We Love Music: Virgin Mobile Free Fest 2011 @ Merriweather Post Pavilion, 9/10/11


all photos by Andrew Markowitz.

It was late on Wednesday afternoon when I found out that I was going be covering the 2011 Virgin Mobile FreeFest at Merriweather Post Pavilion this past Saturday. My finger started ping-ponging down the list of the two different stage line-ups, as I began to count how many bands would be there on Saturday. Thirteen! And this didn’t count the third “Dance Forest” stage that would be hosting DJ’s all day. I knew my work was cut out for me.

The Virgin Mobile FreeFest has been held at Merriweather Post Pavilion since 2006 and this looked to be one of the strongest lineups yet.* I arrived right on time to start photographing the bands and checking out what else the FreeFest had to offer.

Alberta Cross: Alberta Cross, hailing from Brooklyn, New York was the first band on the bill. Not knowing what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised by their sound which at first reminded me a little bit of Nirvana as they seemed to use their classic soft/loud/soft formula of songwriting. However, there’s more of a blues and southern rock influence involved in their music. Singer Petter Ericson Stakee has a soulful voice and the guitar work of Sam Kearney is where the southern influence really comes through.

Photographers are usually able to photograph the first three songs of a bands set during a concert but the rules for FreeFest only allowed us to shoot the first two songs. I initially groused at the prospect of not being able to photograph the first three songs but quickly learned that it would help me make it to the different performances on time.

The first two songs from Alberta Cross’s set were “The Thief and The Heartbreaker,” and “Lay Down“. And while preparing this review, I found myself listening to their song “ATX” which has a harder edge than the two songs I heard on Saturday.

Alberta Cross will be back in the DC area on October 25th at the 9:30 Club.

Bombay Bicycle Club: Bombay Bicycle Club is a British based indie-rock band and were the second band of the afternoon, playing on the Pavilion stage. I arrived a bit early in time for their set and was surprised to see a decent crowd already gathering to see their set.

Formed in 2005, the band has just released their third full length album in August, however singer Jack Steadman mentioned that this was their first time ever playing in the States and how excited they were to be here. I liked their sound, it was very upbeat and pop influenced, the type of music you’d hear on Jersey Shore before they head to a commercial. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m not afraid to admit that I like the adventures of Snooki, Situation and the gang as well as the music that appears on that show.

The song from their set that I really liked was “Always Like This“. Unfortunately, Bombay Bicycle Club won’t be returning to the area anytime soon as their tour has them making some brief stops in Canada before heading back to the UK. However, this is a band that you should keep an eye on for the future.

Two Door Cinema Club: I had the misfortune of having to see this band earlier this year and wondered if they could still be as bad as they were back then.

It was the same driving beat over and over for the first two songs, they sounded exactly the same. I even stuck around for part of their third song to try and see if it’d be any different. It wasn’t.

Fortunately, I wasn’t trapped inside of the 9:30 Club this time around, trying to wait and see the headlining band. I shot their first two songs, and promptly left. However, if you’re interested, the first two songs they played were “Cigarettes in the Theatre” and “Undercover Martyn.”

Okkervil River: Okkervil River was one of the bands I was really looking forward to as they’ve had a good following for a few years now. A good friend of mine tried sending me a song of theirs a few months ago and I thought the sampling was decent folk music, but nothing spectacular. However, for being the fourth band on the bill and for taking the stage so early in the afternoon, they had drawn a large crowd in the Pavilion.

Frontman Will Sheff led the band out on stage, and he looked every bit of the part of an English major with his trendy close cropped beard, tweed jacket and black framed glasses. It’s actually fitting because Sheff was an English major. I was expecting folk music but Okkervil actually hit pretty hard with an uptempo version of “For Real” and Sheff was all over the stage, bouncing back and forth between they keyboardist and lead guitarist, then back to the drum riser. The next song was “John Allyn Smith Sails” and they worked in a medley of the Beach Boys classic song “Sloop John B.”

It was a great performance and I wish I could have stayed for more, so I raced back from the Big Sean set in time to catch Sheff hunched over his guitar on stage, finishing their setlist. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like Okkervil River will be back in the DC area anytime soon.

Big Sean: Ugh.

Big Sean’s set was appropriately placed as the fifth act of the afternoon, and if you were walking back and forth between the two stages trying to take in all of the bands like I was, you might have been ready for something a little different, some hip hop to get the juices flowing and create a bit of a party atmosphere.

Big Sean certainly did that, as he drew a large crowd to the outdoor stage. The buzz for his set was palpable as I overheard a few people talking about how excited they were to see his show, with a couple people mentioning that he was the only reason they came out. Really? Ok…

My issue with Big Sean’s set wasn’t that he failed at his perceived task, it’s in the way that he did it. He certainly got the crowd excited and played up to them, working his way back and forth on the stage, walking out to the sides and getting as close as he could to the people. However, I could have done without the part where he stuck his hand down his boxers. Or the part where where he dangled the microphone in front of his groin. Or the part with the overtly misogynistic lyrics that I probably can’t type here.

Hey, I don’t have an issue with rap or hip hop. I’ve listened to more than my fair share and I’ve got a lot of it on my iPod. However the difference between Big Sean and someone like Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco or even Eminem is that there’s no brilliance behind Big Sean’s lyrics. Eminem is clever, and while he’s had his misogynistic moments everyone who has spent time listening to him knows that he’s battling his inner demons and is full of contradictions and conflict. Eminem raps from personal pain, Talib and Lupe keep their lyrics insightful, thoughtful while at the same time bringing a lot of energy to the stage and getting the party started. Big Sean was rapping from…well, I’m not sure. the mic dangling, the crotch grabbing, the unoriginal content, it was all a bit sophomoric. Especially juxtaposed between the talented performances of Okkervil River and Grace Potter, it seemed a bit out of place.

Big Sean’s first two songs were “Too Fake” and “Supa Dupa Lemonade

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals: When I went up to Atlantic City to shoot the Dave Matthews Caravan this past June, Grace Potter was on the third day of the three day festival. Unfortunately, my friend and I decided to leave that morning and I missed her performance and at the time it didn’t look like she was coming to the DC area for the rest of the summer.

This was one of the best performances of the entire day, probably my favorite performance aside from the Black Keys. Grace Potter is a hybrid of Tina Turner and Janis Joplin and her backing band kicks ass. While my friend and I were in Atlantic City, I checked out her website and read her interview as well as the interviews with all of the band members. One thing that was constantly mentioned throughout was each members love of the film “The Last Waltz,” Martin Scorsese’s seminal concert documentary of The Band’s last performance which guest starred musicians like Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and many others. Well, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals would have fit in just fine on that stage back in 1978 and I think that’s the highest praise I can give.

Potter came out brandishing a Gibson Flying V and started her set with a hard hitting version of “Ah Mary“. Potter has a dynamic stage presence and her band is tight and they immediately grabbed everyone who was in attendance. I looked behind me and the Pavilion seats were practically full and the standing room area was definitely packed. The next song was “Only Love” which featured Potter behind the electric piano but still didn’t lack any energy. She finished the song by coming out and dancing with the rest of the band, banging away with her tambourine while the band jammed.

Great performance, and as I mentioned before, probably the best of the day aside from the Black Keys. Unfortunately, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals don’t look to be coming back to the DC area anytime soon.

Cut Copy: Cut Copy is an electronic band from Australia who has been together since 2001 and they were playing at the outdoor stage. I stayed at Grace Potter for as long as I could before heading over to catch this set and by the time I got there, a sizable crowd had already gathered.

They started their set with “Take Me Over” which transported me back to the 80′s. It made me feel like I should have been cruising around Miami wearing an outfit that Crockett or Tubbs would be proud to wear. It also reminded me immediately of “This Must Be The Place” by the Talking Heads which you’ll know from the movie “Wall Street.” It’s the type of music that gets everyone dancing and depending on who you’re around that can either be great or horrible. Cut Copy’s brand of music isn’t necessarily my first choice as I tend to like rock music a bit more, however they were great. It’s very accessible and easy to dance to and while I was taking photos, I couldn’t help but tap my feet. However, I know that I can’t dance and I was able to refrain.

Cut Copy won’t be in the DC area anytime soon but if you’re up for a road trip they’ll be playing a few dates in North Carolina at the end of September.*

Patti Smith: It’s not every day you get to see a living legend, so I was pretty excited to see Patti Smith. “The Godmother of Punk” drew a big crowd to the Pavilion Stage and there were a lot of older people who came out to see her. Some of them were actually up front and pressed up against the barricade! Dedicated fans are nice to see, one of them even had a book Smith had written and was waving it above her head when Smith took the stage.

Patti came out with an old polaroid camera, smiling and snapping a few photos of the crowd. She put it down and opened her set with a reggae inspired song, one that I wasn’t familiar with and didn’t know the name of. Not what I expected and not what I really wanted to see, and I hoped that this wasn’t going to be a case of a performer shelving their hits and trying to get their new music across. It was a good song, but it wasn’t punk.

My worries were quickly laid to rest as she broke out a searing version of “Free Money” and beneath the grey hair I could see a sinister, mean look that was definitely very punk. She spit on the stage, curled her lip and belted the chorus into the microphone, put her foot up on the speaker and owned the stage. It was an awesome moment.

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Patti Smith’s next and only date for 2011 is in New York City on December 2nd.

Cee Lo Green: Cee Lo Green succeeded where I thought Big Sean failed, successfully bringing a party atmosphere to the day. He opened his set with “Bright Lights Bigger City” which had an infectious groove and the whole place was rocking. Backed by a great all female band, Cee Lo showed off why he’s one of the best entertainers in music today. The big man moved all over the stage, reaching out and touching audience members hands where he could and interacting with the crowd between songs.

While he’s probably best described as R&B, there’s a lot of musical influences that come across in his music. In the short time I got to see him, there was some hard rock influence and some soul as well. I didn’t get a chance to stick around for his big hit “**** You,” but I heard he followed that up with a cover of “Rock the Casbah” by The Clash.

The second song of his set was ChamPain and I was actually able to find a decent crowd video of the song.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Cee Lo Green is touring anytime soon.

TV on the Radio: TV on the Radio took the Pavilion stage and I was excited to see this band that I’d never heard of before. There was quite a buzz thoughout the day about them, I’d heard several people say that their show was definitely one to see.

TVOTR was awesome and as a matter of fact I skipped out on the next performance by Empire of the Sun to find an empty seat in the Pavilion and stay and watch the rest of their performance. I was captivated by lead singer Tunde Adebimpe as he slowly raised the intensity of their opening song “Young Liars” which was made me put down my camera for a few moments and just listen to take it all in. There’s a lot going on in their music, from the guitar work of Kyp Malone to the bass lines and trombone, there was a lot to take in both from an visual and audio perspective. They don’t fall into one specific genre and while it’d be easy to pigeonhole them as rock they’re so much more than that. There’s elements of blues and jazz, psychedelic rock, maybe some spoken word and there is also elements of electronic music as well. It’s always changing and it’s almost always intense. TVOTR’s music seamlessly blends all of these types of music together and serves it up in one exciting burst of energy.

Most of all, it was clear that they gave everything they had which was awesome. Go to enough concerts and shows and you’ll become aware of who’s mailing it in and not giving their best effort. TVOTR is not that band.

Unfortunately, they won’t be coming back to the DC area anytime soon.

The Black Keys: Finally.

I’m willing to argue that The Black Keys are the most important band in rock music today. And if they’re not the most important, they definitely deserve their place in the conversation. All of their albums are brilliant, but most importantly the blues influence that they bring to the table smacks you in the face so hard you can’t ignore it.

My musical biases lie with rock n roll and blues as opposed to heavy synthesizer pop music. While I can appreciate that type of music and listen to some of it, I don’t think it’ll ever shape the musical landscape that blues has. And if The Black Keys can influence a kid to go pick up an album by Junior Kimbrough, Muddy Waters or B.B. King and turn them on to the blues, they’ve done a great job. I don’t want to sound like someone’s parent here, but it’s too late…there aren’t as many kids out there who are listening to the blues and that’s a shame.

If you don’t know who they are, The Black Keys are from Akron, Ohio and they consist of guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney who are childhood friends. Their first album “The Big Come Up” was recorded on an 8-track machine in Carney’s basement and they’ve been on the rise ever since. Since early 2002, they’ve released 6 studio albums culminating with 4 Grammy wins in 2011 for their work on their latest album “Brothers”. They’ve also worked on several other side projects, most notably a hip hop album called “Blackroc” and an EP of Junior Kimbrough covers.

They were a little late coming out and the crowd started a “Black Keys, Black Keys!” chant. I looked around behind me and the Pavilion was packed and from what I could tell the lawn was, too. They came out to a giant ovation and promptly launched into a version of “Thickfreakness“. Auerbach’s guitar growled while Carney pounded on the drums. Watching Patrick Carney play the drums is like watching Lawrence Taylor play football; it’s vicious, it’s hard hitting and it’s awesome.

I think one of the best compliments I can give them is that they sound like they do on their records. There’s a lot of distortion, there’s a lot of feedback, it’s dirty, gritty and raw, which is exactly how they play in concert, only amplified. For a two piece band, it’s extremely loud. Auerbach’s vocals are bluesy enough to make you a believer, there aren’t many white guys out there who can sing the blues and not sound contrived. Auerbach is the real deal.

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They followed up their opening song with two of their favorites, an extended version of “The Girl Is On My Mind” and “The Breaks” The fourth song was “Stack Shot Billy” which happens to be one of my favorites so I was really excited that I got to hear them play it live. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay longer, I had to get back to the outdoor field for DeadMau5.

It was just announced that The Black Keys will be headlining a tour of Europe to start 2012, and no US dates have been announced. But the good news is that their 7th album should be released by the end of 2011.

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DeadMau5: DeadMau5 didn’t have a photo pit due to an expansive stage setup, so there wasn’t a place to take photos from. However, I received an email along with my confirmation saying that I was selected to shoot part of DeadMau5′s set from the sound booth, along with a few of the other photographers. I was gracious for the special treatment and the opportunity and made sure to be at the assigned meeting place on time.

We were walked into the soundbooth and were instructed to wait for a certain part of DeadMaus’s show to when we could start taking photos. So we waited..and waited…and waited…and hey, I could have been in there rocking out to the Black Keys, still! Finally, it came time to snap some photos and there was a lot of fog from the stage, which added to my frustration. Being so far away from the stage, it was hard to get anything good.

I’m not a fan of techno music so I don’t know how DeadMau5 really stacks up to other DJs out there. It’s obvious that he has a huge following, there were a ton of people in the field and throughout the day I saw a ton of tshirts and fake mouse heads that people were wearing. The light/laser show was really awesome, the best I’ve ever seen at any show, anywhere.***

DeadMau5 just announced two surprise shows at the new Fillmore Silver Spring for September 21st and 22nd.

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Overall Experience:

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Virgin Mobile Free Fest was a great time. Thankfully the wet weather we had all week leading up to it held off and the weather was excellent. There was a lot of mud in the outdoor stage, but other than that, the conditions couldn’t have been any better.

I didn’t get a chance to explore a lot of the booths due to walking back and forth between the stages, making sure I was on time for the sets and trying to take notes to write the review. However you couldn’t look anywhere without seeing people carrying around posters, tshirts, and other free swag that was being given away. Face paint and body paint was everywhere. I walked through the forest where the booths were and there also tents set up where people could cool off and relax on wicker lawn chairs.

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Some of the performers artists and performers were Albus Cavus, a community of public artists who are dedicated to having citizens in urban areas participate in workshops and school programs in order to raise social awareness and clean up inner city areas. At their interactive booth, you could create a signature Virgin Mobile Free Fest piece.

The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus and the Flippenout Extreme Trampoline Show were also on hand to entertain concertgoers. I saw some of their acts and they were pretty incredible, particularly the trampoline show.

The Skatepark of Baltimore had set up a mini-half pipe and this is where I spent most of my time between sets as it as on my walk between the Pavilion stage and the outdoor stage. Skatepark of Baltimore’s goal is to facilitate the construction of a public custom skatepark in the city of Baltimore.

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I think it’s probably the best way to spend a late summer afternoon as there was always something to do and lots of great music to be heard. I was really happy to go and cover this event for WLDC, so I’m not complaining when I say I wish I had more time to spend checking out the booths and shops. This was my first Virgin Mobile Free Fest show, but it certainly won’t be my last.

* Check out our coverage of Virgin Mobile Free Fest 2010.

** Our less than impressed coverage of Cut Copy’s last visit.

*** Andrew may have had a tough time shooting Deadmau5 at Free Fest, but we got AMAZING shots from his shows at 9:30 Club.

Andrew Markowitz

A photographer for the past 4 years, used to sell inflatable dartboards and solar powered flashlights. Hobbies include muffin throwing contests and competitive ditch-digging.

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