Jack White Comes Roaring Back at Virgin Free Fest

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Photo: Dustin Whitlow

A headlining festival set by Jack White always builds a fair amount of buzz and giddy anticipation. You hear fans start murmuring about it several hours beforehand, and see them begin jockeying for position two sets prior.

Upping the ante on Saturday at the Virgin Mobile Free Fest in Maryland: White’s strange performance at Radio City Music Hall earlier in the week, which had him storming off stage after only 50 minutes, never to return. A photographer we spoke to who was in the pit for both the Radio City show and Saturday’s set confirmed the speculated reasons for White’s early exit: the sound was terrible, even for the opening band. The crowd was listless. And some jerk in the front row did take his shirt off and hurl it in White’s direction, at which point “you could see his face just change.”

Saturday was entirely different. At the close of his set, White somewhat uncharacteristically pointed to the crowd and then to his chest. Then, after taking a bow with his all-female backing band The Peacocks, he uttered a heartfelt, “Thank you so much. God bless you.” Because what came before that was roughly 90 minutes of nearly-rabid chanting, fist pumping and shouting in the packed main stage pavilion. White reciprocated by leaping and spinning around the stage like a dervish, knocking his mic stand over on one occasion and his drummer’s crash cymbal on another. He paced between his three guitars and upright piano in between songs, until his muse directed him which one to attack next. Most often it was his sky blue Telecaster, but occasionally he’d drift to the piano for a slightly stripped down version of “Dead Alabama Shakes setlistLeaves and the Dirty Ground” or to his ancient-looking acoustic for sing-along highlights “Love Interruption” and “We’re Going to Be Friends.” It seems like every time White takes to the stage these days (well, almost every time) he reinforces his status as one of the few “capital-R” rock stars currently working.

Preceding White on the main stage were two of his support acts from this year — ZZ Top and the Alabama Shakes. The Shakes, who have opened for White for many of his 2012 dates, were first up at 5:30pm. The only thing missing from this band, frankly, is more material. They’ve got the chops (particularly the jaw-dropping pipes of frontwoman Brittany Howard), and the songwriting and the energy to headline almost anywhere, but they’ve got only one album, the best-of-2012 contender, Boys & Girls, and that’s pretty much what you get during a one-hour festival slot.

ZZ Top, it turns out, was scheduled to open for White at a regular gig here at Merriweather Post Pavilion. But when the promoters switched up and asked White to do Virgin Fest here instead, he requested that the “Lil’ Ol’ Band from Texas” stay on the bill. And the crowd–most of whom weren’t even alive for the band’s synth-rock MTV period, much less their bluesy beginnings–ate it up. Are they kitschy? Sure. Are their best days behind them? Perhaps. Are there plenty of sounds piped in to augment the core trio? You bet. But they’ve got such a strong catalog of music and they’re so engaging, you can’t help but love them. And, by the way, just about no one on the planet can phrase a guitar solo like Billy Gibbons.zz top

At a time when festivals are blowing up, this one-day affair could be among the most interesting. After running a paid festival at Pimlico Racecourse in Baltimore from 2006-08, Virgin decided to underwrite the whole thing for 2009 when the economy went south, and move it to Merriweather Post Pavilion, which their promoter partners, I.M.P. Productions, runs throughout the year. And it’s continued as such, as a way for Virgin to build its brand and get the message out about its youth-homelessness charity, Re*Generation. Most tickets go “on free” (just like “on sale,” except that you don’t pay anything), and while they’re scooped up within five minutes, they hold more tickets for patrons who their donate time or money to the cause. We also ran into a Maryland firefighter who told us he got his VIP badge for free, because Virgin honcho Sir Richard Branson likes to be nice to firefighters and cops.

And the bill had a something-for-everyone quality, from Nas to neo-soul singer Allen Stone to Santigold to M83 to The Dismemberment Plan to all kinds of EDM artists keeping the day-glo set occupied in the “Dance Forest.”

The star attraction, however? That may have been the Rebel Billionaire himself, Branson, who held court backstage (and amongst the crowd) nearly all day, posing for photos with any girls that asked, guest bartending and even receiving a lesson in DJing from Skrillex:

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