When my interest in the music festival circuit first peaked, there were a few that immediately jumped to the top of my list to attend someday.
The east coast’s largest open-air camping festival, Firefly, has always stood out among the rest.
With its scenic forested environment, famously diverse lineups, and central location between some of the biggest cities in the country, there has always been special about it.
In the years since its inception in 2012, Firefly Music Festival has grown and changed tremendously in many ways.
Originating as a three-day event with less than 50 acts, it has surely grown in size for one thing.
With headliners Kendrick Lamar, The Killers, Eminem, and Arctic Monkeys, not to mention popular acts down to the bottom of the lineup, this felt like the perfect opportunity to see what one of the fastest growing festivals in the country had to offer.
Fans willing to arrive early were treated to a Wednesday Pre-Party of six opening shows, but the official lineup kicked off Thursday afternoon with the state of Delaware’s lone representative, Dover-native Amillion the Poet, opening the Backyard Stage.
Though the Firefly mainstage remained close through opening day, Thursday’s performers set the tone for a nonstop weekend to come.
Knox Fortune, who had previously produced a slew of work for fellow Chicagoans and members of the SaveMoney rap collective including Joey Purp, Vic Mensa and Towkio before lending his vocal’s for Chance the Rapper’s smash single All Night and releasing his well-received 2017 debut album Paradise, rocked the Lawn Stage before Bryce Vine, with a high-energy burst of fun and color, and Shallou, with his soothing ambient dance sound, brought the hype with impassioned performances in the Pavilion Tent.
David “Dave 1” Macklovitch and Patrick “P-Thugg” Gemayel of Montreal, together forming Chromeo, have made their name with a unique and endlessly enjoyable take on ‘80s electro-funk in the 11 years since their 2007 debut Fancy Footwork. Just hours before the release of their fifth studio album Head Over Heels, the self-proclaimed “funk lords” were at full force and capped the night excellently to set up a packed Friday.
The density of this year’s lineup really started to show on Friday.
Early acts Welshy Arms, Lukas Nelson & The Promise of The Real, the weekend’s first two main stage performances, along with Lights, grinded through the sweltering early afternoon sets with ease to give fans a smooth warm-up to the night’s bigger names to come.
Following a nostalgia-inducing performance from the ‘90s emocore group Jimmy Eat World, including stirring renditions of fan-favorites The Middle and Bleed American, it was time for Foster the People to take the main stage.
The Los Angeles indie-rock group weaved their way through tracks from all three of their beloved albums, captivating The Woodlands with every note and word.
Just before closing out the show with their two most popular songs to date in the hit single that put them on the map back in 2010, Pumped Up Kicks, and Sit Next to Me, frontman Mark Foster had a heartfelt message for the thousands in attendance regarding the divided state of modern American society.
“Music brings people together like nothing else can,” Foster said. “And if you don’t feel loved, know that we love you. We may not know you, but we love you.”
For those fans who may have needed a little more Foster, they also played a darker, house-focused DJ set at the Treehouse stage in the final slot of the night that contrasted excellently with the serene main stage show hours before.
The decision to open with the Bobby Tarantino II intro Grandpa’s Space Ship featuring animated characters Rick and Morty discussing the difference between “album Logic and mixtape Logic,” set the tone for a grimy set from the Grammy-nominated rapper born Sir Robert Bryson Hall II.
Known for representing the ideals of “Peace, Love, and Positivity,” Logic took time to lay out his “No Fuck Boys” rules and welcomed Plank from the Cartoon Network series Ed, Edd n Eddy on stage when a fan passed it to him moments into the show.
Trevor Dahl, Kevin Ford, and Matthew Russell, better known as Cheat Codes, rocked the Pavilion tent so hard that I couldn’t help but think they would have been better suited for a larger stage.
Intermixing their singles featuring the likes of Demi Lovato, Fetty Wap, and Kiiara with tracks from their fresh EP Level One, the Los Angeles-based trio helped peak anticipation for the first of the four headliners of the festival, the return of Arctic Monkeys.
Though the album has brought mixed reviews from critics and fans alike, the group clearly hasn’t missed a beat in producing phenomenal live experiences.
The show largely featured tracks from Tranquility Base, all of which fit far better in the retro aesthetic of the performance than I expected based on my own listening experience, but also included most of the group's previous hits the crowd longed for in R U Mine?, One For The Road, Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High? and I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor.
The instrumental dance duo of Dominic Lalli and Jeremy Salken, collectivelly known as Big Gigantic, finished Friday with a raucous as ever closing set dripping with their trademark saxophone and pounding bass soundscapes.
Nearly every act throughout the weekend noted the sheer scale of the crowds they were playing for, often admitting that they had never played such massive shows before.
Saturday’s absolutely stacked Day Three lineup somehow motivated even more fans to pack the Woodlands and I would be shocked if any went home disappointed.
Canadian producer and DJ Chet Porter opened the day with a mellow Pavilion set that got the groove flowing early.
His laid-back demeanor helped him overcome a blatant error early in the show, as he admitted to the mistake immediately and put the crowd at ease by explaining that he had flown overnight from Denver and hadn’t slept in well over a day. The crowd roared and pushed Porter through a fantastic hour.
Fresh off the release of their debut album When My Heart Felt Volcanic in April, the all-female rock group The Aces showed off their incredible stage presence first on the Lawn Stage before captivating the Tree House crowd a little over an hour later.
Something about this Utah-based indie group that feels special and I became an instant fan.
Similarly, I came into the weekend expecting a solid showing from Los Angeles indie rockers Smallpools. What they delivered was so much more.
Their glittery guitar riffs paired with Sean Scanlon’s glossy vocals made for an incredible experience made even greater by the group’s decision to come out in some of the coolest shirts I have ever seen.
All of these fantastic shows led up to a truly unbelievable run of shows.
Lil Wayne took the main stage with a boyish grin of amazement, stopping to let the crowd know “I have been doing this for 20 years now and I can honestly say I have never seen this many people in my life.”
He was also shocked by the attendance of American Sign Language translators, something he said he’d also never had the chance to see at one of his shows before.
Following Weezy, The Killers and Eminem also expressed their shock at the main stage crowd size before rocking through their incredible headlining performances that more than lived up to the hype coming into the day.
Including a special tribute to the late Avicii with Waiting for Love, the brand new single featuring Khalid, Ocean, a guest appearance from San Holo, and David Guetta collaborations Like I Do and So Far Away, Garrix had the crowd bouncing like an Ibiza club from midnight until nearly two in the morning.
Along with his incredible light show and pyrotechnics, fans helped make this show standout by throwing glow sticks across the crowd with each drop. Some took it too far, throwing things like capped water bottles and toilet paper rolls, but the glow sticks were awesome. I sincerely hope this becomes a tradition in the dance music scene.
The fourth and final day kicked off with legendary rapper Warren G taking the main stage for a 1 p.m. set that featured his own hit tracks alongside a heavy dose of songs with fellow ‘90s hip-hop legends Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and of course, the late Nate Dogg.
Hearing Regulators live was a dream come true and there were plenty more bucket list artists ahead on a very special Father’s Day.
Just as the previous days had, Sunday’s lineup offered something for everyone.
Despite rumors of a potential last minute cancellation, TDE-queen SZA closed the opening song of her set with a stunning, prolonged high note. She tweeted earlier in the day to inform fans she would “give it a go,” after revealing that her vocal damage was not permanent.
Finally, the stage was set for King Kendrick Lamar.
The Firefly main stage may not have held quite as many fans when the platinum-selling, Grammy award-winning rapper and first nonclassical or jazz musician to win a Pulitzer Prize for music since the expansion into the category in 1943 made his Delaware debut, but every fan in attendance came ready to be awed. And awed they were.
Ripping through hit features done with Travis Scott, Rich the Kid, and others, as well as tracks from nearly all of his major works to date, Kendrick’s energy never wavered as he pounded across the stage, hurling verses at the crowd with fervor.
Upon exiting the stage under the falling smoke from a spectacular firework display, Kendrick exclaimed: “I will be back!”
This led to a moment of confusion when the floodlights turned off and on again, prompting some fans to rush back to the stage only to be disappointed when workers began disassembling the stage.
Outside of the lack of an encore, Kendrick filled the closing headliner spot flawlessly.
All that remained was the conclusive set from another 2018 Grammy nominee, the Seattle duo Odesza.
Coming off the stunning success of their third studio album A Moment Apart, Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight had already closed Coachella and had completed a two-day showing at Red Rocks Amphitheatre that included some of the biggest names in electronic music just days before making their way to the nation's first state.
The two are known for delivering an exhilarating live performance that goes far beyond a standard electronic music show.
In this particular closing set, Odesza brought out all the stops with guest appearances from Naomi Wild and Wynne for Higher Ground and Line of Sight, respectively, along with their now signature drumline, pyrotechnics and color explosion of lights.
Firefly is special because it's inviting in every way.
This year's lineup had artists for just about any fan to enjoy.
People cared about each other's well being and genuinely seemed to want everyone around them to have the best experience they could have.
Outside of the music, fans could also enjoy art and light installations along The Pathway connecting different areas of the festival grounds, The Thicket silent disco, as well as the relaxing Nook for those looking for a quick break from the action.
Everything about this experience was above and beyond the expectations that we held coming in.
Endless thanks to Red Frog Events for allowing us to cover this amazing event. We can't wait for the next chapter of this first-rate tradition.
Review and Photos by Aaron Nelson