Since festivals offer so much to see in so little time, and everyone may have a different experience, we decided to get a few perspectives on Saturday’s Virgin Free Fest. We Love DC’s music writers Alexia and Jonathan write about their experiences, and guest writer Sarah Jackson shares her thoughts too.
Alexia: Who knew that the drive to Saturday’s Virgin Free Fest at Merriweather Post Pavilion would be a portend of the dreary, largely agonizing day that would follow. What should have been a breezy, 1-hour drive from DC to Columbia, Maryland, where Merriweather is located turned into a three-and-a-half hour punishment- two hours of which were spent in an almost complete standstill after taking the exit to Merriweather.
At three o’clock, when I had imagined myself jumping and dancing along to The Dismemberment Plan on the West Stage I was instead sitting in my car on Brokenland Parkway, a mere stone’s throw from the venue, so close, but yet so far. At one point we could see the field and the side of the stage, and even hear the din of the music, but that was only depressing/enraging, as we were stuck in the hell of festival traffic. The only entertainment we experienced was watching people get out of their cars to pee on the side of the road. Eventually, after passing all of the full parking lots, we located parking approximately (not exaggerating) a mile away from the venue. I think there were supposed to be shuttles, but none passed us as we walked in the herd of festival-goers to the venue.
By the time I got in to Merriweather I was, not too surprisingly, in a foul mood. Thankfully I didn’t miss too much of Ben Folds Five’s set, and got to watch them do their thing from the sunny lawn. Their set was, for the most part, upbeat and energetic. Somehow hearing “Brick” in a festival setting, as popular as it was for the band, seemed inappropriate. The introspective, heartfelt song was a little too personal and quiet for the atmosphere of constant gabbing and partying going on all around as the band performed. They were at their best for the setting with bouncier numbers like “Kate” and “Army” which had the audience singing along and getting into the groove.
Much of the rest of the day was an overcrowded, dirty, cold blur. I fought my way through the hordes to catch Santigold’s set, which I was looking forward to. Unfortunately as much as I like her music, and appreciated her fun dancers, it was so crowded that it was hard to see much, and I didn’t really connect with the performance onstage.
I managed to make it back to the Pavilion stage for a good portion of Alabama Shakes’ set, which was actually great. I’d never heard the band before, and the singer’s vocals were powerful, soulful, engaging.
While a disproportionately large part of my day felt like it was spent either being cold (and I was a smart one who brought an extra sweatshirt along- there were plenty of people walking around in halter-tops and short-shorts), inhaling dust from the herds of people clomping around, searching for my friends (extremely crappy cell service the whole day) or waiting in lines (20-plus-minute lines for everything from getting a drink to taking a pee in a dark port-o-potty with no toilet paper) there were, thankfully, a couple redeeming high points by the end of the night. After waiting in line for probably a half-hour while listening to M83, my friends and I got to ride on the beautiful, lit-up ferris wheel which was adjacent to the stage on which M83 was performing. This was a magical moment. We had, for that brief time, a perfect view of the stage, awesome lights, perfect sound, and the scary-big crowd in front of the stage, which I was so thankful not to be in.
My time at the festival was ended in the most perfect way, giving redemption to a pretty exhausting day. I managed to get into the pavilion area for Jack White’s set, and it was amazing! I may not have felt the same about it had I been on the lawn, watching him on a screen, as I did for the first couple songs, but once I was in the pavilion, I ran into the pit, and ended up four rows from one of my favorite rockers ever. He was full of energy, and backed by an awesome, all-female band that provided soul, chops and rocking energy for the whole set, supporting White through a super set that included lots of White Stripes songs to please the crowd.
Sarah: After a 3 hour drive, a 15 minute trek, and a disorienting walk through the Merriweather Post Pavillon grounds in search of food ($11 chicken tenders and a Bud Light Tall Boy for $8.50), we found Santigold. I wish I could say she was a sight for sore eyes, but unfortunately the bright sun was setting behind the stage making it difficult and painful to watch anything but the jumbotron. Though, Santi White, aka. Santigold, performed her distinctive brand of pop/electronica/reggae with energy, the stage looked a bit too large for her and the 2 Caribbean style cheerleader/dancers who accompanied. Perhaps it was the unfamiliarity with the material or the aforementioned sun, but most of the crowd seemed unenthusiastic. My friend described it as generic pop music, which saddened me as I think she is one of the more unique female acts out there today, though perhaps better heard in a smaller club than an outdoor music festival.
Jonathan: You’d think Virgin Mobile would realize that by placing their giant clusterfest in an area with crappy cellphone reception and not doing anything to fix it, they are not doing a good service to their brand. I guess my smartphone was one device among thousands, struggling to find sundry friends by using texting or voice, which ultimately proved epically impossible (“I’ll meet you by the thing with the thing!” “Where? On the bench? Hello?”). Even the patchily attainable wifi couldn’t help. The thing is, once I actually found my friends, there was nothing to really do but avoid being jostled by the crowds and finding a good space to watch. Oh, and wait in long lines for $10 coronas and $10 pit beef. And toilets.
So once I got past the initial frustration of navigating the übercrowd and the bathroom lines and the food and drink lines and the not-being-able-to-find-anyone-ever, I was able to enjoy Dismemberment Plan, Nas, a bit of M83, and a dash of Jack White, before spending my last hour mesmerized by the swirly light-and-sound Oonce! of the Dance Forest.
I would say Dismemberment Plan was my best Virginfest moment – probably because I had just arrived when they started, the field wasn’t has jam-packed as it was later, and there’s something fun about watching an old-school DC favorite in their reunited incarnation, on a giant screen, doing songs like “The Ice of Boston”, which I hadn’t heard or thought of in 11 years. In afternoon daylight.
After wandering around for a bit, I settled in for Nas’ set, lying down in back, with actually a good view of the stage and the adjacent screens. He wore his 90s hip-hop love on his sleeve, and had a laid back feel as the sun began to set.
Then, as the crowd swelled and the darkness rose, it was hard to sit still for an entire show. M83 was proficient and excellent, their post-shoegaze atmospherics absorbing for a time, but the whole set-up of this festival really seemed geared towards endless roaming and aimless wandering, until the people-watching became tiresome and redundant, and it was time to hit Dance Forest. Oonce! Oonce!