This year’s Virgin FreeFest was an intriguing lineup that at first didn’t totally do it for me, but over time I realized the opportunity to see such big acts including ’80s icons ZZ Top, EDM poster boy Skrillex, the newly reunited Ben Folds Five and rock kingpin Jack White for the excellent price of free was a chance I shouldn’t pass up.
As per usual the Virgin FreeFest had three stages including the main Pavilion Stage, the West Stage and the Dance Tent. I started off the day wandering around and getting a feel for the stages, catching sets from Baltimore natives Future Islands at the West Stage, ’80s dance pop Brooklynites Penguin Prison at the Dance Tent and an impressive soul singer named Allen Stone at the Pavilion stage. From the beginning it was obvious how the stages would be split up: the Pavilion had all of the rock and Americana bands (Alabama Shakes, Trampled By Turtles and ZZ Top), the West Stage had an eclectic mix of indie acts including Santigold, M83 and Skrillex, and the Dance Tent had DJs… of course.
The early stand-out of the day was D.C. punk band the Dismemberment Plan who brought a little ’90s rock nostalgia to the stage. The pummeling hook-laced psychedelic rock of Portugal. The Man brought out an impressive crowd of fans who knew every word to their songs, and the always fun Santigold got the crowd grooving to her genre-hopping dance music.
Midway through the day the festival started to heat up a bit with a performance by Ben Folds Five, which got the whole crowd singing along to its extensive catalog of catchy, piano-driven songs. They were followed by the Brittany Howard-fronted Alabama Shakes who totally blew me away with their powerful, soulful melodies and some killer live renditions of songs like “Hang Loose” and “I Found You.” Last but not least Nas put on a spitfire performance that spanned his whole catalog and got the crowd moving.
By the end of the day the festival got pretty packed and decisions had to be made. Would it be M83 and Skrillex on the West Stage or ZZ Top and Jack White on the Pavilion? I decided to go with the beards and Mr. White.
ZZ Top put on an impressive show that hasn’t changed a bit since the ’70s and ’80s. They had a huge video screen behind them playing their cheesy music videos, their furry white guitars made an appearance, and of course, their gigantic beards were as lush as ever. They blazed through a set of blues-driven tunes about booze and women and made sure to play the crowd pleasers like “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs.”
Finally Jack White took the stage with the Peacocks and put on the best performance of the whole day. He came out with a furious rendition of “Sixteen Saltines” that established a level of intensity that he kept up for the rest of the set. As well as performing a number of tracks from his recent solo album including standouts “Love Interruptions” and “Weep Themselves To Sleep,” he also played classics from the White Stripes catalog like “Fell In Love With A Girl” and “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground.” His all-female backup band, the Peacocks, was filled with absolutely amazing musicians and added a refreshing twist to the old Jack White hits. He finished off his set with a rousing take on “Seven Nation Army” that had the whole crowd cheering along while he played his iconic guitar riff.