Things to Do

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

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.
Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.