Far less colorful sets came early in the day, including the boilerplate Brit-rock of Bombay Bicycle Club, the mishmash-ups of Eclectic Method and Alberta Cross, which offered a bland take on American Southern rock, bringing to mind Kings of Leon but without the stupidly catchy singles.
But it wasn’t the opening acts that stunk. The field where the West Stage stood was a soggy, muddy mess that organizers tried to make more tolerable by laying hay over. The smell brought to mind the festival’s original locale, Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course, which hosted the festival for three years before organizers moved it to Merriweather Post Pavilion and decided to let everyone in for free.
Okkervil River had the first notable set of the afternoon, playing anthemic rock that felt like Arcade Fire without the inflated sense of self — even though Okkervil River are from Texas, where everything is supposed to be bigger. At one point, Will Sheff, the band’s bearded, bespectacled frontman, tried to get the audience to clap along to the music in sixteenth note pitter-pats, not realizing that these songs were tried-and-true fist-pumpers.
Australian synth-pop group Cut Copy also shined early in the day, attracting an oversized crowd to the muddy West Stage with a set that peaked with “Lights & Music,” a standout from the group’s 2008 album “In Ghost Colors.” A sea of fans swayed as one, with girlfriends seeking out a better view on their boyfriend’s shoulders. Once the first crowd surfer writhed near the front of the stage, it finally felt like a festival.
And it stayed that way until headliners the Black Keys finished things out on the Pavilion stage with their retro-fitted rock tunes. The Ohio duo seemed happy to carry the torch for the recently dissolved White Stripes with a slew of blues-rock tunes that were hard to fall in love with, but impossible to dislike.
But they sounded brittle coming after TV on the Radio, who somehow made room in their righteous, distorted swirl for the marvelous voices of singers Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe.
The only set nearly as poised as TV on the Radio’s came earlier in the day from the inimitable Patti Smith. “Because the Night” may have been the most emotive song in her set, but her banter between songs got the biggest response.
She was greeted with a mixed cocktail of boos and applause when she referred to John Walker Lindh as “the Bush administration’s scapegoat.” She urged the crowd to think hard about the anniversary that was only a few hours away. “Remember who you were September 10th,” she said.
But who will we be on Sept. 12? And will we still be wearing those ridiculous mouse ears?