Monday, August 31, 2009

The Merriweather Post Pavilion packed ‘em in Sunday for the fourth round of the Virgin Mobile FreeFest. Only, this time around, the mega event was free - a smaller, smarter incarnation with one packed day of shows and diversions instead of the sprawl of festivals past.

Heavy hitter acts like Blink-182, Franz Ferdinand, The Bravery and Weezer shared stages with up-and-comers, including Mates of State, Taking Back Sunday and The Hold Steady. And the well-behaved crowd of concertgoers (35,000 strong by one estimate) seemed to thoroughly enjoy Sir Richard Branson’s brand of an economic stimulus package.

As the first act to hit the main pavilion stage, Mates of State sounded pretty darn good, working through a loose set that included crowd favorites “Get Better” and “Think Long.” For a duo that has to perform while trapped behind keyboards and a drum kit, Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel got the crowd going just fine and proved, through smart instrumental interplay and clever vocal trade-offs, that the Mates can be more than the sum of their parts in a live setting.

The District’s own real-life rap star, Wale, took to the West Stage with supreme confidence, transforming it into his own house party by the end of the first song. Local floor fillers like “Back in the Go-Go” and “Put Me in the Pocket” got just as much love from the crowd as his more familiar hits like “W.A.L.E.D.A.N.C.E.” and “Chillin’”, and Wale gave back as good as he got. There’s no question that he’s an outstanding showman, but he really pulled out all the stops for this performance with plenty of D.C. shout outs, genuinely funny banter and a heap of plain old good energy. If this guy doesn’t break into the big time, in the very-near future, it will be astonishing.

Craig Finn and his Minneapolis outfit, The Hold Steady, gleefully engaged festival-goers with their unique brand of lyric-heavy cathartic-core, spinning journal entry missives over a backdrop of muscular guitar workouts. Mr. Finn, carousing like a bespectacled tent revivalist, led the well-polished group through a satisfying set that may have pulled a bit heavily from 2008’s Stay Positive, but proved none the worse for it. In fact, that album’s standouts (“Magazines,” Lord, I’m Discouraged” and “Slapped Actress”) just provided more fuel to an all-killer-no-filler show, especially when saddled alongside earlier favorites like “The Swish” and “Your Little Hoodrat Friend.”

Mr. Finn also went home with the “spirit award” for the day. During the entire show, he should have had a thought balloon next to his head that read “Whee!!”

Meanwhile, the venerable Public Enemy’s appearance at the festival was one of the most anticipated, and Sunday found the tenuously reformed unit taking the stage with an admirable amount of old school machismo.

Don’t believe the hype, sure, but don’t underestimate the elder statesmen of rap either.

Leader Chuck D proved to be quite sprightly for his 49 years, leveraging his formidable baritone on classics like “Bring the Noise” and “Fight the Power.” Worthy Terminator X replacement, DJ Lord, demonstrated his dexterity on the turntables, and then some “helicopter scratching” to the delight of the enthusiastic crowd.

No Public Enemy show would be complete, though, without the antics of quintessential hype man Flavor Flav. And hype he did. Flav worked the stage cameras like the seasoned egomaniac he is, mugging at every opportunity and plugging his solo material so much that it became comical. Slowed by long lapses of dated, idealism-heavy speeches, the set always picked back up when the music started. Public Enemy has always excelled as a provocative, shambling, wall-of-sound rent party, but the numerous breaks for motivational speeches only served to root the outfit in their ‘80s golden years. Get away from that, and it was a monster set.

Police reported no major incidents during the 11-plus hour event, and the only gripe from concertgoers seemed to be the long lines formed for the limited capacity Pavilion Stage shows. Otherwise, this year’s Virgin Mobile FreeFest went down as smoothly as an oyster and may well make a strong case for more free-admission events at the pleasant Columbia, Md. venue in the future.

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