Virgin Mobile FreeFest 2010 was just about as perfect a day as one could ask for. The weather was phenomenal, the crowds and lines were manageable, and the music was spectacular. An irresistible atmosphere of fun prevailed over Merriweather Post Pavilion as Virgin and I.M.P. presented three stages jam-packed with a variety of great musical acts. The one genre that eclipsed all others however was dance music; the day featured a killer line-up of electronic-inspired groups that kept a large portion of attendees in a near-constant state of dance-frenzy.
I split my FreeFest experience between the Dance Forest and the Main Stage. Although I intended to check it out, I did not venture over to the West Stage once all day; thanks in large part to the caliber of the performances I was already watching. From Will Eastman dropping some DJ science early in the day all the way through to LCD Soundsystem’s mega-finale, I had a fantastic time at Virgin Mobile FreeFest 2010.
Upon arrival, I walked the festival grounds before settling on which performance I should take in first. In addition to the usual Merriweather Post Pavilion amphitheater stage, a second stage had been set-up among the trees behind the lawn area and dubbed the Dance Forest. A short hike to the west of the main stage took you through a gauntlet of corporate sponsor tents and booths before delivering you at the West Stage. The corporate sponsorship seemed a little more prevalent at FreeFest than say at Coachella but I imagine that must be a trade-off the organizers make to offer so many top-notch performers mostly for free. Festival goers did not seem to mind at all, as hundreds of people took advantage of the free swag made available by Converse, State Farm insurance, and others. Free yoga mats, green bandannas, and draw-string bags were familiar sights by day’s end. Two intangibles that I took advantage of were the air conditioning and free chair massage in State Farm’s Club 17K.* Feeling nice and loose after working the kinks out, I decided that some dancing was in order, so I made my way over to the Dance Forest to take in my first performance of the day.
Will Eastman: One of DC’s favorite sons, Will Eastman is co-owner of U Street Music Hall and a DJ extraordinaire. It felt appropriate to have a hometown hero be the first act of my day at the closest thing our area has to its own music festival.** The Dance Forest stage was positioned perfectly for shade in a large clearing surrounded by tall trees. Protected from the sun, beneath a natural sky-light showing blue-skies and puffy clouds, about one hundred or so early arrivals were already partying hard to the start of Eastman’s set when I arrived. The sight of this dance-mob on such a perfect weather afternoon along with Eastman’s beats, set my mood for the rest of the fest: upbeat, happy, fun. Eastman’s set sounded great in the wide-open space and as the crowd swelled so to did his set’s energy. Of the many times I have seen Will Eastman spin, I think Saturday in the Dance Forest was my favorite.
Wolfgang Gartner: Very quickly taking the reins from Will Eastman, Wolfgang Gartner kept the now much larger crowd dancing without missing a beat. His massive hour and a half DJ set got the Dance Forest jam packed and dancing like crazy. Laying down a mix of Gartner originals and personalized remixes of popular dance tracks, Wolfgang laid down the law as sheriff of the Dance Forest. His set took the dance party to epic levels of fun that rivaled some of the better moments from the Sahara Tent at Coachella.***
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros: Next I decided to take in my first main stage show of the day. I decided to check out Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros to finally see what all the hubbub is about. Honestly their recorded music does nothing for me and their epic videos just seem like overblown silliness. That said, this odd group of performers seems to be gaining ground at such a rapid rate that I did not want to miss out on them if they are indeed this amazing new live act. Musically, I would describe their set as pleasant. Particularly on such a beautiful afternoon day, their whimsical chant-along choruses and ramshackle instrumentation had a running bare-foot on cool grass appeal. Their commune-family, gypsy band presentation was pretty silly though and Alex Ebert’s messianic hippy trip was down-right annoying. The group soared whenever Jade Castrinos took lead vocals however, her quirky charm seemed truly genuine and her voice demands more opportunities on lead.
Neon Indian: Back to the Dance Forest for one of the most surprising sets of the day. Alan Palomo’s one-man, chillwave project Neon Indian translated brilliantly to the stage with the addition of a three-person live band. They provided for a sonically brilliant set that gave us the day’s first transcendent moments. Watching and listening to a live band realize Palomo’s bedroom-produced layers of effects was brilliant. Where Neon Indian’s album “Psychic Chasms” plays as geeky and dreamy at home, on Saturday the songs from it played with an in-your-face power and surprising level of unadulterated fun.
Each band member lent something musically and physically to the show in such memorable ways that I hope Palomo considers recording with the full band on Neon Indian’s sophomore effort. Ronald Gierhart’s guitar playing was inspired; I don’t think I have ever heard a guitar-sound modified in such an interesting way in a dance act. There were moments when he really let loose that I found myself shaking my head in disbelief. On keyboards Leanne Macomber seemed to be having a great time as she jumped around and danced while playing. Her energy and smiles really hyped the crowd up. Jason Faries’ drums kept all of the band’s far-out sounds on course and played a big role in adding the live-music power to Neon Indian’s tracks. Alan Palomo worked a number of different instruments and devices while also delivering a great dreamy vocal performance. I was most impressed with his use of a Theremin; I’ve rarely seen one used live on-stage by an up-tempo, dance-oriented act. Neon Indian were so good that I stayed for their whole set, even though I had planned on leaving early to catch the beginning of Joan Jett’s.
Joan Jett & The Blackhearts: Luckily for me, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts started a few minutes late, so even with the lure of Neon Indian’s full-set I was able to catch all of this legend’s rocking set too. I had thought Joan Jett was included in the line-up as FreeFest’s token nostalgia act; providing some mid-afternoon tunes for all the parents escorting their kids for the day. Perhaps due to the recent film “The Runaways” depicting her story, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts pulled in a healthy crowd of young fans in addition to all of the moms and dads. Jett and her band put on a fun set that provided for the most rock-n-roll moments that I saw on Saturday. Joan Jett has penned so many hits over the years that any set she puts together is going to be a variation of her greatest, so it was no surprise that her set at FreeFest included many of her biggest songs. If anything detracted from the sets energy and flow, it was the many attempts to involve the crowd. For the first half of the set, the band tried to get the crowd clapping or singing along with little success. Once they abandoned that shtick, the Blackhearts really began to rock out. With each song the band became more energetic and their sound more raw, and as they did that, the crowd began to clap and sing along of their own accord. By set’s end Joan Jett & The Blackhearts were on fire, it just took a little while for them and the crowd to warm up.
Joan Jett & The Blackhearts.
Matt & Kim: Ugh…shudder. I accidentally caught the first few songs of Matt & Kim on the main stage while I was eating dinner. As much fun as I was having on Saturday, their forced smiles and manufactured cheer-leading was just too much. Sounding like dance music made by Barney the Purple Dinosaur, Matt & Kim drove me back into the embrace of the Dance Forest (where the day’s best times were being had).
Chromeo: The biggest surprise of the festival for me was discovering that Chromeo are a viable musical act and not just cheesy jokers. I guess I have Matt & Kim to thank for this, as it was only their horrible, hokey happiness that pushed me into the Chromeo show. Here was the genuine happiness.
Chromeo in the live setting are an entirely different beast than on their recordings. Where their synths and vocals come across as cheesy throw-backs on record, in concert they are elevated to another level, covering you in dense layers of danceable sound until you are drenched in sweat. I’ll admit that I still find Dave 1’s smooth vocals absurd, but I can’t deny that the guy knows how to get the party started. Of course it doesn’t hurt him that his partner is a musical genius. I say that with a straight face. Seeing Chromeo kill it on stage in the Dance Forest, I now realize that P-Thugg aka Patrick Gemayel is a sonic mastermind. While Dave 1 mc’d the show and laid down some funky bass, it was P-Thugg who worked a huge array of electronic gear and keyboards to create the jaw-dropping dance machine. Chromeo drew the largest Dance Forest crowd that I saw and they served as the perfect sunset bridging performers; their thick synth blanket dropped on the crowd like a curtain pulled down to block out the sun. As the daylight faded, Chromeo’s light show became more impressive, until by set’s end a dazzling and dizzying wall of firing LED lights melded perfectly with their sound; to the point where you could hardly see the band anymore and you became a slave to Chromeo’s audio-visual extravaganza.
Sleigh Bells: I sampled Sleigh Bells’ set at Coachella earlier this year and was quite impressed by their confrontational energy and noise; if not for a schedule conflict I would have stayed for their entire set. So I was glad to see that Sleigh Bells were on the FreeFest schedule and that there was not a conflicting act this time around. Since the Spring, Sleigh Bells’ profile has sky-rocketed and the crowd was thick with bodies humming in anticipation before their Saturday night set at FreeFest.
Sleigh Bells came out roaring and maintained that level of forceful energy for their short but effective set. Their bass and guitar sounds were monumental on the Dance Forest sound system and pummeled the crowd into a spastic fervor. I was less impressed with Alexis Krauss’ vocal performance and stage presence this time around, as there were times her voice was simply swallowed up by the bass and guitar and other times when it was impossible to tell what vocals were real versus recordings. Derek Miller’s guitar on the other hand sounded amazing and although he takes on a sort of subdued stage presence, his sound is gigantic. I also felt that, while still noisy, Sleigh Bells’ sound was a little cleaned up compared to the true noise-assault that I heard at Coachella. It is interesting to see how they tinker with their formula as they grow in popularity. Not that anyone else in the crowd seemed to notice any of this, as Sleigh Bells provided the best noise group catharsis of the festival.
Pavement: I caught “Here”, the final song of Pavement’s set. It was a subdued number that reflected my thoughts on the band; if they really are the definitive indie band of the 90’s and “Here” was their big finish, then the 90’s will be remembered as one boring ass time in indie music history.
LCD Soundsystem: Was there ever any question that LCD Soundsystem would deliver the best performance of the festival? James Murphy has grown his indie-dance project from a flower-pot on his window-sill into a massive stage band that combines the best of geek-rock and electronica in incredibly creative, unorthodox ways that the masses and music-geeks alike find completely captivating. 2010 really seems to be James Murphy’s year and everything I have read about LCD performances on this tour has had me regretting my choice to skip them at Coachella. Added to which, LCD Soundsystem’s new album is fantastic. So going into FreeFest, LCD Soundsystem were my one must-see act.
James Murphy and the LCD Soundsystem live band did not just put on a good set to close out the festival, they gave an amazing performance. Somehow successfully balancing their influences to be all things to all men, LCD Soundsystem got everyone in the pavilion (and I would imagine the lawn) on their feet and dancing their tails off. Stretches of their set had that hypnotic dance-compulsion effect that completely takes over the listener’s brain and body. As I looked around me during these beat marathons I saw a sea of moving bodies, shiny smiles, hugs, and high fives. The positive energy was a living thing tapping every person in attendance with its magic touch.
James Murphy’s vocal style appeals to me because he gives the impression that he has a lifetime of pent up bedroom singing to unleash, and his lyrical observations about music and the lifestyles that consume it play like the witticisms of a nightclub scene Mark Twain. On Saturday night his voice was strong as he ranged from high-pitched squeals to neurotic rants, out-right singing to repetitive shouts. Murphy has surrounded himself with a large and talented group of musicians, many of whom switched instruments through-out the set. Murphy himself occasionally showed off his own drum or keyboard skills, but left most of the heavy playing to his band while he sang and revved the crowd up.
I responded to LCD Soundsystem’s performance much like the rest of the crowd; by dancing. A lot. In fact, my entire row turned into a big dance party with groups of complete strangers dancing together and sharing the positive energy of the set. The set’s biggest moment came when they performed “Yeah”; awash in green LED lights the band laid down an epic version of the song that built in intensity and nervous energy until the whole crowd erupted in raised hands and fists, jumping up and down, screaming at the top of their lungs, and dancing like mad. It was one of the best band/crowd moments that I have seen in 2010.
After LCD Soundsystem wrapped up their performance with a two-song encore, the lights came up and it was time to go home. Everyone making the trek to the parking area seemed to be in a great mood, myself included. Virgin Mobile FreeFest 2010 was a great day and I am looking forward to next year’s installment.
* Just the thing to recover from the beatings I took watching Atari Teenage Riot in Baltimore the night before.
** I am sorry but the attempt to revive HFStvial doesn’t cut-it.
*** Arguably the best dance music tent on Earth.