Virgin Mobile Free Fest was held a little later this year – early October. It was a sunny, yet chilly day at Merriweather. But I’ll take that over the summer heat of past years any day. It was refreshing to not feel like I would pass out due to heat stroke for once. I arrived early enough to beat the traffic. One of my compatriots wasn’t as lucky – she tried to arrive a bit later in the afternoon for Santigold, got stuck in traffic that took 3 hours to go the last two miles, and instead arrived just in time for ZZ Top.
While I was lucky enough to miss the traffic lines, I put up with my fair share of lines for the day. Bathrooms, food, drinks, basically anything you would possibly want often entailed waiting for an hour. Several of the food stands ran out of most of the food options early in the day. It seems ridiculous that they can’t plan better for these things. You know how many tickets there are. We’re there all day. Duh, we’ll need lots of food. This is yet another data point for the case that the quality of the festival has fallen dramatically since the days of the non-free VMF at Pimlico. I miss those days. I’d gladly pay $100 to get the higher quality festival. The lineup isn’t as good, it’s near impossible to get the free tickets, and once you get them, get ready to wait in lines all day. Plus Merriweather’s pavilion stage isn’t good for a festival. Folks arrive early to claim good seats either under the pavilion or on the lawn, then guard them for the majority of the day. It makes it hard to jump between stages without giving up a good spot. Back at Pimlico you could hop from stage to stage and always get really close to the stage for bands that you liked.
Having recently seen Santigold, most of the bands I wanted to see were all on the mainstage this year, so I got a good spot on the lawn and stayed there all day. I missed out on the Dismemberment Plan as a result, but it’s always difficult to catch everyone you want to see at a festival. Brief synapses of the bands I saw are below.
Allen Stone – I arrived in time for the last 20 minutes or so of his set. I’m not particularly anti-Stone, but I don’t see what all the buzz is about. It seems like he’s trying too hard both stylistically (the hat, glasses, and hair are a bit much for me) and musically (I think I’d like his songs better if he stripped them down a bit – there is a lot going on, and not in a good way).
Trampled by Turtles – Other than their closer “Wait too Long,” the crowd around us on the lawn wasn’t paying too much attention to TbT. That’s a shame, because they put on a fabulous live show. But the atmosphere is 1,000 times better when they play at a smaller venue like the 9:30 Club. Perhaps they would have fared betted later in the day.
Ben Folds Five – I’ve seen Ben Folds do a handful of solo shows, always to great effect. But I’ve never seen the full trio. In my head I’d built it up that it would be much better with the added sound. It really wasn’t that different. They played their new song with the muppets video. Toward the end of the set they finally dug in to some Whatever and Ever Amen tracks to the crowd’s delight. They even busted out one of Ben’s solo tracks unexpectedly. Good, but not as good as what I’d built up in my head. Silly me.
Alabama Shakes – I’d heard amazing things about their live shows. So my expectations were high. But, holy hell, were they fantastic. Brittany Howard just BELTS the heck out of all the songs. The energy is exponentially higher than their record (which is one of my favorites of the year). They played pretty much all of Boys and Girls in a tight, one hour set that was sadly devoid of any of their Led Zeppelin covers. It was my favorite set of the day. Do not miss them if they come to your neck of the woods.
ZZ Top – I was cautiously optimistic about ZZ Top. Their songs are amazing. But do they still bring it at their live performances? Yes they do, friends. Even the obvious orthopedic footwear on Dusty in lieu of cowboy boots couldn’t hold them back. They played all of the hits with their signature minimalist choreography, rocked more jewelry than most female performers, and even busted out a Southern-rock cover of DJ DMD’s “25 Lighters.” It was all sorts of fabulous.
Jack White – I’ve been waiting for Jack White to come through town ever since Blunderbuss came out. Rumor has it he was set to go a big gig at Merriweather with ZZ Top and they convinced both bands to headline the festival instead. Jack brought his female backing band with him (what I was hoping for) and rocked through most of Blunderbuss in addition to White Stripes, Dead Weather, and Raconteurs tracks. All of it was enjoyable. Though, fun as it was to hear my favorite White Stripes songs live, it took a bit of getting used to hearing the songs with a full backing band. Hopefully Jack and Meg will reunite at some point in the future so I can hear the stripped down versions of the songs to compare.