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'Muddy fun' at Virgin FreeFest

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The inevitable came midway through MGMT's set on Merriweather Post Pavilion's main stage Saturday. After two hours of continuous rain, a handful of Virgin Mobile FreeFest attendees were finally ready to embrace the muddy terrain. Around 6:30 p.m., men and women happily slid down the venue's hills as others snapped photos on their phones.

If this FreeFest, the fifth at Merriweather, is remembered for anything, it will not be for the music but for the rain that arrived during City of Colour's drowsy 4:30 p.m. set and never ceased. With the constant presence of rain, Maryland's most high-profile music festival became a true battle against the elements. If you were smart enough to bring a rain jacket and umbrella, you were as best prepared as possible. If you came dressed like it was June — which many young fans did — then the $5 plastic poncho Merriweather was selling became a necessity, even if it barely made a difference.

The festival had long been sold out, and attracted 50,000 fans, according to IMP spokeswoman Audrey Fix Schaefer. By the time it ended late Saturday night, there were only two types of people leaving: the muddy and the drenched.

FreeFest — which had three arrests (two for charges of LSD possession and one charge of trespassing), according to Howard County Police public information officer Mary T. Phelan — began with more sun and optimism in the early afternoon. Glasgow electropop trio Chvrches were an early favorite thanks to a charming balance of sticky hooks sung by singer Lauren Mayberry and backdrops that owe plenty to '80s synth-pop. With screeching horns and a lively rhythm section, Austin, Texas' Black Joe Lewis played a triumphant set of funk-inspired blues.

Best of the afternoon sets — and perhaps the entire day — was Sky Ferreira, the 21-year-old model-turned-singer who has made headlines for non-music reasons recently. (Ferreira and her boyfriend, DIIV lead singer Zachary Cole Smith, were arrested on drug charges earlier this month. "No, I can't make out with anyone. My boyfriend is here," Ferreira told an adoring fan during her set.) With the release of her oft-delayed debut album ("Night Time, My Time") next month, Ferreira should change the narrative with her strong songwriting (best heard Saturday via the sensual new track, "Heavy Metal Heart"). She is a pop classicist with slightly rough edges, earnestly delivering big choruses with winning sincerity.

The rain signified a shift in the festival. At the West Stage, momentum continued to build to a bass-wobbling crescendo. But before the electro-hodgepodge act Pretty Lights came Robin Thicke, the most mainstream act on the lineup by a wide margin. Festival organizer Seth Hurwitz said the "Blurred Lines" singer wasn't an obvious fit for FreeFest, and that's what intrigued him most.

Hurwitz said he thought, "OK, all these uptight Brooklyn vegan people making all of these comments, that'll upset them. Good. I want to upset people. I want to disrupt. Everyone's like, 'Is that hip enough? Is that cool enough? I don't know.' That's a discussion? Well how about this — this is so mainstream, there's not even a discussion."

The fans embraced Thicke's performance, which, with its backup dancers and individual band member introductions, felt polished and traditional. To Thicke's credit, he played an amiable showman, acknowledging multiple times how grateful he was to find recent Top 40 success after years of bubbling under pop's radar.

"Dreams do come true. Sometimes they just take a little longer," Thicke said. He closed his set with his two biggest hits, the tender "Lost Without U" and "Blurred Lines," the most instantly recognizable song of the year. The visceral reaction to the latter was a reminder that the young FreeFest crowd loves an excuse to uncontrollably dance even more than its rising indie bands.

A rapper (not T.I.) joined Thicke on stage to perform the rap verse on "Blurred Lines," which made for an even more glaring reminder: For the first time, there was no rap act at FreeFest. Hurwitz said the fact that people were asking about certain genres (he mentioned the outcry over no "retro" band as well) was a possible sign the lineup had become too predictable. Hurwitz said he could have booked a rap act but he refused to get "in a bidding war" with next weekend's Rock the Bells festival in Washington. Instead of booking an available hip-hop artist he wasn't inspired by, Hurwitz passed.

“There’s a few new acts we could have had that I don’t want to name, but I don’t feel it,” Hurwitz said. “I just don’t think they’re that great and I’m not going to put them on just because they’re black. I’m sorry but that’s racism to me, and I don’t think like that. I think about what’s good music.”

It's hard to argue against the lineup's consistency. As in years past, there was much to entertain electronic dance music fans, with a newly located Dance Forest in a dark corner of Merriweather, and the hypnotically smooth and unexpectedly soulful Pretty Lights finishing the West Stage. And as the rain, somehow, increased, Vampire Weekend closed the main stage like stylish perfectionists in full command of the crowd. No question "good music" was happening, but the lack of rap was still felt.

By the time the show ended, many fans looked beaten by the increasing chill and the fact they hadn't worn dry clothes in seven hours. As the headliners closed their sets, it was safe to describe the scene as both miserable and joyful. The FreeFest fans were good sports, likely because it's hard to complain about free (or even reasonably priced $50 "Freemium") tickets, no matter the weather.

Alexandra Voigt, 24, of West Chester, Pa., was here for her second FreeFest. She admitted the rain "sucked" but that it wasn't enough to ruin her time.

"You have your own fun here," Voigt said. "Muddy fun."


Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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