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On Saturday, the Virgin Mobile FreeFest dodged rainy forecasts and generally moved forward on the Merriweather Post Pavilion grounds with the efficiency and grace of a Tony Romo drive, at least for the first three quarters. The Ferris wheel was steady; burritos in the press tent were easy to smuggle; no one in the dance forest got too handsy; and none of the homemade paper mache Deadmau5 helmets led to accidental death by asphyxiation. Let’s go to the highlights:


Patti Smith still has it, by which I mean seeping paranoia. Smith spent an hour on on the main stage rocking hard, fast, and with feeling. In between, the civil rights rants lacked direction and taste. Smith took surveillance cameras in bathrooms to task, and complained because John Walker Lindh is in prison. Her big picture, “wake up, sheeple” appeal was at least poetic: “We must remember more than two buildings and three planes.”

September 11 marks the beginning of the Ethiopian new year. Thanks, Patti Smith.

Lead vocalists felt added pressure to soapbox before the last song. Big Sean was straightforward: “Don’t let any of these motherfuckers tell you shit.” Will Sheff of Okkervil River was self-effacing in thanking folks, “even if you were dragged here by your boyfriend. Even if you were dragged here by your girlfriend. Even if you’re just waiting around for the next band.” TV On The Radio‘s Tunde Adebimpe had this well-meaning bit about turning on the lights in the dark.

Patron patriotism levels were underwhelming. FreeFest boasted minimal waving of the American flag, and only one dude showed up as Uncle Sam. None of the hoopsters thought to at least rock a Dream Team jersey. A missed opportunity.

I was able to see a lot of stuff because the grounds’ three stages were walkable, and human traffic was well-organized. Scheduling overlap of talent often means black and white programing decisions, but logistics made the whole event a grab bag of 20-minute sets. In ninety minutes I was able to catch Cut Copy, !!!, Cee Lo‘s ghastly scavenging of dead ideas from black music, and the aforementioned Smith. Chris, what resonated with you? How awesome was it to see TV on the Radio fill out the Pavilion Stage like it was a sold out, stand-alone performance? Who was straight up terrible?


Biggest Winner: TV on the Radio, duh. I’m not exactly courting controversy here.  Tunde Adebimpe was the only performer I could see sweating through his shirt from the back of the house, which is my admittedly arbitrary standard for who on stage means it.  Their powerful baker’s-dozen-song set, culminating in a “Wolf Like Me” that brought even the lawn contingent to its feet, was hypnotic.

So why were they slotted next-to-last on the Pavilion Stage?  That meant the Black Keys had to follow them.  While the Akron, Ohio, duo sounded admirably greasy—-except for when they brought a touch of class by covering The Kinks—-for a two-piece, even a very loud two-piece, to follow a shimmery wall of sound like TVotR, they’re just outgunned, is all.  Who was opening for who here?

If TVotR played like they owned the place, we’ll forgive them on grounds of them owning the place.  But the other acts should’ve campaigned a bit harder. Okkervil River’s set was the first I saw (and the first of any consequence, according to at least one credible observer who arrived in a timelier fashion than I did), and I appreciated Sheff’s wry acknowledgment that not every face in the crowd was necessarily there for him. Grace Potter & The Nocturnals probably won some people over with their heavy-footed midday set.  I never noticed how much she sounds like Melissa Etheridge before.

Biggest Loser: Cee Lo’s Wardrobe. I wondered where I’d seen his all-sexy-ladykind backup band before.  If Cee Lo turns up to perform in a plain white T-shirt and trousers, does he make a sound?  A: Yes, but after his cover of Pussycat Dolls’ “Dontcha” gave way to “Crazy”-=-recalling his appearance with Danger Mouse at this event’s ancient ancestor, the Virgin Mobile Festival in 2006—-I was already hustling back to the Pavilion to catch TVotR.

Oh: Watching James Murphy spin records is just a lot less interesting than watching him front LCD Soundsystem, the champions of last year’s FreeFest.  But that’s just genre prejudice on my part, I guess.

Lifetime Achievement Award: Patti Smith. Someone had to do some sloganeering, but Smith’s repeated references to John Walker Lindh—-“And what does he do in his prison cell that so frightens our goverment?  He prays.”—-were less coherent in context than her admonition, “Remember who you were on Sept. 10th.”  To my ears, her condemnations of the post-9/11 surveillance culture and the Iraq War brought brought cheers and boos in more-or-less equal measure, but the way all those responses turned into howls of approval whenever she spoke the word “freedom” was kind of depressing.

Right there with you. James Murphy is a folk hero to any rock writer worth his denim jacket because he writes poetic, enduring dance rock with immaculate references. Watching him spin records started off looking sweet—-check all that vinyl!—-but the pesky sunlight was a major buzzkill. On the whole, a huge day for electronic and dance music. Teddybears got a nice groundswell when festival organizers fabricated a pre-game interview and broadcast it over the Pavilion Stage’s screens just before their dance forest debut. People saw them and realized, “Holy cow, that’s a bunch of European men in crisp suits with giant bear contraptions on their head.” They sounded pulsing and sludgy, like a less gloomy Rammstein. Ghostland Observatory was pinned against a West Stage-headlining gig from Deadmau5, but their crowd was vibrant, loyal, fluorescent, and they funneled experience as a band that has performed on bigger stages with university marching bands into targeted firepower.

Biggest winner: Without question, electronica was the dominant and most fashionable genre. Neon and war paint for everyone; non-stop dancing even during Calvin Harris‘ electro house, fist-pump-with-a-turkey-leg rager.

Other winners: People that love the smell of manure. People that love to decorate shirts with Japanese letters while simultaneously contributing to Japan’s tsunami relief efforts. People that love discarding plastic water bottles on fields. Virgin Mobile and its cohorts, as this year’s edition marked an all-time attendance total more than 50,000.

Biggest losers: The Best Buy emerging artists that played from noon-2p.m.. Most of their fans had been delivered in mom and dad’s Nissan XTerra. More power to their sincere enthusiasm, but it felt like when studios don’t hold advance screenings of movies because they must minimize negative buzz.

Other losers: Deadmau5 seemed inflated to a stature the Toronto DJ hadn’t earned. He doesn’t have an album out, and people just wanted to see the million-dollar head gear light up before walking out of the park. Big Sean was the default hip-hop representative and despite his cool Detroit Red Wings T-shirt, lacked the catalog and crowd-control ability to curate. He also ended songs with the sound of broken glass, something that hasn’t been cool since the OutKast dropped ATLiens.


Yeah, the festival brand has clearly shifted in a more electronic direction in they years since it became free.  In the Pimilico Era (2006-8), there was always a big boomer act (The Who, The Police, Bob Dylan) and a big Clinton-era act (Nine Inch Nails, Stone Temple PilotsFoo Fighters) anchoring things.  Even more than in the prior $0.00 installments, this year’s turnout skewed under-25 and skewed heavily in favor of kids unafraid to spend a hot day beneath a flourescent clown wig.  The ubiquitous Deadmau5 masks and merch had me kind of curious, but I resisted the urge to check him out on account of my fear I’d be instantly Logan’s-ran into powder if I got any closer to the West Stage than the Ferris wheel.  Also, I had homework that night.

Save for TV on the Radio, again, I didn’t come away with from any performance smelling singed flesh on my face this year. I have fond memories of fandom-renewing or allegience-solidifying sets in Virgin/FreeFests past from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Spoon, She & Him, Ludacris—-a fairly diverse list.  I’ll probably listen to more Grace Potter and Okkervil River this week than I did last week, but I can’t say I had anything approaching a conversion experience this time. I also remember the underdogs of festivals past—-performers you might think would be cowed by their early timeslots or just the festival format, but weren’t. Amy Winehouse and St. Vincent are two from previous festivals whose sets felt like that. I didn’t see anyone rise to the challenge that way this year, either.