TVD Live:
Virgin Mobile FreeFest at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10/6

If you were lucky enough to snatch tickets before they “free’d” out within minutes of being released in late August, then you were among the 50,000 people in attendance at the fourth annual Virgin Mobile FreeFest at Merriweather Post Pavilion this past Saturday, October 6th.

Similar to previous FreeFests, the 2012 line-up boasted a diverse list of singers, bands, and DJs performing between two stages and a Dance Forest.  This year’s FreeFest also featured a surprise appearance from Virgin owner Sir Richard Branson, who stood on the roof of the Pavilion and treated nearby fans to a champagne shower.

Speaking of showers, I was pleasantly surprised to find the weather, which never seemed to make up its mind between being bright and sunny or ominous and overcast, held out for the entirety of FreeFest and only got noticeably chilly in the latter hours.

The first performance I took in came from local favorite Justin Jones, who played the opening set on the Pavilion Stage.  Jones, the first (and, as of right now, only) artist signed to the 9:30 Club‘s record label, the aptly-titled 9:30 Records, released Fading Light, his first full-length album, in May.  The multi-instrumentalist, who has been on the road in support of Fading Light for the past few months, played both the guitar and the harmonica during his set.

It soon became evident that rock ‘n roll/soul revival was the unspoken theme among the performers on the Pavilion Stage.  Following Jones’ set was a performance from Seattle-based singer Allen Stone, who showcased impressive soul vocals and covered “Is This Love” by Bob Marley during his 45-minute set.

Alabama Shakes, the quartet from Athens, Alabama, opened their afternoon performance with “Hang Loose,” a cut from their debut album, Boys and Girls.  Lead singer-guitarist Brittany Howard’s vocals, which have garnered her comparisons to the likes of Janis Joplin and Robert Plant, sound soulful and raw recorded, but they sound even more powerful and gritty in a live setting.  Howard and company were warmly received by the crowd as they went on to play a lively set that included their hit single, “Hold On.”

Although they are may be more alternative/piano rock than rock ‘n’ roll/soul, Ben Folds Five certainly kept with the revival theme present on the Pavilion Stage.  The group was performing at FreeFest in support of their new album, The Sound of the Life of the Mind, their first release since 1999.  The trio played a set full of songs both new (“Erase Me,” “Do It Anyway”) and old (“Kate,” “Brick”).

While I spent a great deal of time hanging out on the lawn by the Pavilion Stage, I also took in many performances on the West Stage, including a set from one of my favorite bands, Portugal. The Man.  The Oregon-based group opened with “Got It All (This Can’t Be Living Now),” the first single from their major label debut, In the Mountain In the Cloud.  The quartet then went on to play what I counted to be an 8–song set that included “People Say,” my favorite Portugal. The Man Song, as well as a cover of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.”

Another West Stage performance highlight came from alternative pop songstress Santi White, better known by her stage moniker, Santigold.  Joined onstage by a three-piece band, Santigold performed songs from her self-titled debut album, including “Creator,” Starstruck,” and “Shove It,” as well as songs from her sophomore effort, Master of My Make-Believe.  While the singer started her set with two backup dancers, she invited concertgoers onstage mid-set and ended her performance standing among a sea of fans.

Performing on the West Stage in the later hours of the night was French electronic group M83.  Their set included an epic light show, as well as a performance of their ubiquitous single, “Midnight City.”

As the sun started setting, I took up temporary residence in the Pavilion, finding a seat for veteran rockers ZZ Top.  Guitarist Billy Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill, along with their famous facial hair, were joined by drummer Frank Beard as they played a 16-song set to a Pavilion full of concertgoers both young and old.  Clad in black suits and sunglasses, the sharp-dressed men proved that they’ve still got it, breezing through hits like “Legs” and “Sharp-Dressed Man” and even having a stagehand run out to light their cigars mid-performance.

Performing after ZZ Top and closing out the Pavilion Stage for the evening was Mr. Jack White.  While I freely admit that I am among the loyal “he can do no wrong, music or otherwise” Jack White fans and as such am kind-of-sort-of biased, I can safely say that his set was the highlight of the day.  White, who has recently received scrutiny from fans for abruptly ending his September 30th Radio City Music Hall concert, provided FreeFest attendees with a performance that would quickly silence naysayers and skeptics alike.

Accompanied onstage by the Peacocks, a (kick-ass) six-piece all-female backing band, White casually took the stage and launched into the opening chords of “Sixteen Saltines,” the high-energy first single off of his solo album, Blunderbuss.  Performing under the glow of blue lighting and in front of a Roman Numeral “III” backdrop, the singer-guitarist would go on to play a head-spinning set of songs from each of his various musical endeavors, including the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather.

The Peacocks, clad in flowing white dresses, looked ethereal as they provided vocal and instrumental accompaniment to White throughout his hour-long, 11-song set, with country-folk instrumentation that included a piano, tambourine, upright bass, fiddle, steel pedal guitar, and drums.  There were also notable supporting vocals from Peacocks singer and tambourinist Ruby Amanfou, with whom White frequently shared both noticeable onstage chemistry, as well as his microphone.

One of my favorite things about White has always been his seemingly innate ability to mix a variety of genres and work with an array of artists while always creating something that sounds equal parts awesome and weird.  While he has been in many an acclaimed band, White is also a worthy solo artist.  I was impressed with White’s onstage collaborations with the Peacocks; together the singer and his backing band were able to take songs White previously recorded with other groups and make them all their own.  This was especially noticeable when White performed two tracks from the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells album, including a countrified version of “Hotel Yorba” and a slowed-downed, bluesy rendition of “Fell in Love With a Girl” that I personally found to sound more like the Joss Stone cover than the original.

White ended his set with “Ball and Biscuit,” a song from the White Stripes’ 2003 album, Elephant.  Shortly after leaving the stage, White and the Peacocks returned to begin a seven-song encore with “Steady, As She Goes,” arguably White’s biggest hit with the Raconteurs.  White went on to perform additional cuts from Blunderbuss, including “Freedom at 21,” “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep,” and “Take Me With You When You Go,” as well as the White Stripes’ “We’re Going to Be Friends,” during which the crowd was quiet enough that you could hear the wobble and bass coming from Skrillex’s set on the West Stage.  White concluded the night with “Seven Nation Army,” initiating a crowd sing-along that featured the now-voiceless yours truly.

Needless to say, my FreeFest experience dispelled that whole “you get what you pay for mantra”—while I paid nothing for admission, my only complaint is that I have to wait an entire year to do it again.

Photos by Amy Willard | More Photos by Richie Downs

Alabama Shakes

Allen Stone

Ben Folds Five

Jack White

M83

Nas

Portugal. The Man

Santigold

Skrillex

Trampled by Turtles

ZZ Top

Miscellaneous

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