the suburbs ACTUAL
Speaking of reunions, BEN FOLDS FIVE also turned out to be a band that did not look or sound like a band that had just gotten back together after a protracted absense from the scene. With fuzz bass aplenty, his “five” were back full-throttle, as tight and lively as ever. Mr. Folds, who rocked a snazzy conductor’s cap, was at one point witnessed playing the piano with his stool. Hits new and old, including “Erase Me,” “Army,” “Brick,” and “Song for the Dumped,” graced their set and reminded several, myself included, of past outdoor Ben Folds (Five) shows and fests. This was also the point in the day, however, when the crowd size and festival setup revealed itself as being more than just a force for good: The Dance Forest’s Nervo and/or Thomas Gold brought such oontz that it could not be contained to the Forest alone -- a particularly unwelcome addition to the much subtler Pavilion stage soundscape.
That said, if we were going to be overtaken by dance, then by golly it was going to be with intent! So off to SANTIGOLD! Talk about a dance party in the works; folks were getting down with gleeful abandon, as the West Stage sank deeper into mid-afternoon deep party-vibe mode. As anyone who’s seen Santi White et al on her current tour in support of her latest Master of My Make Believe can attest, she definitely brings the energy. With her reggae-dub-infused, post-punk-inspired, future-of-pop ruckus and army of stage dancers, she called to the audience to join her on stage for fully interactive dance party participation. Though her own voice was heavy with effects, it was also solid and present; her image was quite modest on this day, though her troupe of percussionists and dancers rocked a spinning array of funny headgear, french maid black and white lace, and pinwheeling parasols.
With dance party still in our shoes and that abiding music-all-damn-day happiness nestling deep within our souls, we headed back to the Pavilion Stage for some ALABAMA SHAKES, where all the goods bolstering the sea of critical acclaim received over their 2012 debut Boys & Girls were on full display. Make no mistake: The was being taken to church -- the church of rhythm and blues -- and it felt great! Again, much ink already has been spilled over front woman Brittany Howard, most of it glowing, all of it warranted, and none worth endlessly repeating here, because that’s what it would take. Suffice it to say that, from soul and gospel ballads to blazing blues numbers and back to garage rock, this Athens, AL three-piece lit up the Pavilion and lawn alike, exposing precisely why this is a band who, while great on recordings, is absolutely to be experienced live -- a festival high point and must-see for all.
After the Shakes’ dust settled, there was a mass exodus to NAS, where the sole hip-hopper of the day was just getting started as the sun was setting. Again, the sound was muddy on the left side of the West Stage, but others on the right side of the island reported it was the best-sounding live hip hop they’d ever seen. Either way, it was all about the fun, and fans of Nas were no doubt having a lot of that, soaking up the Illmatic and Stillmatic late 90s nostalgia and getting all kinds of fired up with the “Where my big-time smokers at?” call and response chants. Everywhere, Nas. They’re f*#%ing everywhere. (Amazingly, there was reportedly only one arrest -- assault -- and the many cops who were there were seemed mostly interested in crowd control, thankfully, or else things would’ve ended badly.)
We’d be remiss not to mention the other aspects of the FreeFest, including the art and sculpture on display; the FreeFest app (though if you maintained a signal past Portugal. The Man, you are a miracle baby); the interactive
LG Chroma cube, which while no doubt cool, was hard to justify a trip to, given the long bathroom lines and all the amazing musicians playing at any given time. The Virgin FreeFest also exists in large part for the charitable RE*Generation initiative, gathering $10 donations and doing great work for homeless youths. There were ample ATMs to make this and other spending possible... which was tempting given all the surprisingly solid food and drink options. Everything was clearly labeled, well laid-out, and, more or less, easily accessible.
Beards,Wives and...nope...just BEARDS.
Next stop, the ever-overcrowding Pavilion Stage and the iconic beardos from Texas -- ZZ TOP -- who opened their set with an ironically amusing and either ironically or unironically sexist “Gang of Outlaws” Black Dahlia film featuring our wooly Toppers, Gibbons and Hill, with an ample side of muscle cars, rampant machismo, dusty roads, general badassery... and of course, your run-of-the-mill blonde-rock-groupie bombshell/objectification fodder. Said footage was interspersed through the early parts of the show, no doubt to bolster their at least partially tongue-in-cheek image as the bad boys of rock. Whether this actually enhanced or detracted from the fact that HOLY F&*#$BALLS THESE DUDES STILL RAWK!!! was in the eye of the beholder. Even so, getting to hear these Houston legends, who have been together since 1969, and whom many may still vividly remember seeing animated on Saturday morning’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks” in the 80s, was a very memorable treat, and it pained us to leave early to head for...
...M83. West Stage. The sun had long since set, as hoards and hoards of festgoers made their way towards a spectacularly lit stage. Within minutes, everyone between the two sides of the road were sardine-packed as far as the eye could see, with zero room to move. While this would not be a problem if this was the only show of the night, a festival such as this one relies on a modicum of mobility. It also invites rampant all-day debauchery. Sadly, this was the point in the night where people had been very loaded... for a very long time... and not only began to “fall ill,” but began to literally fall. Those still standing were in mixed states of mind, many on the other side of “balanced.” The smells were... special. Pushing, shoving, aggression, and random hostility started breaking out, with fights and douchebaggery steadily on the rise. The vibe was getting weird, and this scene was not for the anxious, claustrophobic, or NPR-oriented. The dark side of rawk was taking over, and more and more folks (with nowhere to go) wanted out. Finally, M83 took the stage, calming things a bit. Opening his set in the same way he opens Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, things finally got underway, and it was shiny. Stellar stage lights paired with EDM kids’ LED mohawks and twinkle-tipped gloves creating quite the sparkly phenomenon to behold. M83 proceeded with the very catchy “Reunion,” as well as “Teen Angst” from Before the Dawn Heals Us. Working hard to escape the crowd, relishing in fresh air and a “Midnight City” last-hurrah frolick, it was off to the Pavilion, against the ever-growing grain, to seek calmer, bluesier pastures.
While the crowd contended with “traffic” and capacity issues, the ex White Striper & Co. finally took the stage. His all-girl band -- who totally womanhandled a menagerie of instruments, including upright basses, keys, drums, percussions and the like with maximum rockitude – dressed in old-timey-country white wedding dresses that contrasted White’s own all-black dapper duds to create a typically offbeat Jack White sort of vibe. He sounded typically Jack White as well, which is to say, great, playing a mix of material off his new solo album and numbers from his myriad other projects that led revelers at times to both quiet hushes and full-fledged hoedowns. He closed with a riotous and now classic White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” that left those who fought their sanity and better judgment and stayed through to the sometimes-bitter end feeling completely rawk validated.
And thus, it was over. And as we came, so too we went: Leaving through an after-dark Dance Forest that felt utterly enchanted, the club lasers refracted through treetops, creating an oddly perfect contrast of timeless nature juxtaposed against signs of The Future. ABOVE & BEYOND’s brand of peak-hour four-on-the-floor vocal trance and progressive was a similarly fitting contrast, both to Jack White’s unmistakably organic rock set, but also to SKRILLEX’s darker dubstep, firing up the neighboring West Stage and representing the “Other Side” of electronica, much as drum n bass and jungle once stood in contrast against house and trance. What’s old is new: Rife with breathy synths, feelgood melodies, and big builds and breakdowns, A&B hearkened back to EDM’s lighter roots while having found a completely new audience. Witnessing all of this meant actively dodging neo-candy kids’ LED-lit hula hoops and passing-out partygoers going down in the Forest like felled trees. It meant dodging f*#$ed up kids in deadmau5 heads shoving each other in a perfect claustrophobic West Stage storm that began at M83 but did not end there for those for whom escape was no option. It meant, in short, that for us, The Olds, our hour had expired. Because in the Forest and beyond, the EDM torch had long passed from old generation to new; side by side with The RAWK, The RAVE also lives on, shifting like all other genres once did from trend to tradition, carving grooves well into history, into the night and into the new millenium, in an era where musical movements never die but are instead reupholstered, refinished, remixed and constantly reborn.