20 Jul 2012: Dover Racetrack Dover, DE
On arrival, the outlook for the inaugural Firefly Festival in Dover, Delaware was not good. Rumors of a certain attraction’s last minute cancellation along with heavy, low-hanging rain clouds combined to cast a pallor over the event. As expected, there was an element of disorder to the proceedings from a volunteer staff unprepared for the influx of the masses. However, as the old line runs: The show must go on.
And though it has, the most major detraction for Firefly so far has been a crisis of choice. With four stages spread across a dozen acres featuring continuous music from noon to midnight options must be weighed carefully, and well in advance. For instance, from the moment the gates opened one was confronted by possibility. Garage rock revivalists the Heartless Bastards shared the opening time slot with two wheel enthusiasts Blind Pilot. What to do? While the Heartless Bastard’s brand of rock does well to get the blood moving, the weather may have dampened their performance. Erika Wennerstrom’s stage presence has not much improved despite the groups near constant touring in support of their last release Arrow and their live performance does not outshine their recorded material. Blind Pilot presents the other side of the coin. Their audience draw wasn’t as big as the Bastards, but the intimacy of their acoustic instrumentation met the intensity of their fan base to create an impressive performance.
There was little time for afterglow. On the Firefly main stage directly opposing Blind Pilot, nineties radio darlings The Wallflowers presented a passable performance of all their best loved material. Minor technical issues and a lackluster, perhaps tired Jacob Dylan entertained a somewhat restrained audience. With younger, more aggressive acts to follow, a breather during their hour-long set didn’t go unappreciated.
What a shame if you did catch your breath, just to have it taken away by the massively talented and disparagingly sexy John Legend. Mediums like television and radio do not do this man justice, and in spite of his style and charm he’s got chops to back it all up. Exchanging guitar for piano while covering Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder and the Beatles between his own hits one began to wonder why Mr. Legend didn’t command a headlining position. Playing to a mostly rock crowd, John Legend did his best to add teeth to the set, amping up distortion and giving his flawless backup band extended leads and the space to experiment with style.
After getting the crowd all hot and bothered there was nothing left to do but dance, and what better soundtrack than Bassnectar? From a DJ booth that resembled a fortress and flanked on either side by massive, spire like screens illuminating the rain drenched though ecstatic crowd with a seizure inducing light show, Lorin Ashton head banged harder than any rocker. And it was hard to tell who enjoyed the show more, Mr. Ashton playing tracks in his words to “Appease the Rain Gods” or the audience who en masse danced and writhed as if possessed. Backlit by a wafting ominous cloud, amidst the barrage of glow sticks, the hula-hoop ravers, and the poor lost girl Molly everyone was desperately searching for, the day’s obvious favorite was undoubtedly Bassnectar.
Thanks be to Bassnectar because a contact buzz was required for the night’s headliner, Jack White. Mr. White cannot himself be faulted, as usual he played with a frenzy, cutting out dirty delta blues licks at break neck speeds and howling like a banshee freshly released from hell all while breaking down and recreating his tunes on the spot. As far as showmanship is concerned, few do more than Jack White, for musicianship he is already considered a legend, so it was quite shocking and fairly disappointing there were so many technical problems during his set. Opening with some White Stripes classics, White’s vocals were all that could be heard. A total absence of drums made an awkward situation only worse, and then as if the engineers were trying to even themselves out, his vocals reduced to barely audible levels as bass drowned out crowd favorites Hotel Yorba and Icky Thump.
The first day of Firefly was a mixed bag at best. But it’s important to keep in mind the birthing pains associated with such a large event. While being far from a success, we’ll have to see if Firefly can find its legs for its second day.