COLUMBIA, Md. — Saturday's Virgin Mobile FreeFest reeled in 50,000 people and a lineup that leaned heavily on electronic dance music (EDM). While Skrillex took the headlining spot on the side stage at Merriweather Post Pavilion, other EDM artists, including Porter Robinson, Zedd and Above & Beyond, staked out the ever-growing Dance Forest. Not that rock fans were left wanting: Jack White, ZZ Top and Alabama Shakes laid claim to the main stage. Genre-bending singer Santigold, rapper Nas and arty indie rockers M83 rounded out the lineup.
Starting the party: D.C. upstart Volta Bureau kicked off the Dance Forest playing disco house, a type of dance music that combines funky vocal samples with electronic beats. The trio's signature track, the funk-based Alley Cat, enlivened the crowd.
'80s revival: Chris Glover, aka Penguin Prison, added heft to his electro-pop with emotive vocals. While the background was filled with electronic melodies and foot-tapping bass, the crowd sang along when he played Fair Warning, Multi-Millionaire and Don't F--- With My Money. He also threw in a remix of Lana Del Rey's Blue Jeans.
Celebrate the afternoon: Up-and-coming soul singer Allen Stone beefed up his sound with a little more rock, a little more blues. The Seattle-based artist, who calls Aretha Franklin an inspiration, belted out songs from his self-titled album, including fan favorites Celebrate Tonight and What I've Seen. His soulful rendition of Bob Marley's Is This Love got a stamp of approval from the crowd.
Double trouble: Nervo, Australian twin sisters Mim and Liv, revved up the crowd's energy with foot-stomping electro-house, including the electro-pop track You're Gonna Love Again. "Americans have a fresh energy for EDM, an open-mindedness to enjoy every aspect of the culture," says Liv Nervo.
Toasting with a billionaire: The star attraction of the day wasn't a music act. It was Richard Branson himself, who tended bar alongside Nervo to raise donations for the RE*Generation house, a homeless shelter for at-risk youth. "Generous donations from FreeFest have allowed us to open a shelter in Washington, D.C., so that's something we all feel passionately about," he says.
Get rich, too: Branson has recently published a new book, Like a Virgin: Secrets They Won't Teach You at Business School. "If you want to be a true entrepreneur, don't waste your time and money going to business school," he says. "Get out there and do it for yourselves, you'll learn more."
What's in his wallet? "I don't have a penny on me," he says. "It sounds a bit strange, but when you've become successful, people don't want you to pay for anything. It's a nice problem to have."
At long last: Ending a 12-year hiatus, '90s band Ben Folds Five treated fans to classics such as Underground and Brick, while giving the packed pavilion stage a taste of new music, such as single Do It Anyway (off album The Sound of the Life of the Mind). "We're more mature now, and uglier," says frontman Ben Folds. The goal for the show? "To make the crowd's faces melt off onto their shirts," says Robert Sledge.
Mowed down by bluegrass: Trampled By Turtles riled up the crowd with breathless acoustic numbers like Wait So Long and the longing lyrics of ballad Empire. Few fans stayed seated during the group's rowdy set.
The artist formerly known as Santogold: In a black jumpsuit bedazzled with mirrors, and accompanied by two similarly dressed dancers, Santigold (aka Santi White) riled up happy fans with Shove It and Big Mouth, while reeling in new ones with Fame and Disparate Youth, off her most recent album, Masters of My Make-Believe.
Shaking: Alabama Shakes lead singer Brittany Howard may have been dressed like a schoolmarm, but she roars like a rock star. Janis Joplin might have been impressed with the way Howard wielded her vocal might on songs like Hold On and You Ain't Alone, off the group's debut album, Boys and Girls.
The Midas touch: True to his name, Thomas Gold's hard electro-house set was indeed golden. His remixes of Justice v. Simian's We Are Your Friends and Calvin Harris' Feel So Close brought the crowd to raucous levels.
Hip-hop's not dead: With DJ Green Lantern at his back, Nas kicked it old school for his adoring fans. Straight from his first album Illmatic, he dropped New York State of Mind and The World Is Yours, along with tracks from his new album, Life Is Good.
"Rated ZZ Top": That was the tongue-in-cheek rating of the videos a la Legs flashing in the background of the iconic trio's rock set. With their unmistakable beards, Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill sounded exactly the same as they did in the '80s, if a tad lackluster. They're on the road promoting La Futura, the band's first album since 2003's Mescalero.
Serenity now: French band M83 hypnotized the massive crowd with the celestial harmonies of songs such as Reunion and Intro. The light show, rays of green and blue, showered the set, while the background displayed a colorful starry night. When fans overheard the unmistakable melody of Midnight City, hordes came running across the grounds for a closer look.
A set from 'Star Wars': In his DJ booth turned spaceship, Skrillex brought legions of EDM fans to otherworldly levels. His set started with a burst of flames as the bass rippled through the crowd. Like cobwebs of color, the light show included videos with different characters to enhance the music. Playing Make It Bun Dem and his remix of Levels by Avicii, Skrillex rocked out with the crowd as he sat on top of his alien craft.
Salute to the master: Bathed in ethereal blue light, Jack White, dressed in black, and his all-female backing band, dressed in white, stormed the stage with roaring blues-tinged rock. With the band surrounding him in a half-circle, White prowled the stage, rocking tunes off his debut solo album, Blunderbuss, such as Missing Pieces and Sixteen Saltines. He sent deafened but happy fans home with classics such as The Raconteurs' Steady As She Goes.
The hard work pays off: It took three years of FreeFests, 77,000 volunteer hours and $600,000 in donations, but Virgin Mobile will be opening up the doors to D.C. youth shelter RE*Generation House in November. "It's a day of free music that allows people to pay it forward," says Ron Faris, head of brand development at Virgin Mobile USA. "The funding also goes to two years of operations, to make sure the shelter can keep its doors open." Beyond shelter, the house is geared toward helping homeless youth get on their feet, teaching them "skills to survive," he says. "One (program) focuses on urban farming, so they can grow their own food and sell it at their local farmers' markets and get involved with the community." Virgin hopes to open more shelters in other cities, based on rock concerts and volunteerism. "We (do) more than connect calls and data," Faris says. "We connect people to culture and music."