Small, But Rockin'

Downsized, Free Virgin Fest At Merriweather Goes Off Without A Hitch

August 31, 2009|By Sam Sessa and Julie Scharper | Sam Sessa and Julie Scharper,

Nearly everything about yesterday's Virgin Mobile FreeFest was smaller than in previous years.

The location, Merriweather Post Pavilion, was about half the size of Pimlico Race Course. The festival was scaled back from a weekend-long spectacle to a one-day event. Even the traditionally diverse lineup was pared down to include mostly rock bands and DJs.

But this year's festival, which featured headliners Blink-182, Weezer and Franz Ferdinand, was free. And free goes a long way.

As a result, tickets went fast, and tens of thousands of energetic fans flooded Merriweather for the festival. They moshed to rockers Jet, bounced along to indie duo Mates of State, and pumped their fists in the air to The Hold Steady. Organizers estimated the attendance at 35,000 and said there were few problems.

"It was absolutely incredible," said festival publicist Audrey Schaefer. "It gave people the chance to forget their troubles and forget the economy and enjoy themselves. I've never seen people smile more."

Even the bands enjoyed the free admission. Adam Lazzara, lead singer for pop punksters Taking Back Sunday, said it helped them loosen up.

"It takes a lot of pressure off us, because if we mess up, I don't care - you didn't pay," Lazzara joked with the pavilion crowd.

The lineup featured about 20 acts on three stages spread across the woodsy pavilion grounds, which were expanded for the festival.

In typical Virgin Fest fashion, there was a host of other offbeat activities for fans who wanted a break from band-watching. Couples squeezed into a photo booth for free snapshots. Would-be stars sang karaoke, and curious concertgoers had their fortunes text-messaged to them from a psychic.

Sitting on a gilt throne perched on what appeared to be a treehouse, Soula, the festival's resident psychic, received and answered questions via text message.

"I've gotten a lot of 'Will I get a job?' and 'Will we get married?' " Soula said, leaning down from her throne, the yellow feathers in her headdress ruffled by the wind. "But someone also asked me, 'Who should I make out with tonight?' " I told him to pick the cutest one."

At 7:30 p.m., two skydivers jumped out of a helicopter and parachuted onto the roof of the pavilion. Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Group, greeted them with a bottle of champagne, which he shook and sprayed over the crowd below.

"Nice to see you all," he said.

As of yesterday evening, Howard County police had reported few arrests, and paramedics had treated concertgoers for dehydration and alcohol poisoning - nothing out of the ordinary for a festival of this size, they said.

"It's an orderly crowd," said Capt. John McKissick. "It's gone very well."

The biggest complaint from concertgoers was the long waits to get into the pavilion, which housed the main stage. The seats were first-come, first-serve, and the pavilion, which only seats several thousand, filled up fast. As a result, lines snaked across the lawn, irking fans.

Even so, fans such as Yasmin Karimian, a 19-year-old who lives in Monkton, could only get so upset.

"I don't like standing in it, but at least you've got the chance to get a seat," Karimian said Sunday afternoon.

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