Two years ago, when I mentioned that I was going to Firefly in the weeks preceding the festival, I got mostly blank stares. “Um, what’s Firefly?” Now, even the kindly old lady who rings me up every day at Wawa said, “Oh, I’ve heard about that! It’s in Delaware, right?” My co-worker told me that her teenage daughter has been wearing her Firefly wristband since she received it in the mail several weeks ago, and every major TV and radio station in the Philadelphia metro area ran coverage of the festival.
Four years after the inaugural event in The Woodlands at Dover International Speedway that drew about 30,000 attendees, the East Coast can now lay claim to a premier music festival—the kind that hippies and college kids will drive creaky, spray-painted Volkswagon buses to from across the country in droves.
If you are not a camper, or even a glamper, you needed to book 12 months in advance if you wanted to score a hotel room within a 50-mile radius of the festival this year. In 2015, all 90,000 four-day passes sold out a week prior, prompting giddy press conferences from local leaders about the millions of dollars in economic benefits it will generate, as well as grumblings from Dover residents who just wanted to grab toilet paper and cereal from Walmart that weekend.
The West Coast has Coachella and Sasquatch. The Midwest has Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. The South has, well, Austin, Texas. And now the East Coast has Firefly.
Like previous years, the main headliners (Paul McCartney, Kings Of Leon andtThe Killers) were yawn. You see the same 10 headliners at every festival. The real meat was in the second-and third-tier acts, which are fresher and more intriguing. Big Data, Vacationer and Walk The Moon came out of nowhere to dominate radio waves. Modest Mouse isn’t much of a touring band and has recently put out its first album in seven years. Matt And Kim and RJD2 always perform a lively show. And the rest of the bill has been popping up all over Soundcloud and iTunes playlists.
For those needing a break from the music, there was an arcade, a hammock hangout area, a secret woods rave and a coffee house that offered a full cafe experience and music performances throughout the day. Wine and craft beer bars also scattered the festival grounds. With stage names such as the Porch, the Lawn and the Backyard, Firefly gave festival-goers a carefree summer weekend vibe, despite uncooperative weather.
The day before festivities were scheduled to begin, 65,000 campers stared down a strong chance of thunderstorms Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, and periodic drenching all four days. With the gloomy forecast, I was grateful for the hotel room I booked six months prior. Even though it was 40 minutes from Dover, I had premonitions of leaky tents and long lines for a cold rinse in a communal shower and opted for clean sheets and a continental breakfast. My broke college days are long gone, and I can’t tolerate wet sleeping bags and beer for breakfast like I used to.
After waiting in the muddy press area behind the Backyard Stage on Friday afternoon and straining to listen to garbled songs and muffled cheers from fans while anticipating several artist interviews, I was ready to hear some music.
Even with minimal touring experience and only one album under their belt, Durham, N.C.-based duo Sylvan Esso has been creating buzz. Watching them in the flesh, it’s easy to see why. Listening to a Sylvan Esso song live is a pretty transcendent event. Singer Amelia Meath’s striking voice makes you feel like you’ve just stepped into a hot shower after a long day on the ski slopes, simultaneously warm and tingly and content. Her down-to-earth lyrics filter through the membrane of your soul, while producer and keyboardist Nick Sanborn’s throbbing-yet-simple bass lines circulate through your body.
The diminutive Meath stomped onstage with studded four-inch platforms, no makeup, and a messy bun, commanding the crowd with a cheerful confidence. Those in the audience weren’t just there because they wandered by and wanted to check out a random band—they love Sylvan Esso. The way legions of glitter-covered festival-goers sang along with the lyrics and screamed excitedly every time the first chords of one of their less-popular songs were played, you would swear you were at a Taylor Swift concert. It’s only a matter of time before they are a household name.
Suddenly, ubiquitous AWOLNATION ripped through an energetic set early Friday evening as the sun singed its last couple faces and backs before sinking behind the tree line. Since first album Megalithic Symphony exploded in 2011, the Southern California product, fronted by singer/producer Aaron Bruno, has been heard everywhere from television shows to Red Bull commercials. The set started out with the intense title track from latest album Run and culminated in seductive hit “Sail.” In between, Bruno threw his body around the stage like a BMX rider at the X-Games, throttling the microphone during “Thiskidsnotalright” and the anthemic “Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf).”
Modest Mouse drew a Paul McCartney-sized crowd for its set. The indie-rock legends released a long-awaited new album in March, but made sure to include a substantial dose of old favorites such as “Dashboard,” “Dramamine” and the banjo-heavy “Satin In A Coffin.” Singer/guitarist Issac Brock delighted the senior millennials in the crowd, who were reliving their best high school years that night as they listened to his distinct growling voice and deliberate guitar twangs.
While more wet weather had saturated the already sloppy grounds overnight, Saturday afternoon and early evening offered sunny-yet-sticky festival conditions. Thankfully, I was given a reprieve from the scorching rays when I was invited to an exclusive performance by 311-esque, reggae-tinged rap/rock group Dirty Heads at the Treehouse, a timber stage nestled in the woods. The “Treehouse Sessions,” hosted by Mixradio, gave select festival-goers access to multiple Firefly acts throughout the weekend. This afternoon, the small crowd enjoyed an intimate performance under a glorious canopy of trees, listening to unplugged versions of “My Sweet Summer” and “Dance All Night.”
Later in the day, Matt And Kim unleashed their characteristic frenzied routine of crowd incitement and Master P interludes, with a couple of actual Matt And Kim songs thrown in. Their uncanny ability to control the audience would make Oprah jealous. A rowdy intro injected Red Bull energy into the throng of sweaty festival-goers, priming them for what was next. To the chagrin of the security personnel, Matt shouted, “Who here has never crowd surfed?” Thousands of hands went up. “Well this is your time!” Dozens of people were hoisted in the air and rolled around atop a sea of hands as the duo banged out “Now.” The very next song, Matt instructed, “I want you to get up on the shoulders of the person next to you!” About 200 girls’ heads popped up above the crowd. For the finale, 75 percentof the audience members’ shirts came off, and they waved them above their heads like Terrible Towels.
Over the past two decades, Spoon has generated a body of work that includes such beloved and critically acclaimed albums as Girls Can Tell and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. On Saturday night, unfortunately, the band’s uninspiring set belied its talent. Spoon is at its best when it plays its simplest, catchiest songs such as “Don’t You Evah,” but the band chose to stick mostly with its fuzzier, less-refined tracks and succeeded in sounding like a lo-fi version of itself.
On the other side of the field, Vacationer started up immediately following Spoon. The band’s easygoing, tropical sound fit perfectly with the welcome breeze flowing over countless sunburned arms and legs as dusk fell. Unfortunately, the relief was short-lived. Around 9:30 p.m., reported nearby storms forced festival organizers to evacuate the grounds. Campers retreated to their tents and RVs while the rest of the crowd formed a long line of cars by the exit.
Fickle weather couldn’t dampen the vibe, or my excitement for next year. Firefly is no longer “under the radar.” For the fourth straight year, Firefly has continued to cement a reputation as one of the can’t-miss summer festivals. I plan to book my hotel today for 2016.
Another photo after the jump.