Third Time's a Charm: A Firefly 2014 Review
Outkast at Firefly 2014; All photos by Laura Baker-Finch
Dover, Delaware -- At a press conference on the grounds of Firefly Music Festival last Friday, festival director Greg Bostrom stated the theme of this year's installment of the rising East Coast festival staple was "Bigger and Better." For its third edition, organizers expanded the event to four days, made significant changes to the festival's layout, and managed to sell 20,000 more tickets than the previous year, estimating a total of 80,000 attendees at 2014's incarnation. By learning from last year's mistakes and stacking the lineup with seasoned veterans as well as last year's favorite rising stars, Firefly displayed it was a force to be reckoned with in the realm of east coast music festivals. It has, in Bostrom's words, "made it to the big leagues."
Perhaps the biggest downfall of last year's Firefly was the unforeseen traffic problems occurring on Friday afternoon. From its freshman to sophomore attempt, the camping festival essentially doubled in size and capacity, leaving the city of Dover incapable of dealing with such an immense rush to its city limits. For 2014, promoters added a Thursday night bill and expanded the camping time frame from Wednesday night to Monday morning, successfully alleviating such a congestion by giving attendees different arrival and departure options.
After painlessly driving into The Woodlands (the affectionate name for Firefly's grounds) and setting up our campsite, we headed past the festival gates to catch the second half of Phosphorescent's set. Unfortunately, lead singer and bandleader Matthew Houck was not having a good time. On "Song for Zula," the hit single from 2013's Muchacho and usual set-closer, the frontman pleaded with techs via hand gestures to turn his microphone up before angrily taking off his guitar and using other band members' mics, none of which were to his pleasing. Houck seemed to add two more upbeat songs to the set after an impromptu on-stage band meeting, which saved the show after the unfortunate sound debacle.
Taylor Rice of Local Natives
When Phosphorescent ended, we headed over to catch Philadelphia folk-rocker Amos Lee. His tunes seemed to match the setting - low-key, woodsy roots-music - and after a few enjoyable tracks, we traversed the vast fields of the festival site to get some prime real estate for Local Natives. It was hard not to be amazed at Thursday night's attendance, as the commonly repeated phrase on our walk was, "Holy shit, there are so many people here."
Local Natives frontman Taylor Rice was also surprised, remarking, "At first, we weren't sure about this Thursday night slot, but this is awesome." The band kept the crowd engaged by showcasing impressive harmony skills and reverting to percussion heavy tracks before closing with the epic "Sun Hands" from 2010's Gorilla Manor.
After the sunrise turned our tents into saunas, we made our way back towards the grounds, resigning to smell bad considering the hour-and-a-half wait-time for campsite showers. (Quick camping PSA: if you know showering is out of the question, wet-wipes are going to be your best friend.)
The first festival news came via the Firefly app, as a push notification announced Sky Ferreira had cancelled her 3:45 set. She stated later on Twitter that she had fallen ill - a commonplace theme on her somewhat cursed tour. With this lineup change, the first bands we saw ended up being Bleachers and The Mowgli's. Bleachers is the slightly less poppy side-project of fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff, who led the band through tracks off their upcoming debut Strange Desire. Their cover of "Don't Come Around Here No More," a throwback to last year's headliner Tom Petty, was well received, as was their closing track featuring a Springsteen-esque saxophone solo.
Katie Earl of The Mowgli's
California-based The Mowgli's are perhaps the happiest band you'll ever see. They delivered a high-energy, super-poppy set, and asked the crowd to, "Treat everyone as nice as possible," before closing with the sing-along inducing "San Francisco." Seriously, these guys have never even heard of sadness.
Back on the main stage, Iron and Wine was just getting set up. Their show was a bit more underwhelming than expected, perhaps because bandleader Samuel Beam omitted backup harmonies and electric guitars found on studio recordings from the live setting. That said, it's impossible to get tired of "Freedom Hangs Like Heaven," which surprisingly ended with a blues-rock shuffle - the loudest and most engaging moment of the show.
I was afforded a pleasant surprise from there in Portugal. The Man. For not being well versed in the band's music prior to the show, I was immediately reeled in by the infectious opener "Purple Yellow Red and Blue." They blasted through a bluesy, distorted rendition of "All Your Light (Times Like These)" and it was great to see the juxtaposition of lead singer John Gourley's high-pitched vocals and the mixing of funk and hard-rock genres to achieve an original sound.
It's no secret we here at Cultivora are pretty big fans of Chance The Rapper: three different reviewers listed him among the top acts at Buku, Sasquatch!, and Governors Ball. Chance and his backing band, The Social Experiment, were again consistent, delivering an energetic and emotional set. He was endearingly humble yet totally in control, either pleading with the crowd to be his choir on a cover of the Arthur theme song or demanding all audience-members jump for the drop on "Chain Smoker." The group also managed to keep the set fresh by including a dance-off on "Everything's Good (Good Ass Outro)" as well as an appearance from fellow Firefly performer Vic Mensa for his verse on "Cocoa Butter Kisses." It's still hard to believe Chance The Rapper is only twenty-one years old, and I, for one, am waiting anxiously to see what the future holds for this young MC.
Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses
The last Friday set on the Lawn stage belonged to Band of Horses, who are a real pleasure to see live. Ben Bridwell's voice is as crisp as it was eight years ago, even after smoking a couple cigarettes on stage. Live renditions of songs like "Is There a Ghost" and "The Funeral" make it apparent Band of Horses have a wealth of experience on the road - they know how to execute sweeping dynamic changes while retaining a tight sound.
From there, we headed back to the main stage for the Foo Fighters' headlining set. This band is the epitome of the axiom "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The biggest highlight of the set came during "Monkey Wrench" as Grohl jumped off the stage and ran through the middle divide in the crowd, first climbing on a camera turret before storming a beer concession stand to grab a Rolling Rock. I saw him do a similar marathon around an arena in Philadelphia ten years ago, but such a gimmick never gets old when the band you're watching embraces the fact that they're producing simple, straightforward rock 'n roll. This became entirely apparent when they returned for an encore with Grohl stating they were now a classic rock cover-band called "The Holy Shits." Four covers followed ranging from Alice Cooper to Van Halen before Foo Fighters closed with their own '90s classic "Everlong." Not a bad way to end the day.
Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters
Saturday got started with a bang as twenty one pilots took to the main stage. Think of Matt & Kim, and now throw in rapping, ski masks, backflips, and a Travis Barker clone on drums. Lead singer Tyler Joseph knows how to pump up a crowd, be it jumping on top of his piano or leading a ukelele sing-along of Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl."
From there, I went to catch the Brooklyn natives Lucius on the Lawn stage. The indie-pop band began their set to some technical difficulties and a noticeably small crowd. Once the problems were dealt with, the audience grew in size with curious Fireflyers accumulating to witness the spectacle that is Lucius - two harmonizing lead singers sporting matching black dresses and metallic blue-blonde hair fronting a band of two guitar players and a stand-up drummer. A particularly affecting moment came during "Go Home," as Jess Wolf and Holly Laessig built a vocal crescendo culminating in a beautiful moment of catharsis.
Jess Wolf and Holly Laessig of Lucius
I decided to do some exploring after Lucius as Firefly does a pretty good job of keeping its attendees occupied outside the music realm. The most crowded chill zones of the grounds were the "Hammock Hangouts," which filled quickly with lounging festivalgoers trying to get out of the sun and rest. If you continued deeper into one of the hammock sections, you would find an art installation by Christopher Janney entitled "Sonic Forest" featuring artificial "trees" that, when touched, would produce ambient sounds.
Firefly also hosted its own weekend-long silent disco (a DJ zone in which sound is transferred via headphones instead of speakers) in an area called "The Thicket." It provided nice comical moments to spectators, like when an entire crowd of people seemingly dancing to nothing suddenly broke out into an a cappella version Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer." I made my way from there to the Brewery tent taken over this year by Dogfish Head, which featured ten of the company's craft beers on tap, and cursed myself for not entering it sooner. It was filled with soccer fans watching World Cup games between sets, so at any moment the tent would erupt with hundreds of rowdy festivalgoers screaming "Goal!"
I ran back to the main stage to catch a few songs from Grouplove, whose live show is a helluva lot of fun to watch. Band-members bounced across the gigantic stage as lead singer Christian Zucconi showcased an impressive vocal range - this guy's got some pipes. This was followed by a quick sprint back to the Lawn stage to meet with the rest of our crew for the second half of the Kaiser Chiefs' set. We couldn't take our eyes off frontman Ricky Wilson, whose stage antics seem influenced by cats as he deftly hopped and balanced on top of slanted monitors while the band blazed through classics like "Ruby" and "I Predict a Riot."
Matt Shultz of Cage the Elephant
The rowdiest set of the weekend belonged to Cage the Elephant. You could look over the gathered masses and count at least ten crowdsurfers at all times, including at one point guitarists Brad Schultz and Nick Bockrath. Lead singer Matthew Schultz kind of has a punk Mick Jagger thing going for him - he'll either be seductively shaking his hips or jumping into the pit throwing glitter while donning an all white outfit and bolo tie. This band has progressed immensely since the days of "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked," as they left me entranced during the climax of the show, "Come a Little Closer" off 2013's Melophobia.
It's been a while since I've seen something as interesting and quirky as the tUnE-yArDs set. Brains behind the project Merill Garbus has dropped her horn section in favor of female backup singers/dancers, moving in a direction she claimed is Haitian-influenced. She wore a makeshift American flag dress - seemingly an ironic move considering her lyrical subject matter deals with our country's violence, poverty, and inequality. Her face-painted band consisted of collaborator Nate Brenner on bass in addition to a standup drummer who would take over percussion when Garbus wasn't looping her own beats. Hits like "Gangsta" and "Bizness" flowed seamlessly in between delving into new tracks from her 2014 release Nikki Nack.
It's somewhat baffling that a modern music legend like Beck could end up on a side stage like the Lawn. Nevertheless, Mr. Hansen put on the best set of the weekend, delivering hit after hit and seemingly forgetting 2014's underwhelming Morning Phase in favor of classics off Odelay and Guero. In between the hip-hop and folk influences, it's easy to forget Beck's songs can get heavy, as the crowd found itself headbanging to tracks like "Devil's Haircut" and "Novacane." He managed to spice things up with a solo harmonica performance of "One Foot in the Grave" and a quick, almost reluctant "Billie Jean" cover following "Where It's At," asking, "Are we really gonna do this?" Thinking about the performance of his closing track "E-Pro" kind of turns me into a bumbling idiot, so I'll leave you with this: It ruled. It ruled hard.
André 3000 of Outkast
From there, it was a 10,000-man sprint back to the main stage for Outkast. The ATLiens have been constantly refining their set on this tour after putting on a stale performance at Coachella, gaining some steam back at Sasquatch!, and dominating Governors Ball. Outkast's Firefly appearance topped the Gov Ball show as they further balanced the setlist between deep cuts and hits to keep the crowd engaged while still paying tribute to the group's six-album discography. Between a five-song medley of tracks from the first album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, and constant reminders from André and Big Boi that the group is now twenty years-old, it's becoming more apparent this is farewell for Outkast, which is terribly bittersweet considering their veteran performance prowess is rivaled by few others. It's sad to see Outkast go, but they're certainly going out on top.
Sunday was something of a slow day, epitomized by Dan Croll asking his early set's crowd to raise their hands if they had a hangover, which was met with hundreds of extended arms. For not really knowing his tunes, I was drawn to the music, which blended electronic elements with pleasant rock tones. I'm a sucker for harmonies, so when the band pulled out a four-parter à la Fleet Foxes on "Maway," I made a note to look the act up when I got home.
We stuck around the main stage for City and Colour, which turned out to be the most pleasant surprise of the weekend. I wasn't sure what to expect considering Dallas Green's ties to hardcore band Alexisonfire, so when the set consisted mostly of slow-building blues jams and folk tunes, the decision to stay felt all the more gratifying. It was also nice to see frequent Jack White collaborator Jack Lawrence (The Ranconteurs, The Dead Weather) on bass and backup vocals. The set's best moments tended to be on the darkest songs like "The Grand Optimist" and an extended version of "Hope for Now," featuring an epic guitar solo from Green to close the show.
Next came everyone's favorite slacker band Weezer. After opening with "My Name Is Jonas," the group mainly stuck to the hits while attempting to showcase most of their discography excluding Pinkerton. Between Rivers Cuomo repeating the name of the festival about twenty times and the lack of classic Weezer downers, it became clear the group was catering to a festival crowd - not the worst thing in the world, but I was hoping for something a bit more interesting. However, it was cool to hear the audience surrounding me actually sing the guitar solo to "Say It Ain't So." The set was satisfying overall.
We walked back over to the Lawn stage for our final acts of the weekend, Washed Out and Broken Bells. The former began to a fairly small crowd that increased in size as the show went on, with bandleader Ernest Greene bringing his airy chillwave to a lively crowd of curious Fireflyers plus a few hardcore fans. I was expecting the setup to consist of four people standing at synthesizers, so the use of live drums and guitars in addition to keyboards was a relief.
James Mercer of Broken Bells
Broken Bells took the stage and moved through hits from their latest album After the Disco like "Perfect World," "The Ghost Inside," and "Holding on for Life" while peppering in tracks from their self-titled debut to further engage the crowd. As the set continued, I couldn't help but think Danger Mouse didn't really belong up there - the man is a brilliant producer and a particularly mediocre bassist and drummer, which was magnified when juxtaposed with James Mercer's near-flawless vocals. Even so, the tunes are far too catchy to harp on just that aspect, and their closer "The High Road" was well received.
It was then we headed back to the campsite to pack up our tents amidst reports mosh pits and crowdsurfing had broken out at the Childish Gambino show before he took the stage - a regrettable omission from the already epic festival, but, alas, it was time to head back to New York.
After a weekend filled with awesome music in a scenic setting with numerous cool attractions topped off by countless high-fives from friendly festivalgoers, I'd say the Firefly staff accomplished what they set out to do - this was a bigger and better festival. All flaws from last year's event were eradicated, and the only hitch of the weekend (Sky Ferreira's illness) had little to do with the festival itself and hardly mattered in the grand scheme of Firefly.
When considering what goes into putting on a music festival, it's strikingly impressive one located in Dover - a great trek from most major metropolitan areas - could attract such acts and attendees simply through superior planning and execution. At his press conference Friday, Greg Bostrom officially announced Red Frog Events would host Firefly in Delaware again in 2015, and we can't wait to see you all back in the Woodlands next year.
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