Recap: Virgin FreeFest 2010
Mitchell London | Sep 27, 2010 | 9:00AM |

FANTASTIC photos by: Mitchell London, Shauna Alexander and Ben Droz
words by: Mitchell London (+ a couple of notes by Svetlana, in italics)

In addition to his dealings in the airline industry, the cell phone business, the tell-all autobio game, and the music biz, Richard Branson must have a little thing with fate going on the side.  Despite the potential setbacks (no Die Antwoord? no T.I.?), Branson and the Moirae conspired to deliver a full day’s worth of beautiful weather, minimal set delays, mostly-excellent sound, artists on their best behavior, and (for me, at least) a relatively painless ride home.  It was enough to make a man want to buy a pay-as-you-go cellphone.

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The Pavillion was outfitted with three stages, arranged as points on an isosceles triangle, with carnivalesque ephemera  jammed into the middle.  There were unicycle riders, human areal sculpture artists, a Ferris wheel, a cellphone checking psychic, face-painting booths, and authentic Native-American massage teepees (because … why not?).

The state-fair potpourri was arranged well, and crowd flow was rarely too heavy to navigate, so unless there was a direct schedule overlap it was possible to see everything you came to see. And there were a lot of bands – and things – worth seeing.

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Also, it was free.  Which is an industrial-grade sweetener for any deal.

I arrived too late to see Brite Lite Brite, Temper Trap, the Jimmy Eat World (aside from a stirring performance of “The Middle,” which made me want to grab my jr. high sweetheart by the hand and promise her things I couldn’t deliver) or much of Will Eastman, but I did walk in on him dropping some high energy soul vocals at the pinnacle of a booty-bass build-and-release cycle, juust as the filter cutoff knob of his DJ rig was all the way clockwise.  The crowd let out a yell not often heard outside of a bedroom, and didn’t need him to tell them to put their hands in the air.  They did it out of an almost Pavlovian reaction.  It was a good moment to arrive at a festival.

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Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes

When he gets excited, frontman Alex Ebert shakes like a third grader who sees a video game that he must own now.  It is a wiggle that starts at the tip of the head, and works its way down in shockwaves of giddiness; and it is a perfect representation of what the band is trying to get across.

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If future American Social Studies students see video of this band performing in 2010, it will completely undermine any lesson about a “recession” or “massive unemployment.”  Watching them perform, one gets the sense that they would laugh their way through the threat of nuclear extermination and throw their hair back at signs of a plague.

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All ten members of the band look positively thrilled to make you happy, and they sing with an energy and an exuberance that gets even casual fans’ hands clapping.  Bookended by that one song from the Ford Fiesta commercial and “Home,” which continues to be a gigantic hit in the nostalgiablog community, the set was densely packed with highly-accessible, fun-for-all-ages folk-n-roll.

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Neon Indian

The glo-fi movement is a group house set ablaze, and Neon Indian is going to be the only act that makes it out alive.
Even though Palomo’s voice is often obscured by dense, undulating reverb, and the synth squiggles are sometimes distracting, the group’s live set is aimed at your feet and your chest.  They have transitioned from the cerebral “look how many tricks I can use” showmanship in which other bands often get lost.

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Now, their sound is more direct, intent on capturing the dance-y and funky elements from the record and bringing them to the people.  Given the Mountain Dew deal, this description could seem like it’s validating the bands perceived “sell out” trajectory.  Don’t worry about that; the songs sound fresher and better
than ever (particularly “Should Have Taken Acid With You,” which is still the best song of the whole chill-wave thing).

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YEASAYER

It was great to see Yeasayer outside, in the sun, shaking their groove thang to songs from “ODD BLOOD”. In just three short years, the band has gone from playing Black Cat backstage to being smack in the middle of the bill on the Thievery and Ludacris stage at a major festival and considering that I’ve seen then every step of the way and enjoyed them in every setting, being in bright sun, and hearing opening notes to “O.N.E” pass through my Jeremiah Weed soaked veins felt well, just how I imagined hearing “O.N.E” should sound.

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Matt and Kim

“You know things are going well when Kim has to take off her bra after the first song.” – Matt

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I worry about Matt and Kim.  I worry that one day, Matt and Kim will just up and decide to shed their corporeal shells and exist in the universe as pure, golden energy.  They could do it, too.  As soon as they show up on stage, beaming impossibly wide, standing on top of their gear and waving to audience members like every single one was a long-lost sibling, you know that these guys are cut from a different, possibly radioactive cloth.  After a quick warm-up, they launched into “Good Old Fashioned Nightmare,” to which the crowd responded with unrestrained jubilation.  They managed to sustain that level of joy throughout their entire set, which included a cover of DJ Kool’s “Let me Clear My Throat,” and cuts off their forthcoming record, before bringing the house down with “Daylight.”

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Thievery Corporation

Hometown heroes Thievery Corporation brought their ethnic dance pastiche to the Free Fest, and they brought it big. Just like they ALWAYS DO. Thievery Corp manages to get almost everyone dancing, from that ice cream man with dreads who probably sold weed in your neighborhood when you were a kid to Frank from accounting to the most jaded record store clerk in all of Williamsburg.

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Armed with a horn section, several DJs and a very welcome sitar player, Thievery Corporation sounded at ease in the midday festival venue.

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Joan Jett and the BlackHearts

Is there an image in the history books more profoundly sad than a financially comfortable 60-year-old man with spiked hair playing bass, singing back-up on punk songs about youthful rebellion? It is at once liberating and depressing to see Jett punk rock her way through “Born To Be Bad” and “Cherry Bomb” (I had to leave after the second song to shoot another act).

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On the one hand, you have to feel good for her – still going hard after 40 years, still not wearing a bra, still dressed in black, still brazenly disregarding fashion and polite society (watching her spit onstage was awesome).  But what is she rebelling against, exactly?  That is a pretty tired and unoriginal debate, to be sure, but it gets some motors inexplicably running.  Much like Joan Jett’s fans, who were dutifully stacked into the pit and really excited to see her play.

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Chromeo

Our love for Chromeo has been well documented over years, so lets not waste too much time on elaborating how good they were, aside from saying: THEY WERE REALLY GOOD. But then-this is what you expect from them: the positive energy (Dave has one of the best, genuine on-stage smiles you’ll ever see, the man just beams and you always think he’s beaming RIGHT AT YOU), some of the catchiest, well thought out, tongue-so-deep-in-cheek-it-may-as-well-be-between-teeth dance songs and no chance of not dancing. But as I said-you know that already.

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Ludacris

I spent my trip to see Luda feeling like a solitary sperm in a gushing wave pointed toward the diamond egg that is Ludacris.  People were running – sprinting – from other parts of the fest to see the rapper who played second male lead in 2 Fast 2 Furious.
This was surprising.  I remarked to my girlfriend that I didn’t know that Ludacris was still this popular, which drew some sideways glances from our fellow sperm.  “People like Luda because his music is so good that it transcends all borders to bring people together,” one told me. “Then we should send him to the Middle East,” I thought, and started to say, before thinking better of it.

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Even in these challenging economic times, Ludacris’s jeweler has nothing to worry about.  With diamonds about his wrists, fingers, neck and sunglasses frames, Luda delivered a very dependable mix of staples from his high-productivity period in the 04-05 range and several new cuts, including the chipmunk’d euro trance of “How Low Can You Go.”  What he lacked in audacity, he made up for in showmanship.

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Pavement

Malkmus and Co. had to feel weird at this show.  Consider their circumstances: they just wrapped up a 5-night completely sold-out stay in New York, two performances on national television, and on Saturday they played to a maybe 1/3-full Pavillion audience.  There were many more fans up on the grassy knoll, sure, but just like assassins are hard to see from a Dallas street,
audience members back there are tough to see from the stage.

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It was hard not to think that the band, famously impetuous and known for their hit-or-miss live shows, would phone it in at best.  That we would be lucky to leave without witnessing a hissy fit of some kind.  But Pavement showed up in prime form, playing songs from throughout their collection, including two personal-favorite Wowee Zowee tracks (opening with “Grounded” and a jammy “Fight This Generation”), a smattering of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain songs, and fan favorites from their other records.  Malkmus playfully strummed his guitar as a violin, bent his knees cartoonishly inward, and generally acting like the 44 year old precocious-teen-as-aging-rock-star that we all know and love.  For those lucky enough to see them from inside the pavilion, the sounds were golden, the major league venue felt warm and intimate, and the domestic beer was watery and delicious.

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/\/\ I /\

Ten minutes before MIA hit the set, a seizure-inducing strobelight started firing on full tilt, and her DJ, joined onstage by mysterious burqua-d backup singers, tried very hard to incite an earthquake.  Even before she graced the stage, the spectacle was in full effect.

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From the minute she hit the stage, clad in a drab green poncho, she was a force of nature.  Grinding against a handrail, getting make-out range with photographers’ lenses, yellsinging like a woman trying to bring down an empire, she blasted through a cut off of her new record, savoring every flash.  This was a thing worth capturing on your iphone video.  During the middle of “Pull up the People,” her second song, Maya stripped out of her poncho and spiked blood pressures across the audience. Unfortunately, I had to bail early and missed her incendiary second act, but the first was almost enough to make me forget about
truffle fries.  Almost.

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SLEIGH BELLS:

If Virgin Fest has taught us anything then that is that, no matter what, everyone has a VERY STRONG opinion about the Sleigh Bells live show. Much more aggro and dark than you would expect, you either love it or HATE IT but you definitely want to talk about it after it has all been said and screamed (out loud).

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LCD SOUNDSYSTEM:

EVERYONE’S FAVORITE SHOW OF THE DAY/NIGHT. Stolen note from a facebook wall: “James Murphy and LCD Soundsystem didn’t offer songs so much as reasons to live”.
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BONUS SET: FUN IN THE GIBSON GUITAR TOUR BUS & SOME SERIOUS FESTIVAL PEOPLE WATCHING

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“if we had three thumbs, we’d say this day was a three-thumbs up experience”

Keep in touch with Virgin FreeFest for details and scoop on their: twitter/facebook/website and we’ll see you all in 2011.

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