Twenty artists. Three stages. One day. Free.
These are the standard components of Virgin Mobile’s annual FreeFest, which celebrated on Saturday, September 21 its fifth consecutive year being free-of-charge to a majority of the 50,000 attendees who descended upon Merriweather Post Pavilion. Add to that equation one-hundred-percent chance of rain and one muddy lawn, and you have FreeFest 2013.
For this year’s festival, Virgin Mobile made use of virtually all 40 acres of Merriweather’s wooded grounds to provide festival-goers with extracurriculars to enjoy before and between artists’ sets. Among them were interactive art installations, a chalkboard “wish wall”, quintessential festival merchants vending hippie goods, and local music organizations like U Street Music Hall and Ram’s Head Live giving away tickets to upcoming shows.
New York City’s “tropical grit pop” duo Ghost Beach kicked-off FreeFest at noon in the aptly named Dance Forest nestled in the northeastern corner of Merriweather’s woods. The stage was relocated from where it stood in previous years to an area with significantly more trees, the most obstructive being a mere ten feet from the stage, blocking patrons’ views of the musicians performing. Then again, it was the Dance Forest. Fifteen minutes later, The Knocks warmed up the main, Pavilion Stage with an electropop set that featured a remix of M83’s “Midnight City”. As hard as the duo tried, they did not get attendees moving and dancing as much as they might have hoped.
Ezra Koenig and his Vampire Weekend cohorts headlining this years FreeFest (Photo by Joy Asico)
Music began on the West Stage at one o’clock with Courtney Love-esque pop star Sky Ferreira sporting a Megadeath shirt and hickies (presumably from her boyfriend Zachary Cole Smith of DIIV). Ferreira, backed by a guitarist, bassist, keyboardist, and drummer, played a forty-five minute set of songs from her EPs and forthcoming debut album Night Time, My Time. The petite singer/model seemed most comfortable when performing, as she sang in a confident, sonorous voice that faltered only when hitting high notes, but reverted back to her meek, awkward self when talking between songs. Instrumentally, Ferreira’s backing band could have sufficed with only a drummer and keyboardist, for the guitarist’s and bassist’s instruments could barely be heard, nor did their parts seem additive to the overall sound.
Overlapping with the end of Ferreira’s set was the beginning of Washed Out’s in the Dance Forest. When touring, the solo project of singer-songwriter Ernest Greene expands to include four more musicians, and together, the group masterfully recreated the intricacies heard on Washed Out’s studio recordings. The set blended highlights from Washed Out’s EPs and full-length albums, the most recent of which, Paracosm, was released just last month. Interestingly, “Feel It All Around,” Washed Out’s main claim to fame after becoming Portlandia’s theme song, was arguably the most lackluster of the set. Despite how good the band sounded overall, the stage’s sound system was not nearly loud enough. Standing only halfway back in the Dance Forest sounded more like being at the edge of a big field. Also working against Washed Out was their early-afternoon time slot as the dreamy visuals accompanying the ethereal chillwave would have been better suited for an evening set.
By the time Washed Out ended, CHVRCHES, seemingly 2013’s most buzzed about band, were fifteen minutes into their show on the West Stage. Thousands of festival-goers flocked to see Scotland’s latest musical export, packing the field so tightly that CHVRCHES could have easily been mistaken for one of the festival’s headliners. However, for all the buzz and the huge draw, the band’s stage presence has yet to catch up with their rapid ascension from small-to-midsized venue circuits to major festival slots.
Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears took the Pavilion Stage at three o’clock and were as rockin’ and funky as ever. Lewis wooed the crowd with his behind-the-head guitar playing skills while his solid brass section added that extra soulful oomph for which the Austin band is so well-known. By this point in the afternoon, the intermittent rain began to pick up, slowly turning Merriweather’s lawn into a giant mud pit. However, even as the weather became increasingly worse, many seats under the pavilion remained empty throughout the rest of the festival.
Although the rain put a damper on the festival experience for some and caused organizers’ logistics to shift, the dreary skies provided the perfect natural ambience for City and Colour. Dallas Green, who performs solo from time to time, played his FreeFest set with a backing band. Green poked fun at his lethargy-inducing music, quipping, “Here’s a slow, sad one to pep you up,” but later infused energy about three-quarters of the way through the set when playing some of his most popular songs. “Sleeping Sickness” and “Waiting” had the crowd singing and swaying along, and there was a noticeable absence from the setlist of “The Girl,” which would have been just as engaging.
Up next on the Pavilion Stage were psychedelic rockers MGMT. Band leaders Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser seemed to be in good moods as they joked, “This is gonna sound a little weird,” presumably in contrast to City and Colour. That good mood quickly dissipated, though, as VanWyngarden experienced monitor issues and became visibly upset during set opener “Alien Days.” The kinks were worked out after a few songs and Van Wyngarden soon returned to high spirits, saying, “Good news is we put out an album this week and our friend got married last weekend!” MGMT then dove right into “Time to Pretend”, sending everyone in the pavilion to their feet. Surprisingly, multiple other Oracular Spectaular songs - “Weekend Wars,” “The Youth,” “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters,” and “Electric Feel” - made it onto the band’s setlist. Van Wyngarden and Goldwasser played these songs from their debut album with refreshing energy and sincerity that was missing from their tour in support of Congratulations. In all, only four tracks from the band’s latest, self-titled album were played, the most memorable being single “Your Life is a Lie,” for which a contest winner joined the group onstage to play a giant cowbell. Throughout the entire set, trippy video projections helped bring the psychedelia of the band’s music to life, reasserting MGMT’s important role as modern purveyors of psychedelic rock.
As Robin Thicke and his controversial “Blurred Lines” prepared the West Stage crowd for Pretty Lights, The Avett Brothers had a good ol’ fashioned hoedown in the Pavilion Stage before Vampire Weekend. The folky Brothers kept up the energy brought by MGMT beforehand with plenty o’ stompin’ and some major clap-a-longs. “[There’s] a lotta love in the shed tonight,” Seth Avett said in his endearing southern twang amidst screams for the North Carolina boys.
While Pretty Lights and Madeon closed out the West Stage and Dance Forest, witty indie darlings Vampire Weekend served as FreeFest 2013’s last act on the Pavilion Stage. Lead singer/guitarist Ezra Koenig, multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij, drummer Chris Thomson, and bassist Chris Baio emerged to deafening cheers and took their places in front of a Fevers and Mirrors-eque backdrop of Victorian floral wallpaper with a massive mirror in the center. Considering the band is currently touring in support of their most recent release, Modern Vampires of the City, their immediate launch into two tracks from their second album, Contra, was unexpected. In fact, it was not until the fourth and fifth songs of the set - “Diane Young” and “Unbelievers” - that Vampire Weekend broke out newer material. They continued to play a mix of all three albums, with “A-Punk”, a single from their eponymous debut album, giving everyone a workout for all bouncing and dancing it incited. Longtime, dedicated fans were then treated to “Boston (Ladies of Cambridge),” a Vampire Weekend classic that never made it onto an official album. Soon after, the band’s set neared its end with an earnest performance of “Obvious Bicycle”, which proved that to Koenig and his fellow Vampires, exploring the themes of death and mortality on Modern Vampires of the City was a genuine, necessary endeavor for the group. Vampire Weekend briefly left the stage, but returned for a three-song encore of “Hannah Hunt,” “One (Blake’s Got a New Face),” and “Walcott,” a traditional Vampire Weekend send-off.
Although the inclement weather and lawn-turned-mud-pit surely frustrated some FreeFest-goers, in the end, the power of music prevailed in helping ensure a memorable, fun day in the woods at Merriweather.
"A little something for the ladies. Tu Amor...Robin" (Photo by Joy Asico)