The sounds were spread across three stages — the venue’s usual Pavilion stage, a second stage built in a neighboring field to the west and a third, smaller stage for DJs dubbed “the Dance Forest.”
And for the fourth year running, organizers gave tickets away online for free.
Fans swarmed the place to let it all hang out. Or maybe just keep it tucked in. There were furry boots and flip-flops. Gold laméthongs and cargo shorts. Fishnet stockings and mesh lacrosse jerseys. Orioles caps outnumbered Nationals caps, outnumbered dragon-green caps with purple fins, of which there was at least one. For 11 colorful hours, this year’s FreeFest was a place to see and be seen — and hopefully find some music that matched your outfit.
“Good morning,” says Will Eastman, greeting the early birds assembled on a dance floor of dry oak leaves and dirt. Eastman’s band, Washington-based Volta Bureau, is the first act of the festival, and its thumping DJ set in the Dance Forest foreshadows a day of unrelenting rhythm. Wearing a zebra-print blouse and a constellation of stars tattooed up the back of her neck, Liz Carr, 27, laughs when a falling acorn beans her in the head. She doesn’t stop dancing, though, insisting that she’s pacing herself. “Our goal,” she says, “is to not be blacked out by the time Skrillex comes on.”
Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson has just returned backstage after a quick mosey across the grounds, darting through already thickening crowds. “Just saying hello to some of the punters,” Branson says, smiling. “They’re very grateful, as if I’ve done all the hard work by myself.” He touts FreeFest’s charity work with homeless youth and says that he’s excited to get back out and see the bands.
Fans are already stomping circles on the lawn to the neo-bluegrass of Trampled By Turtles. Down in the Pavilion seats, fans bat at a beige, malformed balloon, trying to keep it afloat. The guy who figures out it’s an inflated condom lets it fall to the ground.
For some, FreeFest is a place to test-drive your Halloween costume. For the Dismemberment Plan, it’s a place to test-drive new tunes — all while trying to win fans as they hover hundreds of feet over the proceedings.
Travis Morrison, frontman of the recently reunited Washington post-punk troupe, persuades the crowd in front of the stage to salute those riding the neighboring Ferris wheel by shouting, “HI, FERRIS WHEEL!”
A girl in the lime-green carriage waves back toward the stage, then leans over the rail to talk to her pals in the purple carriage below. Morrison shouts in mock-terror: “Don’t lean over. . . . I’m afraid of heights!”