Delaware may be the First State in the union, but it’s probably one of the last that you’d associate with cutting-edge rock music. That changed this past weekend when the home of NASCAR races, beachfront condos and tax-free shopping hosted the inaugural Firefly Music Festival, an event that looks to sit alongside annual summer gatherings like Bonnaroo, Outside Lands and Lollapalooza and put Delaware squarely on the musical map.
Held on 87 acres of wooded land near Dover’s International Speedway, the 3-day event drew an estimated 30,000 revelers from up and down the Eastern seaboard to the capital city, where artists such as Jack White, The Killers, The Black Keys, Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, the Flaming Lips and 41 more bands performed across the festival’s four stages.
In its debut year, Firefly was surprisingly devoid of on-site hiccups. Organized by Red Frog Events — a Chicago-based production company famously known for throwing the extreme obstacle race Warrior Dash — Firefly rolled on with the precision of an event many years in the making. In addition to an almost by-the-minute adherence to the scheduled lineup, attendees were treated to a host of attractions to keep them occupied between sets, including hot-air balloon rides, a beer hall and vineyard hosted by local vendors, an arcade full of vintage games and a hammock haven nestled in the woods for those who just wanted to soak up the laid-back vibe.
But of course, what kept the smiles on fans’ faces throughout the weekend was the music, and there were plenty of memorable on-stage moments that made the first Firefly festival worth the price of admission.
— Firefly was only one of four U.S. stops on the Killers ‘ very brief North American tour, so anticipation was high when the Sin City quartet took the stage for their Saturday headlining set. Frontman Brandon Flowers and the band treated the crowd to a kinetic, pyrotechnic-enhanced performance that even had fans by the port-a-potties dancing. The Killers performed three new songs from their upcoming album “Battle Born” — all of which boasted the ’80s arena-rock vibe of their latest single “Runaways” — but the old hits were what fans came to hear, and the band delivered the goods. Kicking off with a one-two punch of “Somebody Told Me” and “Smile Like You Mean It,” the group left no single unturned during its 90-minute set and tore through crowd-pleasers like “Mr. Brightside,” “Human” and particularly rousing versions of “All These Things That I’ve Done” and “When You Were Young.” The crowd returned the band’s energy ten-fold, leaving Flowers in awe of the little state’s big response to their tunes. “Delaware,” he said beaming. “Who would have thought?”
— Actually, most artists who hit the Firefly stages couldn’t seem get over the fact that they were performing in Delaware. “This is the first time we’ve ever played here,” said OK Go frontman Damien Kulash during the band’s Friday afternoon set – a phrase the was uttered by nearly every band throughout the weekend. “Sorry I don’t know more about you guys. But I do know you’re the first state, though. That must mean you’re the state that God likes the most.”
— “I bet every band gets up here and says ‘This is the first time we’ve ever been to Delaware,’ right?” said Yeasayer ‘s Chris Keating. “Well, I’m not gonna say that, because I’m from Maryland and spent every summer here growing up. Rehobeth Beach!” Yeasayer may have kicked off their set by apologizing for not being Passion Pit (who cancelled their Firefly appearance due to frontman Michael Angelakos’ health problems), but the Brooklyn trio had nothing to be sorry for. Despite the sparse crowd near the stage, Yeasayer’s set of psychedelic dance-rock was arguably one of the day’s best. Keating’s duties didn’t end when the band walked offstage either — the band also pinch-hit for Passion Pit at the official Firefly afterparty Saturday night, where Keating spun retro dance classics for a few hundred guests until 1:30am.
— Jack White didn’t spend a lot of time bantering with the audience when he hit the stage to close out Firefly’s Friday evening. Instead, the Detroit alt-rock maverick let his catalog of hits do the talking. With a four-piece band of equally sharp-dressed men behind him, White shredded through tracks from his recent solo effort “Blunderbuss,” as well as a sprinkling of hits from his White Stripes, Raconteurs and Dead Weather days. Sound issues plagued the beginning of the set, but they were quickly forgotten as White’s bluesy licks and jaw-dropping solos brought things back on course.
— Philadelphia is known as the City of Brotherly Love, but Dover came a close second during Silversun Pickups ‘ Friday night performance as frontman Brian Aubert spent much of his time bromancing a young man in the front. “What’s your name,” he asked the audience member between songs. “James? Well, I like the cut of your jib, James. You’ve got the kind of look that makes me feel like everything is gonna be okay.” The on-stage flirting continued for several minutes, with the crowd erupting into a spontaneous chant of ‘James! James! James!’ after Aubert thanked his parents for having sex. Aubert kept his eye on James throughout the remainder of the show and came down to embrace the object of his affection after closing the set with an ear-ripping rendition of their 2007 hit “Lazy Eye.”
— Firefly made sure the festival would go out with a bang by booking two of the festival circuit’s biggest party-starters, the Flaming Lips and Girl Talk , to play simultaneously on Sunday evening. The Lips brought out all the stops, such as giant balloons, confetti canons and Wayne Coyne’s famous hamster ball, to the “Lawn” stage and dosed the crowd with a psychedelic rock onslaught that left the uninitiated scratching their heads. But the crowd had no trouble getting into Girl Talk, who brought his mashup mayhem to the “Backyard” stage, where a sweaty throng of party people jumped, jived and wailed until the last beat dropped.
— Several up-and-coming indie bands found their way to Firefly, but few were more well-received than Grouplove , who brought one of the weekend’s largest crowds to the “Lawn” stage for their Saturday afternoon set. Led by lace-gown wearing frontwoman Hannah Hooper, the band delivered a rousing, rainy set that concluded with the group mashing their anthemic hit single “Tongue Tied” with Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” — a charming tribute to the R&B queen that got everyone in earshot feeling the heat.
— Alternative rock ruled the Firefly lineup, but a few hip-hop and R&B artists were also given their moment in the Delaware sun. Smooth operator John Legend — easily the most mainstream-friendly artist on the bill — held the main stage crowd in his hand during his Friday afternoon set. Lupe Fiasco kept politics to a minimum and cranked up the party vibes during his Saturday evening show, while Tinie Tempah brought the sound of U.K. rap to the stage Sunday afternoon. But shining above them all was 63-year-old soul survivor Charles Bradley , who delivered a hand-waving set of retro funk — complete with James Brown splits! — early Saturday afternoon. Bradley may have been decades older than nearly everyone in attendance, but the Florida performer proved, once again, that age ain’t nothing but a number.