Richard Branson may in fact be the man. There are usually several different “men,” however, after witnessing what was the best damn free music festival I’ve ever been to, Branson may take the cake. Not only was he perusing the Festival grounds of Merriweather Post Pavilion (he came all the way from his mansion to Columbia, MD, people), but he did one of the finest jobs of scheduling bands (even if he didn’t do it personally). It was almost as if two festivals were going on simultaneously.  Say you liked top 40 and just wanted to, you know, chill out to some tunes. The Pavilion stage was there for you. Though Mates of State started the day there, Taking Back Sunday, Jet, and the Bravery would lend their presence to the floor for hours until co-headliners Weezer and Blink-182 would even soundcheck.

That’s where the ever-so awesome West Stage came in. I’ve honestly never been to a festival where every act on the bill was worth seeing, and in such a nice and varied order. I mean, take a look at this thing. If Jet, The Bravery, or Taking Back Sunday weren’t your cup of shitty tea, then you certainly wouldn’t have a problem camping out on the rail for St. Vincent, Wale, The Hold Steady, Public Enemy, The National, Girl Talk, and Franz Ferdinand (in that order). And that is what I did, the only conflict being that the Weez and the Gregg Gillis shared the same set and that The National cut five minutes into the Weezer set. Big woop. Regardless, that is one pretty pro organizational strategy. Considering the festival was free, it was even better, because most of the folks in attendance didn’t go anywhere near the West Stage, meaning that it was like shooting Bad Bands in a Barrel to get on the rail a few hours after gates opened.

And so it begun. . .

St. Vincent
West Stage 12:45-1:35

After an excessive introduction from the party goth school punks? of preliminary smaller act The Birthday Massacre, Annie Clarke’s St. Vincent was a nice, calm, welcomed introduction to what the West Stage would offer for the next 10 hours. With her cute, mousy disposition, Clarke graced the stage with some of her fine material. “Your Lips Are Red” made a nice inclusion considering the bright hue of her own red lipstick, which, quite deliberately, matched the same color of her skirt, and a “Laughing With a Mouth Full of Blood” went over quite nicely as well. As for her band, though they provided some nice brassy sounds to the baroque pop she has been churning out, they seemed a bit lackadaisical and removed. The drummer even seemed bored when he wasn’t pounding his set. But, nonetheless, the sweet smooth sound was a success, and the crowd wasn’t having trouble eating it up. Clarke did some of her signature shredding, switching between an effect microphone and a normal one in between lines. It all culminated for an elegant, laid back, yet adventurous showing.


West Stage 2:00-3:00

It must not be very fun to see Wale outside of the D.C. metropolitan area. I say this only because most of the things he did and said related to the performance taking place in Maryland. He spoke to audience members individually about his Alma Mater, Quince Orchard High School: “The secret is, though, I only went there for like half a semester, cause they kicked me out . . .” among other area related banter.  It was cool to feel loved by a guy who has blown up out of an area where not too many have, but I wonder what fills in these gaps at shows in other areas. That being said, what Wale brought to his 2 p.m. slot yesterday blew what many hip-hop acts do today out of the water. Sure, there was a lot of self-promotion, teasing of others’ songs, and all that comes expected with the typical hip-hop show, but the audience interaction was on another level. Not only would Wale throw down his sick lines (“Wale Ovechkin”, anybody?), with impeccable flow, but in between cuts he talked to certain members of the audience, invited folks to throw things on stage, which he attempted to autograph, invited some “Sexy Ladies” up on-stage, and ran to the rail to shake some hands. His band, UPC?, wasn’t too shabby either. With some hand drums, a full drum set, a slick guitarist, a hype man, and a male youngster with an ability to emulate both Rihanna and male pop stars, there was definitely enough going on to please. Whether an intense Wale fan or simply there “Chillin'”, any audience member could have enjoyed what Wale had to offer.

The Hold Steady
West Stage 3:35-4:45

As usual, Craig Finn and The Hold Steady “brought the noise,” even if they did so right before Public Enemy would. With their blend of Springteened-out Replacementsy punk, it doesn’t take long for a crowd to get caught up in the energy on display at a Hold Steady Show. Finn is bright red with passion as he tells his overblown tales of drug abuse, sex, and midwestern angst. Watching him do it is the real treat. He’s one of the quirkier, more spastic frontmen in recent memory. Looking more like a dad than a rockstar, he throws himself around the stage, all smiles. He’s got a guitar, which hangs low around his neck, but it might as well not even be there. He’s too busy throwing his hands up in the air and shuffling his feet to burden himself with anything as cumbersome as actually, you know, playing an instrument. After he yells each line into the microphone, he moves away and gestures to the crowd, restating each line as he does so. It’s like he’s having a conversation with the audience. A very high-energy conversation. But, it’s perfectly OK that Finn doesn’t do much playing, because the exceptional band does their job. Franz Nicolay owns whatever keyed instrument he’s playing with pizzaz, and guitarist Tad Kubler throws down some killer classic rock solos. Drummer Bobby Drake and bassist Galen Polivka don’t do so bad either.  Soaring through even selections from most of their catalog, the guys pretty much killed it. Songs like “Stuck Between Stations” and “Constructive Summer” had the crowd singing along in high spirits, and really, could you blame ’em? How could you say no to those faces?

Public Enemy
West Stage 5:15-6:30

Public Enemy has been doing this for a long time. It shows. But, this fact reveals itself in a good way. They know how to captivate an audience (with three hype-men, it’s not really too hard). Flavor Flav hasn’t aged a day in his mind, which is part of what makes the Public Enemy show such a spectacle. Just imagining the world through that man’s eyes for a little over an hour is an experience enough. As he’s climbing up rafters, speakers, and even people, you have to wonder where his head’s at. Nevertheless, Chuck D keeps things intelligible, throwing down classics such as “Bring the Noise” and of course, “Fight the Power”. It was a trip through hip hop’s past, a journey which proved that one should never forget his or her roots. If Wale was an example of what’s to come, Public Enemy was a well needed reminder of hip-hop’s rich past. But hell, even if they weren’t, Flavor Flav’s chains, clocks, and watches would have been rich enough to go around.


The National
West Stage 6:50-7:50

Yes, some genius event planner decided to give The National an hour slot at the Virgin Mobile free festival. Yes, we should all send him a thank you note, because the National was hands down the best thing the festival had to offer all day. With each performance, Brooklyn’s The National proves to be one of the finest live acts in recent memory. Their slow building, clean, elegant sound evokes a spine tingling effect in the audience, something which very few bands are capable of inducing. As guitars build off of each other, bass creeps in, but not overpowering the brilliance of Brian Devendorf’s slick rhythms. Matt Berninger’s low vocals tell nostalgic tales of youth and love lost atop it all, beginning with a sense of serenity and understanding, which eventually caves in on itself as he yells red faced into the microphone. Then, to insure that Berninger’s yelps don’t get too out of hand, a lush horn section helps to alleviate some of the pain. To paraphrase the brilliant “All The Wine,” God is on their side, and if he isn’t, he damn well should be. This here, is a group of guys who have got it down, and as they played through cuts from Boxer, Alligator, and even a selection from Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, quite simply, they owned it. Even a new tune, “Blood Buzz Ohio”, sounded great. The National “won’t fuck us over” and if you see them live, then neither will you.

Pavilion Stage 7:45-8:45

Yes, I skipped Girl Talk to see Weezer. Shut up, already, I’ve seen Girl Talk four times. Plus, the 13-year-old inside me made me do it, and honestly, the 20-year-old I am wasn’t all too disappointed. In fact, I was rather impressed. Though the brilliance of the National had me getting to the overcrowded Pavilion area about 15-minutes into Cuomo and co.’s set, what I saw was pretty sweet, even if it was mostly through monitors and from just short of a mile away. With a big Weezer emblem backdrop, four guys in red polos had a good time on stage. Though, not quite sure of what I missed, I saw a lot of things I wasn’t expecting. For one, there were some great renditions of “The Good Life”, My Name Is Jonas”, and “Buddy Holly”. Of course, there was some post-Pinkerton material, but really, it sounds a lot less stupid and forgettable live. Even “Beverly Hills” had its own charm. “Pork and Beans” was a fun singalong, even in the crowded lawn area where I was situated. People were into it, and I can’t blame them. As silly and less-than-respectable as Weezer has grown over the years, it’s hard not to love them and remember them for who they used to be. They are still great performers and still know how to write a catchy pop song. Rivers even looks like he’s still enjoying himself, jumping on an on-stage trampoline, doing all the instrument parts to “Island in the Sun” (live looping at a Weezer show?), and running around like a 40-something lunatic (oh wait, that’s what he is). I got the seeing Weezer live fix I’d been waiting for for nearly ten years, and now I can go on living the rest of my life. Hell, I’d even see them again. Yes, I said it.

Pavilion Stage 9:15-10:45

There were a fuckload of Blink-182 fans at Merriweather Post Pavilion yesterday. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Those still exist?” The answer to your question is, “Yes, they do. And, they’ve got the shirts to prove it.” Seeing Blink-182 was the equivalent of eating a Lunchable as an adult. It was nostalgic, fun, and stupid, all at once, but by the middle, I just wanted to throw it away. The banter was as stupid as it’s always been. I also found out that Tom Delongue just loves the f-word. He would end every song with a passionate “Fuck!” How family friendly? That’s probably because the guy’s voice is pretty out of whack after all these years. Travis still attacks his drums like a madman, and Mark holds it down on bass. Tom definitely could use some singing lessons, however. He’s definitely at his worst. Nevertheless, it was fun singing along to classics like “What’s My Age Again” and “The Rock Show”. Regardless of the little fun I was having, I decided to cut out early so I didn’t have to spend my evening behind the cars of Blink fans in the Merriweather parking lot. That wouldn’t have been worth it at all. I would have loved to have heard “Dammit”, but sometimes you need to do what’s best for yourself. And sadly, I think I made the right decision. 20 year old Drew 1, 13 year old Drew 1. And it ends in a tie.