Virgin FreeFest Has Plenty to Like, Especially the Ticket Price

By David Malitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 31, 2009

Sunday's Virgin Mobile Festival was dubbed FreeFest, but it may as well have been called No Complaints Fest. The fourth edition of the annual rock extravaganza was scaled back from two days to one and moved from Baltimore's colossal Pimlico Race Track to the cozier Merriweather Post Pavilion. But no change was more radical than that of the ticket price, from a whole lot to zero.

So what if the alt-rock radio staples of a decade ago, Blink-182 and Weezer, weren't as appealing as past headliners such as the Who, Kanye West, the Police and Nine Inch Nails?

It was free.

So what if the decision to award pavilion seating on a first-come, first-served basis left many attendees waiting in a seemingly endless line to get near the stage?

Yeah, but it was free. And volunteerism and community service were the official themes.

Well, a slab of pizza and a Pepsi cost $12. (Now that's just being picky.)

Whether the move to free is a permanent shift or a well-timed, economically correct one-off remains to be seen, but it wouldn't be the worst strategy for a festival franchise still searching for an identity. While mega-fests such as Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and Coachella have no problem reaching capacity, that hasn't been an issue yet with Virgin Mobile Fest. Until this year, of course, when 35,000 freebies were snapped up within minutes. The overwhelmingly young crowd that came to Merriweather on Sunday was treated to perfect weather, as much free swag as they could fit into a Kyocera backpack and, yeah, some good music.

Weezer sounded as dynamic as ever as the quintet charged through its catalogue of alt-rock hits, with oversize guitar riffs balanced by singer Rivers Cuomo's quirky lyrics and mannerisms. The frenzied crowd hit every singalong cue without prompting, even during a closing cover of the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go."

The eldest act on the bill was nearly as impressive. Rap pioneers Public Enemy, led by outspoken frontman Chuck D, turned fiery polemics such as "Fight the Power" and "Welcome to the Terrordome" into hand-waving hits. The presence of Flavor Flav lent the set an air of lightness; for all his shenanigans on VH1, he remains the definitive hip-hop hype man.

If quality were judged by how many expletives were muttered by band members between songs, reunited pop-punk trio Blink-182 gave a headlining performance for the ages. Songs such as "What's My Age Again?" and "The Rock Show" were fun, hook-filled romps but were the exception in a mostly punchless set. Franz Ferdinand was the ideal antidote to Blink-182. The Scottish group delivered rousing, razor sharp, post-punk anthems, peaking with the militaristic stomp of "Take Me Out."

At the other side of the venue, mash-up maestro Girl Talk (Gregg Gillis and his laptop) was joined onstage by nearly a hundred revelers as he sampled the likes of Wreckx-n-Effect, Nirvana and Journey during his head-spinning set. Each recognizable song only served to incite more frenzy in the crowd.

The subtleties of some songs by St. Vincent, a.k.a. indie ingenue Annie Clark, and her quintet were lost in the large festival setting -- double clarinet doesn't usually translate well to a giant outdoor space -- but her guitar heroics were enough to make her set a winner, with a solo electric take on the Beatles' "Dig a Pony" serving as a particular highlight.

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