In more ways than one, Firefly has doubled down on Delaware.
From June 21-23, the First State hosted a first-class event, as the annual Firefly Festival once again took over the lush Woodlands area behind the Dover International Speedway. With nearly double the number of bands on its bill this year, Firefly 2013 attracted 60,000 East Coast revelers, doubling in size from its inaugural run in July 2012. And with so much more to hear and see during its three-day run, Firefly didn’t just deliver on the promise of its impressive introduction 11 months ago – it eclipsed the loftiest expectations of its patrons, and seems poised to sit alongside the Bonnaroos and Lollapaloozas as one of the country’s premier summer-music events.
Many events experience logistical growing pains during their early years, but bigger translated to better for Firefly in almost every respect. Organizers built a new footprint on the 87-acre forestland that housed the event, which allowed for more standing room around every stage and also more space for additional non-music attractions. When not taking in the tunes, fans could also catch a flick in the hammock-strewn forest cinema, shoot for high scores in the giant arcade tent or knock a few back in the brewery sponsored by Dogfish Head, who brewed a Firefly Ale specifically for the weekend.
But as with any festival, it was the music that drew the masses. Organized by Chicago-based Red Frog Events, a company best known for hosting extreme obstacle challenges like the long-standing Warrior Dash, Firefly featured 73 acts on its four main stages, ranging from Hall of Fame headliners, up-and-coming indie bands, iconic hip-hop legends and a host of EDM mavens. The eclectic lineup – which featured Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Foster the People, Vampire Weekend, MGMT, Kendrick Lamar, Calvin Harris, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Alabama Shakes, Passion Pit and Zedd, among others – provided an ever-changing soundtrack that was tailor-made for its musically ADD attendees.
And with the ink still drying on a newly-signed deal that will secure the event’s spot in the Dover Woodlands for another 10 years, Firefly aims to keep packing in attendees from all 50 states for some time to come.
Here’s a few highlights that made Firefly 2013 worth the price of admission:
— American-bred rock ‘n’ roll closed out the fest’s main stage each night. On Friday, California alt-rock royalty Red Hot Chili Peppers — anchored by the eternally shirtless Anthony Kiedis and Flea – made their first appearance in Delaware and unleashed their tried-and-true brand of funk jams (including classic cuts like “Under the Bridge” and “Higher Ground”) on the crowd. Saturday belonged to Florida’s Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, another crew of DE newbies who drew an even larger crowd to their headlining stage. The 62-year-old icon kept partiers a third of his age on their feet with his endless arsenal of hits, like “Free Fallin’,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “American Girl.” (The kids weren’t the only ones having fun — more than a few 40-somethings in the crowd were caught up by the classics and decided to have a dance with Mary Jane for old time’s sake.) And though they didn’t have the same catalog of hits as their predecessors, L.A. trio Foster the People held their own on the big stage on Sunday, delivering a solid set of dancey indie-pop grooves that included several brand-new tunes that kept kids dancing in their pumped-up kicks until the final encore.
— On Thursday (June 20), fans were disappointed to learn of the last-minute cancellations of folk-rockers the Lumineers and rap rebel Earl Sweatshirt, both of whom bowed out for medical reasons. But Firefly acted fast and answered with a couple of impressive substitutions. West Coast hip-hop star Schoolboy Q stepped in for Earl on Friday evening, delivering a fiery late-night set on the Porch Stage. Sunday afternoon saw guitar god Ben Harper pair up with blues legend Charlie Musselwhite and pinch hit for the Lums with a soulful, sun-soaked mains stage set that featured a hip-shaking rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” Immediately after Harper, Cambridge quintet Passion Pit — who cancelled their Firefly appearance one year prior — played a show-stopping make-good set on the festival’s main stage. Perhaps this year’s no-shows will keep up the tradition and make appearances for Firefly 2014?
— Firefly brought way more beats to the party in 2013. Once the sun went down, the forest went wild for the fest’s collection of marquee-caliber dance acts. Scottish house hero Calvin Harris played to a packed stage at nightfall on Friday, setting the scene for the brutal bass of Chicago’s Krewella that kept ears bleeding well past 1am. Saturday saw masked DJ duo the White Panda bring mash up madness to the Porch stage. But the last dance was arguably the best, with Germany’s Zedd drawing a massive crowd that jumped and gyrated to his addictive electro-house beats.
While pure EDM acts brought the bigger beats (and crowds), indie dance artists also found a home on the Firefly stages. Washington electro upstart Robert DeLong brought his energetic one-man show to the Porch stage Sunday afternoon. Baltimore’s Dan Deacon got downright interactive with his crowd on Friday, inspiring his fans to create a massive dance circles and even a human tunnel during his muc-lauded Porch set.
— The name Azealia Banks has been coupled with controversy following her much-publicized Twitter feuds and antics with well-known pop culture figures. But there was no drama to be had when the Harlem hip-hop diva showed up a mere two minutes after her scheduled start time. Switching between tracks from her critically acclaimed ‘1991’ EP and her ‘Fantasia’ mixtape, Banks showed off her MC skills and brought a strong female presence to a Firefly’s male-dominated indie-rock lineup. Banks closed her hour-long set with her profanity-laced, hard-to-miss track “212.” For fans weren’t on the A train before, this set bought them a one-way ticket.
Azealia wasn’t the only artist representing hip-hop at Firefly fest. On Friday, rap pioneers Public Enemy tore through their socially conscious jams for old-school heads on the Porch stage. Meanwhile, Compton king Kendrick Lamar brought his new-school swagger to the Lawn stage, treating fans to gems from his ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ album and a surprise appearance from fellow Black Hippy member Schoolboy Q.
— Nestled in a thicket between stages, Firefly’s silent disco proved a popular addition to the festival’s list of attractions. All weekend, fans grooved quietly to the music in their heads, but audible gasps were heard on Sunday when full-time actor, part-time vinyl junkie Elijah Wood treated the Thicket a surprise set. Once word got out on twitter, fans flocked to the area outside the gate and craned their necks to get a glimpse of Frodo Baggins rockin the decks.
— Saturday’s Super Moon proved the perfect backdrop for the tranquil psychedelic tunes on Conneticut’s MGMT. Making one of the first stops on their summer tour, the band brought their arsenal of indie hits (“Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel” and “Flash Delirium”) but also took the occasion to test drive new tunes from their anticipated upcoming album.
— Recently departed actor James Gandolfini found much love from the Firefly family. All weekend, the scowling image of his ‘Tony Soprano’ character was found emblazoned on t-shirts and hovering over the crown on foam-core cut-outs. The celebrated star also received an on-stage shout out from Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O, who dedicated their benchmark hit “Maps” to Gandolfini’s memory.
— If there was any doubt that L.A. duo Capital Cities could translate its success soundtracking commercials into actual commercial success, the crowd’s constant singing and incessant dancing during the group’s Sunday afternoon set put them to rest. Wearing all-black with white 50s-style varsity jackets, Ryan Merchant, Sebu Simonian and their three-piece backing band performed tracks from their recently released major label debut and seduced the audience with their unforgettable hooks, laden with trumpet slices and thumping bass lines. Capital Cities commanded the crowd so easily, they even coordinated a side shuffle with full audience participation – an easy feat when you give the audience one groove after another.
— The enthusiasm of the Firefly crowd carried on long after the music ended. Heading from the grounds to their close-by campsites, amped-up attendees kept the cattle herd lively by breaking into spontaneous sing-alongs. The most popular on the a Capella playlist: The White Stripes “Seven Nation Army,” Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” and Biz Markie’s off-key classic “Just a Friend.” We suspect that some members will keep the songs going until the Firefly gates open once again in 2014.
Additional reporting by Alfredo Tirado