If Virgin Group chief Sir Richard Branson has clout with the music gods, and he probably does, the clouds should part Saturday for the Virgin Mobile FreeFest at Merriweather Post Pavilion, located smack in the path of two tropical weather systems that have dumped rain on the Columbia, Md., site for the last two weeks.
Branson will be there, as he usually is, rain or shine. But one day out, it appears the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee are finally, however slowly, moving out of the way for a day of music headlined by The Black Keys and Deadmau5.
Promoter Seth Hurwitz assures fans that the venue is in tip-top shape, regardless of the wet weather, and is confident the sun will shine on the third free edition of the annual Virgin Mobile-sponsored bash.
“The rain stopped today. We’re fine,” Hurwitz told Pollstar on Friday. “The staff has been working on the site all week. This morning I gingerly called my production guy, Brad, out there and he said, ‘Yeah, it’s great.’ He’s raring to go.”
Weather forecasts call for partly sunny skies at showtime, so there’s no excuse for anyone to stay home – even with a free ticket – to avoid any possible sprinkles. Some of these artists, like Patti Smith, don’t perform often and others, like The Black Keys, aren’t touring, making FreeFest one of the few opportunities to catch them all year.
Hurwitz admits he takes that kind of general unavailability into consideration when booking the show.
“We don’t want to do the same bands other people are doing,” Hurwitz explained. “The Black Keys aren’t doing a tour right now. The more people tell me they aren’t doing dates, the more I want them.
“I thought the two biggest stories this year were The Black Keys and Deadmau5. They were at the top of my list. They both said no, and they both said no 500 times, but they are who I wanted.”
Some artists are notoriously reluctant to play free shows out of concern that it devalues their brand, but it’s getting to be less of an issue as years go by and word-of-mouth from musicians who have performed there gets around.
“Anyone who’s been to the show can see it’s a magical, one-of-a kind event. We’ve always had big acts and everyone knows The Black Keys and Deadmau5 can sell a ton of tickets so it’s not like anyone thinks they can’t sell. That’s not the reaction I get from people. Maybe if we headlined Limp Bizkit, it would be.”
FreeFest is spread across three stages: the Pavilion’s main stage, a West Stage and the Dance Forest for electronica aficionados. In addition to The Black Keys and Deadmau5, other artists on the bill are TV On The Radio, Cee-Lo Green, Grace Potter And The Nocturnals, Ghostland Observatory, Two Door Cinema Club, Patti Smith, Okkervil River, Cut Copy, Empire of the Sun and Big Sean.
Patti Smith might seem to be the answer to “which of these is not like the others?” but Hurwitz explained his very deliberate choice in making the offer to the author, poet and godmother of punk.
“We always try to bring in a great act that maybe a lot of people haven’t seen, especially kids,” Hurwitz said. “Patti Smith is obviously one of music’s most important figures. There’s a lot of people who have never seen her. And she liked the idea.
“You have to have someone unique. She can put on a great show and she is still relevant. We went in knowing she’s not going to suck.”
The Virgin Mobile FreeFest, now in its third year, was originally staged in 2009 as a one-off event, in recognition of the down economy and its effect on fans. As to whether this will be the last FreeFest, Hurwitz says that, as usual, he won’t know until after the show.
“Every year, Virgin starts to realize they are out of their minds for putting on a free show and start talking about whether there’s going to be another one. It’s always very tenuous,” Hurwitz said. “Every year, I get warned this might be the last one, and then we do the show and it’s great and they’re over the moon about it. Then it’s like, ‘We have to do it again.’ But we haven’t discussed next year.
“But come Sunday, we’ll be talking about how great next year is going to be and how we can do it better.”
For more information, click here for the Virgin Mobile FreeFest website.