all photos: Shauna Alexander, Ryan Kelly, Kevin Hulse
reviews by: Geoff Malloy, Jeb Gavin, Ross Bonaime, Svetlana
This year’s Virgin FreeFest @ Merriweather Post Pavillion was seemingly the biggest, baddassest and intense of all the Virgin Fests past. Fully recognizing DC and Baltimore’s area to both rock and dance – the booking reflected what 2012 live music industry seems to be all about: from best-of sets by Jack White (coming off of a controversial Radio City weekend and proving everyone he still DEFINITELY has it), to the bliss out glory of M83, to the 24-hour-party-people dance mania provoked by Skrillex, Nervo & Co. in the Dance Forest, and early, very solid slots filled by both local stand-outs Justin Jones, Dismemberment Plan and Future Islands (who, in particular, seemed pretty born-to-rock on a stage this size)
and almost-headliners like Allen Stone, Penguin Prison and Alvin Risk, with some 2000s mainstays like Santigold and Portugal The Man sprinkled throughout -there was literally a little something for everyone this year. In fact-if you were not truly excited about a single act this year, you probably hate music period/should have stayed home and not made those porta johns lines longer and traffic more intense.
Add to that a VERY FRIENDLY Richard Branson (who also guest bartended at the RE-GEN bar with NERVO) seemingly having the best time of everyone, hugging and even kissing fans…
a ferris wheel (Which probably saw its fair share of extreme make-out sessions during the M83 set), a big inflatable LG photobooth lounge and a circus (because, why not?) and you have yourself quite the party.
So, without further a-do-courtesy of our dedicated writing staff that risked life, limb and camera lens for this-we give you the BYT festival high light reel. Bow down:
Das Racist – About five minutes after Das Racist were set to open up the West Stage, a voice came over the loud speaker announcing that Das Racist had broken up and that all of us should try our best to enjoy the rest of our day. Apparently Heems of Das Racist actually had strep throat so the group had to bow out, much to the disappointment of most of the crowd. – Ross
Justin Jones-DC’s own Justin Jones opened the Pavillion stage to a small crowd of festers squatting their spots on the hill. His songs are tenderly written with a strong conviction, and draw on a variety of influences, bringing to mind essences of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and the Counting Crows. Unfortunately, Jones and his band don’t have the showmanship and power, yet, to draw listeners in at the Pavillion. It’s definitely awesome music, but the delivery needs some work. -Geoff
Future Islands – Taking over the first set at the West Stage when Das Racist were no-shows were Future Islands, a Baltimore based band comprised of keyboard, bass and intense lead singer Sam Herring. In fact, Herring was a bit too intense, as he slammed his fist into his chest while singing and had a set of crazy eyes for most of the set.
Herring’s vocals seemed to be off, so his attitude overtook whatever he was singing. Future Islands sound was pretty large, considered the group’s size, but it seemed like most people were put off by Herring’s style, for the most part. -Ross
Allen Stone – As I suspected, Allen Stone is a nerd, albeit taller and more convivial. After getting drunk with pleasant strangers, listening to Justin Jones from a bench out front of the main entrance to Merriweather, we made it into the Pavilion itself for Stone’s set. My first impression was somehow I’d been transported back to the Summer Spirit Festival.
Stone stalked the stage, pin-balling back and forth between his pianist and organist, belting out his own songs, “Satisfaction” being a personal favorite of mine. Even better though was the least irritating, most soulful cover of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love” I’ve ever heard.
I know that doesn’t sound like a compliment, but considering the number of people who decide regularly to slap around Marley’s corpse by abusing this song, the pains Stone took to not attempt to mimic the original reggae style were much appreciated. – JEB
Trampled by Turtles – Much as I’d love to say this was a killer set, I was waylaid by an errant telephone booth. What can I say, I can’t stand a ringing phone. So I stood there by the telephone booth, waiting for the phone to ring, just to find out who was on the other end of the line. The girl who picked up the phone before me got free beer, and I was hoping for the same. Instead, the decidedly British voice on the other end of the line said me and a whole bunch of friends would get to meet Allen Stone.
One of my friends from the bench, along with a former rugby teammate and his friends all made the walk from near the Ferris wheel to the area behind the pavilion. Richard Branson held court in patio furniture under a temporary canopy off to the side while we listened to Trampled by Turtles and waited for Allen to come back from the bathroom.
We did not bother Sir Richard, nor his attendant accountants, but rather waited patiently and debated the identity of the man wearing a wall clock as a necklace who was clearly not Flava Flav. After a quick meet and greet and some photos, we were escorted back into the general population. Allen Stone seems like a great guy, but I missed out on free beer and banjo music. – JEB
The Dismemberment Plan – As predicted, The Dismemberment Plan got the post-punk afternoon slot on the west stage. It’s a venue I’ve seen waste the talents of the Drive-By Truckers and render The Hold Steady, well, not impotent, but certainly less than their usual selves. Instead, Travis Morrison and company decided wisely to undercut expectations.
They played their hour long set in as relaxed a fashion as possible, making the odd self-effacing joke, and left without incident (excepting when someone’s shoe came off right before a song. I guess that’s the level of danger you should anticipate from an act that kills in an enclosed space when laid out in front of a grassy parking area.) Even the diehard fans in the crowd seemed alright rolling with the punches.
Lyrics in the opening verse of “You Are Invited” were twice botched, and they just laughed it off and kept going. It was a very They Might Be Giants-like performance. Pleasant, a little funny, a little poignant, pretty nerdy and yet pretty forgettable. More than one person remarked after they thought the engineer left the house music playing. – JEB
Alabama Shakes – If you haven’t listened to any of Alabama Shakes’ tunes yet, stop what you’re doing and check out Boys & Girls, their debut album. This set showed off their prowess as musicians and ability to play these songs with power. Brittany Howard’s low voice is that of a gritty swooner, singing with raw emotional conviction. “Hold On” and “Hang Loose” were the obvious hits of the set, but “Heartbreaker” stole the show. I wouldn’t be surprised to see these guys get a headlining gig at Merriweather in the future. -Geoff
Ben Folds Five – I had been waiting fifteen years to finally see Ben Folds Five, and they certainly were everything I expected them to be. Surprisingly the band’s set was much earlier than it should have been. Folds came out, grabbed his stool and threw it directly at the keys of his Baldwin piano.
The first half of the set switched back-and-forth between songs from their first self-titled album and their latest release, The Sound of the Life of the Mind. A nice shock was the band’s performance of one of Folds’ solo tracks, “Landed.” The last half played like a best of the band, playing “Kate” and following their most popular song “Brick” with their latest single “Do It Anyway.”
The set, which was watched from the wings by Sir Richard Branson, was concluded by “Song For the Dumped,” complete with audience chanting of lyrics “fuck you too” and “give me my money back you bitch,” before the epic conclusion of “Army.” BF5 were as exciting and enthusiastic as I hoped they would be and showed that they could have easily been one of the show’s headliners. -Ross
Santigold – Santigold wasted no time pounding into the dance party by opening with her two albums’ intro songs, “Go” and “L.E.S. Artistes.” The strong openers bounced into a few of her other hits and collaborations, like her blasting verse in Major Lazer’s “Hold the Line.”
Somewhere between her shout out to Brooklyn and her dancers humping the shit out of the stage, the highlight was when a chunk of the crowd got on stage to dance along with Santigold for “Creator.” This set was some fierce groovy art pop. -Geoff
Nas – As the only hip-hop artist on the VirginFest lineup, Nas was preceded by DJ Green Lantern, who played a combo of classic songs from Dr. Dre, Dead Prez, Fugees, Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac, before Nas came out on the stage.
Considering Nas just released his Life is Good album, it was interesting his set focused mostly on his older school material, with most coming from his classic Illmatic album. After his new track “The Don,” a medley of Illmatic songs followed, with “N.Y. State of Mind,” “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” “Represent,” “The World Is Yours,” and “Life’s a Bitch.”
After a few more older songs, Nas went back to past decades, rapping over songs from the 90s and 80s, before playing his great song “One Mic.” Before walking off stage, Nas led the crowd in Bob Marley’s “One Love” concluding the sole, yet great hip-hop set of the night. – Ross
ZZ Top-Whether you are a huge fan or hate 70s rock, there’s no denying ZZ Top is a living legend. While it wasn’t the best segue between Alabama Shakes and Jack White, anybody who stayed got to listen to the tightest band playing that day.
These guys performed like they were too cool to be rock stars (which is obviously cool) but with the flare of 20 year olds. You know what? Maybe they were put in the lineup to show where Jack and the Shakes came from and pay respect to the roots of rock. -Geoff
Porter Robinson and Zedd – I was tempted, upon reading comments in the preview, to more faithfully report on this joint set by simply recounting it, beat for beat, onomatopoeiatically I loved the mmm, but then when the tss came in, that was also pretty impressive. Plus there was this point where they went hrrrrrrrr-thunk-thunk-wwwwwoooob-ooob-oob-oob and everyone was like, “whoa” or “aaaaaah!” respectively. Calmer heads (mostly) prevailed, and I actually made notes on the set when not dancing like an idiot (I was wearing flip-flops.
Unless you kick them off, you’re going to look like an idiot while dancing.) While originally billed as spinning back to back, both Robinson and Zedd appeared behind the decks at the same time. If anything, it sounded like they were passing the sound system between them every other track, each building on the previous song and tugging it back towards their comfort zone.
Porter’s songs sounded more like the moombahton I was used to, while Zedd’s tracks were more focused on progressive house, almost to the point of being trance music. The pair together were wonderful, and not just because someone threw the Zelda theme song in the mix (pretty sure I also heard a callback to Reel 2 Real’s “I Like to Move It”.) – JEB
M83 – Somehow, through the BYT coverage shuffle until now, I have managed to never see M83 play live, and now I cannot imagine skipping another one of their shows. Often the second to last slot on the west stage is given to a more visual inclined band, someone with a crazy light show to counterbalance the rock going on in the pavilion, but nothing that would overshadow the dance forest, particularly if the dance forest is shifted off to the side instead of back behind the pavilion’s lawn.
Last year Empire of the Sun came out after sunset with their glowing costumes and neon backdrop, and anyone not enjoying hallucinogenics said, “wow!” and then walked away, as they sounded dull in comparison to how they looked. Instead, M83 came out and turned a chilly evening into a magical experience.
There was this energy exuded by the band banging on drums and drum pads, running around wailing on a saxophone, it looked like the least annoying gymboree class ever. It was as though they’d violated at least one law of thermodynamics, somehow generating more energy in this closed system of a concert than initially existed.
Even the people sprawled behind the sound booth seemed blissed out as chills crept into the air. I have often enjoyed laying on the ground at home, listening to Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming in the dark. The experience is vastly improved when laying on the ground outside, listening to them play live. They even make the kebabs taste better. – JEB
Skrillex – Since I’m not a fan of dubstep – at all – I wanted to check out Skrillex, who could basically be considered the leader of the dubstep movement. After the one-two punch of the phenomenal M83 and Jack White, Skrillex had a lot to live up to.
Walking up to the stage, through the fields of people dancing in the most unusual ways possible, I saw a stage, which featured Skrillex on top of a giant robot, almost as tall as the stage, lasers flying everywhere and flames flying around the Mecha-Skrill, as I will dub(step) it. Having only been aware of Skrillex through recorded material, it’s clear seeing him live is the way to go. There was a combination of his hits, such as “Bangarang,” but also threw in some remixes, one of girlfriend Ellie Goulding, and popular hits like Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” At one point I even felt like I was in a commercial, as clips from the latest Mortal Kombat game played alongside Mecha-Skrill.
I realize I’m not part of the dubstep fanbase, but after seeing Skrillex, easily the most theatrical of the day’s performers, I could at the very least understand the appeal. The music at times does become very catchy, and it is sometimes fun to guess where in the odd sample the bass would drop. And there is something great about ending this festival with some insane white-people dancing to one of electronic’s biggest names on the craziest stage of the night. -Ross
Above & Beyond – Back in high school- in the previous millennium, my friend Fish would bring in Anjunabeats singles to play in the auditorium after school. Along with bootleg Fatboy Slim compilations and the Trainspotting soundtrack, the work of Jono Grant and Paavo Siljamäki was my first foray into good electronic music, rather than the stuff slowly trickling down through the American Top 40. Above & Beyond, comprised of Grant, Siljamäki, and Tony McGuinness, consistently make some of the world’s best electronic music, to the point where even people who dismiss trance wholesale are forced to admit they make beautifully crafted music. Yet I spent much of the two hour set hunched against a tree, staring past the visuals, just waiting to crawl back to my car so I could go to sleep.
Mind you, this wasn’t a dull set. My experience was entirely my own fault. I was exhausted. I’d sobered up too quickly, and hadn’t eaten much that day. I was not prepared for two plus hours of dancing, which is a stupid, rookie mistake on my part. More than once, I felt myself being hypnotized by the music, and where normally I’d ride that feeling out, instead I fought it, opting to wander over to see Skrillex (better live than not, but not better than A&B) only to come back to the dance forest and start the process over again.
I’d love to blame the placement of the forest. I think I mentioned earlier, two years prior the dance forest was behind the pavilion, far more spread out, with plenty of trees and this amazing canopy on which to project lasers. Last year, after rains washed out the other area, the dance stage was moved off stage right of the pavilion, straight up the hill from the west stage. The move crowded the forest into a small parcel of land between two paved footpaths which would meet and extend to the back entrance of the grounds. In the newer position, there was less room to move, especially considering the crowd at the dance stage grows towards the end of the night, when the west stage headliner inevitably disappoints and there’s no more room on the pavilion lawn.
Ultimately, this wasn’t a geographical issue. For as often as I’ve heard people say they just weren’t feeling it, I finally understood what they meant: it’s not enough to hear the music sometimes, you really do have to feel it in order to like it. This is especially true with more visceral genres like dance music. Nearing physical exhaustion, it was unlikely I was feeling much of anything. Instead of continuing to nitpick weak transitions and try to mentally remember which track was on which Trance Around The World broadcast, I headed out into the night. It was a pretty good day, and I didn’t feel like resenting great DJs because I’m old and didn’t pace myself. -JEB
Jack White – It’s crazy to think that Jack White has only really been in the public consciousness for a little over a decade. You wouldn’t have guessed that when he closed the Main Stage, as his set was like the work of a person giving a lifetime retrospective of his work. With material from three different bands and his solo album to work from, White gave audiences The Best of White, covering material from all his different works.
White started off with a collection of songs from his solo album Blunderbuss, kicking things off with the album’s highlight “Sixteen Saltines.” A few songs in though, White switched to The White Stripes’ “Hotel Yorba” and a bit later a piano-heavy version of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” and “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” and The Dead Weather’s “I Cut Like a Buffalo.”
His set, which featured a band of six women dressed in white, had a very country-western vibe, complete with fiddler and lap steel guitar. It almost felt like an Grand Ole Opry revue of Jack White.
White concluded the first part of his set with two of The White Stripes greatest songs, a slowed down version “Fell In Love With a Girl” and “Ball and Biscuit.” His encore was even more packed with hits, including The Raconteurs’ “Steady As She Goes”, The White Stripes’ “We Are Going To Be Friends”, and scattered with a few tracks from Blunderbuss, like the title track and “I Guess I Should Go To Sleep” before concluding with probably his biggest hit, “Seven Nation Army.”
In his set, his solo material was mostly straightforward, while hearing songs from The White Stripes with an entire band gave a whole new sound than what was expected. After hearing the combination of a decade of White’s work, it’s easy to say that White is one of the greatest living musicians. -Ross
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