By JUSTIN THOMPSON
Like any festival, you need to go into Freefest prepared. Showing up late, without your approved factory-sealed bottles of water, lacking appropriate footwear and the all-important patience and cheery disposition needed to survive an event of this scale can be the difference between a day to remember forever and one you can’t forget quick enough. But, when an event is as mismanaged and logistically challenged as this year’s Freefest, being ill prepared is the least of your worries. It was best to try and ignore the anarchy surrounding the event and enjoy the great music,which was luckily in abundance.
The day began with a chaotic trip through the maze of tailgaters in the improvised field parking lot. Cornhole games were abundant, drinking was excessive, and it was hard to imagine these folks heading into the festival grounds before 4 p.m. to see any of the early acts. Once you go through the gates, it’s time to get your bearings and figure out the gameplan for the day. If you have ever been to Merriweather Post Pavilion for a standard show, you’ll have a hard time recognizing it when it has its festival outfit on. The entire grounds are converted into a three stage behemoth filled to capacity with vendors. Two main stages are the focus of the event, with a Dance Forest for any of those individuals who want to get their rave on.
English indie band, Bombay Bicycle Club, were the first act up on the main pavilion stage. They have been hyped up by the blog community since their early demos and three subsequent albums, and they served as a perfect beginning to the festival. Most songs consisted of a mix of delicate, yet striking vocals with indie pop instrumentals that often build into an impressive wall of sound. The inclusion of a banjo in certain songs and subtle style changes kept the set from getting monotonous, and left a lasting impression as I headed over to the west stage to catch some of Two Door Cinema Club’s set. Leaving the shade of the Pavilion was the first opportunity to really feel the heat of the day; it was oppressive and really brought home the need to constantly refill your water bottles. Faucets and water fountains were few and far between in Merriweather and as time went on and the crowds started to really pack in, wait times began to multiply. Fill them often and early.
Two Door Cinema Club have been touring on the strength of their debut “Tourist History.” The Irish trio immediately launched into their compact electronic indie pop and in a matter of 15 minutes had already gone through half of their catalogue. Most of the songs packed a punch but the monotony also began to sink in. Maybe it was the heat but halfway through the set I had my fill and it was time to go experience Okkervil River.
Returning to the shaded Pavilion was a welcome relief from the heat and the literary rock of Okkervil River immediately took over the crowd that gathered in the pit and the stands. This Austin, Texas outfit have steadily been releasing albums over the past decade with principle songwriter and band leader Will Sheff penning a prolific number of alt-pop along the way. Sheff was in rare form at Freefest, opening the set with a rocking rendition of “Wake and Be Fine” and mixing the rest of their hour performance with songs from their new album “I Am Very Far” and fan favorites such as “Unless It’s Kicks.” The whole band had a nice rock edge throughout with Sheff thrashing around and finally throwing the mic down as he left the stage.
The rock continued with Grace Potter & the Nocturnals. I was unfamiliar with her music before she took the stage but was immediately won over by her impeccable vocal range, vintage backing band and insanely catchy hooks. Potter was a presence on the stage and should be the posterchild for a girl rock revolution. The pavilion was packed for her solid performance.
It’s around this time when people began to exit the Pavilion to use the restroom and find some food. This happened to coincide with the massive influx of ticketholders who may have been imbibing all day in the parking lot and finally decided to move the party closer to the stage. Merriweather somehow thought that having a handful of bathrooms that would have been crowded enough for a standard concert would serve just as good for the tens of thousands who flocked to Freefest. It did not. Lines for the restroom clocked in at over 30 minutes. Food and drink lines wrapped around the venue and tensions ran high amongst the concert-goers. There was plenty of event staff, but no one seemed to know what was going on.
The music was the only saving grace of the event. A quick detour to the Dance Forest brought a colorful performance from !!!. The phonetically-challenged dance group were heavy on the beat but light on the vocals, though this was most likely due to the insane dance moves of frontman Nic Offer: a ball of energy that truly made the show entertaining.
Around 6 p.m. there was a regular festival Sophie’s Choice. Who to see: TV On the Radio, Cee-Lo Green, or James Murphy? The strategic decision of TV on the Radio won the day and they surely did not disappoint. Though their older material seemed to get lost in noise, new cuts such as “Second Song” and an absolutely jaw-dropping rendition of “Repetition” left the crowd breathless. The Pavilion was absolutely packed to capacity and it seemed that a large majority of the crowd came out almost exclusively for TV on the Radio and they generously rewarded their loyal fan base.
The decision to skip Deadmau5 was a no-brainer, especially when the alternative was The Black Keys. Not enough can be said about this Akron, Ohio duo considering they have been churning out blues rock for the past decade, steadily gaining commercial and critical success, and almost single-handedly carrying the torch for American Rock ‘n Roll in the purest sense. The festival’s schedule had been obeyed faithfully up to this point but when the stage was still dark five minutes after the scheduled start, the crowd began to get antsy. When Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney walked out the roar of the crowd could not be contained. They immediately launched into their older material, including set highlight “I’ll Be Your Man.” Halfway through the set they were joined by two additional backing members to compliment their fuller sounding new material. “Tighten Up” got the obvious enthusiasm one would expect considering its enormous commercial success, and “I Got Mine” was an absolute force to close the set. The hour and 15 minute set was woefully short, and you could tell the crowd could have easily heard another hour without complaint, even with the exhaustion of a 10 hour festival.
As the procession of people filed (and stumbled) towards the parking lot, it was hard to be angry or frustrated at the lack of thought or real planning by the Merriweather staff. Concerts are one of the last true community events in our society, and as long the crowd is decent and the music is on point there really isn’t much to complain about. That was absolutely the case on Saturday, the music was fantastic, the crowds were tolerable, and let’s not forget the most important part – it was free.
Image courtesy of dcclubbing.com