Virgin Mobile's Freefest headlines several powerful acts

The girl’s demeanor flickered between anxiety and euphoria as she pondered what was undoubtedly her toughest decision of the day. Finally, she reached a tortured choice, pecked her boyfriend on the cheek and said,“OK I have to go see him,” before sprinting off into the night.

Saturday’s Virgin Mobile Freefest at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md. offered plenty of tough decisions and conflicted fans. The girl faced the enviable conundrum of either choosing to watch all of Jack White’s rocking and rolling show or leaving early to catch a set from the prince of dubstep, Skrillex. She chose the latter.

Daniel Hallman, a 21-year-old student from Bridgewater University said he was surprised by the quality and atmosphere of Freefest.

“I’ve been to Bonnaroo three times, Coachella this year, lots of small shows. This might have been the best one day of music I’ve ever seen,” Hallman said. “The atmosphere is really good. The lineup was nuts and I’m here for free.”

Freefest does much to live up to its name. Thousands of tickets are given away a couple months before the event. When these freebies run out, Virgin Mobile exchanges tickets with people willing to donate to select charities or do volunteer work at certain soup kitchens in the D.C. area.

This is the fourth year that this festival has been free. During this time, Freefest has collected $600,000 in donations and 77,000 volunteer hours from fans. With that money, Virgin Mobile is opening a youth shelter in D.C. called RE*Generation House. Its doors will open in November.

The musicians on display proved to be worth much more than the ticket charge. Nas blazed through his prolific career catalog, thrilling fans with hits off his legendary album “Illmatic.”

ZZ Top brought their Texas Blues to Maryland and killed it. As a band that officially formed in the ‘60s, their pace and energy were ridiculous.

Portugal. The Man were slightly disappointing as their intricate sound did not seem to reach its normally awesome potential in a loud, live setting. The novelty of seeing them was redeeming enough in itself though.

Santigold always puts on great shows. Her set at Freefest was no different. After inviting what seemed like half the crowd onstage, she led them through hits off her new album “Masters of My Make-Believe.”

Skrillex made the entire complex feel like a raving night club. He was the perfect show to conclude festivities.

Jack White was superb. His all-female back-up band, The Peacocks, were just as good. The result was some sort of evolving blues, rock and bluegrass specimen. White’s tension-building transitions between songs whispered hints of famous riffs before exploding into an unexpected masterpiece. His new takes on his old tracks transcended what they were before. Comparing the two was like measuring a rough draft against a manifesto.

But his was not the best set at Freefest. The Alabama Shakes about tore that pavilion down.
The group had a formidable challenge. They were opening for fellow blues-rockers and legends of their genre ZZ Top and Jack White on Freefest’s main stage. While a mildly popular band,a lot of people in attendance had never actually seen The Alabama Shakes before.

When the Alabama Shakes walked out, led by a lead singer that looked like Phyllis from “The Office” wearing a Mennonite dress, incredulous smirks popped up everywhere. The lead singer, Brittany Howard, removed those smirks rapidly as she put her locomotive powered voice through its paces. Howard revealed herself to be no novelty act but one of the best in the business.

The interaction between the band and the fans was magical. The two groups kept building off each other. The intensity and energy would not stop spiraling upward. The quartet of Athens, Ga. natives never tired. Their powerful, soul-grabbing, gospel-type delivery was sincere and original—just like the festival itself.

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