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Tuesday, July 24

Review: Firefly Music Festival - Dover, Delaware - 7/20-22/12

Coming most recently from Bonnaroo, the immediate initial reaction on pulling in and walking around the 87-acre Woodlands of Dover International Speedway for the inaugural Firefly Music Festival was relief.  30,000 people (the festival’s attendance–less than half that of Bonnaroo) never felt so intimate and comforting. The layout was walkable—two stages on either side of the grounds—plus there was a plethora of classy stands that we’ve come to expect from Red Frog events (“The Vineyard”–a wine tasting area, an arcade, hot air balloon rides, and interactive art galleries). 
Heartless Bastards was perhaps my most highly anticipated set. I discovered this band at the beginning of this year and Arrow became a constant presence on my iPod. I will perhaps never forget reading Will Hermes’ review of the album in which he wrote that Erika Wennerstrom (the Grace Potter rivaling, insanely sexy and talented front woman of HB) forms her vowels with the “focus of a woman who knots cherry stems with her tongue.” Watching her sing “The Arrow Killed The Beast” sent me over the top. I was standing on the rail right in front of her just staring at her mouth, trying to figure out how she was creating the incredible sounds that were raining down on us. There were a handful of older songs, that pulled more of a country vibe into the show, but Arrow saw a lot of play. “Simple Feeling” (one of my favorite songs off the album) dragged a bit, but purposefully, and it worked. “Skin and Bone” also delivered.

The Wallflowers were decent. But something about this band just never took off. It seemed like even Jakob Dylan himself knew this, as he practically apologized to the crowd for playing new material. ["This brings us to the end of the new stuff part of the show...there's nothing worse than a band who comes out and wants to play new songs. This should be more familiar..." (launching into the 1996/7 radio phenomenon "One Headlight")] If you are a talented band, you should be proud of your new material, and fans should be excited about experiencing it along with you! But that didn’t seem to be the case and that was sort of depressing. Just OK. Sorry guys.

Silversun Pickups ROCKED. MY. PANTS. OFF. I listened to Swoon basically the entire train ride to Philly yesterday and got so so excited. I hadn’t watched any videos of the band live prior to seeing the show last night. Thank god. Brian Aubert killed. His campy, Thom Yorke-esque hip shaking and guitar strumming was magnetic and engaging. Multiple strangers on either side of me were gripping my shoulders in disbelief, bracing themselves from the knee-buckling side-effects of the sheer rock and roll pouring off the stage. Drummer Chris Guanlao also stole it, tossing his head this way and that, hair flying, smashing the highest hi-hat I’ve ever seen, and coming at his kit in a generally unrestrained, out-of-body sort of way that drew in the crowd.   

Photo: Greg Kot
Jack White. Epic. Everything his brain touches is gold. They opened with “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” (White Stripes) followed by “Freedom at 21″ (Blunderbuss), two of my favorite songs by JW, but serious sound issues made it nearly impossible to hear what was happening on stage. The crowd was chanting “Turn it up!” and by “Missing Pieces” all the acoustic issues were fixed and we were all being blasted by his ridiculous guitar shredding. Watching Jack take his shoes off to combat the slippery slickness of the stage simultaneously humanized him, but also somehow did nothing to combat the epic rock star status. Daru Jones was absolutely tearing up the drum set and Blunderbuss as a whole (every song they played from the album) found new life in live form, bursting ear drums and rib cages alike.  Pianist Isaiah “Ikey” Owens stunned the crowd as he more than kept pace with Jack. The crowd even got a little dueling pianos action when Jack stepped up to the keys during a couple songs and he and Ikey played back-to-back.  The set list was pretty varied and there was something for everyone from every manifestation of Jack White’s insanely brilliant musicianship. Some songs in the set included “Ball and Biscuit” and “Hello Operator,” (White Stripes), “Top Yourself” (which saw a perfect, imaginative representation) and the irresistible sing-along “Steady As She Goes” (Raconteurs). My only complaint was that, after the raucous “Seven Nation Army” closer, the band didn’t give the crowd an encore. They were roaring for one and after 4 minutes when the house lights came up it felt like a giant let down! Ultimately, a brilliant day of music. 
Cake. “Shadow Stabber” was great and the crowd was generally amped up for the band. These classically loved alt-rockers gave a catalogue-spanning set, including “Sick of You,” “Bound Away” and “Sheep Go To Heaven” and there was a fair amount of sing-along fun for many of their better known songs. Lead singer John McCrea won a lot of love and respect when he entreated the audience to be present with the band. “Let’s all put down our electronic devices and just be here together. Because we’ll never be in this moment again,” he said. “You don’t have to post about this moment on Facebook for it to be real. I’m declaring that it is.” Win. 

Photo: losanjealous
Modest Mouse. For a band that drew one of the biggest non-headlining crowds of the weekend, the set was somewhat lacking.  Having been into them for over a decade, I was looking forward to seeing this band with a fury. Saturday’s set was…just…missing something. They played all the right notes, put the songs out the right way. There was nothing overtly problematic with the set. But it never hooked. There was no dynamism, no draw. I left blinking at the air and feeling curiously empty.  Luckily, I walked right over to the Brooklyn-based, self-described “Middle Eastern-psych-snap-gospel” musicians Yeasayer. Announced on the Firefly line-up just two days after Passion Pit cancelled their set, this band proved the strength of its fan base in sheer numbers alone. Passion Pit, who?  From right on the rail, directly in front of guitarist Anand Wilder, I felt a bit like a speaker freaker as all the tiny hairs on my body vibrated to each of bassist Ira Wolf Tuton’s perfectly played notes.  “Ambling Alp” was technically perfect and shined gorgeous and “O.N.E.” managed to be touching despite the persistent, forceful beat. When Anand shares vocals with Chris Keating the vibe shifts a bit and the songs take on a haunting, crystalline quality that sends the music soaring. Watching them get deeply into their own, well-conceived, well-executed musical creations on stage, as heads bob and instruments get intermittently stroked and smacked, takes the experience to new heights, and the live show seals the deal and sells the band for anyone yet unconvinced. 
Bombay Bicycle Club. For a band that many people would probably not describe as overtly “hard” or “rock and roll,” Bombay Bicycle Club brought the fire to the stage Sunday during their early afternoon set.  The British group tends to employ lots of twinkling, ambient sounds, and beautiful, overlapping female vocals (Emma Wilson), making it easy to erroneously categorize them as soft, heart-breaky, Indie pop. The live show was set to be the test of this. Outcome: they shredded that delicate image with various manifestations of raw, unabashed, hair-tossing and multi-instrumental domination. “Dust on the Ground,” a generally slow, ballad-like song, was dynamic and much more rocky, “Ivory and Gold” saw front man Jack Steadman hold a snare for drummer Ed Nash and Emma’s voice in “Lights Out, Words Gone” traveled noticeably through the smallest of blood vessels.  

Cold War Kids. These guys put forth a good set, with ample hits to assuage the crowd with some sing-along-ops. Nathan Willett had good energy and stage presence, with a little bit of a Win Butler (Arcade Fire) vibe. The band was surely working hard, especially considering the midday heat, but something about the set never left the ground. “Royal Blue” seemed down-tempo and draggy, but “Hang Me Up To Dry” evoked a massive sing along and the crowd seemed engaged. Highlight of the set was probably a debut of their new song “Baby Skin,” which had a full, voluminous sound and really brought energy to stage.

Death Cab. Even fighting sickness (and high on his “drug of choice”—DayQuil), Ben Gibbard absolutely captivated everyone. There wasn’t a single person within a 5-person radius of me that wasn’t screaming every lyric to every song. From a handful of gems off of Codes and Keys (“Doors Unlocked and Opened” was shockingly gorgeous) to some serious throwbacks (Something About Airplanes’ “Amputations”), every song was expertly played, beautifully sung, and lovingly presented. The highlight was probably the lyrically stunning “We Looked Like Giants” from 2003’s Transatlanticism (arguably their most highly acclaimed album).  This rendition saw some exciting instrument swapping and a quick kit set-up that Ben jumped on and rocked out on like a maniac. (I have a video of this that I will post later! It’s insanely charming!)  All in all, Death Cab gave their gigantic audience a show worth waiting for (as many people camped out for nearly 2 hours to secure a space too cramped to do anything but stare at the guys and sing along passionately).

Flaming Lips. Not since of Montreal have I seen such theatrics on stage. Wayne Coyne knows how to put on a freaking show. There were elements of Pink Floyd and maybe even some “Stop Making Sense”-era David Byrne…but wilder and weirder and somehow better.  The beginning of the show saw some quasi-erotic screen action, with loops of naked women, minimally altered with pixilation, running at the camera, or shaking their heads, or grabbing each others’ faces. Then Wayne threw on some hulk-sized gloves that had lasers coming out of the palms and walked around God-like on stage. 
Photo: Ellis Jones
After a weekend-full of ZERO encores, hopes were not high when Flaming Lips left the stage that they would return. But they did, and in perhaps the most epic way possible! “Do You Realize??” was the song of choice, highlighted by a massive disco ball that cast twinkling lights over the audience , confetti raining down on the entranced crowd and more cinematics from Wayne and Co. (Overheard at the end of the song: “Brain. Gone. No more brain. Melted. Gone. Brain gone.” I honestly agreed.) 

Black Keys. Impossible to not rock your body out to this band. Period. End of review. They killed it. They closed their rip-roaring, raucous set with “Tighten Up” and “Lonely Boy” and dreams everywhere where realized! Sweat poured and smiles were ears-wide and legs were throbbing and swollen from the dancing…and everyone was happy

"The festival was well-received by all in attendance and locals as well. The only quasi-complaint was that the music ended too early. The latest night clocked in at around 11:15pm and, with Passion Pit's last-minute drop out, there were no after parties or late night DJ sets to be found. Festy goers were left amped up and rowdy with no where to dance it out. A successful and fun festival in general, however, and the consensus is that of hopeful anticipation that Red Frog will put on another next summer."

Words: Elyssa Karanian of Flock of Words
Photos: Varied
 © Phish and The Dead - a Grateful Music Publication