Virgin Mobile FreeFest brings thousands to Merriweather

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Fans watch the rapper Nas at the annual Virgin Mobile FreeFest at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia.

Perhaps the strangest, most dizzying scene at Saturday's Virgin Mobile FreeFest at Merriweather Post Pavilion unfolded in the Dance Forest.

Some young women wore just glitter, body paint and underwear, while other concertgoers dressed as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Teenagers in T-shirts emblazened with "YOLO" (short for "you only live once") fist-pumped to deep bass rumbles. Naps were taken against trees. It was a scene of liberation that felt very 2012, when the growing popularity of electronic dance music shows no signs of fatigue.

Daivon Stuckey, an 18-year-old from Columbia, said that carefree attitude permeates the FreeFest crowd — one of main reasons he returned for his second year in a row.

"When you're at Merriweather, it's like the outside world doesn't exist," Stuckey said.

Now in its fourth year as a free event, FreeFest has become an anomaly among the country's growing — and typically profitable — festival circuit. Thousands of free tickets were released online in late August and were claimed in minutes. Fans that missed out on the free tickets were able to secure passes through donations or by volunteering at youth homeless shelters in Baltimore, Washington and northern Virginia.

FreeFest organizers had no issue creating a buzz among contemporary music fans. The diverse lineup — featuring rocker Jack White and rapper Nas as well as dubstep king Skrillex — attracted fans of all different backgrounds and tastes. Because the festival was held in October, about a month later than in previous years, the audience could bask in cooler but still mostly sunny weather.

Laura Lyons, a 20-year-old from Oakton, Va. who came to see the French electronic act M83, said she was pleased with the crowd FreeFest attracted.

"At most music festivals you usually know what to expect crowd-wise, but it's really diverse here," Lyons said.

Sir Richard Branson, the chairman of Virgin Group, flew in from Winnipeg for FreeFest. He said fighting youth homelessness felt like a natural issue to support.

"In a wealthy country like America, it's wrong that kids — who come from broken-up homes or parents who are drug addicts or in prison — end up sleeping in the streets," Branson said.

Virgin Mobile FreeFest has raised more than $600,000 and 77,000 volunteer hours toward the fight against youth homelessness, according to Ron Faris, Virgin Mobile's head of brand marketing.

Philanthropy is a mere bonus for most in attendance; they're here for the music. On Saturday, they were treated to strong sets from local and national acts.

Future Islands, the synth-pop trio from Baltimore, kicked the West stage off at 1 p.m. after rap group Das Racist announced its cancellation through Twitter due to vocalist Himanshu Suri's strep throat. Magnetic frontman Sam Herring repeatedly banged his chest and danced across the stage as he sang and wailed songs mostly from this year's album, "On the Water."

The main stage represented a recent revival of American rock 'n' roll, according to I.M.P. Productions chairman and FreeFest producer Seth Hurwitz. Soul singer Allen Stone took the lead for strongest voice early on, and was only rivaled by Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard. The Shakes' fiery delivery and soft-to-loud dynamics — best heard on "Hold On" and "Rise to the Sun" — had no problem winning over an already enthustiastic crowd.

Nas, the lone rapper after Das Racist's pull-out, was the only artist to represent hip-hop.

When Virgin Mobile announced the first FreeFest in 2009, Faris said, it was intended to be a bright spot amid the "dark" news surrounding the failing economy.

With the economy improving since then, it begs the question: Will FreeFest — which costs Virgin approximately $3 million to put on, according to Branson — always be free? Branson said that's the goal, but not something he can promise.

"As long as we can, we're going to try and keep it free," Branson said. "You can lose the whole spirit of a brand if you're not careful."

If it were up to Hurwitz, the festival would remain free at Merriweather for many years to come.

"I'd rather it be [here] forever," Hurwitz said, "that way we can work on it a lot sooner every year. But Virgin foots the bill and they have to look at their budget every year. They can't plan that far in the future but they've kept coming back so far."

Attendance for this year's FreeFest was lower than last year's estimated 50,000 people, Howard County Police said. As of 8 p.m., there were between 30,000 and 32,000, police estimated. An adult woman who allegedly assaulted a police officer was the only arrest, according to Howard County Police Captain John McKissick. As in years past, he said police officers were mainly dealing with traffic-pattern issues.

As in years past, FreeFest's most interesting aspect was its pockets of benevolent weirdness. There was the Bindlestiff Family Circus performing routines near an ATM machine. Twenty feet away, a large white box called the Chroma Cube housed its own DJ sets and interactive art pieces, all while hawking a new cell phone. A ferris wheel spun near the West stage.

Anthony DeMaio, an 18-year-old from Columbia, said FreeFest is a place free of preconceived notions.

"It's uplifting," DeMaio said. "You don't see anyone angry here. I can be myself and no one will judge me here. You can't tell anyone about FreeFest. You just have to experience it."