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Virgin Mobile FreeFest: Winners and Losers

Mud, dance fans, and mau5heads prevailed at Merriweather this weekend

About 50,000 people turned out for Virgin Mobile’s FreeFest 2011 at Merriweather. Photographs by John Wilwol

Chances are good that if you’re reading this you were at FreeFest on Saturday, since the annual Virgin Mobile-sponsored festival seemed to have attracted every single person under the age of 25 within a 100-mile radius. An estimated 50,000 people flocked to Merriweather this year to see a lineup that virtually defined eclectic: Akron, Ohio rockers the Black Keys, Canadian DJ Deadmau5, ’70s punk icon (and National Book Award-winner) Patti Smith, Australian electronic act Cut Copy, the joyfully profane Cee Lo Green, and the endlessly inventive Brooklyn band TV on the Radio, among others. Here’s our absolutely subjective and by no means scientific take on FreeFest 2011.


TV on the Radio.

The Tunde Adebimpe-led act delivered one of the most vibrant sets of the day, rocking out to new tracks and old favorites: They closed with a resounding performance of “Wolf Like Me,” reminding us why they’re arguably still one of the most innovative bands out there, even without bassist Gerard Smith, who died of lung cancer earlier this year. Mad props also to TVOTR’s trombonist, who was a surprisingly punchy presence onstage and made a persuasive case for putting the “wind” in “indie.”

The Black Keys.

Was it a challenge to follow TVOTR’s set with a pared-down, two-man band? Yes. Did they succeed? Yes. With a drummer (Patrick Carney) who bears an uncanny resemblance to Animal from the Muppets, and the mad multitasking skills of vocalist/guitarist Dan Auerbach, the pair proved they deserved their headline-act status, although the reinforcements they drafted in after a Kinks cover helped pick things up a notch.


Between the unrelenting pressure of last week’s rain, and the hay thrown down everywhere in an effort to soak it up, the West Stage had the look (and smell) of Farmer Giles’ barnyard, which isn’t exactly the most complementary ambience when you’re jamming to Cee Lo Green and his rocking band of space-age fembots. Still, rainboots were few and far between, proving that fashion trumps practicality for festival-wear every time.

Cee Lo, of Gnarls Barkley and the man behind the 2010 hit “Forget You” was one of artists that made the FreeFest’s 2011 eclectic lineup.


Festivalgoers who occasionally like to eat, drink, and use the bathroom. With 50,000 people crammed into a space designed for around one-third of that, things got a little crowded, to say the least, with restroom lines stretching endlessly on, and concession stands running out of food around 8 PM. Positioning the Dance Forest smack in-between the West Stage and the Pavilion also didn’t seem to be the wisest option, since bottlenecking fans got stuck trying to get from one act to another. We have one (compound) word for you next year, Merriweather: Porta Potties.

’70s icon Patti Smith performing at Virgin Mobile’s FreeFest 2011.

Richard Branson. The bearded English gazillionaire was apparently in attendance but was presumably sheltered from the manure and the revelry (hopefully he wasn’t being driven around in one of the insanely aggressive golf carts). When Sir Richard finally popped up in an interview with the perkily blonde festival emcee, everybody was far too amped for TVOTR to actually hear what he was saying. But thanks for the free festival anyway, Rich. We salute you.

Okkervil River. Despite delivering a solid set (and representing one of the few indie acts on the bill), the Texas-based band was hampered by the fact that most FreeFesters were still stuck in traffic during their hour-long set. Ditto Brit-DJ Calvin Harris, and the ever-impressive Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. Our mantra for next year? “Arrive Early, Bring a Picnic.” Not to mention Xanax, if you’re not a fan of impromptu crowd-surfing, and rainboots, if you’re not a fan of impromptu brown body paint.

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