Firefly festivalgoers were treated to a perfect weather weekend in this seventh year at the Woodlands of Dover International Speedway in Delaware, site of the largest music and camping festival in the Northeast, Thursday-Sunday, June 14th-17th. With seven stages spread over 105 acres, this festival experience is not for the faint of foot. The massive space accommodates massive attendance, estimated this year between 80,000 to 90,000 people. Those kinds of numbers support so many headlining acts that the festival has become a veritable feast for music lovers, with a super-stacked lineup including this year The Killers, Arctic Monkeys, Eminem and Kendrick Lamar, though curiously lacking comparable female artists.
Campers started trickling in this year on Wednesday night, and the festival kicked off on Thursday evening with Chromeo headlining. By Friday afternoon the grounds were humming and Liz Cooper & The Stampede were bringing their psychedelic folk/rock to the Lawn Stage in an easy breezy set that belied that they’ve only been touring with their new drummer, Ryan Usher, since January. The band has a relaxed vibe and was very comfortable with each other on stage. QRO had the chance to sit down with them post-set for a quick chat (QRO interview) and a snap to document the occasion (QRO portrait photos).
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real came onto the main stage in the late afternoon, with the seasoned confidence of a band that has been performing together for ten years, and the musicality that comes from playing over the years at times with Willie Nelson and Neil Young. There’s a deep bench of talent in this music and Lukas Nelson is a strong presence up front.
Jimmy Eat World was up next on the main stage and played their ever-evolving punk to emo to alt to dare-we-say-pop to an appreciative and growing crowd.
A run over to the Backyard Stage was rewarded with a chance to see the duo Marian Hill play in daylight. Production artist Jeremy Lloyd kept up the mystique in a long black trenchcoat in the 80-something summer sun. Vocalist Samantha Gongol captivated the crowd with her delicate delivery and staccato movement across the stage, though all eyes were on Steve Davit when he took the stage for a saxophone solo that brought cheers.
Meanwhile tucked away in a small clearing in the forest behind the main stage crowds, The Treehouse Sessions were underway. These intimate performances are part of what make Firefly a unique experience. After spending some time with her earlier in the afternoon during an interview (QRO interview), QRO caught the performance of Kat Cunning, a siren of the stage with a background in dance and acting, who has recently turned her attention to singing and songwriting. Let’s just say that she was not really cut out to be contained on an 8 x 10 platform in a forest clearing, and was incongruously placed for what she was serving.
The final female performer in this Friday early evening lineup (come on, Firefly!), Lizzo was a force on the Lawn Stage, delivering a confidence-fueled set of alternative hip-hop and galvanizing female fans with her bold repartee. It was a crowd-pleasing show by a talented performer who knows how to connect with fans.
Foster The People kicked off Friday night with the first show of the evening on the main stage. There the big attendance numbers started to really show as festivalgoers converged for the crowd-pleasing indie-but-commercial “Pumped Up Kicks” and were treated to a set list highlighting music from the band’s third studio album Sacred Hearts.
At the same time, We Are Scientists played in the intimate Treehouse space to a crowd lucky to be seeing such an experienced band up close and personal. The band treated the audience to a big sound and rollicking stage show interspersed with their random conversational chat, you know, just hanging out with a few friends in their outdoor living room.
Next up on the Lawn Stage, Cold War Kids played an excellent set to a not huge crowd… and this is how that went down: the Lawn Stage and the Backyard Stage are both at the complete opposite end of the festival grounds from the main, Firefly Stage. This is a seriously long distance, I’m gonna say half a mile if not more. So, if a fan had in mind to get a good spot for Saturday’s headliner Arctic Monkeys on the main stage, a fan might choose not to head across festival city to catch Cold War Kids and then Logic. Logic had something to say about his slot on the Backyard Stage, in fact, he had a lot to say about it. He spent a fair amount of time talking smack about his non-main stage position, and encouraging the audience to make some noise for him to come back next year on the main stage. Like, just perform, man.
Friday night headliners Arctic Monkeys delivered a rock show. It just feels like something special when men show up in suits to entertain you. The band is just so professional and six studio albums and more than 15 years of playing together really shows. Every note, every word super tight. The crowd was belting out lyrics and the band played a long set, old and new. And who could take their eyes off of Alex Turner, who totally inhabits the song lyrics and hits every hard downbeat with a jutting hip. Turner’s seething delivery had the crowd hanging on every word, though he never strayed from character to banter between songs – it was a performance through and through.
By Saturday, the temperature had ratcheted up a notch, and so had the number of festivalgoers. Noticeably bigger crowds still had room to wander amongst the enormous woodlands and lines were not overly long at the food & drink vendors. While food was plentiful, food choices were not many, and aside from a couple decent examples of that festival staple, the taco, most tended toward the heavy or fried variety, with the exception of the most excellent Humpty’s Dumplings. One of the few places one could find a vegetable, the best festival food all wrapped up in its own bite-sized package was tucked away in the VIP section next to the main stage. Drinks choices were many, and scattered all over the festival grounds in various creatively constructed themed establishments from Bud Light’s “dive bar” to Bulleit Frontier Whiskey’s tailgate trailer and Deep Eddy Vodka’s trailer bar.
Early afternoon saw Australian singer-songwriter Alex Lahey at the Lawn Stage multitasking pretty convincingly between lead vocal duties and some rocking guitar work. Shortly thereafter English duo Royal Blood swaggered onto the main stage to play a rock show, after drummer Ben Thatcher ceremoniously chugged from a bottle of Patron and took a bow before being seated at the drum kit. A hustle back over to the Backyard Stage was rewarded with a happy indie pop set from Smallpools in the summer sun, the band personifying California in their flowery shirts in front of their cheery pop art set delivering the (mostly) cheery songs from The Science of Letting Go.
On next door at the Lawn Stage was English singer-songwriter Rag’n’Bone Man, followed by a run back over to the main, Firefly Stage to catch Lil Wayne, who was so charming with the crowd, telling everyone how he would be nothing without him, that they seemed to forgive him for taking the stage 30 minutes late.
Torching a few calories to walk it back over to the Lawn Stage for Vance Joy, it was a pleasure to listen to an earnestly sung ballad or two – he has such a beautiful voice and was perfectly placed on this summer afternoon to stand and strum and serenade awhile.
This evening’s headliners were stacked one after another starting with The Killers on the main stage at an early-ish 8:45. Showman Brandon Flowers again brought his Vegas-style show to the Woodlands, where he’s been somewhat of a regular for several years. The band puts on a show of good, clean fun, with frequent banter by frontman Flowers. A huge crowd pleaser was the lucky guest drummer plucked from the audience to take the amazing Ronnie Vannucci Jr.’s place for a song. A moment of a lifetime for sure, and he killed it – Brandon Flowers remarking afterward “not too shabby!”
[The Killers don’t allow professional photojournalists access, preferring to curate their image tightly with a private photographer, so no images for that performance except for what your reporter could get of the drummer, elevated enough for a few clear shots through the exuberant crowd]
Portugal. The Man appeared next, and again the masses had to relocate to the far distant end of the festival grounds to catch them, so only the hardiest of souls were there, which was a decent enough group given the massive attendance on festival Saturday. They don’t disappoint, even if a bit introspective onstage. The music is right on, and of course everybody was geared up to hear their smash hit “Feel It Still” before making the trek back over to the main stage for Eminem to cap off the big shows of the night.
[Eminem does not allow access to professional photojournalists at his shows, so this photographer did not make that trek]
Sunday dawned another gorgeous sunny festival day and QRO’s coverage began with Kamasi Washington at the main stage. The famous jazz saxophonist invited his father – an accomplished woodwinds flutist – to join him onstage and play together on this Father’s Day, and the two together were inspiring.
Lord Huron was up next on the Lawn Stage, fresh off the release of their new album Vide Noir, and put on a lively performance for a laid-back but appreciative crowd. Ben Schneider is an affable frontman who uses the stage well and is interesting to watch – not always easy for a chill indie band to pull off.
alt-J played the sunset set on the Lawn Stage, a rare chance to see them play out of cover of darkness. Watching Thom Sonny Green work at the drum kit is such a fascinating experience. Green stays in a zone and the intricate beats are so much better than anything inorganic can be. As the sun set, the glow sticks started flying, and in darkness the crowd ambled over to catch the end of SZA next door at the Lawn Stage. [SZA is also anti-photo]
When darkness falls at Firefly, The Pavilion starts to heat up, and there QRO caught young producer Whethan in a DJ set after sitting down with him for a quick interview (QRO interview) and portrait (QRO portrait photos) before the show. Kids were wild for the music and Whethan kept them dancing, though he had to jump up on top of his booth to get it done properly – otherwise, only the tip top of his head could be seen above the screen that fronted his setup.
Headliner Kendrick Lamar was next up on the main stage. [Lamar does not allow access for professional photojournalists, so QRO did not cover that show]
Late night saw ODESZA at the backyard stage and the duo wowed with a full drum line across the stage, each drum lit from within by a neon light and played in loud unison to kick off the set. A very energetic show for EDM, where performers are often secluded behind their machines – not these guys! To top it off a badass light show made the stage appear at times to be literally on fire as Firefly Festival 2018 went out with a flash.
-words & photos: Deborah Lowery