Last weekend Virgin Mobile landed at the Merriweather Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland for FreeFest. A Virgin media themed festival coined for it’s outgoing charity initiatives through the celebration of live music, dance, culture… and yes, ferris wheels! At a time where people are in the midst of habub about Sir Richard Branson’s Galactica space venture and the retired Endeavour space shuttle basically stopping the presses (btw the irony of people adoring a space shuttle from a program that basically died because it has lost support… is beyond us), EDM pioneer Skrillex took it upon himself to launch his own shuttle venture at the event. Seriously though, Skrillex had a spaceship on stage.
Thing kicked off with clean cut rockers Future Island, who are a spectacle to watch perform with their mesmerizing eclecticism and musical delivery from the future. The collective commands the stage with a unique brand of take-charge futuristic 80s inspired dream pop, and are fronted with the theatrically abrasive nature of singer Samuel T. Herring who’s passion for music is basically this dude’s spinach. On an opposite stage Allen Stone performed, basking his audience with the charisma of your next daytime soul star. Stone did an ample job of fronting his massive band. At moments Stone’s blue eyed soul pop harkens back to a time when his style music was more of a standard in general for festival music.
For us Portugal. The Man is always a festival favorite. It seems that everyone relates to their melodic diction and unique mix of rock. Songs, “So American” and “People Say” were highlights, and let’s not forget the band’s extended “Helter Skelter” interlude. Traveling to the next performance, we encountered Alvin Risk initiating the day’s Dance Forest. It was a party, the hard hitting electro pop banged and the new z-gen based crowd moshed like it was 1994 (little did they know). By the time Thomas Gold would later take stage, and the lights started happening, it became pretty clear that the glam of electro party music will never die.
Between some sets at the main stages, actor James Franco hosted a series of film shorts on the big screens. The 7FAM montages told stories with an organic dimeanor and they served an interesting distraction to the musical radness that lay ahead. Santigold soon took stage with her prehistoric-future and neon charged stage-show. Everyone took pictures like it was something they’ll ever see again. That’s what we call star presence. Traveling next to the pavilion stage we found Ben Folds Five performing. The recently reunited trio emitted their sentimental moments of mediocre key rock upon the audience. Everyone gobbled it up including us. It was great hearing tracks like “Brick” and seeing the trio still doing what they do best, just check out their latest The Sound of the Life of the Mind release to hear what we mean. That plus Ben Folds is reminiscent of some mad scientist child spawn of Elton John, which in effect almost makes him rock royalty. We’re still waiting for that reunion of The Bens.
More highlights of the festival included the Alabama Shakes. Singer Brittany Howard looked comfortable in her stage front setting. The singer was animated and seemed thrilled to be performing. And why shouldn’t she be, by all our accounts Alabama Shakes has been one of the best live draws in 2012. And “Found You” is still a standout track with it’s goosebumps caliber moments. Hip Hop star Nas was a sight to see in the flesh, spitting his raw talent on the mic. No frills here, just his DJ and his words.
Zedd and Porter Robinson soon took stage in the Dance Forrest with some epic sci-fi graphics in the mix. It was like the two were honing in on their future festival headline-act slots. Zedd – one of the few electronic producers today finding their credibility on both sides of the masses. Porter Robinson – one of the hottest names in electro house.
Hopping in to our Virgin Mobile teleports we dialed into the pavilions stage (with seats) for ZZ Top. But there wasn’t much sitting. This blues rock trio sported their custom guitars with their novelty beards and still schooled most everyone in the house. Who needs a show production when you can play some straight forward and loud blues with a few timeless lyrical hooks to boot? We loved their new ‘hip-hop’ song about “getting paid.”
M83 were in full band mode that night. These guys rock at the next level making art with their instrumental use of power chords alone, something becoming less and less relevant to popular music nowadays. Combine that with M83’s sea of synthy atmospheres, and this band has only grown stronger with their years.
Deciding to head back to the other end of the festival, we found Jack White headlining the pavilion stage with his full band of female musicians. Drummer, Carla Azar owned her sticks with a finesse on the skins unparelleled at the festival. Possibly even out-staging the prolific tycoon that is Jack White productions. Then again you know Jack White feeds on that style of passionate musical rage. A performance quality of which might be staring too much in his own musical tendencies.
Skillex had a count down on the big screens before he took stage. People ran to the field where he was performing, hoping to catch their glimpse of the EDM icon. Sonny Moore performed his set of progressive electronic music via the front mast of his own space capsule. The showman fusing his hardcore tendencies mixed an artful display of electronic music inflections. It was an energized performance that got everyone moving, and of some serious showmanship (perhaps because girlfriend Ellie Goulding was spotted in the masses). As his spaceship was launched 20 ft. in the air, Skrillex would jump up on his decks table to incite the audience. Speaking of inciting, how bout the pyrotechnics and über controversial visual references? Skrillex even teased the audience with his remix of “Sabatog” from the Beastie Boys and peppered more of the set with a slew of other hip-hop classics. By the time Skrillex’ set ended I though his spaceship was going to blast off and race Richard Branson’s to mars. Instead things concluded per Skrillex’s gracious wishes for camaraderie upon the festival drenched crowd.
Virgin Mobile Free Fest (Official)
Reviewed by b3