If the Sweetlife Festival were an actual sweet, I’d vote for a lemon bar: smooth, luscious, with only a few chunks of sour, yet on the whole thoroughly enjoyable. For the second year in a row, music lovers from around the state and beyond gathered through rain and patches of sun to celebrate some of the biggest names in dance and electronic music, and, to a lesser degree, sustainability, environmental consciousness and all that jazz.
While you would expect the steeper ticket price ($85-ish after fees compared to last year’s $55) to discouraged many to pass, fond memories of last year, an eclectic lineup topped with Cleveland singer-songwriter Kid Cudi and Swedish DJ Avicii, and cheap bus tickets from various cities to the event packed them into Merriweather.
The smarter ones arrived around noon to snag a prime seat on the lawn or to be front and center in the pit for the next eleven hours. The first band of the day, alterna-rock group Fun., kicked it off energetically, even if those in attendance were divided between devoted fans and those who knew only “We Are Young.” Their act was certainly more lively than A$AP Rocky’s; at least they were onstage for more than three back-tracked songs, which is more than I can say for the New York rapper.
With the sets now an hour behind schedule, indie/soul group Fitz and the Tantrums hit the stage, jazzing up the fairgrounds with their Motown and Funk-inspired jams. The snazzy fashion coordination between lead singers Michael Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs reinforced the 60s-nostalgia-vibe their music inspired, while post-rock instrumental group Explosions in the Sky proved that you don’t need a belting singer or crafty lyrics to provide a cathartic, emotional live show.
Sweetlife is, of course, brought to you by DC sustainable eatery Sweetgreen, and the enviro-friendly fare was ubiquitous. A Food Forest was an inspired idea, and the second stage inside it allowed guests to enjoy Delta Spirit (not bad) and U.S. Royalty (excellent) while ordering prime falafel or a staple Shake Shack burger.
The most intriguing stand by far was Taiwanese restaurant Toki Underground and their pho-dogs: I chose the half-smoked dog over the chicken, with creamy coleslaw, soy sauce, sriracha and extra cilantro packed within the bun. Simply amazing. For those who wanted to live the ultimate sweet life, Baked + Wired had you covered with to-die-for cupcakes. The 21 and older crowd switched MPP-staples Bud and Bud Lite Lime for Peak Organic IPA or Summer Ale. Yummm.
The area I expected the organizers to improve upon the most from last year sadly did not meet expectations: while understandably, it’s difficult to regulate people and their trash habits, you’d think they’d have a few more garbage bins (and any recycling bins at all—not everything is compostable, guys!) at an explicitly sustainably-sourced and environmentally conscious show. A few more well-placed bins on the field may have prevented the virtual junkyard that was left once the last pair of sneakers passed the gates.
Though the random moments of sunshine left concertgoers hoping that maybe the rain would pass us by, the drops started falling just as the amphitheater and field alike packed in for indie darlings the Shins’ set. Umbrellas went up and plastic ponchos were passed around to keep everyone’s face paint from running as they enjoyed Garden State’s anthems “Caring Is Creepy” and “New Slang,” as well as new tracks such as “Bait and Switch” and “The Rifle’s Spiral.” Lead singer James Mercer said little between songs, but the set was a great trip down memory lane for those of us who spent high school with "Chutes Too Narrow" on repeat.
The final narrow rays of sunlight gave way to dark and stormy around 8 p.m., just as Kid Cudi hit the stage. His was easily the most interactive act of the night, and what started off slowly with hits like “Soundtrack 2 My Life” and “Mojo So Dope,” soon gave way to blunt-raising and head-bumping tracks including “Up Up and Away” and the David Guetta-collaboration “Memories.” His biggest hit, “Day n’ Nite,” was only given a slight nod at the end of “Erase Me,” which I’m sure the crowds of high schoolers were disappointed about. Nonetheless, Kid Cudi nearly stole the show from the headliner and the final act of the night.
Glowsticks were waved frantically in the VIP-only pit long before Avicii took his LED throne, and once the dancing began, it didn’t stop until the final knob was turned nearly two hours later. Avicii, 22 (don’t I feel unaccomplished right about now), ran through remixes of the Eurythmics’ classic “Sweet Dreams” and Red Hot Chili Peppers hit “Otherside,” keeping the crowd moving despite throbbing calf muscles and overzealous security guards.
Every time a lull occurred between songs, the audience surged in anticipation: they were waiting, of course, for “Levels,” the Etta James-sampling hit that catapulted Avicii into stardom last year. When he finally played it, he did one better, and mixed it with Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know.” As if the kids didn’t already go crazy enough to the original mix. Notably missing was his other 2011 single “Fade Into Darkness,” but original mix “Seek Bromance” made up for it.
By 11:30, the lights dimmed on Avicii’s beaming dimples for the final time, and the overhead lights glared over the cheerfully exhausted sweat-and-rain-soaked crowd. Sweetlife may have a couple more rounds to go before it’s on par with other major music festivals, but as long as the food and music remain varied and delicious and the message stays the same, people will happily trek through, rain or shine, sleet or hail.
Vivienne Machi is an intern at B weekly and a staff writer for the JHU Newsletter. This is her first Midnight Sun review. Erik Maza edited this review.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun