by Caroline Sanchez
Dover, Delaware could not have asked for a more beautiful weekend to host the East Coast’s newest music attraction. Now in its second year, the three-day Firefly Music Festival took over 87 acres of land at the Dover International Speedway, turning The Woodlands around the racetrack into the stomping grounds of 60,000 concert-goers, complete with four stages—Firefly Main Stage, The Lawn, The Porch, and The Backyard—a free Arcade tent, The Vineyard, The Brewery, and some of today’s most anticipated musical acts.
My adventure started at 3AM on Friday morning when, after arriving on the festival grounds and assuming there would be a Bonnaroo-sized line for camping check-in, my entourage and I were redirected to the local Home Depot parking lot to wait with the other early risers. Despite the under-informed security guards, getting to the campsite was easy once check-in started and in a matter of an hour, the grassy fields were transformed into full throttle tent-city.
When the main festival grounds opened at noon, I was lucky enough to catch Django Django and Dr. Dog on the Main Stage, where I was able to get backstage for a good view of the crowd.
The back-to-back sets were a high-energy way to start the weekend, prepping the audience for the later Ellie Goulding and Calvin Harris sets on The Lawn stage. I appreciated the backing band that Ellie brought with her; it was a refreshing contrast to the DJ I expected. The vocals were hard to decipher over the other instruments, however, making it less of the show than I anticipated. Whatever the audience didn’t get from Goulding was redeemed by Calvin Harris: the sound and the light show were top-notch, catching everyone’s attention—even the Chili Pepper super-fans who stopped to watch on their way to the main attraction.
Similar to their Bonnaroo set from last year, the Peppers took on the Friday-night headlining slot in front of a crowd that varied in age rather drastically. I credit them for being a band that reaches past their generation so gracefully; many other groups aren’t able to achieve a fanbase as diverse as the Chili Peppers, no matter how catchy their tunes. Everything was in place for a spectacular performance: the sun had set, the crowd had gathered, but somehow, the famed rockers missed their mark. Maybe it was my state of exhaustion or my memory of the incredible Bonnaroo performance from last year, but Friday night’s performance didn’t live up to the exciting Chili Peppers I remember from MTV in the ‘90s.
Saturday was a marathon day that started on the Main Stage with Japandroids, a duo that surprised me with their ability to sound like more than a two-person band. Alabama Shakes brought some much needed soul to the party (damn, can Brittany Howard sing!) and Kendrick Lamar had the crowd going crazy—an impressive feat for one guy on a microphone.
Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is a force to be reckoned with—she is a performer that becomes overwhelmed with the act of performing, tugging at the hearts of the audience with her crooked smile, outlandish outfits, and a genuinely tear-filled performance of “Maps.” MGMT takes home the trophy for craziest visuals: it was an 8-bit acid-trip with a dreamy, synth-pop soundtrack that took everyone for a ride, with or without the hallucinogens.
It is no surprise that the festival’s most seasoned performers put on the best show of the weekend. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have perfected the art of the live show in the nearly 40 years they’ve been a band, giving the crowd on Saturday night the epitome of a classic rock concert. Naturally, they played all of their hits: “Refugee” and “American Girl” getting the most energy out of the crowd, second only to Petty’s “Free Fallin’” introduction that announced: “This is for anyone who's here at the festival cheating on their boyfriend or girlfriend.”
I opted to sleep in and check out the later performances on Sunday, starting with part of Matt & Kim and then Passion Pit. My heart goes out to Michael Angelakos, who had to call the Passion Pit set a half-hour early because of a lost voice. That didn’t stop the audience or Angelakos from giving it all, though, resulting in an overwhelming response to his request for audience participation during “Sleepy Head.”
I then ventured over to The Porch to hear chillwave powerhouse Toro Y Moi take over the smallest of the four stages. Chaz Bundick has an infectious smile and a humble stage presence that makes his performance vivid yet relatable. Vampire Weekend's performance was true to their sound, which comes as no surprise—I have always known the group to have a fun live show and Sunday’s set was no exception.
The biggest shock of the weekend was Foster the People's headlining performance consisting of hundreds of lighting effects, back up dancers with strange animal masks, and a full-on horn section. I found myself confused by the size of the production—I guess I missed the boat on FtP, because I didn’t expect their set to be anything special.
The older crowd that hung back for RHCP and Tom Petty were completely gone by Sunday night, leaving a gaggle of young "Fireflies" singing along and throwing glow sticks. The production left me baffled, but it was a great way for Firefly to leave a lasting impression on the departing crowd. I know that I’m certainly interested in attending in 2014 and, according to the festival website, they are more than ready to start selling tickets for next June.
Has the East Coast finally found its festival? Firefly definitely stands out from the flurry of music festivals that have emerged in the last few years: it is a place that promotes on-site camping, local food vendors, and the pseudo-hippie vibe that makes it feel like the kid-sister festival to Bonnaroo. Firefly has many years of festival hosting before it can call itself a true music mega-fest, but it is well on its way to living up to its tagline as “The East Coast’s (first!) Premiere Music Festival.”