Here was the rare show where you felt alright paying $8 for a beer and $10 for a basket of fries. After all, the tickets held by nearly all of the concertgoers at Saturday’s Virgin Mobile FreeFest in Columbia, MD were, well, free, which meant tons of goodwill going into the day-long event.
Some of that was squandered by T.I.’s long-rumored cancellation, and by the dust clouds kicked up on the very dry grounds, and by a seating scheme that favored holders of pricey VIP tickets. By the end of the night — and after bar-setting sets by Pavement and LCD Soundsystem — it’s safe to say most of the 40,000 fans in attendance at Merriweather Post Pavilion, which sits between Washington, DC and Baltimore, harbored no ill will. They’d had 21 acts spread over three stages, including names like M.I.A., Sleigh Bells, Ludacris, Chromeo, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, Jimmy Eat World, and others.
Many of the acts, it seemed, were just as happy to be there as the masses: Pavement’s Mark Ibold circulated among the crowd, dispensing hugs. Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo posed for pictures with fans that recognized him, though with his shaggy curls and scrappy attire, he mostly blended in. Love was the day’s dominant theme, which is remarkable for the fact that the only hippie on the leafy property was Edward Sharpe. Here are our favorite moments from FreeFest.
Best Emotional Apex: LCD Soundsystem
It was the only moment when the crowd seemed to hold its breath together and then let go at once — that is, lasting from the first recognizable clicks of This Is Happening opener “Dance Yrself Clean” to the three-minute mark, when, with four rapid-fire drum hits, the pavilion exploded into its most inclusive dance party of the day. James Murphy & Co. didn’t offer too many surprises, just an assured, career-spanning, 90-minute set beneath a giant disco ball. With Murphy’s usual bassist Tyler Pope out on paternity leave (excuse me, indie rock paternity leave), Hot Chip’s Al Doyle filled in. This was immaculately managed insanity: Even in “Losing My Edge,” Murphy’s spazzy skewering of music-nerd possessiveness, every beep and gurgle landed precisely. The set and the festival ended with “Home,” into which Murphy seemed to pour every ounce of his outlook on life and music, from all his insecurities to the safe knowledge that with a DJ and disco ball spinning and his eyes closed, everything can be OK. “Yeah, do it right and head back into space,” he sang. “So you can carry on and carry on and fall all over the place.”
Best Underdog: Ludacris
T.I. was one of FreeFest’s most-anticipated acts, but he never showed up — he’s got some legal problems you might have heard of. Ludacris made it, though, and his crowd at the West Stage was rapturous. That was a surprise: Luda hasn’t had a big album or a big single in a few years, unless we’re counting his guest verses on Taio Cruz’s “Break Your Heart.” An informal survey earlier in the day said just as much: Only one Ludacris T-shirt was spotted on the grounds, and it was homemade (and possibly ironic). It didn’t matter. Luda was a needed antidote in a day heavy on electro and indie rock. One highlight, early in his set, was “Act a Fool,” although a T.I. collab would’ve been even better. Though the two rappers beefed a few years ago, they’ve since made up.
Best Singalong: Pavement
False starts, aimless guitar-noodling, and Stephen Malkmus’ sloppy ‘do: Yup, it was a perfect Pavement set. Now several months into its reunion, the legendary indie-rock quintet cycled through every song but “Box Elder” that’s essential to a Pavement show, often with heavy audience accompaniment. Some of the crowd’s favorite singalong lines: “No big hair!” in “Cut Your Hair”; “Not here, babe!” in “Summer Babe”; “Don’t worry, we’re in no hurry!” in “Range Life.” It was uncharacteristically unslackerish, which is to say Bob Nastanovich wasn’t the only member rocking out. Malkmus was in particularly good spirits. After the band ended “Spit On a Stranger,” he joked that he’d auditioned with the song for American Idol. “I couldn’t hit the high notes,” he said.
Best Jock Jams: Matt & Kim
We get the bands we deserve: That was the message of peppy keys-and-drums duo Matt & Kim’s set, where for every earnest spazz-pop anthem (“Daylight,” “Good Ol’ Fashion Nightmare”) the group vamped on one jock jam or another, like Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Jump on It” and DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat,” to equally ecstatic crowd reaction. Keyboardist and singer Matt Johnson invoked one of the day’s more annoying drawbacks — that only attendees wearing wristbands could sit close to the pavilion stage — urging the crowd to “Free the FreeFest!” Apparently he had some success: On stage later in the evening, James Murphy thanked the event’s promoters for opening access to the elite seats.
Best Self-Promoters: Chromeo
It wasn’t enough that a handful of Chromeo songs contains the band’s name. The Montreal duo took several opportunities during its Dance Forest set to rep for itself. “If you don’t know, we go by the name of Chromeo, yo,” announced the group to thousands of sweaty fans. Yeah, they noticed. This was the closest FreeFest got to a full-on, orgiastic bacchanal — Chromeo’s sleek, oversexed electro-funk doesn’t lend itself to hard thinking, just dancing. The 2007 single “Tenderoni” should’ve elicited the strongest reaction, and nearly did, until the crowd totally lost its shit for — of all things — a tease of the famous, muscular riff from Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing.”
Best Indie Rock Approximation of Enya: Yeasayer
The Brooklyn outfit took to the festival’s West Stage to sampler-generated noises of the Andes — aquatic acoustic guitars, shimmery rhythms — before bringing in grimy ragas, pounding percussion, and Cocteau Twin atmospherics. In songs like “Madder Red,” the group frequently floated into synthy, cloud-bursting new age passages before puncturing them with pointy guitars, gang choruses and dramatic, Dead Can Dance drum fills. It was chill yet urgent — as was singer/guitarist Anand Wilder, who appeared to be wearing pajama pants and often craned for his mic like his career depended on it. One highpoint was “Tightrope,” Yeasayer’s contribution to the 2009 Dark Was the Night comp, which was breezy, and not wind-swept like the rest of the set. The group, like many of the day’s acts, made sure to note its local ties: Wilder and Singer/multi-instrumentalist Chris Keating grew up in Baltimore: “I used to see ads for this place,” Keating said.
Best Theremin Solo: Neon Indian
There was nothing laid-back about the midafternoon set of chillwave standard-bearers Neon Indian — except that it took place in the fest’s dusty, trippy Dance Forest, the spot where attendees were most likely to catch a contact high. This Neon Indian wasn’t the same inexperienced group that delighted critics last year with its woozy, retro-minded art pop but disappointed live. Turns out frontman Alan Palomo and his band have significantly pro-ed up, something that was most evident on “Should Have Taken Acid with You.” With its disco pulse and Palomo’s careening, angry-ghost theremin, the song surely killed some buzzes. That was OK: It was tight, energetic, and it got asses shaking. Thankfully, Palomo’s attitude isn’t too rock-star yet. During Pavement’s evening set, he was nodding in the pit along with the rest of us mortals.
Best Reminder that She Rocks Harder than Her Biopic: Joan Jett
The 52-year-old rock vet and her black-clad band kicked off its set on the main pavilion stage with “Bad Reputation.” But they really revved the crowd with “Cherry Bomb,” the jail-bating breakout song of Jett’s first group, the Runaways, who were semi-successfully chronicled earlier this year in a biopic starring Kristen Stewart as Jett. Naturally, the set included “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” and other Jett mainstays. But Jett also invoked her pre-Runaways years, mentioning that she “used to live not too far from here.” That’d be in Rockville, the nearby DC suburb where R.E.M. once suggested you should never return.
Best Overuse of Air Horn: Maximum Balloon
David Sitek knew what the FreeFest crowd wanted: big, soulful jams. For his DJ set, the TV on the Radio member and ubiquitous indie producer brought those in spades to the Dance Forest, where he pounded out amphetamine anthems and cowbell-happy groovers. Sonically, he jumped around a lot–his recent Maximum Balloon project grew out of mixes he made for his commute–with one strange common denominator: air horns. Soul sides at 120 bpm? Came with air horns. Cerebral cosmic bangers? Air horns. It was just as well, really: The Maximum Balloon record is 2010’s best soundtrack to the killer-robot apocalypse.
Chillest Non-Chillwave Band: Thievery Corporation
Thievery Corporation didn’t need its hometown-hero status to win over its crowd. The DC duo of Rob Garza and Eric Hilton manned decks while a cast of musicians and guest vocalists hypnotized the crowd. The set mostly wrapped raga and reggae sounds around an echoey trip-hop cast, which compelled at least one member of the crowd to unleash her inner belly dancer. Heads nodded; shoulders swayed. Vibes were good. The audience returned the most applause for “Lebanese Blonde,” the duo’s sitar-tickled cut from the Garden State soundtrack. But after 90 minutes of Thievery’s smoothed-out melting-pot pop, it’s doubtful many attendees walked away thinking this set changed their lives.
Best Emotional Apex Set to Fireworks: Modeselektor
Fireworks exploded behind the pavilion stage following Pavement’s set, but the best view was from the Dance Forest as the German duo Modeselektor reached high emotional pitch. Berlin-based Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary weren’t the only electronica duo at FreeFest — they had competition from Chromeo, Thievery Corporation and, on this day, Maximum Balloon. But Modeselektor’s set was the most satisfying, chiefly because of its propulsive 8-bit gaze and dizzying French raps. Bronsert and Szary couldn’t have planned the visual component better: As the sky erupted behind them, video screens cropped and distorted cartoonish stained-glass panes.