The Virgin mobile Free Fest returned to Merriweather Post Pavilion for the 3rd time this year, and showed the world why it is quit simply one of the best festivals going today. By freeing up the cost of entry and inviting a diverse group of musicians to come play, Richard Branson has created a musical playground where you’re always going to see and hear something that you might not have before.
This year it seemed the festival was all about one thing: Deadmau5. You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a kid who was sporting a homemade version of Deadmau5’s iconic mouse ears, and you certainly couldn’t avoid the energy of the anticipation of his set. And while it’s unclear to me what all the hype is about, besides beats, lasers and copious drug use (wait…that sounds awesome actually), there can be no hating on the enthusiasm that Deadmau5 inspires in his followers. It’s a new scene and it will continue growing exponentially whether I come around to it or not.
And speaking of new scenes, while there was a designated “Dance Forest” again this year, electronic acts Cut Copy and Empire of the Sun managed to spill out of the Dance Forest and onto the West stage where they found a slightly greater level of mass appeal. It’s not necessarily our thing, but there’s no denying that the dance is here to stay, and by tapping into this specific zeitgeist, the organizers of the VMFF seemingly, at least this year, found a way to make the whole festival grounds feel like one giant unified party, instead of a giant demographically divided gathering.
But enough ramblings. Here are some of our highlights of the festival as we experienced it:
Playing a festival is tricky. The schedules are tight, the band has little flexibility, and crowds are moving about restlessly, always looking for the next show. Really, every song has to grab the crowd and force it to stay put and focus. Some bands can handle it and others, even established, talented acts, just never get the hang of the festival setting.
I love Okkervil River but I have never been able to catch them on tour so I was excited to see them at long last. However, I was a bit concerned that their sound, especially on some of their more confessional tracks, would not be a good fit for an outdoor festival. Add to that the fact that OR was inexplicably scheduled as only the second band on the Pavilion Stage, and I figured the deck was stacked against them. Well, as it turns out, my worries were unfounded (the lesson as always…trust the band). OR ripped through a series of huge rock songs touching on their entire discography, eschewing softer tracks like “A Stone,” in favor of the stadium fillers like “For Real,” “Rider,” and “Black.” They also made the ballsy decision to include the closer from The Stage Names, “John Allyn Smith Sails,” whose extended riff on Sloop John B. played extremely well in the open setting. Most importantly, while the seats and lawn were sparsely populated at the outset, they quickly filled, and by the time OR led the crowd in a clap-along at the end of their set, they were packed with cheering fans. Note to others (cough – Black Keys – cough)…That’s how you win fans and kill a festival set.
Yay, its 1984. Cut Copy is somewhat outside of my usual comfort zone but I really like In Ghost Colors and Zonoscope definitely has its moments. However, they were an odd fit for the West Stage and their sound would work a lot better in a club setting. I caught a few tracks of their set which sounded clean and professional but somewhat passion-less before abandoning the West Stage’s manure stink for the Dance Forest and !!!...
Do you remember the early aughts, when DFA was ascendant and dance punk was briefly the hottest thing going (I am willing to wager that most of the kids in the audience don’t)? Back then, !!!, along with the Rapture were widely regarded as the elder statesmen of this movement that offered the radical proposition that punk and indie kids should maybe, you know, move their asses at shows. Walking into the Dance Forest for !!!’s set was like stepping back into that era for a few brief moments. Amidst a flurry of electro acts, piping beats from their turntables and computers, Nic Offer and company, laid down the same infectious funk/punk grooves that they have been perfecting for the past decade+. And the passage of time certainly hasn’t blunted Offer’s renowned enthusiasm. He vamped, posed, yelped, and shook his hips atop the speakers throughout the entire set, daring the crowd to resist the beat. They could not. And why would they want to really? Sometimes you just have to move…
While a good number of acts and fans at the fest were focused on the electronic soundscapes that had moments calling me back to my John Hughes days of the 80’s, as fake neon raybans and spandex pants filled my eye sight, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals took me a little further back to festivals of yesteryear as they tapped into a vein of 70’s classic rock and soul that reminded me for the first time in the day, don’t forget to puff puff give. Working off the impressive vocal strength of frontwoman Grace Potter, the Nocturnals worked their way through a series of upbeat, blues and soul-based rockin’ tunes. Reminiscent of the Black Crowes at times, Grace jumped fluidly between guitar and Hammond organ while belting out some pretty impressive vocals. And it was as one catchy tune after the next came through the speakers, bringing the next short, tight, and concise guitar solo through my brain, that the music started to feel a little forced and rushed. I guess I was just hoping the band would delve a little deeper into the part of the 70’s that was loose and free as much as it was soulful.
It’s not often you get to see a legend, so getting to Smith’s set was sort of a priority for me. Smith doesn’t so much fit into a genre as she simply IS a genre. Her brand of spoken –sung proto punk has influenced everyone from REM to, well…just about everyone over the past three decades. Taking the stage with Polaroid in hand, Smith took a picture of the audience and then proceeded to deliver a vicious set that peaked with a blistering version of “Because the Night” that brought the house down. Awkward political rant aside (these things happen when musician’s get near DC, play on or around 9-11, or are just Patti Smith) it was a performance worthy of a legend, and one of the most vital of the day.
Oh yea…if you looked carefully members of TV On The Radio could be spotted in the pit enjoying Smith’s set with the rest of the festival goers
TV On The Radio
And speaking of TVOTR. The band has always played like they had a fire lit under them and this performance was no exception. IT should be said though that this is not the same band I saw at the beginning of their tour for Nine Types Of Light. This TVOTR is a more confident, more raucous outfit that seems determined to be nothing short of this generations MC5. Their music positively boils over with a punk urgency and every song is delivered as if the band were in a joyous brawl with the audience. More importantly no other band at the festival stood a chance, which brings me to …
The Black Keys
If blue’s rock ala the White Stripes is your thing then The Black Keys are the band for you. This duo from Akron is one of the hardest working bands in Rock and Roll, which is no doubt how they landed the headlining slot at the Virgin Mobile Free Fest. But that might not have been the slot they were born to play. In a festival that for the most part was pulled off famously by the organizers, this may have been the only misstep. Even on paper putting a duo, or anyone really, on after TVOTR to close out a festival that reportedly had close 50k attendees seems like a giant misstep. And it’s not for lack of trying that the band couldn’t quite fill the space, but after the set that preceded them, there really wasn’t anywhere for the band to go. That having been said, the band worked with what they had and managed to make just the two of them sound like a blues powered army that would have blown the doors off of much smaller venue.
And that, in a nutshell was our festival. Obviously there’s so much more that went on that day, but you can’t see everything at a festival like this, and we most definitely didn’t. What’s important to take away from an event like Free Fest (not that there are any other events like it) is that music is a giant motherf@!er of a uniting force and it’s never more clear than on days like this. Branson and his staff are getting this down to a science, and we can only hope that this event in its current form continues for years to come.
2011 Virgin Mobile Fest @ Merriweather Post Pavilion. Photos by Derek Bond / Kevin Hill