In the backwoods of Delaware, with the immense Dover International Speedway towering over the camping fields like the Roman Colosseum, there was a palpable buzz in the air. The dragonflies may have had something to do with it; they hummed scant inches over the crowds that would eventually pack in to Firefly Festival’s spacious grounds. But more, there was an excited tension, a product of nervous anticipation. Could this festival, the first of its kind, really deliver the goods it promised? Could heavyweight acts like The Killers, The Black Keys, Jack White, Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie really all converge on one lonely forest in God-knows-where, New England?
We quickly discovered the answer. As the rather lengthy line shuffled through the gates Friday afternoon, and into the natural clearings that nature had sculpted within the woods, Firefly was ready.
Four stages were set within the edges of the fields, named not for the companies that bid sponsorship money, but for an afternoon in the sun: “The Backyard,” “The Porch,” “The Lawn” and “The Firefly Stage.” Only two acts would play simultaneously, at opposite ends of the horseshoe-shaped fields, and the headliners would have no competition once they donned the main Firefly Stage.
Walking directly to the right, The Porch and The Lawn faced each other like dueling rams showing each other their own coiled horns. Walk the Moon and Graffiti6 both played solid sets at The Porch, with the latter playing a soulful cover of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.”
To that stage’s left, more than a few Firefly memories were made at the slightly larger Lawn stage. Grouplove and Cake both played to rather large crowds due to favorable scheduling (though Grouplove seems to be acting like their mild popularity has given them deity-worthy status). Sunday was the real day of glory, though, with AWOLNATION throwing down a furious set to send the crowd into frenzy. Fitz and The Tantrums and The Flaming Lips both played crowd-pleasing shows as the day wore on, making The Lawn arguably the most fun stage on that particular day.
Walking to the left and up the bend of the horseshoe, one could find a multitude of attractions: an old-fashioned arcade here, a tent full of artists customizing blank Tom’s shoes there. And also, the food, though perhaps that’s better left forgotten — outside of the palatable burgers and chicken strips, the more adventurous soul food and Italian joints were a serious letdown.
Directly in view as we walked away from the stages was “The Vineyard”: a well-decorated twilight courtyard for the rich and naïve to pay eight dollars for a few shots of wine. To switch over to the right arm of the horseshoe, we had to walk through one of the more elegantly designed aspects of the festival grounds — a large path through the forest. But instead of swinging axes and destroying the nature we had come to enjoy, the people at Firefly cleared all of the brush and stripped the lower branches. The result was simple but effective: the essence of a forest with none of the plants to scratch our legs as we walked through. And when night fell and the lamps were lit, Firefly Festival earned its name.
The other side of the festival was easily the most utilized, and at that, provided the best selection of music. The Backyard at the top of the horseshoe brought a wide selection of talent to the large crowd space in front of the stage. Blind Pilot opened the festival with a lighter yet catchy performance, and Ann Arbor-native Mayer Hawthorne inspired much dance throughout the sizable turnout. Silversun Pickups rounded out the trio of shows with an energetic and well executed concert.
Yet it was Imagine Dragons opening the second day of festivities that was the stage’s highlight, playing a near-perfect set. The performances declined from there, but the last act Girl Talk brought the dance club into the forests of Dover (not quite the cliffs, but still an exciting location).
However, though each of the stages brought their own special flavor and highlights, it was clearly The Firefly Stage that would be the centerpiece of the festival. The Wallflowers christened it with somewhat of a boring set, but a John Legend show gave Firefly Stage its excitement back. There was a clear buzz when Jack White took the stage to be the first headliner to perform, but sound system issues caused technical difficulties for the first 20 minutes (with his voice ear-piecing at times, and none-existent at others). Though the speakers eventually recovered and he actually performed remarkably well given the circumstances, the mood was ruined and the show seemed only so-so in hindsight.
Michael Franti brought a fun, reggae-happy performance on Saturday, though Modest Mouse seemed bored during their hour-and-a-half long show. Luckily, the second headliner the Killers played a panoply of their hits with fireworks, lights, and confetti for all. Sunday’s Death Cab for Cutie show made it somewhat clear that their music is best left off the stage and on the CD — there was nothing glaring, but nothing particularly exciting about the performance.
And then, it was time for the grand finale: The Black Keys. The amazing thing about in-demand headliners is that they don’t bring gimmicks or talk in between songs. They simply bring their music and their sound: bombastic, and executed with surgical precision.
After three days of camping, weather that threatened but never delivered storms, and fantastic music, Firefly was over. Luckily they’ve already announced that there will be another festival in 2013- pack your sleeping bags.