Although it was quite an ordeal getting to the venue (see previous post), the music at Virgin FreeFest compensated for all that frustration. I basically arrived at 3 pm but didn’t get inside Merriweather until 5:30, just in time to catch the beginning of Patti Smith’s set.
Still a force of nature, Smith projected three distinct personas: punk icon, political firebrand, and good-natured mother/goddess. She’d be raging at the Bush administration one minute and flashing an aw-shucks type smile the next, but her sincerity, sense of drama, and keen musical instincts made it all work. It was September 10, and she told the audience that the following day marked the beginning of the Ethiopian New Year. She also noted that September 11 was the day poet Jim Carroll, a longtime friend of hers, passed away. Then, Smith mentioned it was also a day defined by “three planes and two buildings” and a loss of life that eventually led to more deaths in the Middle East and a loss of freedom at home.
She urged the crowd to remember who they were on September 10, 2001 and turned the whole thing into a celebratory moment that extended through “Because the Night,” “People Have the Power,” and “Gloria.” She exited to raucous cheers and loud applause.
I went on to catch parts of sets by Cee Lo, the Black Keys, and Deadmau5, but nothing compared to the sheer power of TV On the Radio’s performance. Funneling elements of My Bloody Valentine, David Bowie, and Talking Heads through a maelstrom of art/punk noise, the band sounded seminal and huge and appeared to be having a lot of fun in the process. From the outset, they seemed intent on making a statement that they may be the best live band working today.
Opening with “Young Liars,” a song off their first EP, they transformed the trebly studio version into a thick, massive, and magnetic anthem that swept up everyone within earshot. The rest of the set proceeded accordingly, but with varying degrees of texture and nuance coloring each tune, especially on moodier songs like “Will Do” and “Forgotten.” An intensely funky vibe permeated “Second Song” and “New Cannonball Blues,” while a punk-ish fury propelled the likes of “Dancing Choose” and “Staring at the Sun,” which singer Tunde Adebimpe dedicated to the Baltimore band Celebration. TV On the Radio’s Dave Sitek produced Celebration’s first record.
By the end of TV On the Radio’s set, I’d gone from Virgin hater to Virgin lover. The music transcended everything else, and I guess that, ultimately, that’s the beauty of the festival.
[photo: John Lewis]