DOVER, Del. — “I don’t come here for the music, man, just the people and the good connections, you know, bro?” — Our camping neighbor, Todd the Hippie
Music festivals are indeed about more — or less — than the music, as our new friend Todd aptly pointed out. Firefly Music Festival, situated at the Dover Downs in Delaware, feels particularly so. This isn’t so much because of the festival’s other sponsored attractions (in contrast to Coachella or Bonnaroo, activities fall on the thin side at Firefly) but because of its nearly monstrous stretch of time. What is essentially a five day debacle can bleed into years or speed into minutes, and your time is bound to be filled by more than just the bands and music.
With that excess comes the inevitable: the highs, the lows and the downright strange. The latter is probably most telling of the experience; not a day went by without some kind of memorable oddity.
Todd The Hippie is one of those oddities, and one that speaks best to the experience of 60,000 people thrown into a campsite together and forced to survive. Apparently attending the festival solo, Todd was a tall man with a head of hair as unruly as himself. He camped directly across from us out of the back of his rotting red truck, resting on a tie-dye bean bag when he had the rare chance. His words came out in a drawl, finding a mid-way point between a drunk surfer and a rural West Virginian, both comforting and unsettling.
At first we debated whether he wore the same pair of plaid shorts every day, or whether he had taken a page from a ’90s cartoon and owned an infinite closet of the same outfit. By the end the answer was abundantly clear: it was just the same dirty pair.
Occasionally Todd would simply appear, perusing our campsite and mumbling to himself about this or that. We worried about our belongings for a while, but Todd noticed and pulled out his bag, showing us his well endowed wallet: “Money ain’t the problem man, money ain’t the problem.”
Todd, too, had his highs (often, I can assure you) and his lows. We had some good conversations about easy living and spiritual connections, but he also told us (earnestly) that a true friend is someone who will let you pee in their butt. So there was that.
At one point Todd walked over with a trash bag and actually began to clean our campsite. When we asked why, he told us “The vibes are never right in a dirty place, so I always feel the need to clean up after others.”
Ah yes, the vibes. To Todd’s defense, he was preserving a culture that seems to have been falling away as of late at music festivals, at least in my experience. I was astounded by the number of Michigan Greek Life and fraternity letter shirts that littered the Dover Downs over the weekend. So often are festivals sensationalized by the kinds of characters like Todd that this phenomenon is increasingly overlooked. I saw more Natty’s Lite beer at Firefly than I ever did at a Michigan tailgate. And while everyone is entitled to their own festival experience, I will say the overwhelming greek presence did alter the vibes. Fetty Wap, beloved by fraternity parties, received an enormous showing, despite a late and underwhelming performance. Groups Chairlift and Chvrches, on the other hand, had strong sets, but were met with generally thin and restless crowds.
The Firefly lineup has an obvious mold, and this year was no exception. Strong preference is given to middle of the road indie rock: The Killers, Foster The People and Kings of Leon have all headlined twice; this year, Mumford & Sons was given preference over Earth Wind & Fire and Blink-182, while Florence and the Machine was placed above A$AP Rocky (a fact he pointed out).
Accordingly, Firefly did not disappoint on the indie end of things. Thursday headliners Two Door Cinema Club performed well, and managed to cull the excitement into a bouncing climactic rendition of “What You Know,” the band’s popular single. British rockers Catfish and the Bottlemen had a surprisingly impressive set, despite the generally poor critical reception of their last two albums.
Still, not all of the indie rock shined brightly. Sunday headliners Mumford & Sons were slated to play for two hours, but hardly an hour past before the set felt redundant, and the crowd began to filter over to the Backyard Stage in anticipation of EDM project Major Lazer. The Neighborhood (popular for single “Sweater Weather”) did a fine job instrumentally, but frontman Jesse Rutherford struggled to keep the energy and his vocals up to par.
In the rap field, Firefly has generally been sparse, selecting only a handful of token artists to represent the genre. While this year wasn’t a major improvement on diversifying their lineup, they managed to bring in a few prominent names: A$AP Rocky, Vince Staples and Ludacris. A$AP was met with a deservedly large crowd and brought out fellow A$AP Mob member A$AP Ferg. It was an electrifying performance, with Rocky stomping the stage to bangers from both Ferg — “Work REMIX,” “Shabba” — and himself — ”Fucking Problems,” “Goldie,” “LPFJ2.” It was likely the most energetic performance of the weekend, with mosh pits emerging left and right, inebriated bodies flailing.
Vince Staples had a strong showing as well, playing the more beat-heavy tracks from his debut album Summertime ’06, like “Senorita” and “Norf Norf.” Leaning over the mic while a mind-boggling video of a free-fall played behind him, it was a hallucinogenic-inducing performance.
Picking up where Vince Staples left off later that day, psychedelic rock band Tame Impala created waves in a packed crowd, both visually and sonically. Their tight performance, led by mastermind Kevin Parker, included singles “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” and “Elephant,” while exploding with confetti at their peak with “Let It Happen.” It was just the kind of vibe that would make Todd proud.
Firefly was, to put it into the most general of words, an experience of vibes. Flip flops were made from red solo cups, spaghetti was stirred with an uncleaned tent stake, a dirty hippie picked up our trash and a lazy-eyed man on acid served me a combo plate of tacos for $12.
But when it comes down to it, I had fun, I vibed and I experienced. Isn’t that the point?