Live Review: The Firefly Festival, 2016

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Firefly has become the music festival equivalent of Facebook: it used to be just for college kids, and now your parents do it. What was once the strange, frightening realm of 19- and 20-year-olds has evolved into an adult kid/empty-nest-parent bonding experience, like going to a Phillies game. Even Delaware Governor Jack Markell, who’s 55, whooped it up all four days of the fest. “My 20-year-old son gave me a list of bands to check out,” he said to a group of music writers at Friday’s press conference.

This is due in part to the improved infrastructure and amenities, like air-conditioned camping tents and quinoa-slinging food vendors, as well as to the main-streaming of many artists through Buick commercials and social media, and to the explosion of music festivals in general. The event’s meteoric rise over the past five years has attracted attention too. If 90,000 people go to it, it must be good, right?

Noting the increasing popularity of the festival and the fact that it seems to rain on the third weekend of June every year, I tried planning ahead after the conclusion of Firefly 2015. Since I just crossed the 30 mark and couldn’t bear the thought of sleeping in a squishy tent, I was determined to find a hotel room for Firefly 2016 where I could keep my belongings mud-free and eat miniature boxes of Fruit Loops at the free continental breakfast each morning. When I tried booking a Dover hotel room the Monday after Firefly 2015 for 362 days out, I found all rooms booked within a 30-mile radius. And the actual dates for 2016 hadn’t been officially announced yet. Clearly, the festival is not just a scene for VW-bus driving, shower-shunning, broke college kids anymore.

Like everyone else planning to be at Firefly, I refreshed weather.com five times a day during the week leading up to the event. Based on the forecast, I started wondering where I put my poncho from last year. As it turned out, a soggy Thursday night gave way to blue skies and sunshine, low humidity and breezy nights for the remaining days of Firefly, much to the relief of attendees and organizers. All dread that crackling loudspeaker announcing that the rest of the acts have been cancelled for the day due to impending storms, leading to a stampede to the exits and confused, drunk people frantically stumbling around trying to find their friends.

As I walked through the parking lot to the Woodlands on Friday, I witnessed the now-familiar sight of festival-goers streaming over the highway overpass bridge, cars and trucks honking cheerfully as they drove underneath, and planes towing signs for Trojan Groove condoms flying overhead. Adults and teenagers with turtle backpacks, melting body paint, tiny ripped shorts and bandanas were chattering excitedly about the artists they wanted to check out as the musty smell of trampled grass and pot smoke wafted through the sweaty bodies.

Every year, festival organizer Red Frog Events adds new, fun features. This year was no different. After finally making it through the security line, I walked past art installations and photos of Fireflies past. I also noticed that, even though it had rained the night before, a muddy bog didn’t swallow my shoes like in prior years. Since Firefly has established itself as a staple in the Dover, Del., community, permanent infrastructure improvements have been made, including drainage, new pathways and roadways, and two stages, the Coffee House and The Treehouse.

I wandered over to the Coffee House, which was a magical combination of college-campus bar, indie record store and urban-park picnic area. A rotation of smaller acts played throughout the day among lots of chalkboard artwork and several local roasters selling hot java, iced coffee and muffins. The quirky stage reminded me of Tiny House Hunters, with its trapezoid roof and natural wood shingles. During the time I was there, up-and-coming dance-rock duo Powers put the espresso to good use, energizing the crowd with spunky singles like “Beat of My Drum,” which has been featured in Taco Bell promotions.

Across the grounds at the main stage, neo-soul ensemble Fitz And The Tantrums succeeded in tiring everyone out from dancing even before the headliners performed. The six-piece group from Los Angeles played multiple songs off its just-released self-titled album, as well as hits like “Moneygrabber” and “More Than Just A Dream.” To watch this band is to witness masters at their craft, like watching a basketball team where every player is named LeBron James.

As the weekend progressed, it became clear that Firefly was about more than just the music. Festival-goers let their colors fly—literally. The recent event in Orlando compelled many to show their patriotism and support for the LGBT community. Dozens of rainbow and American flags were hoisted, and colorful stickers, scarves and full-body suits were worn proudly. One guy carried around a giant rainbow-striped cutout of a penis with a Go-Pro nestled inside, presumably to record others’ reactions. Most people gave him a thumbs-up and shouts of encouragement.

On Saturday, Firefly veterans Chvrches took to the main stage in front of thousands of happy, burnt faces. “We played here a few years ago at a much smaller stage,” keyboardist Martin Doherty said, acknowledging the band’s rise in popularity. The Glasgow synth-pop trio, led by the diminutive Lauren Mayberry, played favorites like “The Mother We Share” as well as more recent tracks off of last year’s Every Open Eye. Wearing an ivory, billowing skirt, Mayberry floated around stage as her honey-sweet voice soared over the crowd, juxtaposed with the thudding bass and synth behind her.

Death Cab For Cutie, which headlined Saturday evening, has been delighting indie-rock lovers for almost two decades, releasing eight studio albums and multiple EPs, not to mention frontman Ben Gibbard’s cul-classic collaboration the Postal Service. Over that period of time, Death Cab has garnered critical accolades and commercial success, including multiple Grammy nominations. Despite the fact that its demographic has greyed, hipsters still love Death Cab. These guys’ pleasant and unique brand of pop transcends generations, which is why they’re still enjoying success. This was evident at their well-attended performance at Firefly. As they progressed through their 75-minute set, I was amazed at just how many hits they have produced over the years. “Soul Meets Body,” “Photo Booth,” “I Will Possess Your Heart” … the list goes on. As if to highlight the influence they have over the indie-rock world, Chvrches’Mayberry lent her voice during a cameo in one of their songs. Death Cab punctuated their act with the reverberating, tidal “Trasatlanticism.”

By Sunday afternoon, crowds had thinned a bit, as people began to realize they had to work on Monday and felt the effects of three days of day drinking $12 Bud Lights under an unrelenting sun. While energizing a weary bunch of festival-goers might be a daunting task for some acts, Grouplove was up to the task. Co-lead singer Hannah Hooper bounded onstage in a Poison Ivy-meets-Kurt Cobain ensemble, wearing a tight green body suit with a flannel shirt wrapped around her waist. Vocalist/guitarist Christian Zucconi flanked her, sporting black Converse and a red Hugh Hefner robe. As the band churned out songs like “Shark Attack” and “Tongue Tied,” Zucconi crowd surfed, then threw his guitar six feet in the air and deftly caught it. Both singers darted back and forth onstage like monkeys on Adderall, inciting the crowd to jump and dance.

As the sun began to sink behind the tree line, rekindled punk-pop band Blink-182’s performance transported me back to the days of Total Request Live with Carson Daly, and of being dropped off at Warped Tour by my mom, decked out in tube socks, Vans and a studded belt. Though it’s amusing to listen to 40-year-olds play songs about the angst of youth, they were still entertaining, playing old classics like “What’s My Age Again” and bantering onstage with each other and the crowd.

Just like Facebook has been ingrained into our modern-day social fabric, so too has Firefly become woven into the fabric of Delaware and of the early summers of so many music lovers, young and old. It’s become a place where people can express themselves with swirling body paint and statement attire, and to connect with others through music, whether that’s the stranger next to you at Mumford & Sons, or Dad. It’s also where you can unapologetically revel in nostalgia, no matter if you are remembering your golden years via Earth Wind And Fire or Ludacris. It’s for everyone now. Which means when I’m finished writing this, I’m immediately heading over to hotels.com and booking my room for next year.

—Maureen Coulter; photos by Theo Wargo of Getty Images

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