Firefly: Somewhere in the middle of the Delaware Woods

Friday, June 22, 2018 - 5:50pm

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SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DELAWARE WOODS

“That’s tight. It’s A$AP Rocky, yeah?”

Pressed up against us, shoulder to shoulder, for the entirety of two performances, Danny’s thin white shirt was almost translucent with sweat by the time he finally decided to speak. It was, indeed, A$AP Rocky that had been blaring through our iPhone speakers, as the sun began to set over the woodlands of Dover, Delaware and we desperately tried to stave off the ache of our blistered feet. Instantly charmed by Danny’s British accent, we threw Testing to the wayside in order to focus on the “Skins” archetype that had manifested beside us. 

“I told myself that I would be at the very next Arctic Monkeys show. No matter where or when it was, I would be there. So when it was announced that they would be headlining Firefly…” Danny smiled slightly and turned toward the empty stage, as if he could already see the phantom image of Alex Turner crooning into the mic. 

Firefly Music Festival, like most music festivals, has the particular quality of attracting people from various pockets of the world and forcing them to coexist semi-peacefully in one enclosed area. Unlike most others of its kind, however, Firefly stretches over the course of almost five days, which, surrounded by miles of empty cornfields and barricaded by rows upon rows of nylon tents, can seem to bleed into infinity, time unraveling to become as distant as the outside world itself. 

In this bubble of perfectly contained chaos, there is more than just music. A community begins to form amid the dust and the turmoil. A strange, off-kilter community — where bottles of Gatorade 95% filled with Everclear are treated reverently as holy water and the neighbors won’t stop playing the same shitty EDM remix at 4 a.m. —  but a community, nonetheless.   

Shima Sadaghiyani, Daily Music Editor

DAY 1 — Wednesday Camping, or, We Hid the Beer in the Spare Tire

We unpack our tent around noon, having sat in a line of cars since morning, and I remember: It’s hot in Delaware. You’d think that after eighteen years of experience with mid-Atlantic heat, the summer sludge would come as no surprise. That doesn’t stop me from standing on the car, looking at the thousands of tents and thinking — damn, it’s hot. So hot the air above the campgrounds is somehow visible, curving back and forth as metal reflects the sun’s rays.

Wednesday camping at Firefly is both a blessing and a curse. The festival doors don’t open until Thursday evening, giving Wednesday campers a much closer camping spot, and much more free time. And free time breeds shenanigans, especially when the average age of these campers is about 20 and especially when these 20-year-olds are the kind who prefer their clothing sleeveless and emblazoned with Greek letters. Free time is not about to be spent reading books or playing board games. There is work to be done, boxes (and boxes) of cheap beer to be torn through.

Matt Gallatin, Daily Arts Writer

DAY 2 — Rave Babies

Somehow a week feels lost and yet the festival begins today. We mosey into the campgrounds early, just to walk around and see what’s up. The grounds are enormous. Walking from one end to the other feels like more than a day’s worth of cardio. I haven’t eaten anything but messy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for over twenty-four hours, so I purchase a $15 hamburger.

Matt Gallatin

Knox Fortune

Nice, chillwave music, but better fit for dimly lit small bedrooms than the festival stage. The calm doesn’t translate so well to swaths of party-ready teens. Oh, this guy was on the Chance the Rapper album (mixtape?) too.

Matt Gallatin

Hippie Sabotage

The right successor for Knox Fortune. With their cross of trap and vaporwave supported heavily by distorted vocals, the air felt, for a moment, suspended. Largely famous for their 2014 EP Sunny, they were sure to play their hits from that project, like “Your Soul” and “Ridin Solo (Njomza Remix).” They clearly felt the pressure to hype up the crowd; at one point they shouted “Everybody crowdsurf!” and I saw a 12-year-old boy with braces surf a sea of drunkards. 

Matt Gallatin 

DAY 3 — I Guess We Never Really Left High School After All

Joey Purp

A festival staple at this point, Joey Purp has been on a mission to make it. His performance at Firefly confirmed this: He wants success, and he’s working hard for it. Purp opened up with fan favorite “Money & Bitches.” The recorded version sounds more meandering and pensive; live, he played it with the force of an anthem, slamming his feet down and bringing powerful energy to the stage. He played other popular tracks too, like “Cornerstore” and “Morning Sex,” to great reception. Though lyrically and cadence-wise he still comes across a bit uninspired (perhaps in a rap world filled with cartoons, there is simply less tolerance for average) but his enthusiasm was undeniable. Often, that can make the difference.

Matt Gallatin

Foster the People

“Pumped Up Kicks” was the “Ring Around the Rosie” of early High School. Hear me out: Just as there was always one preschooler loudly announcing “Ring Around the Rosie”’s connection to the Bubonic Plague, there was always one adolescent upstart loudly announcing “Pumped Up Kicks”’s connection to a school shooting. I know this because I was that very adolescent upstart, desperately clutching at anyway I could put both middle fingers up at authority without actually having to put any middle fingers up. Foster the People arrived at an integral moment; their music a perfect blend of indie rock with a little bit of edge, hard enough to feel appropriately rebellious when blasted out of rolled down windows on the drive to school but still pop enough to fit within the quiet lanes of suburbia. 

Their Firefly set was much of the same balance, interpersing mellow crowd favorites like “Houdini” and “Don’t Stop (Color On the Walls)” with more experimental performances based off of the moody psychedelia of their newest album Sacred Hearts Club, a phrase which was emblazoned in larger-than-life neon script on the back wall of the Firefly stage. As lead singer Mark Foster stood in front of the words, ripped sleeves and scrappy tattoos backlit by reds, blues and yellows, before launching into a cover of the Ramones’s “Blitzkrieg Pop,” I felt a familiar sense of preteen angst rise up from the pit of my stomach. 

Someone next to us said that the set gave them “major Tame Impala vibes." While the synth-heavy, spiraling light show of songs “Pseudologia Fantastica” and “Loyal Like Sid & Nancy” were reminiscent of tracks out of Lonerism, the Foster the People that caused me to rip my jeans at the knee and black out my white converse with permanent markers in the 10th grade was still alive and well. They closed their set with the familiar beat of “Pumped Up Kicks.” 

Shima Sadaghiyani

Jimmy Eat World

Is this “The Middle”?

Matt Gallatin

Arctic Monkeys

The first line of Apple Music’s description of the Arctic Monkeys’s newest album after five years, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, reads “In 2016, Alex Turner received a piano for his 30th birthday.” It’s about the only description you need to understand the album’s brooding, introspective corridors. And as you wander throughout quiet jazz undertones and lounge-pop bursts, it’s easy to imagine a mustachioed Alex Turner in the casino basement, plunking away at a grand piano with a glass of scotch in one hand, ready to tell you about his past exploits as a smooth-talking, aviator-wearing rock star. The album is muted, bittersweet and filled with a melancholic sort of appeal. Yet, these are songs for late hours spent alone — solitude mixing with the slow crawl of a dying cigarette — not for the sweaty, beer-drenched animal farm of Firefly. The crowd that had been waiting hours in order to see the Arctic Monkeys did not come to watch Alex Turner cry over a piano. We came for the Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, for the Favourite Worst Nightmare, for the Who The Fuck Are The Arctic Monkeys? 

Thank God Alex Turner seemed to understand that, bursting out on stage with a rousing rendition of “Brianstorm,” and instantly turning the first 20 rows of the crowd into a pit of flailing fists. Dressed to impress in a monochromatic suit, hair slicked back, every inch of him was the same man who used to break the hearts of Tumblr fanatics left and right. 

And damn, did he put on a great show.  

Playing only a few songs from Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, which became welcome breaks from the moshing, most of the set was a trip down memory lane. There was something for every Arctic Monkeys fan here, from more popular songs like “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High” and “505” to tracks pulled from the shadows of old EPs, like “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” and “Pretty Visitors.” No matter how far back the Arctic Monkeys reached, Alex Turner was on top of every note, every minute. Over-exaggerating his gestures and postures to play along with the lyrics of the songs, he brought them, as well as all the memories of crowdgoers to life. 

The set closed out with “R U Mine?” and as “All I wanna hear her say is, are you mine,” echoed around me, bumping along the hoarse edges of a throng of gleeful voices, I looked over to where Danny, my boy from across the pond, was being thrown from side to side. We locked eyes, and I could tell he was feeling what I was feeling in that moment: perfect, harmonious catharsis.  

Shima Sadaghiyani

Lil Xan

At Firefly, The Pavilion stood out from the rest of the venues. In a sense, it was the black sheep of the festival family. Not the sprawling lengths of the main stages, nor the cute comfort of The Coffee House or the Treehouse, The Pavilion stands off alone in a nearly forgotten corner, enclosed by stone and hung with curtains that changed colors with every ripple of the wind. It was, to put it plainly, a rave den, always hosting the most eclectic names on the lineup (See: Hotel Garuda, San Holo, Yung Gravy). It’s only fitting that Lil Xan performed here too, beanie pulled low, ready to lecture the youth about xanarchy. 

In The Pavilion, you always get more than you expect. These seemingly B-grade acts with names that come straight out of a fourth grader’s mad libs are actually good. Lil Xan is no exception. The 21-year-old California native is one of the faces to come out of rap’s new underground sound. Unpolished, lo-fi and almost cartoonishly rowdy, the music of Lil Xan, as well as names like Lil Pump, wifisfuneral, Ski Mask the Slump God and Smokepurpp, have climbed to relevancy solely through the power of the Internet; punk isn’t dead, it just exists on Soundcloud now. 

This high-energy, pointed elbows unruliness ran rampant at the Lil Xan show, the crowd’s energy kept at a consistent high through the ear-blasting feedback of songs “Betrayed,” “Colorblind” as well as other hits off of Total Xanarchy. Lil Xan kept the volume up until the stone columns shook and the crowd nearly crawled over themselves in an effort to get closer to the front. At times, his rapping was shaky and the DJ was a little too trigger-happy with the ad-lib of “Xanarchy!” Yet, perfection never has had a place in these raw expressions of delinquency. It didn’t in your friend’s garage, among the shrill cries of electric guitar feedback and under the watchful poster eyes of The Clash and blink-182 and it didn’t in The Pavilion, either, as we crowdsurfed under the watchful eyes of Lil Peep (may he rest in peace) to the shrill cries of “XANARCHY, XANARCHY, XANARCHY.” 

Shima Sadaghiyani

DAY 4 — Weezy F Baby and the F Stands for Firefly

Hotel Garuda 

Hotel Garuda has figured out how to make EDM music work, and how to do it in a way that’s exciting, unique, and, of course, eminently danceable. The “DIY” EDM duo consists of Manila Killa and Candle Weather, two young DJ/producers, each of whom got their start on SoundCloud. They are undoubtedly the Internet’s children, and their clothing reflects this: pink Adidas All Star shoes, clout glasses and graphic tees. With that look they carried the energy of youth, dancing all over stage and telling the crowd in voices absolutely giddy, “This is the largest crowd we have ever played, thank you so much.”

The duo’s a joy to watch, and though their recordings can sound on surface level rather generic, their live performance mix is nothing short of fantastic. They pulled heavily from deep house throughout the show, and I felt more like I was in a dark basement rave than a festival pavilion. They added some popular tracks into the mix, like Lana Del Ray’s “Summertime Sadness” and Lorde’s “Green Light,” but the vocals fell to the background, and they rarely succumbed to the clichéd 12 bar crescendo and hi-hat drop formula so prevalent (and boring) in the music of other EDM artists. There were plenty of basslines so dirty people in the crowd frowned with glee; few times throughout the weekend did I see so many people dance so enthusiastically as I did at Hotel Garuda. We left sopping with sweat and better for it.

Matt Gallatin

San Holo

Lol I love Star Wars. 

Shima Sadaghiyani, Daily Arts Comedian

Martin Garrix

Martin Garrix is a classic in mainstream EDM. That’s astounding when you consider that the German producer just recently turned 22 years old. He began his career so young and found a niche so strong that he managed to corner a market before he could even rent a car. He’s done it by creating, and then maintaining, EDM music that has a rigorous concern for the “drop,” that moment when the build up gives way to the joy of anthemic synths. Garrix has focused intensely on that moment, and squeezed as much of it as possible. Take his two recent hits: “In the Name of Love” and “Scared to Be Lonely.” They’re nearly identical, hard to discern from one another with that same pattern of smooth build up and exuberant beat drop. His music is like taking a trip to the candy store and filling your bag with more than it can carry. It’s sweet, almost too sweet. 

His live show is a bit like that. The first half hour was invigorating. The drops came quickly and often, and at each one, thousands of glow sticks flew into the air. And the bass truly was astounding, so much so that it could mesmerize before it made you want to dance. 

But the problem with overfilling your bag at the candy store is that inevitably you’ll start to get sick, oversaturated with sweetness. After half an hour of consistently timed bass drops, the act gets a little old. This isn’t music you can dance to for an hour straight. It’s music you jump to once a minute. We left before he ended, the pyrotechnics still going strong. 

Matt Gallatin

Lil Wayne

There was so much Lil Wayne slander at this festival that I almost developed a twitch. Pusha-T warned us on DAYTONA: “He see what I see when you see Wayne on tour / Flash without the fire / Another multi-platinum rapper trapped and can’t retire.” I disregarded these bars before the show because Lil Wayne is without question a legend, a rapper so important to the game that any conversation about rap in the 2000s isn’t only incomplete without mentioning him, but nonexistent. It was simply incredible to think that he had somehow lost the fire. 

Yet Firefly festival goers seemed completely unaware of the greatness they stood below; called his set “disappointing” when he performed “A Milli” in pink getup, could hardly shout the chorus of “Mrs. Officer.” Concerts are symbiotic, requiring energy from both the performer and the spectators, and while Wayne still had the flash (how could someone who wrote “Georgia Bush” come without it?) there was a creeping sense that the fire was slowly extinguished by this disrespect. I felt a sadness as people merely laughed at his height and said his voice sounded “strange” during “Lollipop.” At the age of 21, I already felt old, upset at these teenagers who didn’t understand the importance of what they were seeing, couldn’t possibly know the absolute joy of screaming “she licked me like a lollipop” at age 12 in the minivan, right before mom and dad switched the radio station. It seemed like Wayne could sense the loss too.

Matt Gallatin

The Killers

They brought up a kid named “Brian” from the crowd to play drums. The frontman looked like a glam rocker from the ‘80s. Never before have I seen so many people turn into suburban dads right before my eyes. I guess they played “Mr. Brightside”? 

Matt Gallatin

His name was actually “Ryan.” He was from West Chester, Pennsylvania and he was doing his best. 

Shima Sadaghiyani

Eminem

Uh.

Matt Gallatin

Mom’s spaghetti. 

Shima Sadaghiyani

DAY 5? — Time Does Not Exist but We Saw Fellow Daily Arts Writer Mike Watkins

MGMT

Hot off a critically successful comeback album, Little Dark Age, MGMT were in their element. The show began slowly, with eerie, old-horror flick orchestral sounds that put you right into the mindset of that release — creepy, campy, heavily influenced by the 1980s and Kraftwerk in particular. It was mesmerizing, and a welcome break from the monotony indie bands at Firefly can develop. Firefly has a tendency of stuffing its lineup with all-male bands who clearly listened to a lot of Foxygen and Grizzly Bear, and there’s a point during every Firefly when each indie band bleeds so easily into the next they become indiscernible. 

MGMT avoided this trap, focusing on the aesthetic of this new age synth-pop, and it worked spectacularly. The festival grounds were enraptured in a confused, hazy awe, the weed clouds hovering higher in the air than they usually do, spinning a moment longer before they dissipated. Until the band transitioned smoothly into hits like “Electric Feel” and “Kids,” which some of the more dance-ready listeners welcomed and jumped to gladly. Decades have gone by, and MGMT reminds us why they’re still here. 

Matt Gallatin

Kamasi Washington

A stringy-haired anemic-looking boy sat next to me in the shade in the hour before Kamasi Washington was due to take the stage. He was wearing a bandana on his forearm. He was armed with three tabs of acid. And he had one of the most apt descriptions of Washington’s nearly uncategorizable music I’ve ever heard to date: “You can’t force yourself to understand Kamasi, man. You just have to let the notes wash over you.”  

Indeed, there’s more to Kamasi Washington’s music, in both the nearly three hour expanse of his debut, The Epic, and the much shorter EP, Harmony of Difference, than can ever be comprehended. Pulling inspiration from a wealth of influences, everything from his father, Ricky Washington (who Washington brought out to play with him due to that Sunday falling on Father’s Day), to established figures in musical history like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, to his own sense of African American identity, Washington creates music that weaves together past stories and future yearnings. Impossibly layered and intricately produced, it is hard to do anything but sit back, let the notes wash over you and quietly respect the art that is woven into fruition from the very air in front of Washington’s ever-present saxophone. 

So that’s exactly what we did in the shade of one of the hottest days at Firefly, as Washington showed us how he carefully layered the five separate harmonies found in “Truth,” and as the crowd, slowly, one by one, fell silent under Washington’s spell.              

Shima Sadaghiyani

Shima might have been vibing but I swear to god I saw a skinny boy with the hair of Jesus Christ sprint towards smooth jazz. 

Matt Gallatin

SZA

The mood was perfect: sky blushing in early preparation for dusk, heat finally settling, grass cool against our legs. The mood was perfect, but SZA was ten minutes late. 

After the rumors had begun spread about her destroyed vocal cords as the young singer/songwriter took a break from the TDE Championship tour a few months ago, anxieties at the Lawn Stage of Firefly were at a high. The crowd tried to start an encouraging chant of “SZA, SZA, SZA,” which quickly died out with no response from SZA herself. Things were starting to look bleak when, out of the blue, came the familiar first few notes of “Supermodel”: “That is my greatest fear. That if, if I lost control. Or did not have control, things would just, you know. It would be… fatal.”

And there SZA was, stepping high and smiling wide, looking like she had never left. 

It was Ctrl’s personability that made it so wildly impacting. Empowerment and insecurity, love and resentment all expressed with the same utmost sincerity. In her live performance, this authenticity became even clearer. Notes sparking with kinetic energy, she put her body behind each soaring vocal. The airy confidence of “Doves in the Wind” was conveyed in the sway of her hips as she sauntered around the stage in front of a graphic of a white dove slowly flapping its wings. The upbeat production of “Love Galore” bled smoothly through the speakers. And, as the wandering daydream of “The Weekend” caused the crowd to yell in excitement, SZA turned her open arms toward the horizon, as if she could physically catch our joy. 

Shima Sadaghiyani

Kendrick Lamar 

A legend. A classic. And it was his birthday! 

Matt Gallatin