I still can't believe it was free.

My goodness: 11 hours of music, 20+ acts, all kinds of wacky stuff on the side (like karaoke, a fortune teller, etc.). It's almost pointless to criticize this year's Virgin Mobile FreeFest because, well, it was free. And free makes everything better.

First, some observations:

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The crowd this year was much younger than any of the previous years. That's probably because there weren't any vintage mainstays such as Bob Dylan or The Who on the roster.

Merriweather was a much better home for the Virgin Fest than Pimlico. There's hardly any shade at Pimlico. Merriweather is nice and woodsy.

However, the lines to get into the pavilion were pretty long, and irritated some people (seats were first-come, first-serve, and the pavilion only holds so many people). To the folks who were angry about not getting into the pavilion: Chill. It's a free concert.

The video screens were about a second behind the sound. Was anybody else frustrated with that?

Oh, and before I forget -- here's a photo gallery from the festival, and here's a scene piece I did on it for today's paper.

And now, the music ...

Let's break it up into chunks, so you can skip the reviews of the bands you didn't see/aren't interested in. Also, some of these blurbs were written by Mark Gross of Metromix fame. Thanks a million, Mark! Here goes:

Holy F[lip]

Holy F[lip] isn’t just a four-piece electronic collective from Toronto, Canada -- it's also the reaction one has wandering in front of the band’s live performance. The opening set on the dance stage, two members fiddled with electronic devices while a third played bass and a fourth played drums. The presence of a four-piece act on the dance stage was startling, but the monstrously loud sound was even more surprising.

Big beats and a growing electronic swell got the crowd swaying in time, but the scene was hardly club-like. Compared to the covered dance tents of previous Virgin Festivals, the open stage and wooded lot saw fewer glow sticks and dance circles. Holy F[lip] get props for setting a high bar in terms of volume, but not so much for getting the crowd moving.

Wale


Despite previous late-starting hip-hop acts such as Lil Wayne, Wale bounded onstage shortly after his scheduled 2 p.m. start time. With a full live band backing him, the go-go/hip-hop group played a rock-oriented, bass-heavy intro that slipped seamlessly into a funk groove. Wale's rhymes were as quick and clean as they sound on his mixtapes.

The D.C. rapper's friendly banter proved he was happy to be playing to a home crowd. When he mentioned playing a recent show at Duke in North Carolina, the crowd booed him. The rapper spent a lot of time between songs giving shout-outs to D.C. At one point, he made it clear he hopes the Redskins have a good season, but he poked fun at Washington's quarterback when he said, "Oh, look, I'm Jason Campbell" and pretended to get sacked. Wale ended the set by smoking a cigar to D.C.'s success and telling DJ AM to rest in peace.

St. Vincent

Early afternoon on an outdoor stage wasn't the best time and place for this charming Brooklyn songstress. She's a fine singer and a talented guitarist, but the nuances of her quirky, turn-on-a-dime tunes were lost in such a setting. A seated theater would probably be the best place to see her play. A solo cover of The Beatles' "Dig A Pony" was quite nice, though.

Mates of State

This West Coast duo held the attention of throngs of teens waiting for Taking Back Sunday to go on, which is no small feat. Jason Hammel's thunderous drumming held down the bottom end, while singer/keyboardist Kori Gardner rounded out the sound. Their set had several songs from their latest album Re-Arrange us, which is their strongest yet.

Taking Back Sunday

By the time Taking Back Sunday took the stage at 3 p.m., the lawn was covered with blankets and sweat-drenched festival-goers. Fans stood in line to get under the pavilion and into shaded seats, but security only allowed people in intermittently.

The band said one song was inspired by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet's performance in "Titanic," and dedicated a later one to the Wayans brothers. In addition to celebrity dedications, the pop-punk group delighted in reminding the crowd the festival was free. The band's call and response, round robin vocals synced with the continuously driving drums and distorted guitars just they way they do on the radio.

The Hold Steady

Two words: Inevitably awesome. With The Hold Steady, you almost always know what you're getting, and it's almost always great. Singer Craig Finn spat out literary lyrics almost as if he were giving an angry spoken word performance and sweat through his button-down shirt. Lead guitarist Tad Kubler let loose some blistering riffs, and keyboardist Franz Nicolay looked ever-dapper in his driver's cap and suit.

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We heard "Sequestered In Memphis," "Navy Sheets," "Lord I'm Discouraged" and "Chips Ahoy," to name a few.

Public Enemy

Chuck D and Flava Flav attracted the largest crowd the West Stage hosted all day. Public Enemy’s old-school hip-hop was filled with just the sort of turntable scratching and monotone, primitive vocals that defined the group in the '80s.

Neither Chuck D nor Flavor Flav seemed to have planned a coherent set. Much of the set was spent in a sort of incoherent monologue mode. Chuck D and Flava Flav recalled all the old-school hip-hop acts they missed. The duo also spent time naming deceased artists whom they revered, including Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G., Jam-Master Jay and Michael Jackson. A segment of “Billie Jean” was played, in which Flavor Flav’s name replaced Billie Jean’s. Heh.

During another extended Chuck D monologue, the “Flavor of Love” star interrupted with a self-serving non sequitur. The B-lister wanted everyone to visit iTunes to download his first effort as an R&B singer. At the set’s conclusion, Flavor Flav revealed a self-indulgent side again when he said, “I know we got to go, but I got to get on the drums and play a beat.” Flavor Flav should not hang up his microphone for a pair of drum sticks any time soon.

The National

The National soothed what was left of a hyper-active crowd. Following Public Enemy, the audience  had dwindled significantly. Frontman Matt Berninger joked that The National "do the same sort of thing as Public Enemy," before he crooned in his mellow baritone. The sun was setting, the heat was fading and the sparkle of a small brass section added to the lullaby effect of The National's set.

Girl Talk

A lean but dedicated crowd waited for Girl Talk, the Pittsburgh-born master of mashups. The sole member of the group, Greg Gillis, burst onto the stage wearing a blue hoodie and maroon sweatpants and flailed spastically in what looked like Muppet aerobics. Listeners charged toward the stage, and moments later a swarm of young fans poured out of the backstage area to surround Gillis. Gillis is always joined by a massive entourage of dancers selected from the audience, and this year's Virgin FreeFest was no exception.

Girl Talk's set was a sustained 70 minute dance party. Gillis kept dancers interested by working hit after hit into his mashups. Black Sabbath paired with Ludacris. Metallica went up against Lady Gaga. Girl Talk provides a rare opportunity to do the "Stanky Leg" to Guns N' Roses. The snippet that got the biggest reaction was, oddly enough, Kelly Clarkson. Go figure.

Franz Ferdinand

Franz Ferdinand brings something to the stage that isn't so apparent on its albums: Rock and roll. The true power of the Scottish band's distorted guitars and power drumming becomes apparent early in its set.

Headliners have it tough at festivals, seeing as their performances occur so many hours after the first bands perform. Eleven hours after the gates opened to Virgin FreeFest, the crowd that gathered to hear Franz Ferdinand still had a lot of dancing to do. Though the 2004 single "Take Me Out" didn't arrive until mid-set, the crowd response was one of mass synchronized jumping.

The band performed in front of a towering massive backdrop depicting members' heads several stories tall, which seemed pretty rock and roll, too.

Weezer

Best set of the day. Easily.

Weezer sounded amazing. They played a bunch of songs from "The Blue Album," as well as hits like "Hash Pipe," "Pork and Beans" and "Beverly Hills." If you haven't listened to Weezer in a while, it's easy to forget how many hits they had. "Buddy Holly" was epic.

All five guys on stage wore red T-shirts with black pants (they were probably the only band at the festival in matching outfits). Front man Rivers Cuomo is such a lovable dork.

Blink-182

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Who needs hype men? The guys in Blink-182 are their own biggest fans. Before, during or after nearly every song, guitarist/singer Tom DeLonge (and, sometimes, singer/bassist Mark Hoppus) would tell the crowd how great the song was.

Some examples:

"This song is going to blow your [bleeping] [bleep] off!"

"[Bleep] yeah that was awesome!"

"I went into that song knowing it was going to be great."

The list goes on. The recently reunited  Blink tossed a lot of tunes from their last, self-titled album. Drummer Travis Barker was absolutely insane. He's one of the most talented drummers out there, hands down. DeLonge, who still acts like a 15-year-old, is a solid rhythm guitarist who needs to stop trying to solo, because it just doesn't work out well for him.

While Blink's set was tight, it just wasn't as good as Weezer's.

But then again, who are we to complain? After all, it was free.

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