I’m sitting in the Baltimore airport waiting to board my plane home to New York. Through the window the world is rather gray. Overcast and dreary. Perfect hoodie weather. I keep watching everyone walk by, hoping it will be John Waters. No such luck, but I keep imagining everyone as characters from his movies. There are no Divines or Ricki Lakes walking around, just the humdrum of ordinary folks in ordinary clothes. The suburban life that John Waters depicts in his movies are certainly here carrying purses and wheeling luggage. Though, it still doesn’t stop me from looking for that iconic mustache dressed in stylish menswear. Oh, how I yearned to knock on his front door and be greeted by his Polaroid camera.
The reason I’m sitting in a Baltimore airport is because MK appointed me to represent PopBytes at Virgin Mobile‘s annual FreeFest in Columbia, Maryland. Since PopBytes is lucky to be part of their Virgin 25 ambassador program, each year we are able to attend one of the best one-day festivals in the states. It isn’t one of the best festivals because you know, it’s free, but because they have super awesome lineups. This year Virgin Mobile has curated such an eclectic mix of artists. From Jack White to M83 to Skrillex and Santigold. I had a difficult time trying to plan an itinerary; there were so many artists I wanted to check out.
The day before the festival during our summit meeting, Virgin Mobile and their team explained the origin of the festival to us. Since the Virgin Mobile FreeFest “sold” out in two minutes, Virgin Mobile gave music fans the chance to volunteer their time at youth homeless shelters to earn a ticket to the festival, through their RE*Generation program. RE*Generation’s mission is to inspire a generation to help others that are less fortunate. It’s all about karma here at Virgin Mobile FreeFest. Since 2009, 75,000 hours of community service has been donated to homeless youth and $500,000 has been donated to homeless youth charities. Just last year, Virgin Mobile was able to open a youth shelter in Washington, D.C. The money made this year is being used to hire a staff and actually open the doors to the RE*Generation house.
There are passionate folks behind the Virgin Mobile team. They seem so compassionate when talking about helping the communities around them. They aren’t here just trying to sell cell phones to consumers; they are looking to do good in the world. They would like their karma practices to live on through the attendees at FreeFest. They would like to inspire compassion in others.
Not only is Virgin compassionate but they have always been correlated with good taste. Their taste is depicted in the interior design of their commercial airplanes or in music. Remember all those Virgin Megastores you would get lost in for hours? They have curated an extensive catalog for music lovers. I have spent many hours and (lots of cash!) in their extensive import section. I was a Brit-Pop-loving teenager. An anglophile if you will. I was one of the first few Americans to catch on to Coldplay and Muse. I saw the latter back in 2000 in one of the smallest venues in New York City’s East Village and now they are selling out Madison Square Garden! Virgin was a tastemaker back then, and I would argue that even without retail locations in the states, Virgin is still known for their taste. They have curated amazing lineups at each year’s FreeFest since the first festival in 2006. From TV on the Radio to Jimmy Eat World. Patti Smith to The Killers and Weezer. It’s not just rock and roll either. Hip-hop, EDM and everything in between have a stage to perform on at FreeFest.
This year was no different. FreeFest could satisfy any music fan’s desire. If you’re a dance hall queen, you could have danced your face off in the Dance Forest to DJs like Porter Robinson & Zedd, or Nervo and Penguin Prison. If you wanted some New York hip-hop, Nas was your man on the Festival Stage. If you wanted less rapping but still wanted some New York City cred, there was Santigold and her amazing dancers. ZZ Top was there for the dad’s chaperoning their teenage sons. Ben Folds Five reunited for all those stuck in the 90s, while Jack White kept the spirit of rock and roll alive on the Pavilion Stage. M83 satisfied those electronic, atmospheric types who have an affinity for 80s teen movies. Skrillex closed the night spinning on a spaceship! Yes, you heard me, Skrillex was spinning on a spaceship.
Since I’ve never been to FreeFest at the Merriweather Post Pavillion, once I got to the festival I had to scope out the grounds. I discovered all three stages, all the different concession stands and where I can find the nearest beer. At this point it was still cloudy and we all weren’t sure which way the weather would go. I was prepared either way. Virgin Mobile offered us bloggers fanny packs stuffed with festival necessities like sunblock, hand sanitizer, a bottle of 5-hour Energy and sunglasses. I also stuffed ziplock bags, a phone charger and a bottle full of awesome. The iconic Virgin Mobile ferris wheel was circling round and round. Ferris wheels terrify me more than anything, so I kept my distance. Das Racist was supposed to open the festival but supposedly “broke up” the night before. So, local natives Future Islands christened the Festival stage. For the record, it turned out Das Racist emcee Himanshu Suri got strep throat. I wasn’t bummed because I wasn’t planning on seeing them anyway. But half of the Virgin 25 group did.
Future Islands rocked the Festival stage. Frontman Sam Herring was giving his all on stage. He was part Ian Curtis of Joy Division and part any hardcore band from the late 90s. He was thrashing his body around, I feared he would get whiplash. His vocals ranged from melodic to screaming. This Baltimore snythpop trio had the crowd going wild and it was barely noon! After their set, we stumbled into the Dance Forest to check out Penguin Prison. I was surprised Chris Glover had a band to back him up. He performed “Hollywood,” the track he did with RAC and it was top notch.
It seemed everyone had a conflict of interest. Ben Folds Five’s set overlapped Santigold’s. I chose to see the latter. I had to support a Brooklyn artist who has managed to dominate every dance playlist I have ever compiled. I caught her at SXSW this year and found her underwhelming. What she lacked in March, she made up here at FreeFest. She dominated this stage, along with her two matching dancers who were so synchronized, I thought they were mirrored images. Costume changes and even two guys in a white horse costume trampled around the stage. She opened with the frenetic “Go” and even though Karen O didn’t make an appearance, Santigold sold that song. She even sang her verses from “Brooklyn Go Hard,” the track she did with Jay-Z. Santigold was rocking so hard, she lost one of her bracelets in the crowd. She seemed really bummed. “You know what keep it! It keeps negative energy away,” she told the crowd and continued singing. She performed all the crowd favorites including “L.E.S. Artistes” and “Disparate Youth.” During her closing song “Creator” she invited people from the crowd to come up on stage and dance along with her. Hand selected by Santi herself, we all dreamed of being pointed to and asked to join her. Santi warned the selected fans to give room for her dancers to dance, but of course one tall lanky white girl refused to listen. Instead of dancing with the crowd on stage, she inches closer and closer to Santi. At some point Santi had enough of this girl and actually pushed her away. No one will upstage Santigold.
M83 was next up on my schedule. Just when the day turned officially night, M83 took the stage. I couldn’t wait to get into the huge crowd of people that were awaiting their set. Once the sun went down it seemed to drop twenty degrees and I was in just jeans and a tee shirt, so the body heat offered by this immense crowd was for the first time ever, really welcoming. In their dramatic and cinematic way, M83 initiated the night with a long intro of synths, guitar, and drums colliding into a surreal dreamy arrangement. The lights were blinding everyone in a three-mile radius. It was beautiful and exhilarating. I’ve followed M83’s career since their beginning. I’ve followed every incarnation of M83. Anthony Gonzalez the only constant. I’ve seen him perform in small venues in NYC, which were not even at half capacity. Those days when you begged for vocals on a track but they never came. Those early days of M83 were intimate and personal; it felt as if you were in on secret filled with sonic virtuosity. After their engaging intro where they keyboardist seem to have an epileptic fit over the keys, they rolled into “Teen Angst” off their 2005 album “Before the Dawn Heals Us.” Incredible. It was unbelievable how many people were there to experience “We Own the Sky” one of my favorite tracks by them. I’m super stoked they broke through the pop world with “Midnight City” which everyone danced and rocked out to. In particular these two dudes in baseball caps in front of us, kept kissing each other every few seconds, as if they were on some sonic honeymoon. They closed the night with “Couleurs,” their goth-synth-pop-industrial dancehall track off of “Saturdays = Youth.” I’ve never heard them perform this and I always imagined myself in a dark sweaty goth club in Germany in the late 80s, dancing off my gloomy depression with black eyeliner running down my pale face. Instead, I was in a freezing cold park in the suburbs of Washington D.C. with pink and red lights shooting into the dark night, while rocking out in a Rihanna tee shirt. I’m not sure which scene I prefer, but I can tell you the latter felt amazing. I didn’t want to believe that was their last song, I was just getting warmed up (literally,) but we watched them leave the stage and never come back.
Skrillex is next. I’m not really a fan but I was already in the crowd so we decided to wait for him. It was rumored he was going to have a spaceship on the stage. Who wouldn’t want to see something like that? It’s freezing. Kids from every direction are trying to make their way closer to the stage, to be close to their dubstep hero. A spaceship does appear on stage and so does Skrillex who is twisting and turning knobs in the cabin of said spaceship. Everyone seems to go nuts. Beats drop over sampled pop songs. From the stage, fire shoots up into the sky while smoke hovers above the crowd. Skrillex has ridiculous stage antics. Every so often he screams to the crowd through his microphone and the crowd screams back. Ridiculous images are projected on two screens on both sides of the stage that seemed to subliminally tell everyone to jump around like rabid lunatics. It was as if they were in a mosh pit at a Nirvana show in the early 90s. I thought electronic music inspired shaking hips and rhythm, not thrashing around as if they were at a Minor Threat or Bad Brains show in D.C.. So, the crowd is throwing themselves all over the place, thrashing around with their hands up over their heads. This is moshing for the 21st century. I get stuck behind a rather large man and he is jumping up and down as high as he can go. He’s sweaty and he smells and I can’t stop myself from getting pushed into him. This is where I call it quits and knock over a few people to get out of the crowd as soon as possible. Phew!
I compose myself on the sidelines of a Skrillex mosh pit and walk over to the Pavilion stage where Jack White was playing. I get there and he’s playing a White Stripes song. It brings me back to 2001. Everyone around me is drunk and I’m quite there as well. Every age group is present at this Jack White performance. I see moms and dads. Bohemian types and your average college student. Every other person seems wrapped in a blanket and I’m envious. Did they carry that blanket around the entire day? I walk over to the VIP area to find some of the others but no one seems to be around. It’s dark and I’m cold. I lie down on one of the huge inflatable sofas that were dressed up in Virgin Mobile gear and pillows. I’m spent. I can hear the distinct riff of “Seven Nation Army” travel through the Merriweather Post Pavilion as I’m staring up into the dark sky. It was a surreal yet amazing ending to Virgin Mobile FreeFest. Familiar faces are appearing and I’m told there is an after party.I begrudgingly get up and take a long deep sigh and order another whiskey ginger from the bar.