Anyone who peeked outside in the first week of September might have noticed that it was raining a lot. And if you’re like me, you developed a pretty sadistic case of cabin fever. Lucky for me and the greater DMV region, Virgin Mobile was hosting an all-day extravaganza at the Merriweather Post Pavilion. Featuring bands and solo acts from a diverse range of musical backgrounds, this year’s Virgin Mobile FreeFest ran the gamut from popular pop to R&B to the more obscure dance techno that only the most music-obsessed know about. There was something for everyone – and everyone wanted to get a piece of the action. Official estimates from the organizers (and commonsense) placed attendance at the tens of thousands, with roughly 50,000 people packed into the Merriweather Post Pavilion grounds, either scoring free tickets through the FreeFest’s sponsors or shelling out $50 for a Fan-E-Pak. A few friends and I were lucky enough to snag free tickets at the last minute, so we cancelled all our plans for the day and road-tripped it out to Columbia, Maryland to find out what all the fuss was about.
Toting sealed water bottles, blankets, and other provisions to last through the 11-hour music-a-thon, FreeFesters started pouring into the Pavilion grounds when the doors opened at 11a.m. With a little time to kill before the first show an hour later, Virgin Mobile rallied sponsors and vendors to entertain the masses. FreeFesters were treated to a plethora of booths and displays for local businesses, vendors, and radio stations, located mostly in the center of the back property of the Pavilion, to help pass the time between performances. For example, the Skatepark of Baltimore showcased local talent and rallied local support for their nonprofit, open-to-all skate park, while the Bindlestiff Family Circus showed off their trampoline antics involving soccer balls, skis, and even snowboards. Strolling around the central section of the festival, FreeFesters were treated to plenty of vendors and radio stations passing out chum – at the spacious interactive-sound Kyocera installation (Kyocera was the main sponsor of the event), promoters passed out handheld paper fans that became a boon to many FreeFesters as the blaring sun and humid air pressed down on the thousands packed together at each of the stages. Ultimately, these displays were mostly distractions from the main draw of FreeFest – music – so once the shows started, FreeFesters flocked to the stages.
First stop on our musical tour was the Dance Stage, where Eclectic Method was breaking the seal for the dance-centric FreeFesters. Brandishing his particular brand of sample-based dance music, Eclectic Method moved smoothly between Justin Bieber, Rick Ross, John Lennon, Lil John, and Diplo, among others, all in the signature style that makes dance electronica a hallmark in trendy clubs.
On our way to the West Venue after leaving the Dance Stage behind, the flow of traffic passed directly by the “Book the Band” Stage. In the weeks leading up to FreeFest, Virgin Mobile welcomed fans to go online and vote for their favorite local bands, to help them garner a spot at the Freefest. F.A.M.E. Forgive All My Enemies from Sasha Bruce Youthwork was up, belting out soulful, beat-driven R&B. An interesting, if unlikely sequel to Eclectic Method’s pop-driven music – in any other setting it would not have been possible to have these two groups performing at the same festival, and it would not be the last time in the day that this stark contrast in artistic genres was observed.
We arrive just in time to sneak decent spots to the left of the West Stage, right before Two Door Cinema Club took the stage. TDCC hails from Ireland, but the soggy and muddy crowd that pressed up to the stage proved that they have a fan base Stateside as well. TDCC’s sound is reminiscent of the big-hair, shiny leather pants, pop-electronica you thought disappeared with the Reagan Administration, while at the same time bringing in modern guitar riffs and unexpected synthesizer mixes. Fueled by their own performance energy, TDCC fully entertained the crowd while their drummer provided solid backup. They played off each other and dashed across the stage, with clear intent – to make headlines despite a mediocre timeslot in the afternoon lineup – and the few breaks the band took were to mop their brows and urge the crowd to dance. (Click for full set list).
It was a mad rush back to the rest of the Pavilion’s grounds as soon as the TDCC finished up their set and left the stage to continue their party elsewhere. With no shade, few additional vendors (the single piece of entertainment of note was a moderately sized Ferris wheel emblazoned with the Virgin Mobile FreeFest logo), and only Porta-potties within spitting distance of the West Stage, FreeFesters willingly fled to the wooded areas around the Dance Stage and the covered Pavilion in search of food, beverage, and the next piece of the afternoon entertainment.
Walking into the middle of Porter Robinson’s set at the packed-to-the-gills Dance Stage, it was no surprise that the FreeFest organizers set one stage aside specifically for the mid-afternoon dance party crowd. With his mix of pure pumping, bumping dance sounds—less reliant on sampling—FreeFesters were treated to an experience not unlike a late-night dance club. The nineteen-year-old Robinson seems to favor heavy beats and an electrifying synthesized motor sound, using it to signify changes in his continual set. It was an excellent interlude between TDCC and the anticipation of Calvin Harris.
As Scottish DJ Calvin Harris took the stage, the crowd’s energy began to shift to a higher gear. The first two acts that graced the Dance Stage had been warmups – people had come early to work their way up to the front of the crowd, and when Harris took the stage, the entire throng went wild. Speaking only a few words of introduction confidently into the microphone, Harris shifted smoothly into his setlist. There was a strong sense of continuity in the sound from Robinson – but the attitude had changed. It was the first time in the day where I felt compelled to dance, by both the performer and the people around me, not only to dance, but subsume to the jumping, throbbing mass of FreeFesters at the Dance Stage until the impending Cut Copy performance pulled us away.
Passing back over the muddy, downtrodden, and straw-strewn field of the West Stage, we passed the “Book the Band” Stage once more. Clear for Takeoff were well into their set, the foursome blasting pop-punk rock, making the most of a small group of bystanders and a (briefly interested) mob passing right by on a beeline to the West Stage. After staking our claim to a spot in prime center-stage territory, everyone settled in for the wait. FreeFesters gabbed about recent shows they had attended, the bands playing later in the day, and whatever music industry fan gossip they had collected in recent days.
If anything can be said for the bandmates of Cut Copy, they know how to dress for a show. All four players strode out on stage with bold confidence, dressed in dark jeans and perfectly pressed cotton button-down shirts – it was a shame that their immaculate appearances were ruined in mere minutes by the impressive heat. Musically, they are an indie rock band for the modern times – blending 80s pop rock with more melodic alternative, hints of techno, both acoustic and electric guitar, cowbells, and enough synthesizers and tremolo arm whines to get the whole audience dancing. The true treats of the performance were incredible guitar riffs backed up by beautiful harmonies from all the members. Cut Copy closed up their set with “Hearts on Fire” from their first album, In Ghost Colours (“Either you know the words, or at least you can dance to it!”) and ended with the soulful single off of this year’s Zonoscope “Need You Now,” bringing the crowd down from the contact high of their energetic set.
Cee Lo Green was up next on the same stage, so a large portion of the crowd stayed put as roadies changed over equipment. Although he started his set fashionably late, the several-thousand strong mass of FreeFesters was quite forgiving. Joined on stage by his bedazzled and be-leathered female back-up band, Green belted out hits from all stages of his career, including “Crazy” from the Gnarls Barkley years, “F*** You” of more recent infamy, and covers of Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha” and The Clash’s “Rock The Casbah.” Devoid of his usual bling and outlandish outfits, Green made up for it by strutting across the stage like a proud rooster, crowing to his devoted fans. At the sight of FreeFesters fleeing the West Stage to (presumably) snag good seats at the upcoming TV On The Radio show at the Pavilion, Green chided the crowd: “Where are you going? We ain’t done yet. Show them we ain’t done yet.” At that point, he almost was – after a few more songs of lesser fame and some final bows, Green’s crew cleared the stage and the crowd dispersed as fast as they could on the off-chance of catching the last remnants of the TV On The Radio show at the main Pavilion.
With the big names coming up in the late evening, many FreeFesters seemed to turn out for indie rockers TV On The Radio. Having missed most of their set, the remnants that the newly arrived FreeFesters heard of the last third was fantastic. With swinging songs that were easy to groove to, TVOTR was energetic on stage despite the waning evening.
After TVOTR cleared the stage, there was more waiting to be had. Even so, the remaining thousands of FreeFesters knew their patience would be rewarded soon enough. One of the evening’s highlights by any standard was The Black Keys. With a hefty hour-plus show, fans were willing to forgive them for walking out on stage a few minutes late. The Akron, Ohio duo plunged into their first rocking song, “Thickfreakness” – the title-track from their second albums– before moving smoothly into some of the more rhythmic songs in their catalog. As one observer stated, “They are a proper rock band.” Possibly due to their duo status, The Black Keys’s sound is focused on guitar and drumbeat-centric melodies, with screaming guitar riffs interspersed throughout their live set. The middle of their set raised the audience’s noise level up from a loud clamor to a deafening roar, when the music mood shifted to their more recent work off Brothers, including “Everlasting Light” and “Next Girl.” Although the fan community was split in their reception of Brothers – the long and short of it being that the new album diverged from The Black Keys’s previous sound, by a large margin – that fact didn’t seem relevant here. The FreeFesters loved The Black Keys and any onstage gadgetry they choose to unleash, including a disco ball and one of the most impressive lighting designs that day. The Keys wrapped up their set with an incredible rendition of “I Got Mine,” punctuated by an almost-ostentatious ‘THE BLACK KEYS’ sign that flashed in time with the music. A proper blow-out for the evening, and, following tradition that was otherwise lacking throughout the day, The Keys obligingly returned to the stage for an encore, playing “Your Touch.”
With that final goodbye from The Black Keys, many FreeFesters raced off to catch the last half of the Deadmau5 concert (another fan favorite of the day, judging from the large number of T-shirts and Deadmau5 ‘heads’ seen throughout the day), while others trudged off towards the parking lot to trek home. Despite threats of rain, blistering sun, muddy terrain throughout the entire Pavilion grounds, and the crush of thousands of tired, sweaty bodies, it was a solidly positive experience for the FreeFest crowd. The event avoided many of the major hitches that can plague a big festival like this, including inclement weather, performer cancellations, or even low turnout. Performances were solid, the audience was excited to attend, there was a strong local flavor mixed in with the national and international acts, and the longevity of the crowd lasting into the evening’s last performances should be indicative of the quality of the year’s FreeFest. With that in mind; Virgin Mobile and Kyocera? Don’t fix what isn’t broken, and we’ll see you next year.
The Final Breakdown:
First of all, the FreeFest setup is unusual. Most performances at Merriweather are held at the Pavilion alone, within the limits of the covered seats and the general seating lawn. The rest of the grounds are fenced off – presumably for backstage crew use only. Extending the performance and attendee spaces provided both plenty of space for Virgin Mobile FreeFest to hold simultaneous shows, but also created bottleneck problems when large numbers of FreeFesters wanted to travel from one stage to another. The paths are meant for small numbers, like crews or performers, not thousands upon thousands of spectators. Patience is important, as well as accepting the fact that there will be a lot of time being very up-close and personal with total strangers. All in the fun of FreeFest!
Food was plentiful and of a diverse selection, but by the time the evening wore on to dinnertime vendors were running out of everything except for alcohol. Water was available via spickets or for purchase – and considering that a young man fainted within three feet of me right before Cee Lo Green’s set, proper hydration should be every attendee’s mantra.
Earplugs are a must as well, especially if you are caught in the uncomfortable position of having worked your way in front of one of the massive speakers to the sides of every stage. No wonder studies show higher rates of hearing loss in young adults.
Although it may sound like a bother, sunscreen is a saving grace. After almost ten hours exposed, only one person in our group had developed a sunburn thanks to a hefty SPF 50 sunscreen we all applied prior to walking into the Pavilion grounds.
Shoes are something to consider for every outdoor and long-winded event, especially if a week of rain has created a swamp pretty much everywhere there isn’t pavement. Voted the most practical footwear of the day: rain boots. As opposed to sneakers (which will get dirty but will protect your toes) or throwaway flip-flops (which you probably don’t care about getting dirty but heaven help you if the 230 lb. guy next to you starts jumping), rain boots had the dual advantage of protection and being easy to clean after a day romping through mud.