Virgin Mobile FreeFest rocks Merriweather Post Pavilion

Written for October 5, 2010 issue of  American University’s The Eagle. Original version was edited shorter in order to fit the print edition. This version has some of the pieces that were cut, including two more sets. Version published in print Eagle here. Photos and videos by me.

Free music? Yes. Legally? Even better. Virgin Mobile’s FreeFest was back this year in full eclectic force at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md. on Sept. 25.

Merriweather Post Pavilion was decked out in Virgin Mobile and other sponsors’ banners, tents, outdoor lounges, giving FreeFest a carnival feel — or even a hipster Disneyworld, with swarms of twenty-somethings, freebies, and funnel cake. A Ferris wheel decorated with a Virgin Mobile logo was set up next to the West Stage, and was colorfully lit up at night, adding to the fun feel.

The event marked the fourth year the Virgin Group sponsored the music festival, but only the second year tickets were free. In 2009 the festival was dubbed “FreeFest” and general admission ticket seekers were encouraged to donate $5 to various homeless youth charities partnered with Virgin. When the main batch of tickets sold out, Virgin Mobile’s FREE.I.P. program allowed people to sign-up for various volunteer drives to earn tickets. Last summer’s FreeFest raised more than $80,000 for youth homelessness and logged over 30,000 hours of volunteer time.

Some notable acts:

Trombone Shorty, a funk band from New Orleans, played their afternoon set at the West Stage to a small crowd. Their music was infectious and catchy, as the crowd jammed along. Highlights included a solo by frontman Troy Andrews during single “Hurricane Season” from their “Backatown” album, opener “Suburbia” and their surprisingly sweet take on Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop.”

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros opened their set at the Pavilion Main Stage, but not before a member of the pit gave leading lady Jade Castrinos an umbrella. The reigning hip-band-of-the-moment opened up with popular songs “40 Day Dream” and “Janglin’” and frontman Alex Ebert had the crowd dancing, doing his own quirky jig around the stage. More captivating than Ebert, Castrinos’s powerful deep voice and flailing limbs exuded energy and charm and made it near impossible not to watch her.

Yeasayer, a psych-rock band from New York, wrapped up their set with crowd-pleasers “O.N.E.” and “Ambling Alp,” which were perfect for dancing along. Previous songs lacked the fun bounce the closers had.

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, seeming a bit out of place, rocked away any doubts and performed with the same hard, rebellious edge that first made them famous in the ‘70s. With decades passed, little seems to have changed Jett and her singing sneer only led to more more singing along, especially during “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” which had the entire lawn clapping and yelling in unison.

Matt & Kim were booked to play the open Pavilion Main Stage. The duo looked microscopic on the stage compared to larger bands like Edward Sharpe and LCD Soundsystem — not that size stopped Matt & Kim from performing with great smiles plastered on their faces and their typical through-the-roof levels of fun and energy. In addition to powering through most of their original songs, Matt & Kim snuck in covers of “Jump On It,” “Just A Friend,” and “Better Off Alone.”

Ludacris was FreeFest’s lone rapper as he performed to a surprisingly enthusiastic crowd. The audience was very receptive to Ludacris’s own hits like “Area Codes,” “Act a Fool,” and “Move Bitch,” as well as when he mixed in his guest verses on hit songs like Taio Cruz’s “Break Your Heart” and Fergie’s “Glamourous.”

Sleigh Bells held their short 30 minute set in the “Dance Forest” where crazy, fun electronic acts like Modelskeletor, Chromeo and Neon Indian also performed. The volume of the show was — intentionally — almost intolerably loud, which took away from the fun beat and light melodies that accompany Sleigh Bells’s harsh, industrial riffs, offsetting that delicate balance that makes Sleigh Bells great. The set was disappointingly less of a dance party than earlier shows in the Dance Forest, and lacked any of the lightness present on their album “Treats.”

M.I.A. and LCD Soundsystem were arguably the most anticipated acts of FreeFest, so when M.I.A.’s hour long set was scheduled to overlap LCD’s by 30 minutes, people weren’t pleased. M.I.A. did not help the situation by showing up to perform almost 30 minutes late. Finally, an intoxicated M.I.A. appeared, one-piece poncho and all, and began her set with a fantastic rendition of “Bamboo Banger” off her sophomore album Kala. After opening with a hit, M.I.A. stayed away from performing other hits until the end of the set. Nothing beats hearing M.I.A.’s music loud and live mixed with crazy visuals, awesome dancers and choreography with her strong, unique style of rapping and fascinating stage presence. However, her slurring words and Kanye West-level cockiness left a bad taste in the crowd’s mouth that wasn’t from the annoyingly dusty air. Her crowd surfing during the “Paper Planes” encore almost made up for the off-putting unprofessionalism. Almost.

In what critics hail as the best set of FreeFest, LCD Soundsystem rocked the pavilion.

Unfortunately, those who wanted to catch both headliners had to miss nearly the first hour of LCD’s bumping set, missing hits like “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” and “Dance Yrself Clean” which were presumably awesome. Luckily they were still treated to a fantastic live version of “Yeah.” A massive disco ball hung from the rafters, perfectly complementing the beats and only encouraging the audience to dance even more than LCD’s music already does. A perfect end to Virgin Mobile FreeFest, LCD Soundsystem’s set energized the crowd when many felt like they were running on empty after the long music-filled day.

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