Reflections on the annual happening in Dover by someone who has been there for almost all of them
I remember laughing to myself when the first rumors surfaced about a music festival in Dover. In the town that I grew up in that had 1.5 malls, a shopping center to cruise around, a whole lot of NASCAR, and not much else? But there it was, at first as a chaos of traffic and then instantly a game-changer. An actual “scene” in the middle of the same forest I used to wander as a kid. It became its own space with its own culture that extended beyond the music—a temporary camp town with great food, fun, Dogfish, arcade games and leisure sports, those messy, delicious Island noodles and dance parties that went deep into the night.
Trying to collect the memories I gathered over the years there is not a simple task. As a concert photographer, much of it does revolve around the music. But I know that for many of my friends and family, the music was the framework for an almost utopian experience in the Woodlands of Firefly.
For me, some of the best moments were new discoveries. In 2013, I’d never heard of Twenty One Pilots, but I’ll never forget their stage-climbing, crowd-surfing drummer theatrics. Beyond the circus act, their songs were catchy and made people rabid, in the best of ways. Other relatively unknown acts gracing the Firefly stage included Courtney Barnett, Sturgill Simpson, Run The Jewels and Imagine Dragons—whose debut album would then go platinum many times over. One of my favorite sets at Firefly, and one of the few I watched entirely, was (the then unknown to me) San Fermin playing the now-retired Forest Stage, awash in colored lights that framed the woodlands canopy.
And there was also Eden, an incredible blend of traditional singer-songwriter and EDM artist, with his infectious down-beat anthems. And the delightful Maggie Rogers, who lived in Delaware for a time. And Mondo Cozmo. Even Kendrick Lamar (one of the 2018 headliners) and Ellie Goulding played on smaller stages at Firefly. Also Snoop Dogg in a haze of pot smoke and bobbing heads on the smaller Porch stage.
There have been many other highlights: Cage the Elephant, both times—that is what a rock band should sound like and its frontman should exude; Citizen Cope playing an acoustic Treehouse session in the forest that I will never forget; Vita and the Woolf, who played the most remote stage in the fest, only to have it filled by lead vocalist Jen Pague’s otherworldly voice summoning people from every corner; Tom Petty, whose hits just kept coming; Trombone Shorty and Childish Gambino, who brought everything they had; Matt & Kim, unpredictable and entertaining, and of course catchy as hell; Steve Aoki playing a midday set after being rained out the previous night, chucking massive sheet cakes into the crowd, and honorary Delawarean Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters blistering their way through all their hits before covering Alice Cooper, The Stones, Van Halen and Queen in their encore.
And the crazy stuff. Like the WTF moments of pure insanity that were the 30 Seconds To Mars set. Fetty Wap’s set was so bad it’s now legendary. And the massive three hours of perfection above 90,000 sets of eyes that was Paul McCartney’s set. Honestly, those goosebumps are still on call.
But I admit that the one memory that stands out at Firefly is idiosyncratic: the glorious M83 set in 2016, and walking through it after shooting from the pit, glowing in the reflected colors from the stage. It was an elemental music that drifted like a soundtrack over the tens of thousands blissfully singular within its spell. And that is what Firefly is to me, an experience of people connecting, awash in a haze of light and color and motion, celebrating something that I suspect even they do not understand.
This year we’ll get Eminem, Kendrick’s return, Killers and Arctic Monkeys again. And Mike D from the Beastie Boys! But also the surprises. What shape will they take in the sounds and colors of the woodland night?