The organizers of last Saturday's Virgin Mobile FreeFest should consider moving the festival out of Merriweather Post Pavilion and away from Columbia. I know the promoters were thrilled the crowd was so large—upwards of 50,000 by their estimate—but the event practically overwhelmed the venue and the town.
And should that come as any surprise?
Merriweather, which was designed by Frank Gehry and built in 1967, reportedly has a capacity of about 19,000. Although Virgin Fest expands the venue’s footprint—with two additional stages—beyond the pavilion, shoehorning so many people into Symphony Woods creates traffic nightmares and some ill will. This was my fourth Virgin Fest, and it’s the first time I heard concertgoers being vocal about the fact that they will not return.
For me, the day started poorly. I arrived mid-afternoon, figuring I’d miss most of the traffic but get there in plenty of time to check out the bands I most wanted to see (Patti Smith @ 5:30, Cee Lo Green @ 6:20, TV On the Radio @ 7:00, etc). A little before 3 pm, I pulled onto Broken Land Parkway, just a few miles from the venue, and traffic came to a halt. It took me nearly two hours to cover those few miles, and I was thrilled to see Little Patuxent Parkway, where I turn right to access the press parking lot.
But as I approached, the police were directing all traffic to the left, so I slowed down, leaned my head out the window, and told the nearest policeman that I was a member of the press and needed to turn right to get to my designated area. “Turn left!!” the policeman shouted. Figuring he may not have heard me, I came to a complete stop and, once again, identified myself. This seemed to enrage him, so he shouted even louder, and a few officers who’d been watching started walking briskly towards my car. I figured I’d better turn left.
After doing so, I was directed to the parking at Howard Community College, about a mile-and-a-half up the road. An attendant mentioned a shuttle, but I didn’t see any, and by the time I hoofed it back to the venue, it was 5:30. No kidding. At 3 pm, I was practically within sight of Merriweather, but I didn’t get inside until two-and-a-half hours later. And I had a press pass, so it was easier for me than it was for lots of other folks who had to wait in long lines at the gates.
At this point, I was a Virgin hater, but luckily, the day got better. The next post will be about that.
And I should note that on my walk back to Merriweather from the community college, I spoke to the policeman who looked like he wanted to throttle me earlier. I asked why he wouldn’t let me make the turn, when I had a legit reason to do so. “Everyone had to turn left,” he said, brusquely.
Then, I tried to explain, once again, that I was expected in the press area, and that was the only way to access it. “Everyone has a story,” he responded, dismissively.
I was getting pissed. “I don’t have a story, I have a job to do,” I told him. “Like you, I’m working.”
At that, his demeanor changed, and he apologized and shook my hand.