This year looked like one of the best lineups of the last few years, and arriving at Virgin Mobile FreeFest relatively early this year, there were already a good number of people there who agreed. But with 50,000 people forecast to show up at Merriweather Post Pavilion for the annual Freefest, the number of people during the first four to five hours of shows was manageable. This would not be true after 4pm, when Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Patti Smith, TV On The Radio, and The Black Keys were scheduled to close out the main pavilion stage, and Cut Copy, Cee Lo Green, James Murphy, !!!, Deadmau5 and Ghostland Observatory were playing on the other stages.
The Virgin Festival (in the U.S.), which is now known as the Virgin Mobile FreeFest, was modeled after the British VFest, and has taken place in Toronto, Canada and Baltimore, MD in the U.S. over the last five years. The first VFest was originally set up as a paid, one-day festival and was made into a two-day fest for years two and three. Originally set at the Pimlico racetrack in Baltimore, MD, where the annual Preakness portion of the Triple Crown is, VFest moved to a “free” festival the last three years at the legendary Merriweather.
Obviously, for some, FreeFest is free – Virgin just asks for a $10 donation to “The RE*Generation, Virgin Mobile’s initiative to address youth homelessness.” But, there are also $50 “package” tickets available that included posters, etc., which is good, as the free tickets went in about 60 seconds, as usual. I was lucky to get free tickets this year, though really, $50 is still reasonable for the lineup provided, but it would suck a bit knowing other people got in for free. And, as you’re not able to come and go, once in you’re in, you’re there – everyone’s posters were completely crushed at the end of the day.
We hit the music right away, and it’s a loooong day, with the first band coming on at noon. The first set we hit was Alberta Cross on the “Festival Stage,” which, along with the “Dance Forest” stage, were both set outside of Merriweather’s main grounds (though the Dance Forest was a little close to the main “Pavilion” stage; the beats were bleeding into some sets on the Pavilion Stage.) Alberta Cross was impressive and fun, and one of the more “grungy” acts at the Fest, with lots of feedback, jammin’ basslines, and a blues rock aesthetic that comes on even harder in their live show than on their latest EP ‘Rolling Thunder”.
Rushing from one stage to the next, Bombay Bicycle Club (a UK-based band) was the first act at the Pavilion Stage, and as all of the seats under the pavilion were general admission, we were able to get seats up close for most of the acts at this time of the day. (Although that did mean camping out later on and missing James Murphy in order to be up close for The Black Keys, the VFest headliner.) Bombay Bicycle Club, actually named for a chain of Indian Restaurants in England, is a band whose music I did not know, and their quirky pop rock songs made me think of a slightly more rocking Belle and Sebastian, with falsetto vocals, bouncy keyboards and grooving melodies – music you can dance to – they were great, a pleasant surprise.
Rushing back to the Festival Stage, Two Door Cinema Club was up next, and these Irish rockers were a highlight of the show. The fans were into it, singing along with many of the songs, and the band knew they had good songs to play; there was no lacking of confidence emanating from the stage. Two Door Cinema Club has had great international success following their 2010 debut, Tourist History, though they haven’t had the same success in the U.S. – yet that is.
After Two Door Cinema Club, it was back to the main pavilion for Okkervil River, a band who I expected to have a more folk and country sound from what I had heard from their earlier albums, but this was a rock and roll show and then some. The Austin, Texas band is known for their intricate musicianship and intelligent lyrics, as well as their overall musical prowess. Led by Will Sheff, lead singer and songwriter, Okkervil River also features Lauren Gurgiolo (formerly of The Dialtones), one of the rare female lead guitarists you’ll see that kicks ass. They put on a great show and I was thoroughly impressed.
It was time to stay in one spot for a while by this point, as it was getting much tougher to get seats in the pavilion. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals were up next. After missing most of their set at Bonnaroo this year, I knew this show was not to be missed. Truly, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals have arena-rock potential, with a potent two-guitarist tandem, a female bass player with serious chops, and Grace Potter’s ear-splitting vocal capabilities, which are remarkable. There can’t be more than a few people ever born with a voice like that. As they’re from Vermont, Potter also took a few moments and spoke about the recent flooding and tragedies in Vermont and how it affected them. Sometimes you can tell when a band is destined to really make it big, and that is the case with this band. With three studio albums out already, it may not be overnight success, but it’s coming regardless.
After Grace Potter, and with Patti Smith coming up next, I took a few minutes to run over to the Dance Forest to check out !!! (supposedly pronounced chk, chk, chk, in case you were wondering), and their dancey funk punk. The music was good and the lead singer, Nic Offer, was all over the stage, exuding energy and mayhem. From there, I took a few minutes to go and check out Cut Copy (shouldn’t “Paste” be added to the end of that?) and their 80s sounding synthesizers and grooves. The Australian electronic band had a huge crowd and I swear if I closed my eyes, I could have been listening to early Depeche Mode- not a bad thing.
Making political statements and railing against the government (though she did honor U.S. troops overseas) is old hat for Patti Smith, as political activism has long been a part of who she is, and she did not disappoint during this show. The Patti Smith group tours as a four-piece band, including her well-known lead guitarist, the great Lenny Kaye. She did play “Because The Night,” and a lot of kids at the show recognized the song and thought she was playing a cover, having no idea that she and Bruce Springsteen share writing credits on her biggest hit, going all the way back to 1978. Patti Smith is truly a living legend and an accomplished artist, writer, and singer/musician, and I was lucky and glad to finally see her live. The Godmother of punk lived up to her reputation, and political righteousness and great music sustained her entire set.
I stuck it out after Patti Smith to keep my good seats for TV On The Radio and the Black Keys, and missed Cee Lo Green, though he was on the big screen in the pavilion, rocking with an all-female band all dressed in black. After his disappointing set at Lollapalooza, I would have been interested to see more of him to see how his show was going and if he had the crowd with him, but I just caught two songs on the screen – he was into it then at least.
By this point, the festival grounds had also gone WAY downhill with trash everywhere, and extremely long lines for food, beer, and any bathrooms, which you would really just as soon avoid now. The estimated 30,000 people were more than Merriweather could handle and the facilities were pretty much done towards the end of the evening. Which was one more reason to just stay in my seat.
TV On The Radio (TOTR) are unbelievable, a big band with a big sound, and a mix of so many genres, which they may veer between multiple times in any given song. Punk, hard rock, blues, soul, jazz and funk all have a place at the table, and they play it LOUD. Having lost founding member Gerard Smith to lung cancer this April, TOTR has soldiered on, despite the tragically early loss. My first experience seeing TOTR was seeing them open up for the Pixies about six years ago, and they have definitely refined their stage show and made it even more powerful and overwhelming. Brilliant.
Though there were in effect two headliners with The Black Keys and Deadmau5 closing their stages at the same time, The Black Keys were the main event for most. There were no seats available in the pavilion anymore, and coming out fashionably late, the Keys kicked off the show the way I saw them back in 2005 at the 930 Club in DC – two guys on guitar and drums. It’s amazing that they have pulled off the sound and the shows that they have with just the two of them creating the bulk of the music, which sounds like a lot more people and a lot more instruments. After a few tracks, they brought out the disco ball and a bass player and keyboardist to fill out the concert sound, which also allowed them to play songs from their most recent albums.
After the Black Keys, I went over and checked out the rest of Deadmau5’s set, and as it was remarked to me by someone observing the dancing crowd and the smoke-covered stage, crazy lightshow, and a pair of glowing mouse ears floating high above the stage pumping out dance/trance music, “I think I’m missing something here…” Right.
Having gone to the first two VirginFests at Pimlico in Baltimore, this year’s Virgin Fest was scheduled at a better time of year, in early-mid September, rather than in the 100 degree heat of early August, which made a huge difference in overall enjoyment of the show. However, Merriweather, even with the expansion outside of the normal Merriweather footprint, was unable to completely handle the hordes of people as far as food and restrooms. By the end of the day, it was almost impossible to get food or drink or hit the restroom and the grounds looked like a war zone.
Regardless, with the level of bands they keep bringing in, Richard Branson should keep the FreeFest going just as it is – a little free music is one of the few things most people can still agree is a good idea.
Musichord Rating: 8.5/10