Virgin Mobile FreeFest, one of the mid atlantic’s most popular music festivals, died Tuesday, it was five years old.
Sponsored by Virgin Mobile, the wireless communications brand founded by Richard Branson, Virgin Mobile FreeFest evolved out of the former Virgin Mobile Festival, a ticketed two-day festival in Baltimore, Maryland.
Virgin Mobile FreeFest was born in 2009 at the height of the Great Recession. The now one-day event was held at the iconic Merriweather Post Pavilion outdoor amphitheater and surrounding grounds in tranquil Columbia, Maryland. The hallmark of the festival was the price of admission – free.
“In a time of economic challenges and daily sacrifices, we wanted to throw a fantastic party so people could let loose and have a great time – on us,” Branson said in a June 2009 statement.
The festival was host to dozens of up-and-coming and notable acts alike including Blink-182, Public Enemy, M.I.A., Pavement, Cee Lo Green, The Black Keys, Jack White, Future Islands, MGMT and Vampire Weekend.
I missed the first year of the free festival in 2009, I was mainly into music that was only on top 40 radio at the time, shamefully. That all changed when I got a job as an usher at Merriweather Post Pavillion at the end of the summer of 2010.
My first day of work was the 2010 Virgin Mobile FreeFest. I was 18, just a baby really, and had only recently started listening to alternative music. During my first day I scanned tickets for a while and then was assigned to monitor an aisle inside of the pavilion. I got to see Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros, Matt & Kim, Pavement and LCD Soundsystem.
But the highlight of the day was when I unknowingly met Anand Wilder of the band Yeasayer.
Talk about a great first day at work.
From then on, I was hooked. I became a concert junkie, attending every show I could afford outside of working at Merriweather, and I spent my nights studying and listening to as much good music as possible.
Every year thereafter I attended Virgin Mobile FreeFest, it was as though it was an annual pilgrimage to my mecca of sound and beauty.
2011 was the year when I think EDM music really began to get popular. The Dance Forest, a small stage within the grounds of FreeFest, was packed with people dancing to Porter Robinson, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, and Calvin Harris, then relatively unknown in the States. Empire of the Sun performed, and deadmau5 was a headliner at the 2011 FreeFest.
deadmau5 was my first EDM show. Someone offered me ecstasy, which I politely declined, but I don’t remember it being nearly as crazy as the EDM shows now.
Bombay Bicycle Club, Patti Smith, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, Cee Lo Green and The Black Keys also performed at the 2011 FreeFest.
The 2012 FreeFest lineup included an eclectic mix of folk rock, rap and more EDM. Ben Folds Five, Alabama Shakes and ZZ Top performed. NAS, Santigold, M83 and Skrillex were also there. Porter Robinson was back, and performed with a then unknown Zedd, at a later set time in the Dance Forest.
Jack White performed, which was in the most undramatic way possible, a spiritual experience for me.
The final Virgin Mobile FreeFest took place on Saturday, September 21, 2013. The lineup included Sky Ferreira, Chvrches, Ghost Beach, Black Joe Lewis, MGMT, Kaskade and Pretty Lights.
The Dance Forest was moved to a larger location, deep in the woods, to accommodate a massive new generation of club kids, just coming up and figuring out that this was their scene.
This was also the first time I saw someone overdose during an EDM show. Thankfully, that girl turned out to be ok.
Robin Thicke performed only a few weeks after the infamous Miley Cyrus VMA incident. He was still in the public’s good graces at the time, but was in the beginning stages of a distressing downward spiral that produced the tragic album, “Paula.”
The Avett Brothers and Vampire Weekend closed out the night. I was on the lawn, sticking it out in the freezing rain on an unusually cold September evening. I didn’t want to leave – it was as if I could sense that the end was coming – so I stuck it out for as long as I could and let the rain pound down on my body, feeling like little push pins were sticking into me by the second
But after Vampire Weekend performed “Oxford Comma” I had had enough and left. It was time.
The Virgin Mobile FreeFest is survived by the Sasha Bruce RE*Generation House, a transitional living facility for homeless youth in Washington D.C., created with donations from attendees of the festivals and the proceeds of “freemium tickets.”
It is preceded in death by Das Racist, Pavement, Robin Thicke, LCD Soundsystem and the HFStival.
A memorial will be held on the FreeFest’s birthday, Saturday, September 20, 2014 at the Life in Color EDM “Paint Party” at Merriweather Post Pavilion. It is bound to be crappier and tickets are not free.
In lieu of flowers, the Virgin family requests donations be made to RE*Generation, a really awesome charity (no jokes) that helps homeless youth.
You can also contribute to our Remembering Virgin FreeFest collaborative Spotify playlist.
Please leave your condolences in the comments.