The 7 Best Things At Virgin Mobile Freefest 2013
Virgin Mobile Freefest is understandably something that a lot of music fans look forward to every year. The organizers have always curated a line-up that is a hell of a lot better than you would expect from a free music festival, and with everything else going on during the day — from food to vendors to plenty of entertaining distractions (giant seesaws!) — it really nails the vibe of what a music festival should be in one easily digestible day. Did we mention that it was free? This year’s lineup was dependably solid as we got Vampire Weekend, MGMT, Washed Out, Sky Ferreira, our recent Best New Band Chvrches, and more playing at Merriweather Post Pavilion. But if the name of the venue makes you think of Animal Collective’s bright summery album, you might have been in for a bit of a bummer once the entire festival was hit with rain showers. Still, there was so much great stuff to see that people were in high spirits the entire time. You can check out the seven best things at Freefest up above.
In the Dance Forest stage (which by the end of the night was glowing and flashing through the trees) Ernest Greene's music as Washed Out completely came to life, most notably during "Feel It All Around," the song that, for better or worse, will always remain his legacy. This was music birthed on laptops and meant to be consumed through headphones, yet Greene has created a luscious live set "Feel It" came late and gently echoed out through the trees, drifting in the air like a mist. And while the track's synth hook has always been candy for the ears, here it was subtler and almost upstaged by the band's guitar work. "I always love the fragrance in the air after we play that song," Greene said, and even if he only meant it as a joke about weed, there did seem, if only briefly, to be some sort of beautiful afterglow to the moment.
If you made it through the whole day and were at least relatively clean, you'll agree that this was easily one of the best parts of Freefest. For anyone (including our photographer, Luis) who did fall victim to the sea of mud that Merriweather Post Pavilion turned into by dinnertime – we feel your pain. As the rain kept falling, the venue became more and more treacherous, and by the end of the night it wasn't abnormal to see people covered in mud. But with that came a small feeling of success every time you successfully navigated a hill, while people slipped and fell all around like the music festival version of D-day -- albeit D-Day soundtracked by MGMT.
A good way to judge music festivals is in the supplemental things beyond the music. It's not just about seeing a bunch of bands, and it's why people put up with some of the less-appealing factors of festival (e.g., shorter sets, generally sub-par sound, lots of distractions). That said the New York-based Bindlestiff Family Cirkus was one of the best supplemental things at Freefest. Throughout the day they put on performances for anyone who felt like walking over to check out juggling, contortion, and sword swallowing. It's these little touches that help make a festival stand out, and stopping by for a few minutes on the way to one stage or the other added up to being one of the best moments of the festival, and more memorable than some of those bands we were going to see.
If you try and count how many times Robin Thicke says the phrase, "get it!" I guarantee you'll go insane before he even gets around to singing "Blurred Lines." Even though he took the West stage 20 minutes late, the parade of ridiculously over-the-top madness that eventually followed made it worth it. For real, this guy sings about sex with the kind of clueless confidence that only Tenacious D can usually pull off. Thicke got played on to the stage by his backing band, entering with three scantily clad women who had mic set-ups hinting that they might be backup singers, but in reality spent 90% of the performance dancing and grinding on him. Then he played a song at the piano about how he wishes racism would end … before immediately jumping back to all the sex. Later there was a reggae song lit in green, red, and yellow – just to remind you that reggae comes from Jamaica. Don't misunderstand if any of this sounds condescending; Thicke's performance is triumphantly stupid, but with just the right amount of self-awareness. There wasn't a set all day that had me laughing and grinning more than his.
Head to a small spot near the main stage and you could see Elton John, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, Dolly Parton, and Kiss … albeit in pinball form. This was one of the really unexpected additions to Freefest, a whole gallery of music-related pinball tables set up so you only needed a quarter to play a game. The placement of this on the list might depend on how much you like pinball, but once groups of people sought shelter from the rain in this area, it was hard not to try out a couple of the games. Back and forth from the main stage and the west stage I always put aside a couple minutes to sneak in a game on the endlessly entertaining AC/DC table.
Chvrches played an excellent set back at Sasquatch Festival in the drizzling rain, and sure enough, the same happened here after a few songs of their stunning set. I'm starting to think maybe it's them, maybe somehow they tapped into just the right frequency of synthpop to make any place as rainy as their Scotland homeland. That Sasquatch set was the first show of their US tour, which reached its end last night at Terminal 5. To witness these bookended shows was a revelation. The band has grown so confident and strong in their performances, it also doesn't hurt that they were playing to a crowd more than double the size of that first show. It's fitting then that they played this show right as their debut album comes out. In the past Chvrches shows might have given the impression of a lot of people waiting around to hear "Recover" or "Mother We Share," but again and again shots of this audience showed people singing along with every track. It was a striking image, and further proof of how this band has charmed us all.
I thought I'd nearly run out of nice things to say about Vampire Weekend as a festival band after seeing them earlier this year at Sasquatch and Outside Lands, but the band played the best set I've seen from them at FreeFest. At the other festivals they never got that headliner slot, but here they took full advantage of the position. Thousands of people stuck through all the unpleasant weather during the day, and most of them were in the pouring rain and mud during this show, yet as soon as that opening riff of "Cousins" rang out, none of that seemed to matter. I watched the crowd more than the band for this performance, looking across the packed seats of Merriweather Post Pavilion at the thousands of fans singing along to every song, not to mention countless more on the wet, ruined lawn, and for those 90 minutes, everything felt almost indescribably warm and bright and beautiful