In its fifth year, the Firefly Music Festival has quietly grown into one of the East Coast’s premier festivals, a giant campout that feels like a blown-out version of Wet Hot American Summer. Over four days in June, the sleepy woodlands of Dover, Delaware are transformed into a glowing, electric music and art experience. Stepping onto the sprawling, 154 acre site feels immense yet intimate, sort of like revisiting the campgrounds of youth. Instead of sucking down watery Kool-Aid, festival-goers can now indulge in craft beer, and the sing-along, cornball camp songs have been replaced with pulsing EDM and an eclectic mix of the buzz worthy and breakout. As opposed to putting up with those lazy, college stoner counselors you suffered through as a kid, headliners Florence and the Machine and Kings of Leon call the shots. On-site all weekend, the Toyota Music Den offered fans a chance to sleeve their arms with psychedelic body marbling art while checking out a stacked bill of artists, including raucous noisemakers Sun Club and reliably cheeky, indie pop trio the Wombats.
Kicking things off an a jaunty note were L.A.’s Saint Motel. Labeled with monikers ranging from “dream pop” to “indie prog,” Motel sounded, with their mix of sax, trumpet and organic percussion, something like a calypso-castoff from Graceland-era Paul Simon. At the core are vocalist A/J Jackson, Aaron Sharp (lead guitar), Dak Lerdamornpong (bass), and Greg Erwin (drums). Rounded out by horn and sax, the six-piece was a nice lead-in for the day. A giant inflatable green turtle surfed throughout the crowd, and the enthusiastic crowd was happy to oblige in a clap-along to “My Type,” off the band’s breakout eponymous 2014 EP.
If Saint Motel was a pleasant, groovy intro to the day, Sun Club was the spiked, sonic freakout to anyone lulled into a midday haze. Having sat with the Baltimore quintet’s 2015 debut LP The Dongo Durango, I was prepared for some weirdness, but the band’s 2:30 p.m. set was a riotous, wall-of-noise cacophony of insanity. The band barked and warbled, squonked and squealed through a rapid-fire set, coming off like hellions who wanted nothing but to make as much noise as possible, with as little breathing room as possible. The crowd looked on in joyful amazement, as if some deranged DJ decided to mashup WAVVES with Pussy Galore and unmercilessly jammed the frequency. There was no stage banter, and the guys wailed away and left just as quickly as they had come.
The Den resumed some semblance of normalcy with another L.A. act Shelters. If Sun Club comes from the school of not giving any f**ks, the Shelters have taken their education from elder statesman workhorses, in the vein of Tom Petty. The Petty reference is fitting, as the Shelters have been on the road with the Petty offshoot all spring leading into summer, and the rock icon co-produced their just-released debut album. The band have taken a page from the Petty playbook of consummate professionalism, sounding like they have been doing this for decades instead of having formed just last year. Their blend of Southern-fried rock, with electrifying solos from frontman Chase Simpson, shook the Den like a revival tent during a sweltering Sunday service.
BOY AND BEAR
In their own right, Australian folk rockers Boy and Bear are old guard, established back in 2009 while solidifying cred in 2011 on debut LP Moonfire, before the folk craze of the Lumineers and their ilk took America by storm. Boy and Bear have more of a jagged edge than their bearded brethren, and their dreamy bedroom melodies had the denizens of the Den gently swaying in rhythm. The band’s big breakout, 2013’s Harlequin Dream, featured the gently rocking hit single “Southern Sun,” and the band was happy to indulge, leading the packed tent in a sing-along. With just shakers and acoustics, Boy and Bear didn’t need cranked amps to catch the attention of passerby.
Liverpool rockers the Wombats had fans giddily tittering between sets, packed up tight against the Den stage as they awaited the arrival of their heroes. As the Wombats have been in the game since 2007, it was interesting to see the decidedly young Firefly crowd so intent on catching the set, with acts like Vince Staples drawing attention on nearby stages. The Wombats caught attention with their blend of throwback pop, partly indebted to UK acts like the Cure and the Smiths, with across-the-pond single “Let’s Dance to Joy Division.” The band has grown decidedly more mature in later years, evidenced on last year’s nuanced Glitterbug, but they still retain their humor. “What the f**k is that?” lead singer Matthew Murphy gasped as a dragonfly buzzed about him during the set. Fittingly, the band closed with “Joy Division,” and the crowd clapped and danced in celebration.
As day slowly faded into dusk, California’s Night Riots fought against the dying of the light with their anthemic, synth-laden rock. The quintet raised the energy with tracks from last year’s Howl, the EP that shot them into national attention. The band went from unsigned to suddenly climbing the Billboard Alternative chart, eventually reaching #24 with standout tracks “Contagious” and “Oh My Love” endearing them to an increasingly rabid fanbase with their anthemic pop. Fans playfully volleyed a beach ball around the Den, happily lifted as Night Riots provided the perfect background score. Their glitchy dance breaks also led some dads to dance with their middle school-aged daughters, a touching scene on the cusp of Father’s Day weekend.
Fans began to drift out of the Den, looking for food and the confines of the nearby woods between sets. The funk-pop duo began to set up, radiating energy before they even entered the tent. Singer/bassist Crista Ru practically bounded into the Den, a sprightly figure in platforms and a Madness T-shirt. Guitairst/vocalist Mike Del Rio paired off her energy, and as they hit the first notes of “Hot,” a slice of Prince-styled funk and glitter pop, fans quickly sprinted back into the tent, and the uninitiated were immediately drawn. Crista worked the crowd while Del Rio alternated between guitar and keys, the duo adeptly alternating vocal duties. It was an achingly too short set, as Powers had plenty of energy and positivity to spare. With that kind of love, the band is sure to be around for a long time to come.