For those who migrated to the sprawling Woodlands near Dover, Delaware for Firefly Festival, the seasoned flow of the weekend made it easy to forget they were taking part in something so new. In its second year, Firefly is a baby compared to festival peers, but it's growing up fast — doubling in size to 60,000 since last year and boasting a lineup that rivals the festival greats.
Red Hot Chili Peppers led off the weekend with a hit-list sampling of their catalog, with the crowd chanting back every word. While everyone loves a good singalong to "Under the Bridge," some of the best moments of the set came when the Peppers got lost in intimate instrumental riffs, and the audience was left to marvel at their chemistry and the privilege of watching them jam.
Day two headliners Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have recently been reaching deep into their archives for live performances. But it was not so at Firefly, where the self-dubbed "American road-tested rock & roll band" brought a festival set of classics, well-suited to the young profile of many Fireflyers. "Let's dedicate this to anyone who's here at the festival cheating on their boyfriend or girlfriend," Petty cheekily said about "Free Fallin," which garnered a predictably massive response.
Foster the People closed out the festival with their catchy tunes, amplified by dancers in gilded masks and quite the light show. Compared with the other top billings of the festival, they seemed a bit out of their league, if only because the other bands have a good 30 years on them. Without all the bells and whistles, would this be a headlining performance? Probably not, but it was undoubtedly an upbeat, high-energy note to end on.
Some of the festival highlights came unexpectedly over the weekend. Canadian garage-rock duo Japandroids may be better suited for a dark, sweaty, intimate rock bar than the broad daylight of their lunchtime set on the main stage, but they woke up the bleary-eyed crowd in almost no time. The resulting mosh pit came as a surprise to the front-row Petty fans holding down their prime real estate for nighttime, who grimly ducked flailing limbs and crowd-surfers.
Newcomers Haim were a force to be reckoned with, delivering an exuberant set, and boy, those girls can really rock. Any too-cool-for-school notions, assumed because of their L.A. chic aura, were squashed when the sisters asked the crowd to borrow hats because of the blazing sun — and actually donned the odd assortment thrown at them.
An otherwise energized hard punk performance by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs turned sweet when frontwoman Karen O announced a touching tribute: "We'd like to dedicate this song to James Gandolfini," she said as they launched into a tender rendition of "Maps."
One of the strongest crowds of the weekend turned out for hip-hop golden child Kendrick Lamar. His effortless charisma turned impish when he called on fans to show him just what "dedicated motherfuckers" they are. And they didn't disappoint, throwing every lyric back at him, to his obvious delight.
A rare lowlight: Passion Pit ended their highly anticipated set half an hour early because of frontman Michael Angelakos's vocal problems due to allergies. "I can't catch a fucking break with this festival," Angelakos apologized, alluding to last year when the band canceled on account of his mental health hiatus. But he gave his fans so much love — jam-packing favorites into the condensed set and jumping down from the stage to interact with the crowd — that when he had to go, there were no hard feelings.
An ample folksy presence kept feet tapping all weekend long. The Avett Brothers got the festival off to a high-energy, foot-stomping start. Then came Alabama Shakes, wrapping a reverent crowd in the warm, soulful arms of Brittany Howard's croon. Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite, last-minute replacements for the Lumineers, had the crowd grooving to the blues, and what a treat it was to watch the legendary Musselwhite wail on his harmonica.
Even on a weekend shared with Electric Daisy Carnival in Vegas, Fireflyers got their fix of EDM. Electo-pop princess Ellie Goulding's effervescent charm was a mid-afternoon delight. A palpable question hung in the air regarding "I Need Your Love": would collaborator Calvin Harris join her onstage? Despite their back-to-back sets, the answer was no. She was similarly absent when Harris reprised a harder and harsher version hours later. With soul-shaking drops, Harris took the light energy of Goulding's crowd and brought it up to frantic rave mode, turning his crowd into the type of party where you lose your mind, to say nothing of your hearing.
Meanwhile, Grizzly Bear countered with a chilled-out, ethereal set across the grounds. For opting to see an indie favorite over Calvin Harris's whipped-up frenzy, there was a sense of pride wafting through the markedly smaller but adoring audience. That's not all that was wafting — add a mesmerizing performance backlit by lanterns bobbing like bioluminescent jellyfish, and it was clear this crowd was fueled by a different drug than their raving friends.
As the sun set on the final day of Firefly, preppy rock darlings Vampire Weekend showed off their new album,while returning to beloved classics. With front-row girls predictably swooning over frontman Ezra Koenig, the band clearly enjoyed themselves, getting playful with some quirky dance moves to roars of approval from the crowd.