Photos By Jason Bender and Jason Dixson, Words By Dan Singer, Jeb Gavin, Andy Johnson and Jason Bender
As soon as I checked the weather report for Saturday afternoon, I knew Freefest was going to be a gloppy mess of nubile flesh and perceived mediocrity. If your major complaints why this Freefest was subpar are (1) too much rain or (2) too many dumb kids, you should have known better. As for point one, you have a weather app and a brain. With proper gear and an optimistic attitude, you can survive a wet music festival. (Although I imagine wet socks always suck, regardless of precaution.)
As for point two, you knew the line-up. Drunk girls and boys will show up where modern dance music is present. For those who eschew EDM and mainstream pop for more “authentic” draws like Vampire Weekend or Avett Brothers, no doubt Saturday’s youth movement was irksome. Sighs of “there are too many kids here” were omnipresent from the jaded mid-twenties set, neglecting that just two-group-houses-and-a-job-ago, they were the foolish ones at the very same free festival, surrendering to has-beens like Weezer and Blink 182. To these peers, I say concession is necessary.
I think it’s time to accept that the generational shift at major mainstream music festivals is permanent. Neon and glitter are here to say. To paraphrase a former headliner of FreeFest, the kids have come up from behind. On the bright side, at least Millennials have phased out moshing.
I contend the major reason why Freefest was subpar was due to poor scheduling and an over-saturation of certain genres. Some bands played too early in the day, others on the wrong stage before the wrong audience. Of course, one can recall the quiet chill that rippled across social media when the line-up was announced. There were a lot of DJs. For the first time, the festival lacked the firepower of a mainstream rock act or a semi-successful mid-tier indie rock band. There were no nostalgia cash-outs. There were zero punk and metal acts. And, most surprising of all, there were no hip-hop artists. A mainstream pop festival without a single rap act in 2013 is absurd. Indeed, the overlap of the Rock The Bells tour has sucked up nearly all of the available rap artists currently on tour, but certainly Richard Branson could have cut Ludacris a fat check to drop “Area Codes” or “Roll Out” on the sloshed masses. He would have been more entertaining than Icona Pop. -Andy Johnson
ok, lets dive down into the memories:
Sky Ferreira: There was lots to see at Sky Ferreira’s set. Two young people with flower headbands and covered in paint were making out next to me, and I wondered if they were getting paint in other’s mouths and how that tasted. A bro wearing nothing but flowery cutoffs held up a pool float with a foam noodle, and another guy lifted a pirate hat to the heavens with a crutch. Ferreira, fresh off a recent drug arrest, sported a couple of hickeys and a Megadeth shirt. And when she pulled off her shades, she had some serious bags under her eyes. As for the music, Ferreira’s fuzzy mid-tempo pop songs were on point and easygoing enough for the festival’s early risers. I do hope she keeps her lifestyle and cokehead eyes in check, though. -Dan Singer
Washed Out: Washed Out could not have picked a better band name if they tried. I know mid-afternoon in the Dance Forest isn’t exactly choice, but their set might as well of been called nap time. Like most acts playing Saturday it wasn’t bad, but there was nothing to it, no substance, nothing to draw the casual listener in. You could hang out in the forest, nap under a tree, wake up feeling refreshed and never miss a beat. It was a far cry from seeing acts like Chromeo melting faces at the crack of noon on Sunday back when FreeFest wasn’t free, and lasted two days up at Pimlico. -Jeb Gavin
Washed Out were the prime example of how festival scheduling can kill a band’s performance. The Georgia-based shoegazing group, a band led by frontman Earnest Greene, produces soft, synth-driven makeout music. It’s night music to get lost in. Having seen Greene’s impressive light show at the Black Cat on tour for his first album, it was an extreme disappointment that his band’s talents were being wasted on a cramped stage in the far corner of the festival grounds. He should have been a prime sunset performer on the West Stage, the perfect music for saturated cliques to rest-up and regroup for the second half of the event. I’ll see Washed Out again, but I guarantee it won’t be around sweaty stoners at 1:30 in the afternoon. -Andy Johnson
Chvrches: This was one of the more impressive sets I saw all day, though my notes are a hodgepodge of faux-feisty observations like how the crowd smelled like middle school (due to the pungency of cheap weed early on in the day). I’d also like to pick a fight with anyone desperate to keep arguing guitars are dead in pop music. Yeah, there weren’t guitars on stage. Doesn’t mean there aren’t guitars on a stage somewhere.
CHVRCHES kick ass, and they do it without guitars (Well, there was a bass guitar up there) but just because EDM-based pop is currently in vogue doesn’t mean guitars are driftwood. Synthpop has been around for decades, and it didn’t keep us from suffering through rap rock, so either make music, criticize constructively, or shut the fuck up and enjoy the music. -Jeb Gavin
Thankfully, FreeFest’s unofficial buzz band set went off without a hitch. For a trio, Chvrches sure do make a lot of noise, and the crowd at the West Stage seemed to thoroughly enjoy its kinetic synth-pop. Stereogum recently posted a nice think piece about how synth-driven bands like Chvrches and Icona Pop are usurping guitar rock bands as the new torchbearers of digital-era musical catharsis, and sets like this one give that argument some heft. Nearly every song was a winner, but the best of them, including singles “Gun” and “The Mother We Share,” were pure aural bliss. -Dan Singer
Chvrches were one of the day’s highlights. The assembled audience’s energy seemed low given the group’s relatively early 2:20 pm start time, but the hour-long set by the Glaswegian trio was just what our inertia needed. Chvrches make high-tempo synthpop with catchy lyrics, and it bears mentioning frontwoman Lauren Mayberry is as cute as a puppy’s nose. In fact, if I’m going to objectify her, it would be too brutish to use the word “hot” to describe Mayberry’s pixiesh, Natalie Portman-esque mannerisms. The crowd roared in enjoyment for each one of their bangers—“Gun”, “Lies”, “Recover”—but were lost when they played deeper cuts off their new album, which was available only on torrent sites or streaming on NPR. New songs of note include the dark “Science/Visions” and “Under The Tide”, which featured singer/keyboardist Martin Doherty taking frontman duties to seizure-dance like Elaine Benes. While I still have reservations about how much they rely on samples and studio wizardry for their live performance, not to mention singer Mayberry’s limited vocal range, big things are in store for Chvrches. -Andy Johnson
Black Joe Lewis: Woe to the blues rocker stuck on the Pavilion Stage in the middle of the afternoon. Merriweather once saw Led Zeppelin open for The Who, and people 100 miles away in Delaware were able to enjoy the show. Sadly, Lewis doesn’t have anywhere close to that artillery wattage-wise, so while folks in the pavilion got a great show, the sound bleeds out across the lawn becoming rock muzak. Lewis and his band were on point, and are worth seeing in a smaller venue or at a time when they’re allowed to power up some serious amp stacks. Furthermore, they deserved a better audience than a milling sea of bored sobriety and folks who peaked too early in the day. But thems the breaks when it comes to festivals. -Jeb Gavin
I listened in on the tail end of Black Joe Lewis’ set as I waited in line for overpriced pizza. In retrospect, I wish I’d heard more. I could feel the distorted funk from afar, horns and all, and Lewis’ James Brown-esque yelps were furiously magnetic. Lewis and his band are the type of act that only requires a modest understanding of music history to appreciate, making them a solid festival pick. Not bad, Hurwitz. -Dan Singer
Icona Pop: The best set of the day. I wasn’t tentative about seeing them, but I wasn’t exactly stoked seeing a pop act in the afternoon out on the West Stage. Short of setting yourself on fire and running through the audience screaming your only charting hit, it’s a recipe for mediocrity. Instead Icona Pop looked out into the audience and decided they wanted to go electrohouse rather than electropop. Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo pummeled drum pads in front of an audience in awe of two girls willing to not give a fuck loudly and publicly for an hour, and if you weren’t a fan after that set, maybe you need to rethink whether or not live music is all that important to you. -Jeb Gavin
You already know Icona Pop has one great song. Icona Pop just released their debut album. After witnessing a brief slice of their set, I can safely say that Icona Pop still only has one good song. Hey, does anyone else remember Foster The People? Freefest’s organizers would have been better off corralling the groups of sorority girls who attended the fest solely for “I Love It” and “Blurred Lines” over by the Dance Tent. Note: I say this not as a swipe toward skinny white girls but as an actual crowd control recommendation to maximize enjoyment for all involved. Oh, and that song that rips off Jay-Z and Beyonce is awful. -Andy Johnson
Congorock: I only saw Congrorock for 15 minutes but he went from trance to a “Bubblebutt” remix to Miss E Elliot’s “Work It” to Benny Benassi’s “Satisfaction” to some deeply satisfying acid house. Approve. -Andy Johnson
City and Colour: City and Colour was my reprieve from the rain, which was fully underway by 4:30 or so, and it didn’t end up doing much else for me. Dallas Green has a very pretty voice, and his melancholy songwriting has earned him a healthy following, but after the fourth or fifth minor-key downer I wasn’t in the mood anymore. I’m all for mellowing out with some rainy-day music, but not midway through a festival when energy is dwindling and the sky is turning one of the less kinky 50 shades of gray. Chalk it up to unfortunate timing, but City and Colour wasn’t the band for lifting spirits at this hour. -Dan Singer
Kaskade: Show of hands, was anyone not on Kaskade’s street team today? I’ve never seen so much promotion for an act when you’re already at the festival he’s playing. OK show, but nothing special. He was stuck on the schedule between CHVCHES, Icona Pop, Robin Thicke, and Pretty Lights. Felt like even the folks who stuck around for his set were just working their way to the front to see someone else. -Jeb Gavin
MGMT: During our FreeFest preview, I mentioned that MGMT was a tad dull when I saw them a few months ago. This was better. Still not entirely engaging, but certainly an improvement. For one thing, the band actually seemed excited to be playing the festival, and Andrew VanWyngarden appeared genuine when he thanked the crowd for bearing with it through some technical issues. The hour-long time slot also forced MGMT to trim the fat from its set list. Nearly every old song was an Oracular Spectacular cut, including the ones about fucking with stars and electric eels, for which the sufficiently wet crowd went sufficiently apeshit.
The songs from MGMT’s newly released self-titled album were tolerable for the most part, and it was cute to see the band bring out a contest-winning lady to bang the giant cowbell on “Your Life Is A Lie.” If nothing else, the music was a decent enough soundtrack to a glitchy projection screen showing screensavers on acid and dancing aliens with blinking eyes as boobs. Hopefully the little girl standing near me didn’t have too many nightmares this weekend. -Dan Singer
Robin Thicke: After a bizarre opening with a faux German rapper (??) who told his horny blonde Fräulein, “I told you that I liked Kraftwerk, not ass-twerk,” Mr. Thicke was played in by his highly respectable funk band. He opened with “Give It 2 U”, backed with a trio of seductive Charlie’s Angels dancers (and presumably fake singers).
While I still contend that Thicke is a poor man’s Justin Timberlake, he was the MVP of the festival. The man looks good in a suit, has a decent enough falsetto and, while he still looks a lecherous old guy, at least he’s out there busting his ass. Perhaps this was due to his charisma, but more of it was due to his excellent backing bad, who kept the energy high as the rain started to clear out.
Sure, some of his stage banter was cheesy—telling a soaked crowd at a free festival to “never give up on your dreams” is pretty empty coming from the rich son of a prominent television actor—but his choreography and exuberance led to a deeply enjoyable pop show. Oh, and “Blurred Lines” sounded so, so ill with 10,000 people shouting, “Hey Hey Hey!” in unison. In my opinion, he should have closed the whole damn festival. -Andy Johnson
The Avett Brothers: There is a time and place to whine about earnestness and banjos. But as darkness descended upon the mud bath that was Merriweather, The Avett Brothers were the perfect group to give FreeFest a much-needed dose of optimism.
As soon as the band picked up its instruments and began strumming away, it was evident that a sea change had come over the pavilion and lawn. For 90-minutes, the kick drum stomping was brash and the harmonies were bright, and most everyone was on his or her feet clapping and yelling and doing whatever else enthusiastic crowds do.
Even the band’s tamer cuts, like last year’s “Live and Die,” were joyously stripped of their studio gloss and amped up. And the pre-major label songs that sounded nuts on record only got more so — 2006’s “Talk On Indolence” foreshadows Flo Rida as much as it does The Lumineers. The Avett Brothers made for a welcome adrenaline shot, as well as a reliable good time. -Dan Singer
Pet theory: the more musicians there are on stage, the worse the Avett Brothers sound. Note, they could have a whole orchestra back stage backing them up, but anything that draws focus from Scott and Seth Avett and to a lesser extent Bob Crawford is a distraction. They make good, complex music in a simple, straightforward way. Mess with the formula and it sounds like they’re a yard dog what done snuck into the house for the night. -Jeb Gavin
Pretty Lights: Pretty Lights is just that, some very pretty lights. I cannot stress enough how great this light show is, even knowing the last act or two on the West Stage is normally known for bringing the visuals. Sonically, Pretty Lights makes electronic music for people who don’t like electronic music. Over a trip-hop base he layers bits of dubstep, pop, and old soul cuts, and it comes together beautifully.
It’s wonderful to listen to, it’s wonderful to dance to, it’s wonderful to stare at (whatever you’ve consumed). But if Icona Pop gambled and blew some minds, Pretty Lights played it safe: no one was disappointed, but folks looking for serious EDM headed to the Dance Forest for Madeon right after Pretty Lights played “Finally Moving.” -Jeb Gavin
Madeon: Eh. Wait, that’s not fair. I say “eh” because I wasn’t feeling it. Even in a poncho and boots, I was sopping at this point, and I didn’t want to weave through trees and heaps of wet neon clutching broken umbrellas just to get jostled while dancing. I was impressed the set managed to diverge from and still return to the 19-year-old DJ’s home of French house without simply paying lip service to other genres or acts.
Usually it takes time and quite a few miscues before you can throw some seriously disparate shit on the decks and make it blend without giving anyone the bends. It makes total sense this young pup is already headlining festivals; if he is the spiritual (or musical) descendant of Daft Punk, I’m totally OK with that. -Jeb Gavin
Vampire Weekend: I couldn’t stop smiling throughout Vampire Weekend’s entire set. So many things just worked: the band’s flawless sound, the seemingly endless stretch of great songs, perhaps the most inventive lighting I’ve ever seen from a rock band, the shape shifting gold mirror set piece, the pavilion crowd at its peak level of energy, Ezra Koenig’s Brooklyn Nets letter man jacket, the collective lack of fucks given about Oxford commas and so on.
It’s remarkable how far the guys in Vampire Weekend have come over the past five years, and how good they are at the present moment. After leaving Cape Cod for the last time, I could say with confidence that FreeFest 2013 was a success. -Dan Singer
I want to state that Vampire Weekend are a great band. They may have released the album of the year and I found their 90-minute set tight and joyous. Old standbys like “Campus” and “A-Punk” sounded great slotted alongside the Brooklyn quartet’s newer, more mature material like “Ya Hey” and “Hanna Hunt.” Moreover, I was greatly impressed with how they’ve also turned duds like “Horchata” and “One (Blake’s Got a New Face)” into legitimate crowd pleasers. And I want to stress how few modern bands show such consistency in writing pop/rock songs as excellent as “Diane Young”, “Step”, and “Give Up The Gun.”
However, Vampire Weekend are not a band that blows you away. They are not an artist that sends you home buzzing. They would have been perfect opening for Robin Thicke (keeping Avett Brothers before them, exiling MGMT to the West stage), but they couldn’t wow me as a headliner should. In other words, seeing Vampire Weekend live is like eating at Outback Steakhouse or getting a handjob from your girlfriend. It’s nice, but nothing worth writing 1,000 words about. -Andy Johnson
Some general observations and specific notes from Jeb Gavin:
– I can’t believe the naked guy showed. Naked guy! Excellent butt! Now it’s a party!
– To the 19-year-old woman who pondered aloud, “Why are there so many 13-year-olds here?” Woodstock ’99. Seriously.
– To the guy who pointed out I have something on my shirt: I know I had something on my shirt (it was rain) I’m not falling for that, and might I add, I’VE GOT YOUR NOSE MOTHERFUCKER, WHAT’RE YOU GONNA DO NOW?
– To the guy in his 30s loudly “complimenting” underage girls on their bodies: you’re creepy and everyone hates you. You’re not complimenting anyone, you’re doing everything wrong and ruining the festival for a lot of people just by existing. Remember, you get older, but the statutes under which you’ll be prosecuted for harassment and statutory rape remain the same.
– They were selling eight dollar grilled cheese sandwiches. Not eight dollars of aged triple cream brie and figs, not eight dollars of roasted tomatoes and taleggio, not eight dollars of cotija with roast corn and lime- hot American cheese on dry white toast. In fact, there is only one food item not painfully overpriced (and thoroughly underwhelming) throughout the grounds, and I hesitate to tell anyone else about it for fear they might run out next year. At the far end of the concessions at the West Stage there’s a booth selling Asian food- some fried rice, some lo mein, nothing fancy. Decent portions, but what’s really amazing is the chicken on a stick. It’s approximately two flattened chicken thighs, marinated in some soy, garlic, and who knows what, then grilled on a hibachi until crisp at the edges and juicy in the middle. Cover in Sriracha and Mae Ploy (there’s bottles sitting on the table in front of the booth) and chow down for six bucks. It’s a steal, and the best thing you’ll eat all day, particularly if you leave the festival and go to the Wegmans in Columbia after, only to find out their dim sum bar closed at nine.
– To the couple breaking up for the first time at a music festival: don’t worry. You guys are gonna make one another occasionally euphoric and then routinely miserable for years to come.
– To the people complaining about the rain: we’ve been lucky the past few years. FreeFest tends to be a relatively dry affair, or it mists and then fades by the evening. For most music festivals not held in Indio: rain is the norm, not the exception. Invest in a decent poncho and some good hunter’s boots, and keep some dry shorts in your car. Staying/getting dry isn’t complicated, but there’s no reason you should be hassling festival employees because you didn’t check the forecast.
AND WE CLOSE OUT WITH SOME MORE SNAPS OF ACTS, LIGHTING SHOWS AND MANDATORY GROUP SHOTS SO YOU CAN (MAYBE) find yourself in them and post them to your facebook wall as proof that you were THERE, AND WET, and SCREAMING.