California has Coachella, that giant prom night in the desert for the boldest-face names in music. Chicago has the Pitchfork Music Festival, with a lineup of emerging bands so obscure that it’s hard to imagine singing along to many songs.

Washington has Virgin Mobile FreeFest, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

For five years, the music festival has gifted nearly every ticket in the house to music fans, giving them a chance to flail wildly to Skrillex, bang their heads to the Black Keys and groove to Alabama Shakes.

On Saturday, about 50,000
music faithful will pour into Merriweather Post Pavilion for this year’s sold-out festival, featuring
20 acts, three stages and a ferris wheel. Sing along? How about trying to hit the high notes of summer earworm “Blurred Lines” with Robin Thicke himself?

This year’s bill, however, is packed with more up-and-comers and buzz bands than ever. You may know those sun-dappled fellows from Vampire Weekend, but how versed are you in the songs of neo-country crooners the Avett Brothers or funk-soul revivalist Black Joe Lewis?

Enter our FreeFest primer — everything you need to feel more in-the-know than a music blogger — including the songs to listen to tonight and sing along to tomorrow.

Set time:

Black Joe Lewis

Listening to Black Joe Lewis can make you feel like you’ve ingested something illegal and joined the mud dancing at Woodstock. The Austin rocker and his band, the Honeybears, unabashedly channel such ’60s giants as Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix.

The song to know: Skulldiggin.” Heads will be banging as soon as rhythmic keys usher in this wailing, three-minute rager off Lewis’s weeks-old album, “Electric Slave.”

Catch him if you’re a fan of: The Black Keys, White Stripes, James Brown

Set time: 3 to 4 p.m. (Pavilion Stage)


Scottish electro-poppers Chvrches (pronounce it “Churches”) are riding into Merriweather on a wave of buzz, having been anointed by no less than the BBC as one of a handful of bands forging the “Sound of 2013.” Lead singer Lauren Mayberry’s wisp of a voice cuts like glass through her bandmates’ hard-driving synthesizers, but the band is no slouch when it comes to lyricism either. Mayberry has a law degree and a master’s in journalism.

The song to know: Upbeat dance single “Recover” plays like three glorious minutes in a moon bounce. Expect the rest of the set to veer toward the lesser-known tracks off the trio’s first full-length album, “The Bones of What You Believe,” out next week.

Catch them if you’re a fan of: The Knife, the XX

Set time: 2:15 to 3:15 p.m. (West Stage)

The Avett Brothers

Like fellow modern-day jug bands Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, these North Carolina Americana heroes — who have been playing together for more than a decade — have climbed the charts by shining the tarnish off country tropes till they feel new again. But the Avetts are more inclined toward plainspokenness and spare compositions than their suspender-wearing counterparts are.

The song to know: “Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in,” brothers Scott, right, and Seth plead memorably in “I and Love and You,” the band’s breakout hit. You’d never know it from a casual listen, but the Avetts regularly turn to mega-producer Rick Rubin, the mastermind behind Kanye West’s “Yeezus” and The Beastie Boys’ “Licensed to Ill,” to make magic of their sound.

Catch them if you’re a fan of: Mumford & Sons, Josh Ritter, Lambchop

Set time: 7:30 to 8:50 p.m. (Pavilion Stage)

Pretty Lights

Pretty Lights, the alter ego of producer Derek Vincent Smith, has more in common with ’90s trip-hop than with today’s screeching dubstep, delivering soul-soaked sample hurricanes made for fans turned off by EDM’s rapid-fire beats and big drops. Another reason this act is a festival favorite: an eye-popping light show torn from the Pink Floyd playbook.

The song to know:I Can See It in Your Face,” a sassy march from 2010’s “Making Up a Changing Mind.”

Catch him if you’re a fan of: DJ Shadow, Girl Talk

Set time: 8:30 to 10 p.m. (West Stage)


Although not as well-known stateside as his dance-music compatriots Benny Benassi and David Guetta, Italian-born DJ Rocco Rampino can get a party started, ratcheting up heart rates with pitch-shifting electro-house that will have you hunting for a glow stick.

The song to know:Babylon,” a favela-inflected banger that took the club circuit by storm a couple of years ago.

Catch him if you’re a fan of: David Guetta, DeadMau5, Diplo

Set time: 4:20 to 5:50 p.m. (Dance Forest Stage)

Robin Thicke
Singer Robin Thicke scored the summer’s hottest dance track with his roller-disco-ready “Blurred Lines” and also managed to land in the hottest water for the song’s fuzzy — okay, neanderthal — understanding of sexual politics. And then came Miley. The FreeFest crowd will be one of the few to judge whether Thicke can rise above his own din; the singer begged off touring this year, making this weekend’s appearance one of only a handful he’ll make on the heels of “Blurred Lines.”

The (other) song to know: “Take It Easy on Me.” The second dance-floor-ready track on the “Blurred Lines” album channels Justin Timberlake in the best way and has Thicke returning to his finest ladies’ man form.

Catch him if you’re a fan of: Oh, come on. There’s no way you’re not going to see him. 

Set time: 6:45 to 7:45 p.m. (West Stage)

Vampire Weekend

Few can rock boat shoes, cardigans and unrelenting optimism like New York prepsters Vampire Weekend, who will effectively serve as FreeFest’s biggest act and headliner. This year’s “Modern Vampires of the City” album was a galloping, punk-forward effort that showed these perennial college boys could grow up.

The song to know: A-Punk,” a two-minute world-music-tinged jammer off the band’s 2008 debut, is perhaps Vampire Weekend’s most familiar and commercial song. But keep your ears open for the buoyant, horn-driven“Diane Young” (get it, “dying young”?) off “Modern Vampires.”

Catch them if you’re a fan of: Paul Simon, the Postelles, the Dead Milkmen

Set time: 9:20 to 10:50 p.m. (Pavilion Stage)