An hour later, Deadmau5, the massively popular electro-house DJ famous for wearing an oversize, mouse-eared helmet, was dishing up escapist electronic dance music that felt as thick and sugary as funnel cake. Fans bounced and bobbled, some sporting mouse ears of their own.
Those two wildly disparate acts drew the most enthusiastic response at this year’s FreeFest, which brought 50,000 fans to Merriweather Post Pavilion on Saturday.
Over the course of 11 hours, they swarmed the venue’s grounds, soaking up the gorgeous weather and pinballing among three stages in hopes of catching performances from 20 acts, including blues-rock duo the Black Keys, hip-pop crooner Cee Lo Green and rock icon Patti Smith.
For the third year in a row, tickets were given away online — a tactic organizers adopted in 2009 in response to a recession that refuses to let up. Backstage on Saturday, Virgin’s founder, Richard Branson, said he’d like to try to keep it that way: “I would love to see if we could do it indefinitely.”
The young’uns were camped out near a side stage dubbed the Dance Forest to see the likes of Porter Robinson, Calvin Harris and the Teddybears — a Swedish trio who wore large Deadmau5-ish bear masks. All three acts served up unrelenting, ear-splitting house beats while fans got their feet wet on a squishy dance floor made of mud.
A wiry set from New York punk-funk veterans !!! (it’s pronounced chk-chk-chk) felt like smart counter-programming to all of that overblown bass. “I heard this was the Virgin FreeFest,” frontman Nic Offer hollered. “Good! Because I hate virgins!”
As Offer strutted across the stage, his bandmates carved out their own piece of the spotlight with syrupy grooves and tightly coiled rhythms. It was the signature sound of New York Cool nearly a decade ago, and Saturday’s set was an argument in favor of a revival.
It was a FreeFest return for James Murphy, albeit a low-key one. Last year he led his now-defunct band LCD Soundsystem through a euphoric headlining set on the Pavilion Stage. This year, performing as a DJ in the Dance Forest, Murphy delivered an understated set of disco-house, managing fans’ expectations by declaring, “I hope it’s good.” It was, even if the tunes he played only tickled the pleasure centers that LCD Soundsystem once colonized.
Between the Dance Forest and the West Stage, fans crowded various booths on a wooded midway dedicated to a spectrum of charities: earthquake relief in Japan, aid to at-risk youth and the homeless, and fundraising for a skate park in Baltimore. There was also an information booth for homeowners facing foreclosure — not something you see at your average rock festival.
Rapper Big Sean mentioned the recession once during his set on the West Stage, but the rest of his time behind the mike was spent self-aggrandizing and rapping poorly. He preceded his pillowy radio hit “My Last” with some inspirational words: “Make sure you do the [expletive] you wanna do with this life” — proof that Lady Gaga’s believe-in-thyself affirmations have even spilled over into hip-hop.
Cee Lo Green let a little Pussycat Dolls spill over into his set when he crooned “Don’t Cha,” a song he penned for the Dolls in 2005. It earned a tepid singalong that couldn’t compare to gleeful head-bobbing when he sang his foul-mouthed mega-hit “]Expletive] You.”
Far less colorful sets came early in the day, including Bombay Bicycle Club’s boilerplate Brit-rock, Eclectic Method’s mishmash-ups and Alberta Cross’s bland take on American Southern rock, which brought to mind Kings of Leon, only without the mindlessly catchy singles.
But it wasn’t only the opening acts that stunk. The field where the West Stage stood was a soggy mush that organizers tried to make more tolerable by laying hay over it. The smell sparked nostalgia for 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 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 the members of 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 16th-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 oversize crowd to the West Stage with a set that peaked with “Lights & Music,” a standout from the group’s 2008 album, “In Ghost Colours.” A sea of fans swayed as one, with girlfriends seeking out a better view on their boyfriends’ 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 retrofitted 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 from the inimitable Patti Smith. “Because the Night” may have been the most emotive song in the 64-year-old’s set, but her words 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,” as 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.
For older fans, those words exerted a solemn gravity. But for the scores of teenagers who were only children in 2001, the moment evaporated into the noise of the day. They adjusted their mouse ears and kept on dancing.
Tweets from the festival: