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.
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.
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'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.)
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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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