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As the sun set on Virgin Mobile FreeFest Saturday, Merriweather Post Pavilion’s panoramic lawn harbored buzz-fed patrons enjoying chicken strips and those lemonade cups that exist to be spiked with clear spirits. Seven p.m. felt like a universally agreed-upon time to chill.

Legacy-act sets are perfect for clapping politely from your camping chair, but ZZ Top wasn’t about to indulge the languorousness that had settled over Columbia, Md. The duo led a 75-minute roundtable discussion on rowdy blues like it was open-jam night at Antone’s and they were trying to make a first impression. Iconic, eternally bearded veterans Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill made hard rock their lone selling point, and the trio’s effortless solos obliterated everyone. The Texans earned extra points for the metallic Longhorn car decals pasted between their guitar pickups—and for tricking out underground king DJ DMD’s enduring crack-hustle anthem “25 Lighters” as a bizarre, respectful blues number.

Minutes later, I was at the West Stage for M83. The brainchild of French producer Anthony Gonzalez has a brilliantly emotive twist on shoegaze that felt too loud and layered for the Black Cat last fall. The band is on its third great breakout album (2011’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming), “Midnight City” is a ubiquitous pop fixture, and their nighttime keynote address was transcendent. Ear-bud introspection like “Teen Angst,” from 2005’s Before the Dawn Heals Us, came off as juiced and enveloping; the surprise, post-Kenny G sax solo at the end of “Midnight City” slayed.

Nas is best enjoyed at outdoor festivals where people are known to burn one. In his 40 minute set there was a generous serving of sequential Illmatic, and the handful of post-Illmatic singles that don’t suck (“Nas Is Like,” “Hate Me Now,” “If I Ruled the World”).

If the 2011 festival was a pointed victory for neon youth (see: Deadmau5, Ghostland Observatory), this year marked the revenge of those shaggy bros that spent high school dissecting mid-’70s album rock. Portugal. The Man and Zales darlings Alabama Shakes brought the straightforward pastiche. Jack White poached from his garage-revivalism days.The newly reunited Ben Folds Five revived the sound of 1997 while the frontman writhed and pounded on his Steinway. During the mid-set brandishing of their ubiquitous ballad “Brick,” two drunk souls stood from their stadium seats, locked eyes, and had a moment—tender vindication.

Local performers were welcome additions, culminating with Dismemberment Plan’s 3:10 set. Baltimore’s Future Islands writes bedroom manifestos for the downtrodden, and singer Samuel T. Herring talked shop on-site about translating his introverted synthpop to a much larger venue: “More amps, more speakers,” Herring said. “This whole festival thing is new to us so we take what we know about club show atmospheres, try to convert it to a larger stage, and keep our same level of energy. The jumbotron helps.”

Is there a gimmick-dependent and single-day festival in America that’s better organized? It’s difficult to complain about a free bill full of bands with enough broad appeal to satisfy self-serious punks and Redskins fans. Tailgating before Das Racist was a solid notion, and the Sweet Green wraps in the press tent were easy to smuggle. That sort of local love translated to the artists—-Skrillex reportedly made his way to D.C. Saturday night and DJed at U Street Music Hall.

That’s the next step for this event—giving FreeFest that weekend-about-town vitality cities like Chicago and Austin take for granted. Book more aftershows in D.C. from festival performers so Baltimore’s Ram’s Head Live doesn’t have to host the Friday night Dismemberment Plan celebration. Book just as many area artists next year. Book DMV rappers affiliated with Rick Ross and let them play with a deep posse of local cohorts, like when Juvenile performed at Voodoo Festival in New Orleans. Look into the pros and cons of making this a two-day thing. Patrons should feel like they’re going to the Mid-Atlantic’s signature fall social because at this point, they pretty much are.

See a slideshow of Erica Bruce and Brandon Wu‘s photos here.