Live Review: Virgin FreeFest 2012 at Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia, MD

Marjorie Merriweather Post — heir to the Post Cereal Company and the General Foods Corporation, collector of extravagantly fine possessions, devout Socialite, and committed philanthropist — had a vision to create a theater for the arts to house Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra. In 1967, in a serene, intimate setting, on 40 preserved acres known as Symphony Woods in Columbia, Maryland, Merriweather Post Pavilion was born in Ms. Post’s namesake. While not limited to the orchestra, the Merriweather Post Pavilion has housed an eclectic mix of performers for decades from Led Zeppelin to Avicii.

Another who shares Ms. Post’s passion for both musical outlets and committed philanthropy is Richard Branson, who brought his vision to life this past weekend at the Merriweather Post Pavilion with his 6th annual Virgin Mobile FreeFest. Sir Richard stepped in and once again the charitable contribution was the gift of music. The FreeFest initiative is a way of giving back in these tough economic times and to raise awareness of homeless youth. In the form of a too-good-to-be-true free festival their unofficial motto is, “We’ll take care of the tickets. You take care of the karma.” It seems to be working because at least in the last three years along with tens of thousands of hours of volunteer time, they’ve also raised nearly $600,000 for their cause.

There was an abundance of good karma and camaraderie bringing this melting pot of music fans together ranging from the rockabilly fans of Alabama Shakes to dubstep fans of Skrillex. And all the while that is going on there is something about this event that is endearingly sentimental. Maybe it’s a reflection of the end of summer on this blue-sky fall day. Maybe it’s the warmth of song lyrics like, “Love and love and nothing else, it’s all I need…,” from Trampled By Turtles or “Never seen the sun shine brighter, and it feels like me on a good day….” from Above & Beyond, or a combination of that and the charitable reason for bringing all of these eclectic fans and music together in the first place. Someone in the crowd declared that this show to them is, “like comfort food,” and Sir Richard is our host.

In the cozy, tucked away corner of the festival grounds, DJ Alvin Risk brought the Dance Forest to life with an early afternoon time slot of tunes like “Here We Go,” and “Tonight We Are Young,” that had the whole crowd singing in unison like the cast of Glee. He set the crowd reeling with his dubstep remix of “Earthquakey People.” And for those diehards so inclined, Risk pumped his FreeFest after show party at Washington DC’s U Street Music Hall on Facebook on Friday promising, “DC. This after party tmrw is going to be on another level….”

Off to the Pavilion Stage and switching gears, Trampled By Turtles generated a downhome, easy-going blend of fiddle, bluegrass and folk with the soft, strum-laden beauty ballad “Midnight On The Interstate,” offering a balanced composition of build and plucking. A fan commenting on the YouTube version of this song defined it perfectly with, “0 dislikes thus far is an amazing testament to this song’s ability to touch the heart.” The band followed with the energetic, dueling banjo, foot stomper “Sorry.” Their ability to weave their live show with heartfelt harmonies, back-to-back with frenzied romps, utilizing the same combination of banjo, mandolin, fiddle, harmonica, and guitar adds to their rousing appeal. Into their set singer, David Simonett, gave the shout out, “We got to catch Allen Stone before us and man, that was fantastic!” A Southern-voiced female cheered from the crowd, “You guys are so good!” A thank you came from the stage as the band went into “Trouble.”

The Dismemberment Plan was playing “The City” on the West Stage as Nervo duo took to the Dance Forest with “Reload,” a sampling of Otto Knows “Million Voices” and “Atom” while the word “Doomsday” repeated on the background visuals along with images similar to the T1000 robot from Terminator 2.

The Pavilion stage remained closely guarded during the reunited Ben Folds Five performance as too many fans tried to enter the pavilion seats causing over-crowding. For those up-close-and-personal they witnessed fun-loving singer Ben Scott Folds at his Baldwin piano belt out hits like “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” and “Jackson Cannery,” rising from his bench at one point to remove one of the piano wires and giving it to a stage hand in a comical attempt to appear to adjust the sound.

As the sun began to set more noticeably in the heavily shaded Dance Forest due to the dense tree canopies, Thomas Gold dished out the electronic dance music classics “The Island,” “Teenage Crime,” and “Who’s In The House” to a frenzied, young crowd. Meanwhile the Pavilion Stage held a Janis Joplin revival of sorts with the Joplin’s similar soulful passion, stage antics, and song builds from Alabama Shakes on hits like “Hold On.”

Running from the Pavilion Stage to the West Stage to the Dance Forest, from blues rock to classic rock to trance, sidestepping over fans sunning on blankets of the pavilion hill, trying not to spill someone’s double-fisted, newly purchased brew filled to the brim, acknowledging of some message T-shirts like “One Hit Wonder” and “White Raver Rafting,” and trying to take it all in, the famous movie line from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off comes to mind, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

The young duo of Porter (Robinson) and Zedd proved their stellar, singular talents combined is a formula for excellence. This is a repeat on Sir Richard’s lineup for Robinson who made a solo appearance on the 2011 bill. Earning escalating accolades in recent months from their peers, critics, and fans, this teamed force is well on their ride to electronic dance music super stardom. They kicked off with the familiar intro chant of, “Breathing you in…” from Zedd’s breakthrough hit “Spectrum” and the remainder of their set was an amalgamation of winners like “Clarity,” “Spectrum” (full track,) “Unison,” and “Pay Attention To The Drums.”

The house lights of the Pavilion Stage went low in preparation for the next act, as the stage screen displayed, “Black Dahlia Films,” then “Gang of Outlaws.” This prelude set the stage for the enduring sounds of the blues rock trio ZZ Top. It should come as no surprise that they still got it considering the decades and generations of experience under their belts. With their trademark black clothing, dark sunglasses, cowboy hats, shrouding beards and mustaches, and stage features like their exhaust pipe microphone stands, they look as discernible and iconic as they did at the debut of their career. With hits like “I Thank You,” “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” and “Give Me All Your Lovin,” and with the occasional, obligatory paired up, sway back-and-forth in unison to the beat that the crowd expects, they had fans on their feet rocking their Southern roots.

Well past dusk as the thickened crowd meandered the grounds a confused group asked, “Where’s M83?” Another patron pointed in the direction of the West Stage answering, “There, where everyone is going.” Once there they discovered the French electronic band bathed in a celestial stage of blue and a grateful singer who made the declaration, “So very excited to be here with this beautiful crowd.” The band then ignited that crowd with the recognizable “Midnight City.”

Another Virgin FreeFest repeat, formerly performing as a member of the Raconteurs, Jack White, closed out the Pavilion Stage. He arrived decked out in a pin-striped black suit and tresses of hair that habitually obliterated his face. He was flanked by a landscape of all-female band members donning white as the singer flailed the stage making an occasional sinister glance. MTV’s Electronic Dance Music Artist of the Year, Skrillex, closed out the West Stage in celebrated style with smoke and pyrotechnics, a visual screen of metal wheels and cogs, his stylized name illuminated to fill the screen, a massive crowd spanning in all directions, and DJ decks resembling a futuristic, open-air lunar rover.

On Monday Richard Branson posted an image with the dubstep artist on Facebook adding, “Skrillex teaching me how to DJ at Virgin Mobile Live FreeFest. Should I stick to the day job?” Perhaps we’ll witness their tag team at next year’s FreeFest.

A perfect closing to the Dance Forest were the enchanting storytellers in the woods, Jono Grant and Paavo Siljamäki, of Above & Beyond. They continued their long-running Group Therapy theme with inspiring and poetic phrases displayed throughout their show in conjunction with historic events, the tracks played, and a sign of the times. They mixed their legendary tracks like “On My Way To Heaven,” “Alchemy,” “Thing Called Love,” “Home,” “Sun And Moon,” “Prelude,” and “Alone Tonight,” with phrases like, “The future is born slippy but it will be all good,” “This is home, “A bit more moon than sun tonight,” and “You are not alone.” They drew throngs of applause with, “We’ve been playing this song and dedicating it to people that inspire us, people that have inspired a generation people who left this earth too soon, Neil Armstrong thank you, Steve Jobs thank you.” They offered up a remix of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” before displaying “Whatever you do this autumn, remember life is made of small moments like this,” and ended with “Good For You.”

Ms. Post’s symphony orchestra in the woods venue didn’t quite come to fruition as expected but the successful outcome of witnessing the exalted music fans exiting the dusty grounds at closing time in the name of providing a community of homeless youth with access to housing, programs in social entrepreneurship and urban agriculture, in the end Ms. Post would surely give the DJ nod of approval.

Images by Kathy Vitkus

Kathy Vitkus

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