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In concert: Virgin Mobile FreeFest at Merriweather Post Pavilion

LCD SoundsystemLCD Soundsystem deliver a rousing finale at Virgin Mobile FreeFest, Saturday night. (All photos by Kyle Gustafson/FTWP)

By Chris Richards and David Malitz

Great-big music festivals should end with great-big bands performing great-big songs for great-big crowds gathered beneath great-big disco balls.

Such was the case when LCD Soundsystem headlined the 2010 Virgin Mobile FreeFest at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Saturday night, offering a 90-minute grand finale that spliced together rock-n-roll's bombast and disco's invincible pulse.

It capped off an 11-hour day of non-stop music - and one that cost nearly all of the fans a whole lotta zilch. Most tickets for this year's pop smorgasbord had been given away online in a matter of minutes. In addition to the day's ample sunshine, the crowd of 35,000 soaked up sounds from 21 artists on three separate stages - including sets from pop polyglot M.I.A., reunited indie heroes Pavement, rap star Ludacris and local-girl-turned-rock-legend Joan Jett.

But let's talk about that disco ball. It was a massive orb worthy of Sisyphus - a hulking metaphor hanging over the heads of frontman James Murphy and the six supporting members of LCD Soundsystem, who put painstaking, workmanlike effort into their exhilarating songbook. After hours and hours (and hours!) of live music, thousands of exhausted fans lunged from their seats to throw their filthy hands toward the shimmering sphere overhead.

Just as LCD was ramping up on the Pavilion Stage, M.I.A. was spinning out on the neighboring West Stage. Maya Arulpragasam's night got off to a ominous start when she materialized nearly 30 minutes after her scheduled set time. Better never than late? During a jumbled, somewhat incoherent performance, she asked cryptically, "Remember how confusing it was in the beginning? It's still like that."

Indeed. She may be slumping in 2010, but M.I.A. made her name performing impossible aesthetic balancing acts on her first two albums, chanting over rhythms from every corner of the planet. And while she performed handfuls of those tunes to a rapidly thinning crowd, the excitement of her breakout years felt far, far away.

And so goes the conundrum of the 21st-century music festival: What happens when acts suited for clubs are thrown onto massive stages? What happens when songs written for earbuds must slice through vast swaths of open air?

sleigh bellsAlexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells cranks it up in the Dance Forest.

For most acts, it's sink or swim - which made Sleigh Bells look something like Michael Phelps. The Brooklyn duo emerged as darlings of the blogosphere this summer, adorning arena-rock bluster with the vocal chirps of singer Alexis Krauss. Ripping from a phalanx of Marshall amplifiers, guitarist Derek Miller's chainsaw riffs were vicious enough to fell trees in the festival's wooded "Dance Forest" area.

Also in the Dance Forest: lots of dirty dancing. The festival grounds were dry, and scores of dancing feet kicked up a formidable dust cloud that grew thicker by the hour. When funk nostalgics Chromeo took the Dance Forest stage at sunset, the air quality had reached "Grapes of Wrath" levels. Add copious marijuana smoke and some rainbow-colored spotlights, and fans found themselves dancing (and coughing) in the center of a psychedelic smog cloud.

Earlier in the Dance Forest, the dust magically settled for another blog sensation, Neon Indian. The group's frontman, Alan Palomo, has been crowned as the prince of "chillwave," a micro-genre of indie rock marked by innocuous, keyboard-driven fare that sounds as if it was composed during nap time. But Saturday, mini-anthems "Psychic Chasms" and "Deadbeat Summer" sounded infinitely better blasting out to the treeline.

Other indie acts didn't fare as well. Ragtag freak-folkies Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros vamped through a playlist of uninspired hippie-rock while the incredibly irritating indie-punk duo Matt & Kim offered an obnoxious cover of Biz Markie's "Just A Friend." With that, FreeFest 2010 had found its official nadir.

FreeFest crowdsDusty grooves: Fans hit the trail between the Pavilion Stage and the West Stage.

Time to stroll around the grounds where corporate sponsors were peddling carnivalesque amusements: Rows of chill-out teepees, a strange cluster of bunkbeds, Ferris wheel rides for charity and a psychic who would tell your fortune if you texted her a "yes" or "no" question.

So . . . Would T.I. show up?

Nope.

The troubled Atlanta rapper never officially canceled his scheduled FreeFest appearance after being arrested in Los Angeles on drug charges this month, but promoters still didn't expect him to post. And he didn't, leaving Ludacris as the only ATL superstar MC on the bill. He performed for droves of fans, unpacking his greatest hits in a thundering, hyper-syncopated cadence that's recently been wasted on Justin Bieber cameos.

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts gave a similar tutorial in crowd-pleasing. Like a yoga-fit granny sporting raven locks and racoonish amounts of mascara, the 52-year-old performed bona fide singalongs - "I Love Rock-n-Roll," "Cherrybomb" - and gave a shout out to her hometown: "I used to live not too far from here, over in Rockville!"

Chris Keating, singer of Brooklyn band Yeasayer, also boasted of his Maryland roots. Describing the excitement of performing at Merriweather, he said, "I used to see ads for this place - it'd be like Bob Seger. Now we're here." The Silver Bullet Band they weren't, blending frothy, new-agey atmospherics and '80s movie soundtrack percussion.

There were performers who actually still live in Washington - you just had to squint to see them. Rob Garza and Eric Hilton of D.C.-based Thievery Corporation remained largely in the shadows during their set, ceding the stage to a dozen-odd collaborators who strutted to loping reggae beats, Middle Eastern rhythms and mutated go-go thumps. Sunburned fans danced to each distinct cadence with the same carefree wiggle.

freefestTrombone Shorty -- before he marched off into the crowd.

But they were woefully flat-footed for the first great set of the day: a brassy, funky, jazzy concoction from Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews. Soloing over the burly stomp of a song called "Hurricane Season," the young New Orleans jazzman sounded as if he had captured an epileptic bumblebee in the space between his lips and the mouthpiece of his trumpet. But audience members didn't get on board until Andrews and his band, Orleans Avenue, marched off the stage and into the crowd, where they were swarmed by camera-toters who had suddenly learned how to dance.

The day offered oodles of guitar-friendly fare, early and often. Australian quintet the Temper Trap yowled at the intersection of U2 and Maroon 5, while Arizona emo stalwarts Jimmy Eat World offered punchy, punked-up power ballads that felt about 10 years old (because they were).

freefestPavement took their faithful down memory lane.

Anyone feeling wistful for the glory days of '90s guitar rock had come to FreeFest to see Pavement deliver its lone area reunion show. And frontman Stephen Malkmus had a deadpan quip ready for everyone else: "For those of you who don't know, we're an old band."

The beloved indie vets performed to gobs of empty seats in the pavilion and plenty of open space up on the lawn, making this big comeback an oddly intimate affair. A few hundred diehards gathered up front and sang along to "Cut Your Hair," "Gold Soundz" and "Summer Babe" with the pent-up enthusiam they've been harboring for 11 years.

Malkmus, eternally cool beneath his boyish coif, treated his guitar more like a toy than an instrument, flicking the strings, holding it up near his face, behind his head. After the band hit its last note and shuffled off stage, fireworks went pop-pop-popping skyward from the pavilion roof.

The moon hung fat in the sky. The stars twinkled. And that giant disco ball hadn't even started spinning yet.

By Chris Richards and David Malitz  | September 26, 2010; 6:40 PM ET
Categories:  In concert  | Tags:  Virgin Mobile FreeFest  
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