Photos: Jeff Martin (with people and pavilion watching shots by Franz Mahr and Ben Droz). Words: Phil Runco and Colin Wilhelm
After what felt like 40 days and nights of rain, the heavens miraculously cleared on Saturday and we were blessed with sunshine and moderate temperatures (and bees) for the third Virgin Mobile FreeFest at Merriweather Post Pavilion. You know God’s a huge Deadmau5 fan, right? There was no way he was going to let some rain clouds block his view of this shit.
The line-up certainly lacked the marquee names of 2010, but how could organizers have been expected to top a year featuring Pavement’s reunion tour, LCD Soundsystem’s farewell tour (as it turned out to be), and M.I.A. at the peak of her provocateur powers. If FreeFest 2011 will be remembered for anything, it will be as the year organizers bought wholesale into electronic dance music’s “unique niche of pop dominance.” The festival featured stalwarts from indie rock (TV on the Radio, Okkervil River) and traditional rock (Black Keys, Grace Potter) circles, but really, from Cut Copy and !!! to Deadmau5 and Empire of the Sun, this year was all about the beat, and it would not be confined to any “Dance Forest.”
Eclectic Method [Dance Forrest; 12:00]
I love the sound of thunderous house music in the morning. Well, not really, but the Dance Forest was the first stage to fire up at just past noon and the overachiever scene – clad in neon green Geico gym sacks – was gathered to see Eclectic Method. According to its press, Eclectic Method is a “video remix” artist who “rearrange[s] the sights and sounds of music videos, live concerts, movies, TV, video games and current events.” All of which is a fancy way to say it sounds like Girl Talk – or 2 Many DJs, or whoever your mash-up artist of choice is – and has a visual component. The collective eschewed its more ambitious videos in favor of crowd pleasing combinations like, say, Guns N’ Roses chopped with “Get Ur Freak On.” The restrained head bobbing of the audience may have been in appreciation of the music, but I imagined they were nodding in agreement to my thought that what works at 12:00 a.m. may not transfer so seamlessly to 12:00 p.m. — Phil
Alberta Cross [Festival Stage; 12:15]
If you’re bummed about the Black Crowes’s indefinite hiatus and hoping to fill that gaping void in your life, look no further than Alberta Cross. Seriously, this band has you covered. It has the slightly whiny flower child lead singer, who on this day let a couple of medallions fall from his neck and down a questionably low cut v-neck. (Don’t worry, he was offset by an adequately big and burly drummer.) Despite hailing from England and Sweden, it produced distinctly American – and America referencing – blues-rock that really brought home the Black Crowes comparison. Lyrically, we heard platitudes like “You gotta witness all in the morning sun” and “There’s no heaven for the shame.” If this all sounds like something you might be interested in, see what you can find on Youtube: the inexplicably shirtless dude in front of me recorded the whole show on a Flip camera. – Phil
Bombay Bicycle Club [Pavilion Stage; 1:00]
The first thing you notice about Bombay Bicycle Club is its rhythm section. If you weren’t there at the start of its set, you could hear it rumbling in the distance as you approached. The drumming was methodically mechanical, not unlike a band’s across the Channel from this English band, Phoenix. But if there’s a comparison to be made here, it lies closer to its home with Foals, and specifically last year’s Total Life Forever. Bombay Bicycle Club borrowed from that record’s playbook to a T: expansive, chiming guitars were anchored by propulsive backbeats that turned on a dime. Unlike Foals though, Bombay Bicycle Club has a more confidently emotive singer in Jack Steadman, who bears a passing resemblance to the Clientele’s Alasdair MacLean. The audience gathered up front did not suffer from a lack of swooning though, something that can’t be said of many Clientele crowds. Maybe it was the beat. Or maybe they’d been primed by a certain Vampire flick soundtrack. — Phil
Porter Robinson [Dance Forest; 1:45]
Walking past the Pavilion stage along a narrow dirt path, looking out upon a throng of painted, bouncing dancers amongst the “forest” of trees, one felt like you’d stumbled upon the indie-est sylvan crowd ever. Porter Robinson’s DJ set amidst the modest woods, welcome sunshine, and surprisingly mild mud provided ample beats to prime the crowd for the rest of a long festival day. The precocious, enthusiastic Robinson led an eclectically dressed crowd over booming bass lines and through an energetic set.
For the most part Robinson avoided the common pitfalls of electronica artists/groups: monotonous beats or clichéd effects and samples. Almost everything felt fresh, even the Daft Punk sample he threw in a couple times, and he timed his lulls and crescendos for maximum effect. Too many DJs can get muddled in their own sound, or lose the sense of forward momentum that lies at the core of electronica/techno/whatever and inspires people to dance their asses off, but Robinson brought an energy that felt purposeful, showcasing the skill that’s put him into the category of prodigious up and coming DJ. — Colin
Two Door Cinema Club [Festival Stage; 1:45]
In the past year or so, bands have been falling hard for the early 90s, but it might be a bit premature for a 2004 revival. Granted, the post-punk and disco trends that blossomed that year were themselves revivals – and, in theory then, still there for the taking – but there’s something distinctly 2004 about Two Door Cinema Club. Every song had a similarly skittery, hi-hat heavy disco beat, and when Sam Halliday kept cathartically belting, “Because you want to be all” on “Do You Want it All”, all I could hear was Bloc Party, albeit much slicker and younger and maybe a wee bit emo. Meanwhile, the teenagers beside me could hardly control their desire to bounce off one another to this stuff. Fuck it, if this is the equivalent of mall punk for high schoolers these days, I’m fine with that. – Phil
Okkervil River [Pavilion Stage; 2:30]
Okkervil River’s slot on the Pavilion Stage was very accommodating to the professorial stylings of most members. Protected by the shade of the amphitheater, and enjoying the unseasonably cool weather, the band was free to rock its blazers and oxfords without suffering the consequences that might befall a midday Austin City Limits performance. And, of course, frontman Will Sheff was free to gradually sweat through and peel off nearly every article of clothing (and his glasses) during Okkervil River’s set, because that’s just what Sheff does regardless of his environment. It’s what happens when a man flings himself into his material the way Sheff does. Things get sweaty. And yelpy. And if that wasn’t your thing, then you were free to make your way to the Dance Forest, but you got the feeling those who stayed in the pit through rousing closer “Unless it Kicks” were either the longtime faithful or freshly converted.
Up to that closer and the ramshackle takes on “Our Life is Not a Movie” and “Loast Coastlines” that preceded it, the band alternated between songs from this year’s I Am Far Away and earlier LPs. The older songs were predictably on point, the band ripping through “Black” and nailing the gentle swell of “Girl in Port” (with guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo moving to lap steel), but the newer material resonated live with a ragged urgency that doesn’t quite transfer to tape. Violin sliced violently through songs. Drums slowed to a steady, forceful stomp. The band howled in group sing-alongs. But this is the kind of band where members sing along to Sheff’s words even when they’re not doing it into a microphone. It’s a reminder that this is a fluid band, a band where Sheff is last original member standing and maybe the rest of them are just as big of fans as those standing in front of them. – Phil
Calvin Harris [Dance Forest; 3:15]
Big Sean [Festival Stage; 3:15]
“I represent the west side of Detroit,” Big Sean informed the modest crowd who had gathered for his performance. The fact that he was wearing a Red Wings jersey and Pistons hat was probably sufficient to relay that fact, but when it comes to Big Sean, he’s much less interested in showing than telling. He told us about how he’s made it against all odds, about crying on the phone with his grandma on the night he released his debut LP, about his Twitter account. Big Sean wants so desperately to be liked – and to tell people why he should be liked – that it seemed to escape him that the best way to do that is to shut up and deliver a strong set. When got around to actually rapping, he showed off a bubbly and nimble flow, which sounded nice – if not especially engrossing – on top of some expensive beats. “I do it. I do it. I do it,” he repeated on, er, “I Do it.” He’d be well served backing that boast up. – Phil
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals [Pavilion Stage; 4:00]
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals probably played the best classic rock set of FreeFest 2011. Obviously talented, especially in the lead guitarist and lead vocalist department, Potter and the Nocturnals did not come across as terribly original. Many of the chord progressions, bridges, and solos felt expected and obligatory, formulaic even.
One could speculate that this comes from one (or both) of the following: a record label who recognizes something potentially meteoric and broadens it to reach as wide of an audience as possible, watering down the music in the process, or genuinely derivative songwriting. Still, the lovely Ms. Potter and her band delivered some interesting moments to break through the genericism: the angry bass and guitar intro that accompanied a Grace Potter interpretative dance, beginning with her lying on stage and ending with her raspy voice bursting through bluesy riffs, her extended duet with Scott Tournet’s slide guitar, or Potter’s ethereal cooing contrasted by her occasional glass-shattering falsetto shrieks, due to which audience members probably lost the ability to hear certain higher-pitched frequencies.
Despite some ups and downs the band did close on a couple of strong notes: an appropriately rocking “Paris (Oh La La)”, which sounded like the Black Crowes at their height, fronted by a woman, and “Medicine”, a scurrilous attack against some loose woman after Potter’s man/men. Potter accusingly sung on the hook, “she’s got the medicine that everybody wants” before finally coming to the realization, “I’ve got the medicine that everybody wants”. Grace Potter and her band certainly have something, but we came away from their FreeFest set wishing they’d expanded more on the swirling, tornadic instrumental jams that they exhibited on a couple songs, or Tournet’s wicked guitar playing, but many of their songs underwhelmed, as if they were going through choreographed motions. — Colin
Cut Copy [Festival Stage; 4:45]
If a Cut Copy performance proves anything, it’s that being a cool band and being a cheesy band are not mutually exclusive. In fact, Cut Copy somehow manages to be one of coolest and one of the cheesiest bands on the planet. They came out in suave, slim fitting suits, and then proceeded to spend the entire set making laughably melodramatic hand gestures and pantomimes in them. Dan Whitford sang in an icy and removed coo, but the first worlds out of his mouth were, “Do you hear the voice inside your head whispering to live your dreams instead?” And it didn’t get any less gooey from there. But Cut Copy’s commitment to both sides of its persona are what makes them such an enjoyably band to watch.
Massive, sky-opening songs don’t hurt either, and Cut Copy has well over an hour of those in its catalogue, as anyone who caught either of its 9:30 Club performances this spring can attest. The Melbourne band (“We’re from Australia; it’s a little island off the coast of England”) hit all the sweet spots as the sun dipped behind the Festival Stage: “Need You Now”, “Hearts on Fire”, “Feel the Love”, “So Haunted”. A pleasant surprise, it even worked in rarely played Zonoscope highlight “Blink and You’ll Miss a Revolution”. (The band’s reliance on more backing track than usual to perform the song might explain its scarcity.) As great as the set was though, I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the decision to put the band on so early: Cut Copy has developed a live show that showcases – to quote one song title – both “Lights & Music”, and it’s a shame to deny an audience half the equation. – Phil
!!! [Dance Forest; 5:00]
“You’re going to feel this one in your hips,” !!!’s vocalist/frontman/dancer-in-chief Nic Offer mildly stated before one their many hip-displacing, pelvis-thrusting songs. Goofily fun and extremely danceable, !!!’s set may have been the highlight of the entire festival, and Offer looked like he knew it as he surveyed the crowd several times from the tall speakers projecting out to the sides of the ‘Dance Forest’ stage.
!!! seem to come from an alternate reality where the disco-era Rolling Stones hit the apex of modern music [think “Miss You”]. Offer brought an onstage attitude and charisma that proved as magnetic as the disco guitars and bass lines that bore grooves deep into their dance-punk songs. “I heard this was the Virgins-Free Fest! Good, ‘cause I hate virgins!” he yelled, only to apologize to the as-yet untouched at the end of their set.
Winking his way through a swaggery Mick Jagger impression throughout the set, Offer played the ironic glam-rocker, doing superstar poses to end songs while dressed in a grey and black plaid shirt, brown loafers, and high cut dark blue shorts, and occasionally cracking a smile in the middle of attitudinous acts. Most bands/artists at the festival put on decent shows, but no one seemed to have as much fun as !!! as they mixed in otherworldly jazz and early-80s rap sounds into a typical song structure of bedrock, constant, ass-shaking bass, blindsiding synth builds, and compulsory body-moving guitar and drums. — Colin
Patti Smith [Pavilion Stage; 5:30]
Cee Lo Green: [Festival Stage; 6:20]
The little-known singer-songwriter Cee Lo Green somehow made it onto the West Stage for FreeFest. From what was heard of the set from he and his all female-backing band, their performance was flat and lethargic. Most notably he covered a song, “Don’t Cha”, that he wrote for pop supergroup The Pussy Cat Dolls several years ago. Maybe someday he’ll hit it big and record a ubiquitous, universally loved single using his enviable vocal talent.
Nudges and winks aside, the staggering of Cee Lo with TV on the Radio made it difficult to fully cover both…and Cee Lo’s performance didn’t give much of a reason, other than waiting around for “Fuck You”, to stick around instead of catching a full TVOTR set at the Pavilion Stage. — Colin
James Murphy [Dance Forrest; 6:15]
James Murphy’s DJ set was at odds with pretty much everything else to go down in the Forest of Dance. The analog purist opted for good old vinyl over any sort of a laptop. No elaborate and synchronized multimedia display accompanied his music; just a steady Warhol-esque image of Che Guevera dancing. He made zero attempts to rile the crowd with pumps or arm raises. No, James Murphy was going to do him, which meant downing a bottle of champagne and patiently spinning cuts from the era that make-up LCD Soundsystem’s DNA: the late 70s and early 80s. Of course, this was hardly a bait-and-switch; it was precisely the kind of set Murphy produced for his FabricLive mixwith Pat Mahoney a few years back.
But for the kids in the crowd who had been fed a steady diet of maximal, synapse-triggering techno all day, Murphy’s tastefully assembled disco and post-punk obscurities was hardly cutting it. The stream of audience members losing interest and exiting was consistent throughout the set. They had come for LCD’s greatest hits and would have lost their shit if they had been rewarded with it; instead – when Murphy did dip into the DFA treasure trove – they got an excerpt from LCD’s “45:33″, a DFA remix of Delia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom’s “Rise”, and Still Going. For someone who made his name with a song playfully obsessing about the fight to stay current, Murphy was gleefully oblivious to the trends on display Saturday. – Phil
TV on the Radio [Pavilion Stage; 7:00]
If FreeFest had a climax it may have been TV on the Radio’s performance of “Wolf Like Me”. The term ‘face-melting’ has become overused, but it was genuinely surprising that the countenances of those fortunate enough to be forefront in the mosh pit didn’t disintegrate into puddles of goo, like Nazis in a Steven Spielberg movie. Their performance of the song was a microcosm of their entire set, as they used effects that wandered through the Pavilion’s amphitheater before accelerating with utmost velocity into the familiar drum beat and Tunde Adebimpe’s vocals over primordial effects and a guitar riff seemingly created for late-night driving.
TVOTR delved into other mainstays, such as “Staring at the Sun” and “Halfway Home”, and the crowd of the Pavilion responded with the roar of a jet engine taking off. As expected they incorporated a number of sounds, ranging from looped vocal effects to a trombone, which periodically dispersed and regrouped to point towards the same sonic direction. — Colin
Empire of the Sun [Festival Stage; 8:00]
Walking over to Empire of the Sun, a pair of guys behind me speculated about on what they were about to take in: “They’re going to come out looking weird as shit!” one excitedly predicted to the other. Expectations were sky high then in anticipation of a performance from the band who… wait, Empire of the Sun? As in, “Walking on a Dream” Empire of a Sun? Those dudes have an 8:00 slot at a festival of this size? Did I miss something? I know they sang a hook on Blueprint 3 – when MGMT fell through! – but all these guys have done is release a marginally enjoyable record of disco lite and yacht rock almost three years ago, right? Yes, I was assured at points during the day, it was that Empire of the Sun, and, yes, I should be excited, because these guys are quite the elusive gig to land.
So how was it? For starters, if Empire of the Sun is understood to be a collaboration of Sleepy Jackson’s Luke Steele and Pnau’s Nick Littlemore, then it’s worth noting that Empire of the Sun as a live experience is really just a Luke Steele production. Second, this was the most flamboyant thing I’ve ever seen. If “Tron” and “Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert” had a baby, it would be this show. Hercules and Love Affair’s live show called me to tell me this was over the top. And all of the aggro bros in the crowd were eating it up! It was an utterly surreal experience, and in total, one that would have been unfathomable to me ten years ago.
Steele emerged in an outfit that found a common ground between mid 70s Elton John, Adam Ant, and Darth Vader. He ascended to a keyboard command center located in the center of the stage, which was flanked by a shirtless drummer in Roman headress and a bassist in a shrunken construction worker’s vest and sparkly parachute pants.
Four female dancers performed choreographed routines; at one point nodding to Robert Palmer by faux strumming oversized square guitars strung with Christmas lights, while at another point donning Beetlejuice-esque dolphin masks. You just can’t make this up. But what about, you know, the music? Well, that remained just as sachrine and unmemorable as it was three years ago, but you had the feeling it was also beside the point. – Phil
Teddybears [Dance Forest; 8:30]
Pity Teddybears, who took to the Dance Forest decks around the time the Dance Forest became completely superfluous. That is to say: around the time when nearly everyone who had been camping there packed up and moved to the Festival Stage to get a good spot for Deadmau5. Ghostland Observatory would later draw a crowd back to the stage by (sort of) providing counterprogramming to Deadmau5’s sonic onslaught, but forced to choose between multiple electronic acts who sported oversized animal heads, most did not choose Teddybears. Still, you couldn’t accuse them of not trying. “Baltimore slash Columbia, we came all the way from Sweden!” one the Teddybears told the audience. “Everyone in the back, can I see your hands?” he asked in a thick accent, making the most formal and polite request I’ve ever heard for an audience to wild out. – Phil
The Black Keys [Pavilion Stage; 9:00]
The Black Keys have a timeless, powerful sound, like an old muscle car that still accelerates instantaneously and can stop on a dime. Something about working class cities and towns seems to breed blues-rock revival bands [see also White Stripes, The and seemingly every Southern rock band]. Because of that bluesy guitar driven sound there’s always been something familiar about the Black Keys, but never in complacent way: they can explode into a burst of fury and then calm like a violent drunk who quickly passes his tipping point and fades from manic unpredictability to depressed serenity.
Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have always been impressive in their ability to give one guitar and a drum set a fuller sound then they deserve, something they certainly did on Saturday. However they still choose to bring on additional players for a few songs toward the end of their hourlongish set, a bass and keyboard. The keys especially figured well into their songs and supplied a calliope-esque sound, which added another element as timeless as the faded film of dancing actresses projected behind them during portions of the show.
Auerbach and Carney obviously poured themselves into their performance, and the crowd appreciated every second of it. Carney in particular looked as though he was physically exerting himself throughout the entire show, sweating and grimacing even if he was just tapping the cymbals.
The Keys didn’t play most of their ‘hits’ until the final few songs, ending with “Strange Times” and a thoroughly rocking “I Got Mine”, followed by perhaps the only encore of the tightly-scheduled festival, encouraged by a high-wattage flashing “The Black Keys” marquee and featuring “Your Touch” (you know, the Eastbound & Down song). These guys knew they were headlining the festival and lived up to that billing. — Colin
Deadmau5 [Festival Stage; 9:20]
Let me preface this with one thing: I get it. I’m not curmudgeon. I saw Daft Punk headline the ill-fated Bang! Festival in 2006. They stood in a ridiculous giant pyramid and “played” the greatest robo-techno known to man for ninety straight minutes. No one around me stopped moving that entire time. Hell, a friend of mine was standing less than a foot away from me and literally had sex in the middle of the show, and no one – myself included – even noticed.
I get the hedonistic experience that Deadmau5 sells, and why it attracted the crowds and the Deadmau5 t-shirts and the homemade mouse heads. But I’m going to paraphrase the late Lloyd Bensten here: I knew Daft Punk, and you, Deadmau5, are no Daft Punk. And while few are, it’s not an unwarranted comparison. Deadmau5 wants desperately to be Daft Punk. He sat atop his own pyramid, and put a light show that – in terms of pure volume – would go toe to toe with anyone’s. But when it comes to the music, Deadmau5 is the Michael Bay of techno: relentless, overblown, and utterly generic. There was little room for melody, or even build and release; it was release-release-release. After thirty minutes, my brain was fried. Sometimes harder, faster, stronger isn’t the answer. – Phil
Ghostland Observatory [Dance Forest; 9:45]
Because the Black Keys started a little late and went long we only saw half of Ghostland Observatory’s set, which could aptly be described as a “clusterfuck of noise.” Somewhere amidst the machine-made smoke and seemingly hundreds of narrow pointed lasers Thomas Ross Turner played painfully monotonous looped synths and beats while dressed in an Evel Knievel-style cape that made him look like a patriotic Phantom of the Opera, bent over his musical machinery, and Aaron Behrens dicked around on his guitar and atonally shouted annoyingly nasal and repetitive lyrics [sample, from “Sad, Sad City”, one of the last songs of their set: “I…want you…to hold me to want me to tell me the truth”. Repeat that over and over again”] into the microphone.
Many in the crowd did seem into the drudgery that Ghostland produced, but to a sober observer it just sounded like dull, uninteresting, often grating noise. Frankly the crowd was more interesting than the band, as they danced in the abundant smoke, reminiscent of 1950s children playing in DDT spray, except with more neon paint and grinding. The one highlight you could say they provided was a dance song towards the end of the night, far faster than anything else they played, but one that still felt messy.
Overall it was a disappointing way to end an overall fun festival day, filled with tapas-sized samplings of several noteworthy bands and performers. — Colin
BONUS: thank you to IMP and POPCHIPS for making the BYT UNICORN BUS TO VIRGIN FEST A POSSIBILITY!!!