Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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Review: Firefly Festival with Tom Petty, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Alabama Shakes and more

Featuring Azealia Banks, Kendrick Lamar and skee ball.

Review: Firefly Festival with Tom Petty, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Alabama Shakes and more

Alabama Shakes at Firefly. (Photo by Dan DeLuca)
Alabama Shakes at Firefly. (Photo by Dan DeLuca)

Just how well did last summer's inaugural Firefly Music Festival succeed in making a name for itself?

So well that this year, twice as many people showed up. Starting on Friday, when the Red Hot Chili Peppers headlined, the 3 day, 77 band gathering at The Woodlands of Dover International Speedway drew 60,000 people a day to the expanded 87 acre site hard by Route 1, an hour and a half drive from Philadelphia on the way to the Delaware beaches.

Numbers wise, that puts Firefly in the big leagues, getting in the neighborhood of longstanding mega music fests like Bonnaroo and Coachella, which pull in upwards of 90,000 a day. And talent wise, Firefly is impressively competitive as well.

On Saturday night, old reliable classic rock hitmakers Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers topped a bill that included rappers Azealia Banks and Kendrick Lamar, My Morning Jacket main man Jim James, psychedelic duo MGMT, soul-rock outfit Alabama Shakes, Scottish electropop band Chvrches, and art-punk trio Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

"This is great for us," said a bearded Petty, who said he was playing his first ever show in Delaware, as the strongest smell of weed smoke of the day wafted through the crowd after "Mary Jane's Last Dance."

He gestured towards the cloudless sky where a brightly lit orb shone above him, successfully providing the picture postcard moment that the sagging Firefly hot air balloon to the right of the stage couldn't seem to achieve. "You know we've got this crazy moon up there. That's got to be good for music." 

It seemed that it was. Firefly, which is presented by Red Frog Events, a Chicago based company that otherwise specializes in putting on 'Warrior Dash' mud run obstacle course races,  drew a crowd of mostly 18 to 35 year olds doing things people at weekend long music festivals do.

Such as: Carrying around inflatable killer whales.  Or holding up sticks in which a picture of the head of Kevin Bacon is attached to a body made of ... bacon. Or wearing Native American headresses. Or, perhaps the most popular option: Lying on their backs in the middle of a field, staring up a cloudless sky through sunglasses, and singing along to songs like Lamar's "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe." 

There were plenty of attractions away from the four far-flung main stages. You could watch silent movies in the 'Forest Cinema,' or play free skee ball (though you'd be hard pressed to top my 9 ball score of 390) in the arcade tent. You could hear DJs spin in the corporate branded geodesic igloo Heineken Dome, or do the same while wearing earbuds in the Headphone Disco area. You could pay top dollar for 'enhanced food options' such as the truly dismal Korean BBQ tacos, or get your money's worth at the Dogfish Head tent, where beers from the esteemed Milton, Delaware. craft brewer were available, including the exclusive Firefly Ale.

Or - if you had the the energy after making the long walk from the (free!) Dover Downs Speedway parking lot or the much shorter stroll if you camped out, as thousands did - you could move about the capacious Firefly grounds, listening to good music.

Petty and the HBs' set, which kicked off with a cover of The Byrds' "So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star?," sounded sharp, but was marred by overcrowding. At that point in the evening - the 10 to midnight slot - the headliners were the only act performing, and with the entire crowd's attention focused on the main stage, there was just too much talking, jostling and drunken stumbling to enjoy the show.

With hi-def video screens and superb sound (and no sonic bleeding between the stages) every other set I saw was more than pleasant, however.  Towards the top of the list was Banks, the motormouthed and often profane  Harlem rapper, who is also adept at singing her own hooks. Hopefully, one of these days her frequently delayed debut album, Broke With Expensive Tastes, will actually be released.

Another standout was the Alabama Shakes, the quintet fronted by powerhouse vocalist and guitar player Brittany Howard, who have grown ever tighter and more confident on the bandstand in the year since their debut album was released. A grunting, demanding new song called "I Still Ain't Got What I Want" augured well for the future.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs warmed the main stage crowd up for Petty, with their somewhat thin selection of quality tunes compensated for by the currently blonde haired show woman Karen O's raw charisma and the grinding guitar and drums interplay of Nick Zinner and Brian Chase.  North Jersey-raised O dedicated their biggest hit, "Maps," to the late James Gandolfini.

Lamar, whose good kid, m.A.A.d city was the strongest hip-hop release of 2012, proved that that Dr. Dre produced disc, dense as it is with intricate word play, translates well to a good time summer crowd, happy to headnod along to bass heavy grooves like the aformentioned "Bitch" and "Swimming Pools (Drank)." Most charming band on the undercard honors went to the Glaswegian trio Chvrches, whose chipper drum machine and keyboard powered tunes went over better than singer Lauren Mayberry expected. 

"Do you guys know this is synth-pop?" Mayberry asked, during the band's afternoon set at the uncrowded Backyard stage. "I've never seen so many people crowd surf to synth-pop!" She thanked the crowd for its unbridled enthusiasm, but cautioned them to be safe. "I apologize for being a hall monitor," she added. "But I once went to a Jimmy Eat World show and got kicked in the head. And it hurt!"

Firefly closes out on Sunday, with Vampire Weekend and Foster the People topping the final day's bill.

Previously: Amadou & Mariam at World Cafe Live Follow in The Mix on Twitter

Dan DeLuca Inquirer Music Critic
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Join Dan as he blogs about music and other forms of popular culture

Reach Dan at ddeluca@phillynews.com.

Dan DeLuca Inquirer Music Critic
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