The first-ever Firefly Music Festival descended upon the Dover International Speedway from July 20th-22nd with a lineup boasting acts with profiles so high, one was forced to contemplate whether both artists and fans could simultaneously fit within the state’s modest borders (one in, one out?). Every hotel within 30 miles advertises “No Vacancies- Welcome Firefly!” Telltale campground sprawls around the gates; weekend homes for the braver souls.
Most concertgoers fall in the “early twenties” range; some don little more than bikinis, while others the stupefied grins of psychedelic enhancement. Child-toting hipster parents mill about, with some enveloping their charges in various forms of death grips, while others loose their adolescents on a cell phone leash, gathering text updates on the hour, every hour. Across the board, smiles and good vibes abound. TNB Music has made an epic trek to assess the festival’s inaugural voyage and we can’t wait to see acts like Cake, Jack White, and Lupe Fiasco, to name a few (SPOILER ALERT: nearly every act will ultimately state at some point during their set, “This is our first time in Delaware!”). Festival veterans The Flaming Lips don’t have much to lose, with one of the largest and most age-varied followings in Dover. On the other hand, Death Cab For Cutie recovers from Codes and Keys, a record performed well commercially but that had longtime fans on their knees for the less-produced sound of Transatlanticism. In addition, frontman Ben Gibbard continues to lick his wounds from his relentlessly public divorce from Zooey Deschanel. Bloggers worldwide hope the ensuing heartbreak will return Gibbard to his 2005 songwriting peak, responsible for favorites like “Soul Meets Body.”
Friday: Day 1
Sunny, clear skies promise a scorching afternoon, but no one is complaining; not yet, anyway. The fairgrounds are standard as far as festivals go: gravel pathways, looming stages towering among the surrounding trees and overpriced French fries, but with a few notable and popular exceptions. Dotting the grounds are water fill-up and phone charging stations (both free). Also, local artists begin three-day long painting projects to be auctioned off on Sunday. Volunteers in white T-shirts, anxious for their breaks, buzz around, occasionally clearing away the odd forgotten Budweiser. Festivities begin at 2:30, when Atlanta’s Turf War shred at The Porch Stage, their southern rock twang welcoming the first hip swings and claps of the weekend. Though the demographic is consistent, audience geography varies: Virginia Tech T-shirts mingle with Phillies drink cozies and New England Patriots jerseys are just as likely to be seen as Tarheels lanyards.
For Firefly, it’s Location, Location, Location: All of the East Coast has gathered to soak up its first music festival. One band with plenty at stake this weekend is The Wallflowers, lead by Jakob Dylan. The group pre-dates many of today’s attendees, but has been on somewhat of a hiatus since their 2009 greatest-hits album. That lull ended in the spring of this year when Dylan announced a new album, set to release in the fall. About a week before Firefly Festival, The Wallflowers announced the record’s title, Glad All Over, preparing fans for what the band is positioning as a full-throttle comeback later this year.
Later, John Legend grooves for the older, calmer concertgoers with a 90-minute set of originals and a cover of “Redemption Song.” A middle-aged couple hold hands while their daughter perches on dad’s shoulders, blue eyes wide at the masses of people. In what was not the only surprising juxtaposition at Firefly, Bassnectar blasts beats from The Lawn Stage at night, only a beach ball’s throw away from Silversun Pickups’ set in The Backyard. With electronic dance music grabbing the world by its ears, even a rock festival needs some DJs in the lineup. Though the contrast is stark, we are happy to float between the two concerts. Meanwhile, a group of frat boys scoop together a pile of gravel, place a Red Sox hat on it, and invite passersby to snap a photo with “Rock Dude.” Aside from those who brought little ones to Dover, few enjoy the tethered hot air balloon rides. The view: decent. The price: criminal; especially for a vehicle leashed to the ground. However, no one misses the day’s headliner, Jack White.
Despite some speaker difficulties during the first song (the only technical issues that besmirched the weekend), White pleases all of his fans with juicy, bluesy guitar solos from his recent album Blunderbass as well as some heavy White Stripes tracks like “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” and radio hit “Seven Nation Army.” Stoners, sobers, mothers, and Mormons alike all agree—there’s no better spot in the world tonight than at the Firefly Stage in Dover.
Saturday: Day 2
Ominous clouds on Saturday creates uncertainty. Will there be more technical problems? Will bad weather effect our energy? Will campers need houseboats? Luckily, we only experience steady rainfall for a few hours, and it deters no one from enjoying themselves, especially not indie rockers Ra Ra Riot. They stand out with bop-worthy songs drenched in Rebecca Zeller’s poppy, happy violin. Cults deliver a more ambient, chilled-out vibe lead by female vocalist Madeline Follins. Between sets, people are most likely to be found taking shelter in the arcade, which features dozens of vintage video games, including Pac-man, Space Invaders, and Skee Ball—all for free. Others take a load off in the tree-protected Hammock Hangout. Luckily, the rain gives up in time for alternative rock kings CAKE. Lead by John McCrea, the band launches into new material but serves up classics like “Rock n’ Roll Lifestyle” and “The Distance” for long-time fans. McCrea calls out to the innumerable iPhones jutting into the air, begging the crowd to put them down and just enjoy the damn show. “This is real, even if you don’t post a photo on Facebook!” he declares. Applause and cheers abound.
Modest Mouse draws a similar crowd: an even mix of old and new listeners. They play the perfect blend of tracks, leaning toward 2000’s The Moon and Antarctica. Nothing but happy vibes prevail, particularly when the band plays their most popular (though rarely performed) “Float On.” Unfortunately, secondary headliners Passion Pit canceled a few days before the festival, but the concert’s coordinators filled the void by booking Brooklyn act Yeasayer, masters of reggae-influenced psychedelic rock. In the second tough time-conflict situation of the weekend, hip-hop megastar Lupe Fiasco’s crowd could have trampled Yeasayer’s. The African Muslim rapper performed powerful hits like “State Run Radio” and “Words I Never Said,” despite fasting for Ramadan. Trained ears in the audience recall Modest Mouse’s earlier set when Lupe closed with “The Show Goes On,” which samples the guitar and vocal melodies of “Float On.” Who knows whether Mouse’s singer Isaac Brock approves of the imitation, but the crowd definitely does. Fans of all creeds show it with respectful hand bobbing typical of hip-hop shows and lyrics shouted so loud they equal the star’s volume.
Sunday: Day 3
The walk to the fairgrounds on Sunday is buzzing louder than ever before. We’re prepared for the biggest and best lineup of the weekend. Both the young and headlining bands of Sunday have powerful hype and big fan bases. For instance, several English accents are heard in Bombay Bicycle Club’s audience. Already established in the UK, BBC will have no problem gaining new American fans with their relaxed, Beach House-ish vibes. And indeed, the reaction is splendid, complete with couples sucking face and a group of teenage girls “Woo”-ing at the handsome blokes. One shouts, “Marry me, Suren!” at the sheepish bass player, who simply smiles and shakes his head. Athens, GA alt-rockers Reptar literally rock the ground. Hands-down, they deserve the trophy for Loudest Non-Headliner. The boisterous young band is having their time of their lives, striking wild poses and making daring leaps about the stage, some members in tiny shorts and others in XXL wool sweaters. No one is sure why lead singer Graham Ulicny is wearing a knit beanie cap, but who would question it?
Yet another full-throttle group is Mariachi El Bronx. Sound familiar, punk fans? It should. L.A.’s The Bronx made an unprecedented genre transition when they simultaneously released two self-titled albums in 2008: One hardcore, the other—mariachi. Clearly, the alter-ego “El Bronx” better fits the Firefly crowd. Decked out in traditional mariachi garb, they play the most unique music of the weekend, with extremely positive audience feedback: an hour of perpetual good-natured mosh pits and ferocious dancing. As even more of a testament to The/El Bronx’s fun-loving attitude, frontman Matt Caughthran is later spotted mingling with fans, still wearing the black and white outfit like a Spanish Sgt. Pepper.
Regretfully, Death Cab For Cutie fans are disappointed this weekend. Lead singer Ben Gibbard immediately coughs, apologizes, and admits to the audience, “I’m on the best drug of all—Dayquil!” He struggles with high notes throughout the set (Death Cab lovers will know that many songs depend on the singer’s upper register) and fails to return for an encore, despite almost five minutes of genuinely eager chanting. Luckily, negativity has zero chance of surviving at Firefly.
Immediately following the Seattle band’s curtailed performance, two heavy hitters take their respective stages. Both The Flaming Lips and Girl Talk erupt with confetti, balloons, laser, and smoke machines. But the Lips have been doing this for decades, so they have a massive leg up on the partying DJ—a dozen girls dancing onstage in milkmaid costumes, inflatable suns, and rainbow-covered equipment. Frontman Wayne Coyne treated the audience to his infamous human hamster ball before giving some casual advice: “If you have yet to smoke pot at a Flaming Lips set, now is the time to do it!” Meanwhile, Girl Talk AKA Gregg Michael Gillis spins mashups of everything from Phoenix to Ludacris to The Ramones to keep kids stomping, jumping, and shimmying even past his time limit. “We’ve got one fucking minute left! Are you ready to do this?” he bellows, and then plays three more songs. Audiences from both acts stumble-sprint for the last concert of the night.
The Black Keys rule the radio waves and the summer festival circuit. Though their breakthrough came fairly recently, they’re a well-oiled blues-rock cranking machine. Neither singer Dan Auerbach nor drummer Patrick Carney engage in any sort of banter, but they don’t need to. They play more recent songs from El Camino with a backup guitarist and bassist, but shoo them away for classics like 2006’s “Your Touch”, which are best served with the original two Keys. A humungous disco ball remains hidden for the set, destroying any doubts concerning an encore. Sure enough, Auerbach and Carney faithfully return to tens of thousands of begging fans, drop the ball, and play the always-groovy, ever-sexy hit from Brothers, “Everlasting Light,” followed by a heavy, slamming “I Got Mine” to leave the crowd breathless. Though some audience members sneak out early to beat the mass exodus, an overwhelming air of giddiness still pervades the East Coast air just as it did two days earlier. Event coordinators now bear the quality problem that stems from a successful debut—the follow-up. We can’t wait.
–Photo credit: CJ Ballesteros