35mm of Firefly: Revisiting the Woodlands on film

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Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Dover’s annual Firefly Music Festival is just about the friendliest mega-festival you’ll ever go to.

I say this, worth noting, not having been to Bonnaroo, or Coachella. Nor am I old enough to have experienced the grandaddy of all festivals, Woodstock — though I’m sure there’s a lot fiction and myth and revisionist history surrounding that concert’s supposed transcendence.

Compared to the current circuit of gigs in brutal-summer-sun-on-asphalt settings, however, the ones taking the let’s-cram-everybody-in-a-municipal-park approach, the ones making even the strongest lineup more daunting than it needs to be — Firefly is clearly a festival designed with the fans in mind. This is my third year covering it, and each year, incremental improvements are made, reacting to the previous year’s challenges while keeping an eye towards growth. In 2016, spending a long weekend in the Woodlands amidst a throng of 100,000 fans felt remarkably…comfortable. Water stations were plentiful, opportunities for cooler air and shade were at (most) every turn, music was never far – nor was it in your face either. Getting from the Lawn Stage at the festival’s south gate to the main Firefly Stage on the north side took maybe 20 minutes in the rockiest of conditions; in the past, it required over a half hour  to traverse the festival grounds.

In any number of ways — the forest setting and ubiquity of nature surrounding the show, the super upbeat signage, the way corporate branding was (for the most part) downplayed — Firefly shared experiential commonalities with homespun, hyper-local hippie-oriented musical gatherings dotting the map. The differences being, of course, the colossal pop stars (The 1975, Mumford and Sons, Ludacris, CHVRCHES) and soon-to-be pop stars (Pell, Kaneholler, Quilt, Son Little, Civil Twilight) filling out the lineup. This is, after all, an event where music industry mechanizations move the gears. It’s just refreshing to see that this can be done while still providing a positive experience for the fans.

For this year’s Firefly, I documented it with a mix of digital photography and a roll of 35 mm film on a Canon AE-1. The film is back just recently from the lab, and today I present its highlights to you, with some running commentary. See my digital pictures from Friday here, from Saturday here and Sunday over here.

Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN

One of the most high energy, interactive sets I saw all weekend was Grouplove‘s Sunday afternoon rager, which really knocked me sideways. Almost literally, since I entered the photo pit just as singer Christian Zucconi leapt across my path and into the outstretched hands of fans. Dude knows how to connect, and his band’s revved up, Jane’s Addiction-esque anthems were also a plus. And the exuberant cover of “Sabotage” by The Beastie Boys. So much hell yeah.

Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Speaking of so much hell yeah, Pride was ubiquitous at Firefly 2016, and it was extremely heartwarming and refreshing to see. Mere days in the wake of the tragic Pulse Orlando mass shooting that sent shockwaves across the LGBTQ+ community, it felt like there was a strong show of solidarity from audience and performers – rainbow flags being waved in the masses, heartfelt speeches and moving dedications delivered during a spectrum of sets from Florence and the Machine to Blink-182 to Fetty Wap, messages of compassion being etched on totems and held high. I write this from a cis white dude perspective, of course, and a non camper at that; maybe there was an uneasiness that I didn’t personally realize because it’s not one I can experience, maybe the camping area (festival campgrounds being notorious hotbeds for douchebaggery) was not the most welcoming space for all festival goers. But from what I saw, the message was clear: Firefly was no place for hate.

Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN

The grass in the Woodlands was remarkably green and spacious; the frisbee-playing opportunities were many.

Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN

As the setting sun cast a gorgeous orange glow across the Friday night festival grounds, fans in the Pavilion Stage dance to the deep grooves of Sydney trio RÜFÜS DU SOL.

Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN

The Treehouse Stage at Firefly – previously home to pop-up, invite-only secret gigs – was built out with a properly-advertised lineup this year, but it still brought unique moments to fans that wanted more than the usual 45 minute sets their favorite bands rocked from the big stages. Here, Chairlift sets up shop for a Saturday afternoon DJ set showcasing standout remixes peers have made of their songs.

Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN

The artforms propped up around the festival grounds became hangouts of sorts. This serpentine green screen provided shade (note the people huddling under it in the lower right), a cozy seating (the walls made a unique cushion; loose enough for you to sit in, taught enough to prop you up) and a very alluring light show at night.

Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Dynamic CHVRCHES frontwoman Lauryn Mayberry totally owning the mainstage crowd.

Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Fetty Wap’s Saturday performance was somewhat polarizing – his DJ spent over half the allotted set time warming up the crowd before the Paterson, NJ rapper rushed onstage with his crew in the last 20 minutes to deliver a rapid-fire medley of jams from his self-titled 2015 album. Many people didn’t have the patience and bounced elsewhere; others stayed up front and partied the whole time. This crew of Fetty die-hards got ready for the long haul as proceedings got under way.

Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN

NOLA rapper Pell was a total festival highlight; though his crowd started thin, he’s such a dynamic onstage personality that the people were just drawn in.

Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Usually, if there’s a dumbek, I’m not interested. Brooklyn instrumental trio City of the Sun bucked that convention, though, playing a invigorating Sunday set in the Treehouse Stage, working acoustic arrangements with Explosions in the Sky fervency to the delight of everybody crammed under the canopy of trees.

Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN

The awesome Laura Stevenson lowkey playing the Toyota / Brooklyn Vegan / Stereogum stage – which, for being funded by advertising dollars, could have advertised its lineup and schedule way freaking better, come on guys – but I’m glad I happened across this set, since her “official” festival slot was at one of the camping hubs at 11 a.m….and after Deadmau5 going on at 12:45 a.m. the previous night, that was simply not happening. Stevenson is a gifted songwriter of indie / punk anthems delivered with an honest voice and a funny, engaging personality and more people should know about her.

Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Firefly 2016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Peace, love, America, #Firefly2016. See y’all next summer.

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