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FreeFest 2013: Rain, Robert Palmer Girls, and Robin Thicke

The annual Merriweather festival returned for a fifth year, and not even the driving rain could ruin the fun.

Freefest headliner Robin Thicke, assisted by leather-clad backup dancers. Photographs by Benjamin Freed.

When the legacy acts at Saturday’s Virgin Mobile FreeFest first hit it big, a considerable swath of the 50,000 people in attendance were still in middle school. MGMT, the Avett Brothers, and Vampire Weekend as the veteran players? Sure, why not? If Merriweather Post Pavilion is going to be jammed with the youngest millennials, best not to bring on any acts whose relevance can only be explained by an older sibling or, Billboard charts forgive, a parent.

Nevertheless, the EDM-heavy lineup, filled with oontz-oontz-ing deejays unfamiliar to people born before 1990, featured a clutch of satisfying performances on an warm afternoon that gave way to a soaked evening. And, yeah, that even included “Blurred Lines” lothario Robin Thicke, who strode onto the festival’s outdoor stage in a crisp, black suit while rain poured down on a throng of fans clogging a debris-soaked mud pit. Did the kids know that Thicke, just a few weeks removed from that Miley Cyrus moment, is 36? If so, they didn’t seem to care, grinding up against strangers while the man himself, backed by his band and a trio of lithe, leather-clad backup dancers—the 2010s version of the Robert Palmer girls—twisted and thrusted their way through songs that aren’t “Blurred Lines.” (He closed with the monster hit of 2013, naturally.)

Swedish duo Icona Pop, authors of the 2012 club jam “I Love It,” made a bolder statement about not being pegged as a one-hit wonder. They screamed at the crowd to party harder even as the skies opened up.

The crowd obliged. And some partied too hard, perhaps the result of snuck-in booze or other supplies. (Admission might have been free, but unless one could reach the tiny deck selling $5 National Bohemian cans, beer started at a not-so-economical $9.) People joked (probably?) about snagging a dose of “molly,” the club drug du jour. The occasional reveler collapsed mid-set. Reports floated of a man who got so blasted, he stripped bare and dashed across FreeFest’s carnival area before being tackled by security.

Even if FreeFest, which has gone on gratis since 2009, is skewing younger with each lineup—last year’s show included ZZ Top!—it still fell to the seasoned acts to deliver the better segments. Aside from MGMT, who were thwarted by bad sound, the closing acts under the pavilion were a strong finish. The Avett Brothers were early adopters of that sad-sack bluegrass sound that has filtered through indie rock over the past decade. But while their genre has been watered down by the likes of Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, the Avetts showed the crowd that even at their folkiest, they can still shred.

But Vampire Weekend was the right band to close. Touring on their third album, the New York City four-piece delivered the most proficient set of the day, working through their (relatively) older hits and cuts off this year’s Modern Vampires of the City. They played with personality, stretched-out riffs, and clever stage banter, the kind of qualities that take a while to build up. Did the crowd know Vampire Weekend’s members graduated from Columbia in 2006? Probably best not to tell them, lest Vampire Weekend risk not being invited back due to old age.

One other cultural observation: The seapunk trend, in which people wear nautical-themed clothing, often accompanied by neon-dyed hair, shows no signs of quieting down any time soon. We counted at least 56 attendees sporting the look, including some who earned the appellation by piling on to golf carts decked out with large plastic clamshells.

MGMT had some difficulty with sound during the show.
Pouring rain didn’t deter festival-goers from the shows.
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