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August 31, 2009

Concert review: Virgin Mobile FreeFest

virgin mobile freefestI still can't believe it was free.

My goodness: 11 hours of music, 20+ acts, all kinds of wacky stuff on the side (like karaoke, a fortune teller, etc.). It's almost pointless to criticize this year's Virgin Mobile FreeFest because, well, it was free. And free makes everything better.

First, some observations:

The crowd this year was much younger than any of the previous years. That's probably because there weren't any vintage mainstays such as Bob Dylan or The Who on the roster.

Merriweather was a much better home for the Virgin Fest than Pimlico. There's hardly any shade at Pimlico. Merriweather is nice and woodsy.

However, the lines to get into the pavilion were pretty long, and irritated some people (seats were first-come, first-serve, and the pavilion only holds so many people). To the folks who were angry about not getting into the pavilion: Chill. It's a free concert.

The video screens were about a second behind the sound. Was anybody else frustrated with that?

Oh, and before I forget -- here's a photo gallery from the festival, and here's a scene piece I did on it for today's paper.

And now, the music ...

Let's break it up into chunks, so you can skip the reviews of the bands you didn't see/aren't interested in. Also, some of these blurbs were written by Mark Gross of Metromix fame. Thanks a million, Mark! Here goes:

virgin mobile freefestHoly F[lip]

Holy F[lip] isn’t just a four-piece electronic collective from Toronto, Canada -- it's also the reaction one has wandering in front of the band’s live performance. The opening set on the dance stage, two members fiddled with electronic devices while a third played bass and a fourth played drums. The presence of a four-piece act on the dance stage was startling, but the monstrously loud sound was even more surprising.

Big beats and a growing electronic swell got the crowd swaying in time, but the scene was hardly club-like. Compared to the covered dance tents of previous Virgin Festivals, the open stage and wooded lot saw fewer glow sticks and dance circles. Holy F[lip] get props for setting a high bar in terms of volume, but not so much for getting the crowd moving.


Despite previous late-starting hip-hop acts such as Lil Wayne, Wale bounded onstage shortly after his scheduled 2 p.m. start time. With a full live band backing him, the go-go/hip-hop group played a rock-oriented, bass-heavy intro that slipped seamlessly into a funk groove. Wale’s rhymes were as quick and clean as they sound on his mixtapes.

The D.C. rapper’s friendly banter proved he was happy to be playing to a home crowd. When he mentioned playing a recent show at Duke in North Carolina, the crowd booed him. The rapper spent a lot of time between songs giving shout-outs to D.C. At one point, he made it clear he hopes the Redskins have a good season, but he poked fun at Washington’s quarterback when he said, “Oh, look, I’m Jason Campbell” and pretended to get sacked. Wale ended the set by smoking a cigar to D.C.’s success and telling DJ AM to rest in peace.

St. Vincent

Early afternoon on an outdoor stage wasn't the best time and place for this charming Brooklyn songstress. She's a fine singer and a talented guitarist, but the nuances of her quirky, turn-on-a-dime tunes were lost in such a setting. A seated theater would probably be the best place to see her play. A solo cover of The Beatles' "Dig A Pony" was quite nice, though.

virgin mobile freefest

Mates of State

This West Coast duo held the attention of throngs of teens waiting for Taking Back Sunday to go on, which is no small feat. Jason Hammel's thunderous drumming held down the bottom end, while singer/keyboardist Kori Gardner rounded out the sound. Their set had several songs from their latest album Re-Arrange us, which is their strongest yet.

Taking Back Sunday

By the time Taking Back Sunday took the stage at 3 p.m., the lawn was covered with blankets and sweat-drenched festival-goers. Fans stood in line to get under the pavilion and into shaded seats, but security only allowed people in intermittently.

The band said one song was inspired by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s performance in “Titanic,” and dedicated a later one to the Wayans brothers. In addition to celebrity dedications, the pop-punk group delighted in reminding the crowd the festival was free. The band’s call and response, round robin vocals synced with the continuously driving drums and distorted guitars just they way they do on the radio.

the hold steadyThe Hold Steady

Two words: Inevitably awesome. With The Hold Steady, you almost always know what you're getting, and it's almost always great. Singer Craig Finn spat out literary lyrics almost as if he were giving an angry spoken word performance and sweat through his button-down shirt. Lead guitarist Tad Kubler let loose some blistering riffs, and keyboardist Franz Nicolay looked ever-dapper in his driver's cap and suit.

We heard "Sequestered In Memphis," "Navy Sheets," "Lord I'm Discouraged" and "Chips Ahoy," to name a few.

Public Enemy

Chuck D and Flava Flav attracted the largest crowd the West Stage hosted all day. Public Enemy’s old-school hip-hop was filled with just the sort of turntable scratching and monotone, primitive vocals that defined the group in the '80s.

Neither Chuck D nor Flavor Flav seemed to have planned a coherent set. Much of the set was spent in a sort of incoherent monologue mode. Chuck D and Flava Flav recalled all the old-school hip-hop acts they missed. The duo also spent time naming deceased artists whom they revered, including Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G., Jam-Master Jay and Michael Jackson. A segment of “Billie Jean” was played, in which Flavor Flav’s name replaced Billie Jean’s. Heh.

flavor flavDuring another extended Chuck D monologue, the “Flavor of Love” star interrupted with a self-serving non sequitur. The B-lister wanted everyone to visit iTunes to download his first effort as an R&B singer. At the set’s conclusion, Flavor Flav revealed a self-indulgent side again when he said, “I know we got to go, but I got to get on the drums and play a beat.” Flavor Flav should not hang up his microphone for a pair of drum sticks any time soon.

The National

The National soothed what was left of a hyper-active crowd. Following Public Enemy, the audience  had dwindled significantly. Frontman Matt Berninger joked that The National “do the same sort of thing as Public Enemy,” before he crooned in his mellow baritone. The sun was setting, the heat was fading and the sparkle of a small brass section added to the lullaby effect of The National’s set.

Girl Talk

A lean but dedicated crowd waited for Girl Talk, the Pittsburgh-born master of mashups. The sole member of the group, Greg Gillis, burst onto the stage wearing a blue hoodie and maroon sweatpants and flailed spastically in what looked like Muppet aerobics. Listeners charged toward the stage, and moments later a swarm of young fans poured out of the backstage area to surround Gillis. Gillis is always joined by a massive entourage of dancers selected from the audience, and this year's Virgin FreeFest was no exception.

Girl Talk's set was a sustained 70 minute dance party. Gillis kept dancers interested by working hit after hit into his mashups. Black Sabbath paired with Ludacris. Metallica went up against Lady Gaga. Girl Talk provides a rare opportunity to do the "Stanky Leg" to Guns N' Roses. The snippet that got the biggest reaction was, oddly enough, Kelly Clarkson. Go figure.

Franz Ferdinand

Franz Ferdinand brings something to the stage that isn't so apparent on its albums: Rock and roll. The true power of the Scottish band's distorted guitars and power drumming becomes apparent early in its set.

Headliners have it tough at festivals, seeing as their performances occur so many hours after the first bands perform. Eleven hours after the gates opened to Virgin FreeFest, the crowd that gathered to hear Franz Ferdinand still had a lot of dancing to do. Though the 2004 single "Take Me Out" didn't arrive until mid-set, the crowd response was one of mass synchronized jumping.

The band performed in front of a towering massive backdrop depicting members' heads several stories tall, which seemed pretty rock and roll, too.


Best set of the day. Easily.

Weezer sounded amazing. They played a bunch of songs from "The Blue Album," as well as hits like "Hash Pipe," "Pork and Beans" and "Beverly Hills." If you haven't listened to Weezer in a while, it's easy to forget how many hits they had. "Buddy Holly" was epic.

All five guys on stage wore red T-shirts with black pants (they were probably the only band at the festival in matching outfits). Front man Rivers Cuomo is such a lovable dork.


Who needs hype men? The guys in Blink-182 are their own biggest fans. Before, during or after nearly every song, guitarist/singer Tom DeLonge (and, sometimes, singer/bassist Mark Hoppus) would tell the crowd how great the song was.

Some examples:

"This song is going to blow your [bleeping] [bleep] off!"

"[Bleep] yeah that was awesome!"

"I went into that song knowing it was going to be great."

The list goes on. The recently reunited  Blink tossed a lot of tunes from their last, self-titled album. Drummer Travis Barker was absolutely insane. He's one of the most talented drummers out there, hands down. DeLonge, who still acts like a 15-year-old, is a solid rhythm guitarist who needs to stop trying to solo, because it just doesn't work out well for him.

While Blink's set was tight, it just wasn't as good as Weezer's.

But then again, who are we to complain? After all, it was free.

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Posted by Sam Sessa at 7:00 AM | | Comments (29)
Categories: Virgin Mobile Festival


So true about Weezer being the best of the day. Of course it wouldn't be Virgin Fest unless the best band of the day did not close (see Velvet Revolver 2 years ago) Weezer rocked!!!

What about The Bravery? I thought their set was second only to Weezer out of the headliners. Blink 182 was self indulgent and the potty humor f-bombs got pretty old really quick. Would definitely not pay to see them again...oh, that's right it was free anyway. Great event overall!!!

Impressed by (in no particular order): Wale, Weezer, Girl Talk, Jet, Public Enemy, the Red Bull skydivers

Not impressed by: Blink 182, Taking Back Sunday

I disagree that Merriweather was a better venue. The shaded areas were nice, but the main stage didn't have a festival feel, unfortunately. It was a great time, and I got my money's worth, so I'm not complaining.

Mark plays bass, Tom plays guitar. Neither of them do it well...but man do I love them.

Doh, that's what I get for writing at 1 a.m. Fixed!

My impressions:


surprisingly loved St. Vincent.

already knew about The National, so enjoyed their set.

really enjoyed Lee Burridge.

loved the setting for the dance stage, even if it was a bit hard to remember where it was

really liked Franz Ferdinand, glad to have seen them live


didn't care much for TBS actually.

didn't like Girl Talk, surprisingly.

Public Enemy was too crowded.

Main stage Pavilion was too crowded.

Weezer is definitely better than Blink 182 and still can't figure out why they didn't headline over Blink.

Spent most of the early day getting a good spot in the pit Weezer so I sadly had to miss out on Public Enemy. Weezer's set was definitely the best of the day but I think that considering the environment and the music I enjoyed Franz Ferdinand's set the most(I can't believe the stuff in that set that this article didn't even touch on). It was a really fun time, maybe next year I'll actually get to go for free :\

Also FYI to everyone Blink has been headlining for Weezer on a tour for the past few months, so it wouldn't make sense for Weezer to close out just one show

I was disappointed in the Virgin FreeFest. Bottom line, I think there were too many tickets sold for the size of the venue.
The “line” to enter the pavilion was “managed” by grumpy folks shouting at people to “GET IN LINE!!!” I tried to ask how the line was working, but was just shouted at.
The festival’s website advertised “water filling stations” for your bottles… staffers who I asked about them had no clue. The only thing I managed to find was the regular water fountains outside the bathrooms. Oh but if you wanted to buy overpriced booze, it was absolutely EVERYWHERE!! I have no idea how they might have managed underage drinking… I am pretty sure they didn’t.
The noise from the Dance Tent destroyed any hopes of hearing mainstage acts from the lawn.
I didn’t see near enough bathrooms for 35,000 people. I cannot fathom how they were at say, 10pm.
Couldn’t find a comfortable place to sit and be able to hear the mainstage; we left at 4:30.
I read somewhere that food vendors surrounding the pavilion were sold out of food by 5pm. If that is true, that is unacceptable. Promoters KNEW how many people were attending.
I have been to similar events put on by Hi-Ball Events- such as the Shamrock Fest, and the Blok-tober Fest, that were well-run, efficient, and comfortable, with TONS of porta-pottys that stayed in usable condition throughout the entire length of the event. This was not like that.
Conditions at this event were deteriorating by 5pm?? That is pretty poor planning.

Anonymous didn't like Girltalk? Seriously? And you're going to complain about crowds? It's a concert with popular acts. It's going to be crowded. That's why the people attending a show are called "a crowd."

Not to mention, crowds at Merriweather are a good thing...especially for anyone like me who wants it to stay a viable concert venue.

And that's the real success story, I think. Merriweather was a simply near-perfect venue. There were trees. There was shade. There was always somewhere you could go to cool off. There was grass instead of Pimlico's mud/straw combo. Didn't like the view or started to feel crowded (*cough* Anonymous *cough*)? The bowl shape of the lawns at both stages made it easy to move and find a spot you liked better.

After Pimlico in 2006, I had sworn off any outdoor festival that wasn't Falcon Ridge. Merriweather brought me back outside. Sure, it's about the music, but the music goes down a lot easier under the shade.

My top acts (in order):
The National, The Hold Steady, Weezer, Public Enemy, St. Vincent, Mates of State

I was shocked that A) Weezer sounded good and could sing and B)Public Enemy was fairly on time and entertaining.

The National was just epic

my top shows:
franz ferdinand, girl talk, the national, holy f&*^*k, public enemy, weezer

i saw eeezer a while back at coachella and wasn't very impressed at all...but they were much better last night.

franz ferdinand were epic.

also - at one point in girl talk's set he mixed Rye Rye with Journey and my head almost exploded.

@ calicogal - You left too soon. We didn't GET there until around that time. I thought it was very well run. The longest I had to wait in line for a bathroom break was 2 minutes, the ATMs were humming along, and the vendors were moving quick. Ran out of food? I got a bite to eat around 9, so I'm not sure what you're hearing.
Public Enemy and Franz Ferdinand were by far the highlights for me.
I agree about the pavilion maybe not being the best place for the main stage b/c of the tight fit, but the West stage was great!

Left after Blink-182 came on with them patting themselves on the back after every song... Travis Barker seemed to be the only one playing well each song.

- Weezer was great!

- Dance Tent sound did blow into the Pavilion's seating area - especially if one was standing/sitting in the back up top.

- I had VIP bracelet - so could wander into area of clean restrooms, easy access to drinks, etc. BUT I saw massive lines for everyone else.

- thought Pete Tong & Danny Howells did great sets - lot of people up and dancing during both performances.

- should have stayed to see Franz Ferdinand. Next time...

having jet, the bravery, weezer and blink play on the same stage consecutively was a dumb idea. at least one of those bands should have been on the west stage to avoid the issue with getting into the pavilion.

I second BC. @CalicoGal: Did you seriously attend the same show the rest of us did? Plenty of food, plenty of bathrooms (especially by second stage), the Main Stage totally drowned out the Dance Stage unless you were right at the back, and when I got there at 1:30 there were still plenty choice lawn seats, plus pavilion seats for line-standers.

Though, yeah, there were a lot of margarita stands.

Pimlico worked better IMO. The free part was great but both the line-up and venue reflected it. I remember being imprssed by the set up last year and frustrated by it this year - a dance tent should be a tent, the woods were cool but only after dark, the pavillion did not work (too few seats, volume was way too low for the thousands on the hill watching TV since the stage was too far off), and the walk from the parking lot took a lot out of people who would be asked to walk back and forth several times between stages. On a positive note - free was good, PE was great and so was weezer. Thanks virgin

Merriweather played host to another rather amazing show this weekend too. Pics and words from the Flaming Lips concert here:

Very young crowd yesterday, but they're the people who buy more cell phones and download ring tones and that's who vigin mobile wants. I didn't hear many musical highlights, but I had a great time and to get all that for free is just amazing!

It'll be interesting to see what happens next year, as far as tickets, venue, acts. Definitely some confusion this year as far as how to get tickets, when, where, but the show was worth it.

best concert ever blink was amazing

That point crossed my mind as well, Andrea. Was this the VFest send-off in Baltimore? Can they go back next year to $200 tickets for a 2-day event now that people have gotten a taste of the free life?

weezer was amazing way better then i expected. id say blink was my favorite because not only are they my favorite band but they played awsoem songs and i thought were pretty funny. but i read a few people saying their jokes got old? thats how blink is hah i would have paid $50 just to see blink-182 play

overall i had a great time. thought the event was very well run, no extremely long lines. every beer i got i just walked right up no waiting and the shade helped me not feel like i was going to die around 530. My only suggestion would be to make the pavilion the secondary stage and use the west area with the stage moved back up against the roadway as the main stage to bring back the real festival feel and appropriately cater to a main stage crowd

Rivers Cuomo on the trampoline was a nice highlight.

I thought Weezer stole the show as well. I do think it's funny that all the posters here didn't get Blink 182's sarcasm. They weren't really patting themselves in the back, it was a joke. "This is going to be awesome!"... it was funny.

I agree with tootall's suggestion to make the west stage the main stage for the festival - it felt much more like the Pimlico stages did, as you could get right up near the front if you wanted, without waiting on that absurd line required to get in the pavilion.

I liked this venue much more than Pimlico, and I hope it returns in 2010. It was easier to get in and out of, the trees provided great shade when desired (though the heat wasn't intense that day anyway), and the food & drink stands seemed more accessible.

It was an awesome day! i downloaded some awesome ringtones etc... say, does anyone have anymore info on this $10 120 minute "welfare deal that I heard virgin is offering?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I have a question about Virgin Mobile. Are they offering a low-cost plan for unemployed and other people who need a basic phone w/o the big bills? I keep hearing that they make a $10 a month plan available for those who can't afford more but I don't see it on their site.

Do they have it? If so why don't they announce it?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I have a question about Virgin Mobile. Are they offering a low-cost plan for unemployed and other people who need a basic phone w/o the big bills? I keep hearing that they make a $10 a month plan available for those who can't afford more but I don't see it on their site.

Do they have it? If so why don't they announce it?

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About Erik Maza
Erik Maza is a features reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He writes for several sections of the Sun paper and contributes weekly columns on music and nightlife. He also writes and edits the Midnight Sun blog. He often covers entertainment, business, and the business of entertainment. Occasionally, he writes about Four Loko, The Block, the liquor board, and those who practice "simulated sex with a potted palm tree." Before The Sun, he was a reporter at the Miami New Times. He's also written for Miami magazine, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Gainesville Sun. Got tips? Gripes? Pitches? He's reachable at Click here to keep up with the dumb music he's listening to.

Midnight Sun covers Baltimore music, live entertainment, and nightlife news. On the blog, you'll find, among other things, concert announcements, breaking news, bars closings and openings, up-to-date coverage of crime in nightlife, new music, round-the-clock coverage of Virgin Mobile FreeFest, handy guides on bars staying open past 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve and those that carry Natty Boh on draft. Recurring features include seven-day nightlife guides, Concert News, guest reviews of bars and concerts, Wednesday Corkboard, and photo galleries, as well as reader-submitted photos. Thanks for reading.

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