Live Review: The Firefly Festival, 2021

Cage The Elephant; photo for MAGNET by Wes Orshoski

The music-festival industry has had a rough go of it over the past 18 months. It was once a thriving scene with hundreds of events annually, and organizers were constantly producing more experiences to capitalize on consumers’ unquenchable thirst for live music and the artists’ corresponding need to perform to make a living in an era of Spotify, Apple Music and other streaming services. When COVID shut everything down in March 2020, no one could’ve foreseen that we wouldn’t be witnessing another live-music event for more than a year. Coachella was canceled two years in a row. Bonnaroo pushed its date back to September, then was flooded out by Hurricane Ida. Many large and small festivals didn’t even attempt to plan anything in 2021 due to the uncertainty around pandemic-related restrictions.

When Firefly organizers announced their fall dates earlier this summer, it felt as though they were heralding the triumphant return of live music. At the time, shots were going into arms, COVID restrictions were being lifted, and the Delta variant was but a blip on the radars of epidemiologists. For approximately three weeks, Americans could taste freedom. 

Now, the mood is less carefree. Firefly moved forward with the event, putting protocols in place to try to protect attendees and hoping that the sprawling, outdoor venue in Dover, Del., would allow for some social distancing. The first day of Firefly, it was thunderstorms, not COVID, that threw a wrench in to the plans. Inclement weather delayed the start time from 3 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., pushing some smaller acts off the bill. Long lines of cars and campers snaked along DuPont Highway, and soaking wet clusters of people waited for shuttles next to Dover International Speedway and the Dover Mall. It was a muddy mess.

Friday was a brilliant, sunny fall day. Having been to Firefly multiple times before, I arrived thinking I knew what to expect. Upon entering the Woodlands, the feeling was not as buoyant and cheery as in previous years. Instead of DJ tents and food vendors lining the path from the parking lot to the festival grounds, there was a row of health-screening trucks and authoritative signs. I had to show my vaccine card about a dozen times and received multiple wrist bands in addition to my media credentials. When I walked through the main entrance, I was a little disoriented, as they had moved several of the stages as well as the media tent. I asked multiple festival staff where the media/press area was located, and no one could tell me. The festival seemed a little disorganized compared to past years, although that may have had something to do with the previous day’s weather-induced chaos.

Wandering around the mushy fields, I could tell that festival-goers have upped the ante for festival fashion over the years. Some combination of bodysuits, cropped shirts, platform boots, blinking jewelry and copious amounts of glitter (on men and women) were basically prerequisites for entry. Some of them may have been gearing up for the Pride Parade on Sunday.

In spite of the air of caution that surrounded Firefly this year and the unfavorable weather that screwed up the Thursday schedule, most festival-goers were simply happy to be here, among each other, listening to their favorite artists in the Woodlands. The only folks who were happier to be at the festival were the artists themselves. Every act I saw over the weekend was effusive in their gratitude for being able to play a live show in front of an actual crowd. Many of the singers would pause mid-song and soak in the cheers, reveling in the experience.

Peach Pit

Peach Pit played a late-afternoon set on Friday at the Wonder Stage to an enthusiastic crowd. The Vancouver indie-rock quartet recently added a fifth touring member and expressed its excitement to be performing a live show. Even before singing one song, frontman Neil Smith made a point to crowd-surf. The enthusiastic audience sang along to hits “Alrighty Aphrodite” and “Shampoo Bottles” and danced around to the new, upbeat material the band played, which had more of a country/rock flair. 

Almost Monday is a youthful pop trio from North County San Diego and is relatively new to the festival scene, having debuted its first single not too long before the world shut down. When the band romped onto the Treehouse Stage early Friday evening, you could tell immediately that a headlining spot on the main Firefly Stage is in its future. Vocalist Dawson Daugherty whirled around the platform while the group played energetic, positive pop songs like “Parking Lot View,” “Come On Come On” and “Broken People.” They were the kind of catchy tunes a car full of college girls would sing together on their way down to Firefly. When Almost Monday’s set first kicked off, festival-goers wandered over tentatively, some of them putting down blankets to sit. By the end of the performance, Daugherty had the growing crowd jumping up in the air and dancing vigorously.

Cage The Elephant; photo for MAGNET by Wes Orshoski

Two-time Grammy winner Cage The Elephant took to the main stage Friday night, playing a set that showcased its 15-year odyssey through various musical genres—from the blues-y “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked” to the psychedelic “Come A Little Closer” to the more pop-oriented “Social Cues.” Vocalist Matt Shultz appeared in a full-body sequined catsuit with a mask over his head and face—he looked like Green Man, only sparkly. The wide-open festival setting was perfect for Cage The Elephant’s full, anthemic sound, each song reverberating through the chilly evening. 

Firefly veteran Sylvan Esso returned with new songs to play, but singer Amelia Meath sported the same bodysuit, platform shoes and radiating confidence as the last time she performed a few years back. The festival was the duo’s final stop on a summer tour, which meant Meath and Nick Sanborn had more recent practice than their fellow Firefly artists. With strobe lights, fog and thudding beats, Sylvan Esso whipped the crowd into a dancing frenzy, playing recent hits and old favorites like “Ferris Wheel,” “Radio” and “H.S.K.T.”

Sylvan Esso

Saturday’s weather was just as dazzling as Friday’s, warm and clear. The torrential rain and muck from Thursday was but a distant memory, save for the random mud pits spotting the festival grounds. Headliners Tame Impala and Diplo weren’t playing until the wee hours of the night, so attendees present during the day saw lesser-known and up-and-coming acts including Remi Wolf and Dominic Fike (of “3 Nights” fame). 

The number of people in the crows seemed to have doubled since the day before, and by the time Glass Animals performed their set at 8:30 p.m., the area around the Firefly and Wonder Stages was teeming with amped-up, intoxicated, glitter-encrusted fans. This wholly impressed Glass Animals frontman Dave Bayley, who had to compose himself multiple times throughout their set, so overcome was he with emotion. During camera closeups, his expression was that of someone who had just eaten acid for the first time—pure wide-eyed wonder and joy. The group played up-tempo versions of drippy, sultry electro-pop songs like “Gooey,” and fellow Firefly 2021 artist and past collaborator Denzel Curry leaped up onstage to rap on “Tokyo Drifting.” Glass Animals capped off the evening with mega-hit “Heat Waves.”

Glass Animals

Day four started off a bit more subdued. There were fewer people at the Woodlands, and the remainder were sunburned, tired and hungover. However, they were digging deep and pushing through to squeeze the last bit of fun out of the weekend. 

If you haven’t heard Sofi Tukker’s name before, you’ve definitely heard its music. The duo’s songs have been featured in numerous advertisements, video games and television shows, including those ubiquitous iPhone commercials. The group’s jungle-themed props onstage reflected its sound: thudding, dance-club bass with a substantial helping of bongos, cow bells and electric guitar. Sophie Hawley-Weld and Tucker Halpern (a couple in real life as well) are reminiscent of Matt And Kim in the way they interact and play off each other onstage. Their energy was a much-needed boost for the worn-out crowd as they churned out forceful beats in songs like “Best Friend” and “Drinkee.” 

Sofi Tukker

Minutes before Portugal. The Man arrived onstage, I heard a middle-aged couple next to me in the VIP section debate whether they should leave, since it had gotten chilly and they had work the next day. “You gotta hear this band, though,” the man said. They stayed and were not disappointed. A video of Beavis and Butt-Head announced PTM as “The greatest band in the world,” and the group came out riffing Metallica. While John Gourley and Co. didn’t share any new music, the band played some old favorites like “Creep In A T-Shirt,” “Purple Yellow Red And Blue” and, of course, “Feel It Still.” 

In spite of the ever-present specter of COVID and day one’s tousle with extreme weather, Firefly 2021 mercifully pulled through. While no one knows what the future will hold, both festival-goers and artists were happy and grateful to make new memories after a tough year.

—Maureen Coulter