TVD Live: Virgin Mobile FreeFest at MPP, 9/10

By Kelly Kettering, Jenn Bress, and Olivia Ung
Photo Credit: Amy Willard and David Nguyen

Last Saturday, Virgin Mobile FreeFest returned to Merriweather Post Pavilion for its third year running as the best free show in America, brought to us courtesy of those fun-loving Brits and IMP. We managed to see every single band on our list, plus more! You can’t see it, but we’re all curtsying over here. You may applaud.

Somehow we made it in time to see Bombay Bicycle Club at the Pavilion, even though getting into the festival was a discombobulated nightmare. Come on FreeFest, when you have a huge amount of press who have special access to the festival, it’s probably a good idea to communicate to your staff of twelve-year-old boys what the deal is. To their credit, they were dealing with having to rearrange plans because of the monsoon and resulting mud from the days just prior, including having to actually move one of the stages. They also made it up to us in free Press Tent burritos from California Tortilla, and we were all lucky that the sun was shining and that the skies were clear for the majority of the day.

Bombay Bicycle Club were pretty good, not as good as say Pains of Being Pure at Heart are live, but of the same indie-pop vein. They played lots of songs easy to clap along to, and the audience was doing just that. Basically, these twee boys play songs like a woman wants to be made love to, slow and gentle but with escalating force and energy, you know, so everyone can go out with a bang together. They are not much of an arena act, and we would love to see them again at DC9 or a more intimate venue, but they were well-chosen for an opening spot, to get the party started on a happy vibe.

Ah, then hipster heaven. The West Stage, which featured a ferris wheel to its left, was packed with eager youngsters in neon waiting to rock out to Two Door Cinema Club. A light rain broke out, but no one really gave a fuck. Some guy admired that Jenn was prepared with a raincoat. Two Door Cinema Club seemed generic, even though our veins were pumping pure vodka through them, and we were in the mood to dance. We didn’t have to worry because everyone else was enjoying the band, including a Debbie Harry look-alike, who was going ape-shit. This band is so Nylon Magazine, slick and polished like The Bravery, only actually a bit better than the Bravery, with whom Olivia was disappointed at FreeFest 2009. Two Door Cinema Club offer up ‘80s influenced indie-pop with crisp beats and vocals for impressionable teens.

Back at the Pavilion, Jenn was not really familar with Okkervil River and was absolutely blown away by them. They played a very American Rock-influenced set with a Beach Boys cover and a plethora of other feel-good songs, including “Unless It’s Kicks,” “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe,” and “For Real.“ After a random Will Sheff siting in Hoboken a few years ago, Olivia was glad to see him actually perform in all his bespectacled glory, and Okkervil River are decidedly more upbeat and less emo in person, which hopefully doesn’t make their fans cry. We adored it.

Kelly didn’t enjoy Calvin Harris so much, finding it bro-y and overstimulating. For her, this kind of music doesn’t belong in a 3:15 time slot at an outdoor music festival; it was too bright, and she was too sober for this to be fun. Jenn wholeheartedly disagrees. She found herself sucked into the crowd in the Dance Forest and pogo-ing along to the jams, fifteen years old again and drunk and high enough to revel in it.

After seeing Cut Copy headline the Williamsburg Waterfront in Brooklyn a couple of summers ago, Olivia was elated that they would be playing FreeFest’s West Stage after being unable to attend their recent 9:30 Club shows. Well, DC you need to take some lessons from some Brooklyn hipsters. Sad, sad, sad. Maybe it was the early-ish time slot, but the crowd appeared to be asleep until “Lights and Music,” despite the usual antics by frontman Dan Whitford, which could be a parody of John Travolta circa 1978. Cut Copy played “Hearts on Fire” and “Need You Now,” but how could they not play “Far Away” ?! Perhaps we didn’t deserve it.

Olivia ran to !!! (Chk Chk Chk) despite a bleeding toe (maybe those Cut Copy hipsters deserve more credit because one of them trampled her) just in time to see Nic Offer channel Bowie during “Heart of Hearts” while Jenn ran to Patti Smith and Kelly prepped for Cee-Lo. Patti Smith is one of Jenn’s idols, and this was her third time seeing her, so she saddled up to the front, eager to catch as many songs as possible. After “Because the Night” was played, not surprisingly, Patti gave a powerful political poetic speech about 9/11. She started by saying it was the Ethiopian New Year, and Jim Carroll’s birthday. She urged us to remember where we were September 10th, “before the government fucked up by putting cameras everywhere we shit.” She then did something magical and unexpected, dedicating “Pissing in the River” to Amy Winehouse, and it was absolutely amazing. Patti can totally hold down any kind of audience, even a younger festival crowd. Chilling.

Kelly didn’t have the highest of hopes for a Top 40 artist, but when you perform at the Grammys in peacock feathers—and you aren’t Elton John—you have probably raised the bar, if not at least some eyebrows. And yet, Cee-Lo shows up to Freefest in a white t-shirt and jeans. Phoning it in much? He did do a decent cover of The Pussycat Doll’s “Don’t Cha.” It isn’t necessarily a song you would picture being performed by a large black man, but he makes it work. She left shortly after though, as she determined it wasn’t worth the wait to hear “Fuck You,” the song of his she wanted to hear the most. This may have been partly due to the quality of the performance she was experiencing and partly due to the manure smell in the field of the West Stage.

Reunited and it feels so good, Jenn and I (Olivia) were extremely excited for the first few songs of James Murphy’s DJ set. Then I promptly lost interest and fell asleep on our blanket in the Dance Forest. What happened to the charismatic frontman of LCD Soundsystem?! Jenn says: He got all NYC snobby on us, that’s what happened, Olivia. He just didn’t know how to build to a swelling climax in the same way that Calvin Harris did.

We were losing a bit of steam as we left James Murphy and headed back to the main stage to catch TV on the Radio, whom many have cited as the best of the festival despite the absence of former bassist Gerard Smith (RIP). Olivia never understood the fascination with them and left a converted woman. We wish we could have pushed our way to the front, but we were tired and hungry, so Olivia and Jenn sat on our blanket while Kelly grabbed some food. (Kelly says: They sounded amazing… from the concession line. A one hour wait for ten dollar chicken strips and an eight dollar Bud Light! It’s un-American, I say.) Tunde seemed hyper and in good spirits as he gave a shout out to nearly every band at the festival between songs. “Will Do” was delightful, Tunde’s falsetto piercing the hearts of the masses surrounding us on the lawn. They played a speedy version of “Staring at the Sun,” the song we took as our cue to exit to Empire of the Sun.

If we fell asleep to a dream of Empire of the Sun, we would be content not waking up. Perhaps it’s because the sound quality of the videos for “Walking on a Dream” and “We are the People” are just so piss poor, but as with TVotR, Olivia never understood their popularity until now. Potent, primal beats from their magnificent drummer dominated the EotS live performance, which was Jenn and Olivia’s favorite of the night. “Half Mast” made us yearn for a “hotel in the hills with a carousel.”

If we had done more research, we would have been prepared for a performance that would make Jim Henson cream. Basically take the theatrical ‘80s costumes of Mad Max and combine them with the theatrical dances of The Mighty Boosh, and you’ll have an idea of the level of drama EotS brought. At least four costume changes occurred, with four synchronized dancers working the electronic beats of each song with jerky arm and leg movements. They didn’t play “Walking on a Dream,” but the audience demanded they return and do so. Another costume change with frontman Luke Steele donning a massive headpiece, and EotS returned to grant everyone’s wish.

On our way from Empire of the Sun to The Black Keys, we were lured briefly to the Dance Forest by the irresistible beats of Teddybears. Who wouldn’t be mesmerized by lightbright bear heads? The beats were pretty addictive, but Olivia was dead set on making the Black Keys, so we only stayed for a couple songs.

The Black Keys made Olivia want to jump in her car, drive south, and start a new life. Kelly, aside from being extremely into “the rock n roll” as they call it, is also a native Ohioan and therefore a pretty big Black Keys fan, and for this band she was determined to get into the pit, and nabbed an end spot in the front row, against the barrier. As people have said before, it is hard to believe just two guys, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, produce the driving, pounding blues rock of this band. And it is that much more driving and pounding in front of stadium speakers, especially without earplugs. The final encore and Kelly’s favorite Black Keys song, “Your Touch,” was a perfect ending to a great day of music for her.

When Jenn left Black Keys, she arrived to the beginning of Ghostland Observatory, who are like the Darkness meets LCD Soundsystem with a fucking killer laser show. She got tapped on the shoulder by this chick who was also getting the fuck down, and she goes “Doesn’t he remind you of Russell Brand?” Yeah, he kind of did, and they were both convinced for a second that Russell stole his schtick from frontman Aaron Behrens.

While some may have gone wild for Deadmau5, all we have to say about it is that it was an electro-frat party that belongs at South Beach. (Yep, bring on the hate.) Quickly losing interest, we returned to Ghostland Observatory in time for more epic LASERS and the last few songs, including “Sad, Sad City.” Thankfully, every year FreeFest returns to Merriweather Post Pavilion, and DC is never a sad, sad city on those those days. When else can you see The Black Keys, Empire of the Sun, TV on the Radio, Patti Smith, Okkervil River, and Cut Copy all on the same day, with a free ticket? Those days, we’re all walking on a dream.

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  • Brandon Telg

    I saw Cee-Lo recently. Same issues. Not good at all.
    That said, he didn’t really cover it Don’t Cha (he performed it here too) as he wrote and produced it for the PCDs. I wouldn’t have known either except he said it.

  • erica

    I had no idea that was the reason for the free food in the press tent. Pretty sure I got some food poisoning from it, but it was pretty yummy 🙂

    • Olivia

      I don’t think that was the “reason,” but it was one way that they made up for not having any idea what was going on for the first 30min that we were there. 

      I had to have someone walk me to check in at the Press Table since there was not an adjacent Press Parking Lot (b/c of the rain) to park in, and we had to ask at least 4 people how to do that before someone stepped up.

      Burritos always make everything better. 🙂


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