Virgin Mobile FreeFest 2011

After a week of stormy weather and a forecast that put the chance of rain on Saturday at 30 percent, Virgin Mobile FreeFest went off mainly without a hitch. It broke records, too -- organizers projected total audience at 50,000 people throughout the day, the largest crowd in the festival's six-year history for what was already the state's biggest outdoor music festival. The turnout is remarkable because just a day before, organizers still weren't sure if the event would have to be scrapped. "This was a raging river only 36 hours ago," said Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson on Saturday. "We were close to canceling." But Saturday was cloudless, pristine day, with only sporadic drizzling early on. The free show featured performances by rock band The Black Keys, Canadian DJ Deamau5, the R&B singer Cee-Lo Green, the art-rock band TV on the Radio and singer-songwriter Patti Smith -- on three stages. Organizers nearly tripled Merriweather's capacity by converting parking lots into staging areas to make room for the festival. More than two-thirds of the roughly 50,000 tickets were given away online, via Facebook. The rest was a mix of bought tickets -- packages cost $49.50 -- giveaways by sponsors and partners, and gifts to participants in Virgin's volunteer program. The free tickets, a feature since 2009, are what set FreeFest apart from virtually every other major music festival. Branson said the plan is to keep the festival free for some years going forward. "No promises, but every year we do what we can to keep it free," he said. The festival's other distinguishing characteristic is its musical character, which favors independent and alternative music. Last year, the headliners were British rapper M.I.A. and the indie behemoths LCD Soundsystem, popular acts but hardly household names. The running theme this year was dance music. Usually relegated to the so-called dance forest, it was everywhere this year, both on stage and off. That's partly thanks to the closing headliner, Deadmau5, a Canadian DJ known for performing in a mouse head mask who has amassed a heavy following in recent years. Deadmau5 paraphernalia was easily the de facto accessory this year - fans wore Mickey Mouse-style ears and wore t-shirts emblazoned with the DJ's signature silhouette. More than last year's audience, which was happy to chill out on the lawn listening to Jimmy Eat World and Pavement, this year's seemed like mouse-heads, or wannabe mouse-heads. At the very least, die-hard, future card-carrying members of clubland. Other acts - like the 19-year-old wunderkind Porter Robinson, the Swedes Teddybears (also fond of animal masks) and the Australian dance bands Cut Copy and Empire of the Sun - delivered similar big-tent dance music meant to keep the kiddie ravers moving - songs and remixes that were each more caffeinated than the last. By the time Robinson played a remix of Chuckie & Hardwell's "Move it 2 the Drum" half-way through his set, the dance forest was starting to feel like a miniature Ultra, Miami's electronic music festival. Even when it started to drizzle, the dancers were undeterred. Some complained about the traffic around Merriweather Saturday; others that the lines to the restrooms were too long. Still, there were was little grumbling about getting to watch top-shelf talent perform for free for 10 hours straight. Here's our guide to the hits and misses of this year's FreeFest. -- Erik Maza and Wesley Case
Josh Sisk, Baltimore Sun
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