By the time Public Enemy shook the west stage crowd with Flavor Flav crowdsurfing during "Fight The Power" under the late afternoon sun, the musical momentum at the Virgin Mobile FreeFest on Sunday (Aug. 30) had been building for five hours. It didn't hit its peak, however, until nearly 8pm with Weezer's mainstage opening salvo, a cover of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs." The 35,000 who'd roamed the fest's three stages since the morning were on their feet cheering for all of Weezer's 14-song set until the long, carnival-like day finally made the crowd lose steam near the end of the energetic hour-and-a-half from headliners Blink-182 that followed.
Above: Watch Weezer perform live at the Virgin Mobile FreeFest on Aug. 30, 2009.
Virgin founder Richard Branson's 2009 iteration of his annual Maryland music festival had taken a turn toward the recession-minded; this year the one-day fest featured free tickets and V.I.P. treatment for concertgoers who had done charity work. The bands on the bill eschewed their paychecks to play. Under the trees at Merriweather Post Pavillion, this message was telegraphed by a number of well-choreographed stunts and a zillion corporate sponsors with logos and giveaway tents everywhere. Between a midway lined with Kyocera's "lay-off" lounge (odd, for a fest lineup that clearly drew folks under 25) and well-attended Gibson and Converse tents, Blink-182's Tom DeLonge and Flavor Flav guest bartending unannounced in the charity oriented "Karma Bar," the branded skydivers parachuting over the venue and landing on the pavilion roof, and of course the 19 artists playing the three stages, the 12-hour event had the feeling of one big, slick non-stop fair.
Above: Watch Blink-182 perform at the Virgin Mobile FreeFest.
The fans may have been out there trying to snag all the swag on offer, but it was also clear that most came for the music. Even at 1 in the afternoon, St. Vincent caught a large, appreciative crowd on the west stage as she did a solo cover of the Beatles' "I Dig A Pony," just her voice and black stratocaster, before her band joined her again for "Laughing With a Mouth Full of Blood." Simultaneously, Holy Fuck's quartet of dark-haired guys formed a semi-circle and bent to creating their throbbing beat on the dance stage out in the woods to another clutch of thousands.
Mates of State warmed up the main stage with their easy, poppy sounds ("Fraud In The 80s"), but festivities under the big roof didn't seem to really get underway until pop-punk New Yorkers Taking Back Sunday took their turn around 3pm to a chorus of high-pitched screams. They crammed fifteen songs into their hour-long set, drawing from their new album "New Again" ("Sink Into Me," "Lonely Lonely") as well as each of their previous sets, 2002's "Tell All Your Friends" ("So Last Summer"), 2004's "Where You Want To Be" ("180 By Summer"), and 2006's "Louder Now" ("MakeDamnSure"). Later, the band told Billboard.com that the next single will be ""Where My Mouth Is."
Above: Watch the Hold Steady perform at the Virgin Mobile FreeFest.
Soon the west stage emerged as the more informal, though no less popular, place to get rocked. The Hold Steady brought waves of sturdy verse chorus verse to the west while on the pavilion stage Jet strutted through songs from new album, "Shaka Rock," which debuted on the Billboard 200 last week at No. 5. The Aussie rawkers got their biggest surge from the crowd, however, when they pulled out their most familiar song, the Stooges-ey "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" from 2003.
Above: Watch the Bravery perform at the Virgin Mobile FreeFest.
Public Enemy captivated on the west stage come 5pm, with solider-dancers in camouflage uniforms moving in lockstep behind Chuck D and Flavor Flav's tag team rapping. The audience was thrilled mainly to see Flav, as they had chanted his name earlier during his bartending stunt. He really milked the attention too: sticking around after the set to play a few beats on the drum kit, giving out stickers and CDs and talking extensively to the crowd as roadies tore down their equipment to make room for The National, who were up next. "Thank you for making me No. 1 on TV," Flav said. "And good luck at school!"
After press photographers had to be warned about bodies surfing over the barricade onto their heads, it was no surprise that Weezer and Blink-182, under a bright moon, enjoyed the fest's biggest crowd and biggest cheers. Weezer, dressed all in red, followed "War Pigs" with "Hash Pipe," the first of many singalongs during their hit laden set ("Undone," "Say It Ain't So," "Buddy Holly"). They closed with the Clash's "Should I Stay Or Should I Go," and the band had the lyrics on a sheet taped next to the setlist at thier feet.
Next, Tom DeLonge launched Blink-182's set with "Dumpweed" and "Feeling This," peppering the set with jocular banter ("My name's so awesome it has it's own cock and balls!"). Blink got lots of singing along and plenty of hoots for drummer Travis Barker; the audience nearly drowned out the band during "What's My Age Again?." The crowd sustained their gleeful pushing and shouting for several songs, but as the band brought the fest to a close, just about everyone in sight seemed beat, facing a long drive home and a Monday morning. But hey, you could do much worse than to spend one of the last weekends of summer seeing free music under a perfect blue sky.