We Love Music: Virgin Free Fest, or The Festival of Lines, 10/6/2012

photo by Alexia

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.

Ben Folds Five, photo courtesy of Virgin Free Fest

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.

M83, photo courtesy of Virgin Free Fest

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.

Jack White, photo courtesy of Virgin Free Fest

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. 

Unfortunately, poor planning on my part made a trip to the ATM necessary. The lines were long, but I figured waiting in line with friends for 30 minutes while listening to Santigold wouldn’t be anything less than a good time. I was wrong. I am always more hopeful about festivals than previous experience should warrant. Festivals like these host numerous acts who share little in common (Nas and ZZ Top?), making for little unity or cohesiveness among the crowd. And free festivals turn out the worst of humanity. Most of the ATM line was drunk or high. The upstanding citizens behind me made a show of spewing their trash around and calling anyone a faggot who dared to question their littering. On top of which, the ATM machines were not working anyway. Apparently they needed a cellular signal to contact banks in order to disperse funds and were unable to find one…at the Virgin Mobile Freefest. In fact, there was nary a cell signal all day. In order to meet up with friends later, we were forced to make plans old-school style. Luckily, we were all born well before 1990 and had previous experience with this type of planning.

Alabama Shakes, photo courtesy of Virgin Free Fest

Next we headed over to the main pavilion to watch the Alabama Shakes. I first heard the Alabama Shakes last year on NPR and was immediately smitten. In September 2011, they put out a 4 song EP and released their first full length album, Boys & Girls, in April of this year. The lead singer, Brittnay Howard is almost a reincarnation of Janis Joplin. Though her voice is less raspy and whiskey soaked, she brings the same soulful passion to her singing. Her enthusiasm was clearly infectious as the seats filled up fast and the crowd thoroughly enjoyed themselves. 
I left Alabama Shakes a little early to get some cash from another bank of ATM machines. I first checked to see if the machines were working and then figured I had 20 minutes before I needed to head over to watch Nas. A review of waiting in line for the ATM machines for 40 minutes may be even more boring than actually waiting in line, so I will spare you. Suffice it say, I was able to see Nas perform 2 songs. My review: He is Nas. He filled the stage with his presence. I then went to wait in line for the bathroom.

Nas, courtesy of Virgin Free Fest

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.

Dismemberment Plan, photo courtesy of Virgin Free Fest

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!

Alexia Kauffman

Alexia was born and raised in Arlington, VA. She has been a cellist since age four, and a lover of rock & roll soon after. The first tape she owned was “Make It Big” by Wham, and the first tape she bought was Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” and she still loves both. She was a member of local synth-rock outfit Soft Complex for several years, and has recorded with bands including Engine Down and Two if By Sea. By day she works for a non-profit distributing royalties to musicians and labels. She currently plays cello, lap-steel guitar and tambourine in the DC post-folk/Americana band The Torches.

4 thoughts on “We Love Music: Virgin Free Fest, or The Festival of Lines, 10/6/2012

  1. What a downer of a review. No way this could represent the experience of most the people there. Everyone I interacted with was having an amazing time. Great day and I can’t wait till next year(although they are right about the cell service, it was really really bad).

  2. yes, this was a surprisingly negative recap indeed considering that the problems volleyed against the freefest are pretty typical of any festival. shoddy cell reception, traffic, drunken messes etc are de rigeur. i had an awesome time, even more so considering the whole deal was FOR FREE. M83 was particularly ethereal and wonderful.
    y’all just kind of sound grouchy and like you missed an opportunity to have a good time.

  3. I think it’s awesome that you all had a blast- we can only write about our own experiences. I think we all had moments we enjoyed, musically. I’m a festival veteran, actually, so I know how awesome a well-run festival can be. This one wasn’t well-run. Great acts, though.

  4. This was the exact experience I had except that I did my 40 min ATM wait during Alabama shakes and missed Dismemberment Plan entirely b/c of traffic. It was really tough to get over the neverending setbacks. I could see though that if someone got there at 11am and brought enough cash it would’ve been a fine day.