Virgin Mobile FreeFest Concluding Thoughts

Sunday's Virgin Mobile FreeFest has to be considered a success. As I mentioned more than once in today's story in the Style section, it's hard to complain about anything that's free. The fact that there were three legitimately fantastic performances, a bunch of decent ones, minimal logistical hassles and a gorgeous day made it a clear win. Here are some final thoughts, to go along with the story. All photos by Kyle Gustafson.

weezer

Best Set: Weezer
It was everything a festival set should be -- heavy on the hits, fast-paced, fun, massive sound, some choice covers. Give Rivers Cuomo and the boys credit, they delivered big time. I knew something special was happening when "Hash Pipe" -- a song I've never liked -- sounded amazing. The guitars weren't really crunchy or bright, just huge. Cuomo seems to have finally found the perfect middle ground between dork and rock star -- call it dork star -- and was a playful, fun frontman. They played half the songs from their debut album, which was generous. At just an hour long it may have seemed a bit short, but that's part of what made it work so well. There was no loss of momentum, just an hour of riffs and sing-alongs. Kudos to Weezer. I was completely won over.

public enemy

Runners Up: Public Enemy and Franz Ferdinand
These two plus Weezer were head and shoulders above every other band on the bill. Doubts about advanced age or VH1 shenanigans dampening the intensity or integrity of PE's set proved completely unfounded. Chuck D is still a very commanding rapper. He may not have the most clever rhymes or the most interesting cadence but he says what he means and he means what he says. He has a rarely matched authority on the mic. And the reason most hip-hop hype men seem so unnecessary and superfluous is because Flav is still the best. He's the perfect foil for Chuck, turning the performance into a bit of a party but never distracting too much from the message.

franz ferdinand

Franz Ferdinand's closing set on the West Stage proved that the Scottish quartet is plenty fit for headliner status. The band managed a big sound without sacrificing any smarts or sharpness. Every song was an exercise in precise rhythm, the choppy guitars and stilted beats meshing perfectly. It's a tough sound to turn into anthems, but "Take Me Out" and "Michael" were just that. We could use a few more bands like this.

(More after the jump.)

weezer

Best Left to the Clubs: Indie Rock
Will I ever listen to a Weezer album over a Hold Steady album? Nope. But Sunday was an example of why the former is a far superior festival band. The first, most obvious, reason is that more people are familiar with the songs. It's nearly impossible to turn in a truly memorable festival set while most of the crowd watches in apathy. The only time I've witnessed that was Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at Lollapalooza 1994. So while people were going absolutely bonkers for Weezer, there were only a few of those people sprinkled through the crowd as the Hold Steady played. The Hold Steady is absolutely a band that works best playing for its devoted fans. I saw them at the 9:30 club on Saturday night and it was one of those shows, and it was a great one. Whenever Craig Finn said something about Ybor City, people cheered. You don't get that at a festival. There's almost a "Rocky Horror" aspect to a Hold Steady show; it's a very communal thing. That's lost when the majority of your audience is simply waiting around for Public Enemy.

annie clark

The other reason is that intricacy and the great outdoors don't really go hand in hand. While the Hold Steady can hold its own with Weezer when it comes to big riffs and sing-along moments, that's all the Weezer is about. The Hold Steady remains mainly about Finn and his stories. You gotta hear what he's saying. Similarly, St. Vincent was a bit overwhelmed by the big space. Double clarinet + drunk dudes in the sun = not ideal. The best song of her set was at once the most stripped down but also the biggest. Annie Clark's backing band added more texture than muscle, so when they left the stage for her solo electric take on "Dig a Pony" things didn't sound much emptier. In fact, just the opposite. She attacked her guitar and managed a big rock sound on her own, making it the unquestioned highlight of her set.

blink-182

Best Left to the Cut-Out Bin: Blink-182
As I made my way over to the pavilion from West Stage after Girl Talk's usual hour of mayhem that I wasn't quite young enough or wearing enough neon clothing to enjoy as much as the delirious youngsters that were eating it up, the first words I heard from Blink-182 were "This next song is going to blow your f******* d**** off!" And so it was for Blink-182's set, heavy on songs about oral sex and between song belching and cursing. It was, you know, stupid.

wale

Wale: Don't Believe the Hype?
That's overstating it when it comes to the local rapper. The question is: what to believe? It's really hard to get a grasp on him. He suffers from a bit of everything-to-everyone syndrome. It's not bad to want to please people, but it's important to have some sort of an identity at the beginning of a career. (Or at least during first exposure to a wide audience.) And with Wale we've got someone who tours with a local go-go band, collaborates with Lady GaGa, does a mixtape based on "Seinfeld" and is part of the Jay-Z empire. You could say, he's very well-rounded! You could also say, he sure wants to cover all his bases. His performance Sunday was similarly unfocused, not that it didn't have its moments. Hip-hop with a go-go backing band is a good combo. But many of those moments came in between songs when Wale had a spirited back-and-forth with the audience. Maybe it's his engaging personality that's his defining characteristic.

freefest crowd

Merriweather and Good Weather
I didn't mind Pimlico as a festival site. Sure, it was a giant dusty oval, there was a distinct lack of shade and a just as distinct lingering odor of horse manure. But I mean, it's a rock festival. A huge space in which you can walk back and forth between stages and have things to look at on the trips to and fro are really all that's necessary. It ain't the Ritz. Merriweather was certainly a more scenic locale, with its plentiful trees. If you're into that kind of thing. It made for a nice, natural Dance Tent, at least. On a purely personal level I liked Pimlico because it was so easy to get back and forth, with lots of wide open spaces. I'm trying to catch as many acts as I can and that means lots of walking. And I like to walk fast. So the somewhat narrow pathways to get between stages at Merriweather was a bit of a drag for me, if only because people walk so slow. Seriously folks, step it up.

People waiting in line to get into the pavilion was also an issue, but who didn't see that one coming? The pavilion holds roughly 8,000 and there were upwards of 30,000 on the grounds. Lines were going to happen. When I was talking to promoter Seth Hurwitz in the middle of the day I asked him about that line that snaked up the lawn and back to the main walkway. At first he didn't believe it was a line to get into the pavilion. Then he went down to the entrance and noticed a few hundred empty seats in the pavilion, which were being held for ... well, some people. Concert volunteers, or something. He didn't like the way that looked so he "made a few calls" (wait, no quotes needed, he actually did make a few calls) and those seats were opened up for whoever was in line. Not bad. Also, Richard Branson served beer with Flava Flav. Ha.

branson

By David Malitz |  August 31, 2009; 2:08 PM ET Virgin Festival
Previous: Virgin Mobile FreeFest: Live Coverage | Next: Reflection Eternal: Live Last Night

Comments

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I'm not a festival person much anymore and I no doubt miss some good sets. About The Hold Steady, Saturday night at the 9:30. I love the band and the show as great on the instrument/music side, the crowd was good, but Finn's vocal mix was horrid. Absolutely horrid. I watched from two different spots in the club and there no difference. Being that Finn's lyrics and voice are such a powerful (and majority) portion of the band's appeal it really was pathetic. I'll give them a bit of a break, but not much, because it was a late announced show, it was early, and they had the Festival the next day. I had high hopes that it would knock my socks off but it didn't. I'll give then another go when they swing back through.

Posted by: saintex | August 31, 2009 3:02 PM

It was the first Weezer set I'd seen in 15 years, and it was perfect (the last time was also about an hour).

We never had a problem walking around at MPP, but it was a lot faster cutting through just below the barn.

I thought The Hold Steady's sound was fine at VMF. Hadn't seen them before, but I enjoyed the show.

FYI, there's a comma in your first hyperlink.

Posted by: Hemisphire | August 31, 2009 3:49 PM

After seeing Weezer's setlist I'm kind of disappointed I left after The Sweater Song to go see Girl Talk. Surf Wax America AND The Good Life? Gotta say, those are some strong selections.

And I'm just throwing this out there, but I was disappointed Animal Collective did not get added to the lineup. I mean come on, how obvious was this? Headlining the second stage, the crowd would have ate it up.

Posted by: agl132 | August 31, 2009 4:27 PM

@saintex -- where were you standing for the hold steady show on saturday? i was back near the soundboard and it sounded fine to me. loved that they broke out some old ones they don't usually play, smart move knowing it was likely lots of diehards in the crowd since they were just here a few months ago.

@hemisphere -- thanks for the catch.

@agl132 -- animal collective was the only band i was SURE was going to play. oh well. can't complain because franz ferdinand was a great closer on that stage, but hearing "MPP" songs played on a beautiful night at MPP would have been perfect.

Posted by: PostRockDavid | August 31, 2009 5:22 PM

@postrockdave,

Started out center at the upper bar on a stool, usual perch, and then moved down to the main floor probably right near you. Didn't sound any better. Like I said, the instruments and music sounded fine I just found Finn's vocals completely mushed out and undiscernible.

Posted by: saintex | August 31, 2009 7:49 PM

D.M. is spot on with his evaluations of Weezer, P.E. and F.F. Blink 182 was dreadful. Any pathetic garage band would blow their doors off. Thankfully my party relocated to the second stage and caught F.F. to close out the evening.

Posted by: toddm991 | August 31, 2009 8:17 PM

These are such awesome shots! I especially love the one of St. Vincent and Franz Ferdinand. Great job!

Posted by: kirstiecat | August 31, 2009 9:27 PM

Weezer, eh? I don't know whether to curse the fact that I spent their set sitting in the HoCo General ER watching my friend sit at the other end of an IV or whether to start seriously questioning your judgment (or whether the heat got the better of you.)

As the rest of the commenters seem to be with you, I'll let the cursing begin.

Posted by: universaltravaler | August 31, 2009 9:46 PM

Blink did seem a bit off. Maybe they weren't totally up for performing after Adam Goldstein's passing?

I guess the sound was good under the roof, but it was awful on the main lawn. I get more volume out of my car stereo, and it's not one of those huge stereos either. Once I got down low on the lawn it was alright, but high up it sucked. Hopefully next year if they do Virgin Fest at Merriweather they'll pump it up some more.

Also, I agree about Pimlico. Better setting for something this big. Next year hopefully, if the ownership of the track can be worked out.

Posted by: EricS2 | September 1, 2009 12:01 AM

I was not really impressed with the location. I think everything near the West Stage was fine with lot of vendors stacked close together and plenty of open space around the stage and soundboard (was a little bummed to find out there was no VIP area near the West Stage since I had worked to earn my VIP wristband). The situation around the Pavillion Stage was simply appalling. The lines to get into the pavillion were endless, and if you did manage to get in to see a band, you had to stand in line again if you left to use the bathroom or get a drink. The lawn at the pavillion was far too small for a show of this magnitude, and it probably would have been better for the West Stage to have featured the acts from the Pavillion Stage. Also, the randomness of vendors around the Pavillion Stage caused major chaos with lines snaking everywhere. It did seem like there was a general lack of organization, which probably stemmed from the new venue. People in charge of the different tents didn't know what was going on, and many things just happened at random like the celebrity bartending, which I happened to luck into, but some people were waiting over an hour to see. The VIP wristbands were a waste unless you wanted to avoid the line to sit inside the Pavillion (assuming you were okay sitting way off to the side of the stage in the Loge sections). Last year, Virgin was sending text alerts throughout the day, keeping you update with what was going on during the festival. This year there were a few at the beginning of the day and a couple at the end of the day along with pictures AFTER stuff already happened. You would think a commincation company would be a little better communicating what is going on, but there was way to much chaos going on for my liking compared with last year.

It was also a little disconcerting to try to use a port-a-let that was not on level ground, which was true of about 90% of the temporary bathrooms brought to the site to augment the hard-line facilities already on the Merriweather grounds.

As far as the acts, I was happy to see all of the bands we saw, but it did seem that just about everyone played shorter sets than they were scheduled for (The Bravery played for 50 of their allotted 75 minutes, while Weezer played for 60 of their 75 minutes allotted).

It was nice to be able to walk around in the shade, but I hope this festival returns to Pimlico or a similarly large venue (without a seating area) next year.

Posted by: Russtinator | September 1, 2009 2:42 PM

The person who thought the west stage was better suited for the headliners than the main stage is RIGHT.

Firstly, the constantly thumping dance tent was providing an unnecessary undercurrent to all of the songs on the main stage. Sitting on the lawn, the dance tent often sounded louder than whoever was playing in the pavilion.

Secondly, I really dislike how there is absolutely no sightline from the lawn to the stage. I've never been to the festival at Pimlico, but I have been to Nissan pavilion, and even from the very back of Nissan, you could still make out the figures on the stage. They're small, but they're there. At Merriweather, all we had was the jumbotron so I might as well have been streaming live from home... Except I wouldn't have been able to smell the fresh scent of weed or feel the sticky arms of the obese people around me, and what fun would that be?

Posted by: livya | September 1, 2009 3:18 PM

Universal don't curse yourself yet. I was there and I wasn't too impressed. I thought I liked the band but seeing them live just didn't do it for me. I don't know if it was the awfulness that is that new song and Pork and Beans but I left immediately after that. But everyone is correct about Franz Ferdinand, wonderful, I could I watched them do that exact same set twice.

Posted by: tiajuana | September 1, 2009 7:51 PM

FYI Russ, Weezer only had an hour to begin with, so they played all their time. Blink actually played only about 75min, rather than the 90 that were allotted.

Posted by: EricS2 | September 2, 2009 12:02 AM

david, lee burridge spun about two minutes of "my girls" over at the dance stage. i lept out of the press tent and sprinted over there just so i could stand and experience a track from "merriweather post pavilion" at merriweather post pavilion. it's kinda sad -- that was the closest we got to animal collective at virgin fest.

Posted by: samsessa | September 2, 2009 2:44 PM

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