07.20-22.2012 Firefly Music Festival, Dover International Speedway

firefly music festival, flaming lips, doverBefore the gates even opened the first day of Firefly Music Festival three day occupancy at the Dover International Speedway in Delaware, it looked as if the festivities were doomed. Heavy, low hanging clouds had been releasing a fine mist since dawn and threatening storm. Rumors were circulating that Passion Pit, one of the larger draws had either broken up or else a member had died, either way they weren’t expected to by playing, and most frustrating of all, the staff working the fair grounds were hopelessly unprepared for the mass streaming towards them. Disorganization ruled over the four stages and dozen acres of the fairgrounds, and even the simplest questions were met by far away stares and indirect answers.
Rot all once the music began though. First day highlights included a mediocre performance though sonically proficient set by the Heartless Bastards and sleeper breakout Blind Pilot who in an unexpected display of folk-rock brilliancy seduced a crowd of unsuspecting audience goers lining up for a separate performance. And all this before noon…
The first major player on the line-up was nineties radio darlings The Wallflowers. A tired, uninspired Jacob Dylan did his best to fill up the two hours of stage time allotted to his group by playing all of their best known songs, but there was an unshakeable element of slumber attached to an unenthused crowd.
The first act to really get the blood flowing was undoubtedly John Legend. He had little business being at a rock festival in the first place, but the performance combined with his charm and a flawless back-up band may have won the rhythm and blues artist a wider audience. Words fail how unrelentingly alluring Mr. Legend was on Firefly’s main stage. If Justin Timberlake brought sexy back it was only to see it go home with John Legend.
With the crowd all hot and bothered, Bassnectar ensured no one was going to catch their breath. The first day favorite held back no blows, perched behind a fortress of amplifiers and flanked by spire-like screens Lorin Ashton head banged harder than any of the days rock ‘n rollers. An ecstatic crowd danced as if possessed beneath an equally dense low hanging cloud that had absolutely nothing to do with precipitation, while raver kids launched glow sticks through the air to match the closing scene of 300, and every other audience member asked desperately whether or not anyone had seen their lost friend Molly.
And though the excitement for the night’s closer Jack White was palpable, a contact buzz from the Bassnectar show was almost needed to enjoy the show. Throughout the day technical issues had plagued the performers on nearly every stage. And while this only removed the listener from the impact of a performance slightly, it was both unbearably noticeable and most likely cataclysmic for Jack White.
On opening numbers Mr. White’s banshee like vocals completely annihilated every other aspect of sound. But not to be outdone, the technicians quickly remedied this error by turning the vocals so far down following numbers sounded as if the audience had taken lead. Throughout all, the drums were inaudible, and Mr. White’s trademark licks of fire were barely distinguishable from the murk of bass and rhythm. Stage antics were top notch, and Mr. White cannot be faulted, but the first day’s closing act left many wondering whether the ticket price was really worth it.
Day two saw much of the same but a surge in attendance combined with good vibes from after parties that raged until dawn at the campsite did much to lift hopes against the still dismal weather. Though many complained about the rain drenched event, others noted the crisis of choice apparent throughout Firefly Music Festival. One couldn’t choose the weather, whether it be boiling hot or cold and wet, but hard decisions were required when reviewing the line-up.
Fools chose against Michael Franti and Spearhead, whose performance was up to that point, easily the best of both days. Without much coverage, or indeed anticipation, Mr. Franti managed to draw not only one of the largest audiences, but to also rock them like a Catholic school girl at her first Kiss show. Again, words fail the feeling, between everyman songs of love and shitty day jobs, Spearhead was able not only to connect with the crowd but to seduce concert goers away from other acts. It was apparent from the freshly arrived few had any concept of the band, but by shows end enthusiastic new comers were dancing along to the sweetly romantic and genuinely endearing music. It must also be noted the devotion with which Mr. Franti works an audience. More often off the stage than not, Mr. Franti was without doubt the hardest working man at Firefly.
Afterwards, band of the moment Young the Giant took stage to give a walk through performance of their overly exposed singles. It appeared as if the band was loitering on stage as opposed to working a crowd, and a shame they wasted all the effort Spearhead had put into working the audience up. The only real emotion or energy surfaced with their finale, “My Body,” a song which, as of press time, has already been played into the ground.
After losing interest in Young the Giant, a short walk through a thicket produced Cake. They were at their finest, playing mildly entertaining, unambitious radio friendly tunes between the drawn out meandering of front man John McCrea. It was a relaxed atmosphere to say the least, and many of the audience took the opportunity to break out Frisbees and hoola hoops in order to entertain themselves.
To put it delicately, Firefly had up to the point been a mixed bag. While there was some excitement to be had, the individual shows had been much more likely to disappoint than inspire. Leave it to Trampled by Turtles, an unknown amongst legends to turn the tide in favor of relevancy. Again though, Sophie’s choice: Mix with the seventy or so wide eyed and nearly hysterical Trampled by Turtles fans, or join the near entirety of attendee’s for surprise guest Modest Mouse? Surviving the Golden Age took a cue from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. We did not choose poorly. Though instrumentation was completely acoustic, and the attendance disparaging, Trampled by Turtles delivered one of the most intense, if not passionate sets. And though there were so few following them, their fans sang with joy and abandon to drown out the sound bleed from the forty thousand Modest Mouse fans some few hundred yards away at the main stage.
Trampled by Turtles, Firefly Music Festival, Dover
With sunset the rain had calmed and just after dusk Firefly’s main stage was host once again to the nights headliner, The Killers. I didn’t expect much out of The Killers. It’s easy to assume by their catchy hooks and over production that they are just another studio act. This couldn’t be further from the truth and I found myself quite frankly surprised and enthralled by their performance. Dressed to kill and performing with a sense of purpose, Brandon Flowers paced the stage with the deliberateness of a convict in his cell. Unlike other acts, The Killers segued from one song to the next without hesitation preserving and carrying over the accumulated energy. At key moments during their best loved numbers fireworks exploded from behind the stage, illuminating a pleased crowd in Christmas tinsel silvers and firehouse reds. The set was nothing less than epic and technical burps that had been plaguing the festival were conspicuously absent.
head and the heart, firefly music festival, doverDay three opened in the same unorthodox fashion day two closed. The rain had cleared allowing the July sun to at once and finally brighten the festival grounds. The Head and the Heart was the first big draw of the day. Their set took place on the main stage where already, just past noon, fans were staking out claims for the festival closer the Black Keys. It was obvious the majority of the audience were uninformed onlookers, but that didn’t prevent the Head and the Heart’s male and female leads from delivering a powerful, arresting performance, including key tracks from their latest album and under-appreciated self-titled gem.
A return to the main stage provided a glimpse of the Cold War Kids. Though highly anticipated, and with a coherent set that was miraculously free of technical flaws CWK left something to be desired in stage performance. They weren’t boring per se, but I believe there music is more geared towards digestion and thought rather than head banging and mosh pits. Crowd reaction was generally positive afterward and a moment to reflect wasn’t unappreciated.
Besides, one need catch their breath for the following act The Flaming Lips. It seemed impossible, but what was perhaps the oldest group was perhaps also the rockingest. But the Lip’s tumultuous bass driven set wasn’t complete without their signature stage show. Amidst billows of confetti and dropped balloons front man Wayne Coyne entered the world famous man sized hamster ball to thunderous applause. Delivering hits while surfing the crowd, mired in smoke and ticker tape rain, the set was as visually stunning as it was unrelentingly rowdy. It was a show not to be forgotten and the perfect intro for the final night’s headliners.
black keys, firefly music festival, doverLights dimmed on an anxious crowd- some of which had been waiting through the intense heat since early morning day for choice positioning- and as the two man team emerged the erupting applause reverberated off the nearby stadium and seemed to shake the grounds. The Black Keys weren’t one to disappoint, and it became quickly evident how they emerged from the obscure origins of Akron Ohio to become the summer’s highest rated festival act. Much like the White Stripes before them, it was amazing how a band of two could simultaneously rock while working an audience. Six pieces don’t contain the energy of these two dynamos. Even though their set ran long, the Keys went to lengths to play an extended encore, saving some of their best loved songs from past albums, leaving after the last fading ring of distortion a nearly hysterical crowd.
For every highlight over the course of Firefly’s three day run there was an equal and opposite low but one must take these things in stride. For every technical blunder there were moments of pure sonic joy, for every lack luster set there was a Bassnectar or Trampled by Turtles to carry the audience along and restore shaken faith in the power of music. And try as one might, it is impossible to consider the festival’s first year as anything but a success. And though hard numbers have yet to be revealed, Red Frog Media has announced Firefly will be returning to Dover’s International Speedway and it’s accompanying fairgrounds in 2013.

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