By Matt Arena
After an incredibly successful first day, Firefly had even more in store for day 2. With doors opening at 11 am, there was much more music to be packed into the schedule and if you weren’t there first thing in the morning, you may have missed some of the best sets of the entire festival.
It says a lot when a band can put on a killer set with one of the first performances of the day at an all day festival like Firefly. It certainly can’t be easy playing so early in the morning when most people aren’t there. But none of this seemed to faze Imagine Dragons. The Las Vegas four piece has generated a lot of buzz lately, appearing on many people’s radar after their wildly popular set at Coachella. And their Firefly set did more than impress. It blew people away, almost literally. Easily the loudest band out of all three days (probably due to the massive bass drum lead singer Dan Reynolds was beating upon), they definitely blasted the sleep from the festival goers eyes Saturday morning. ‘Radioactive’ is an absolute monster of a live track. Starting off with light acoustic strumming and harmonizing, one may think, “ugh, here’s another restrained indie song,” but then the bass drops and what comes feels like the love child of an AWOLNATION and fun. song. The aforementioned giant bass drum plays a large role here, as Reynolds smashes against it as hard as he can, providing a boom that should register on the Richter scale. Thought it may have only been noon, the crowd didn’t seem sluggish one bit. From the drop in ‘Radioactive,’ they were bouncing and singing as if they were watching a headliner. Bands tend to pull larger crowds at festivals, just naturally as there are more people than standard gigs, but with Imagine Dragons set it seemed as if every person watching did so deliberately. There weren’t any usual festival stragglers who came just because they heard loud music, everyone already knew the band. The word “catchy” is used a lot to describe music, and usually with the connotation this in some way makes the song or lyrics inferior, but Imagine Dragons are catchy in the superior sense. The music just grabs you in a way that’s impossible not to join in. The fast and upbeat drumming foundations on ‘Round and Round’ give it a never-ending, pounding feel and combines with the wonderfully constructed choruses to make one of the best live tracks I’ve heard in a while. Plus the sheer energy this band exuded from the stage made it near impossible for the audience not to return back in kind. Though starting even before noon, Imagine Dragons put on easily the best set of the day and possibly even the best out of the entire weekend.
Up a bit later on in the day was Grouplove. A band that seems to just be getting bigger by the day (they just announced another, larger headlining tour after finishing their first one just a month ago), and they deserve every bit of it. To call Grouplove unique would be an understatement. From the music, to the band members themselves, there’s nothing ordinary about this band. There isn’t another band out there you can fairly compare their sound to and it’s taken to another degree in their live shows. Frequently extending intros and outros on a whim, Grouplove seem completely free on stage. Songs like ‘Slow,’ are slowed down and distorted to a massive wall of drum beating, echoing static, and the fading screams of lead singer Christian Zucconi (who seems to sport a different hair color every time I see them). They’re able to change their sound so quickly from song-to-song that if you close your eyes (and count to ten, ZING!) you’d think a different band had taken the stage. Lead vocal duties switch between Zucconi, Hannah Hooper (who doubles on keys), and bassist Sean Gadd. They have a very distinct vocal style, so when singing separately they give each song a different feel but still manage to blend together perfectly when harmonizing. This blender type vocal style is used on songs like ‘Chloe,’ which starts off with Gadd’s deep, almost country voice and joined by the higher sound from Hooper and the ever present ethereal wailing of Zucconi. Though the vocal styles may change, one thing always seems to be a constant with each Grouplove song; they’re all so fun. Granted that’s a pretty vague term to apply to a band’s sound, but upon seeing them perform it’s hard not to agree. The loose nature of the rapid acoustic riffs, the constant rhythmic drumming, jumpy bass lines, and warbly key structures all come together so well. Take a song like ‘Tongue Tied’ for example. There’s so much going on in that song, a blending of musical styles that shouldn’t work, but somehow they pull it off in spectacular fashion. Like all great bands, they take what makes them great and amplify it live. The passion and energy they play with on a consistent basis is astounding, almost as if they haven’t played these songs countless times. It’s what makes each Grouplove show different, and their set at Firefly was no exception.
YOUNG THE GIANT
This alt-rock five piece has had one hell of a year. After their now classic performance of ‘My Body’ on the VMA’s, Young the Giant have been on a rapid increase upwards. Having just wrapped up their sold out nation-wide tour, they hit up a couple major festivals too. First was Bonnaroo and now Firefly. To see this band on the power of the main stage was quite spectacular. Though their sound rangers from the alt-rock jumper of a track ‘My Body’ to more mellow tracks like ‘Guns Out,’ they always manage to engage the crowd. Having chatted with bassist Payam Dootstzadeh prior to their set, he said they’d be playing a number of tracks and to be on the lookout for one in specific called ‘Teachers.’ As the band is currently writing and recording the new album, they’ve been showcasing a number of new songs and ‘Teachers’ is definitely one to be anticipated. One of the more upbeat songs they have, it’s able to do so in a way that doesn’t feel like a My Body 2.0. The band is looking for a more evolved and experimental sound on the new record, the few new tracks they played evidence of that. It wasn’t one of those moments in the set were you dread the new material, but instead something to look forward to, as everyone in the crowd is dying to see what Young the Giant have in store next. Of course the material off their massively successful debut album went down fantastically as well. Utilizing his now trademark two microphone set-up, lead singer Sameer Gadhia is able to re-create the haunting vocal echoes on songs like ‘Guns Out’ all the while slapping a tambourine against his hip. The two latest singles, ‘Cough Syrup’ and ‘Apartment’ made early appearances in the set and were greeted with a blast of cheers as the audience loudly sang along. Though the true highlight of the set, and by far the entire weekend, was during the final song. If you know even a little about Young the Giant, you’ll know how close they are with bands like Grouplove, Cage the Elephant, and a number of other young alt rock bands. Coincidentally enough, two of them just so happened to be at Firefly as well. So to the initiated, it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise when all the members of Grouplove and Walk the Moon mobbed the stage during the last chorus of ‘My Body.’ From the very beginning of the song the crowd was deafening in their singing of literally every single word. Check YouTube (video proof!), it’s even louder than Sameer’s voice. Add to that the power the chorus has to turn any standing structure into a trampoline, and the bouncing mass of fans was already insane before the impromptu jam session. So when suddenly two full bands just charge the stage and start jumping and singing along, it pushed the crowd into a further frenzy. Walk the Moon front man Nicholas Petricca shared a mic with Sameer as the stage was crawling with the rest of the members from each band. Sometimes singing, other times just jumping and spinning around like dancing fools, it was the “moment” of the festival and one of the coolest things this writer’s ever seen at a gig. It’s still unclear whether or not Young the Giant even knew about it beforehand, which would make it that much more a definitive festival moment.
Being that the lineup was mostly filled with up-and-coming alt rock acts, Firefly did the smart thing and made sure to throw in some bands to change up the style. Cake was definitely one of those bands. John McCrea’s voice is instantly recognizable, as is the band’s sound in general. At first glance they might not seem like an interesting live act, McCrea’s voice, though unique, is rather monotone and deadpan. While that’s part of what make their music work, it’s not necessarily ideal for a live environment. Yet somehow they’re able to come alive. The surprisingly loud and much more pronounced riff from ‘The Distance’ nearly transforms the once mellow track into a live anthem. Suddenly they were a full on rock band, turning the once monotonous track into a booming song that sprang to life. The trumpet work of Vince DiFiore is key in keeping the songs similar, but seeing Xan McCurdy on guitar is what really makes this band take a step forward as a live act. While underplayed in studio versions, the riffs in songs like ‘Short Skirt/Long Jacket’ come to the forefront. Louder and fuller, they become the backbone of the song and are hard to deny a mild headbang to. Definitely a band that will catch you off guard with their surprising life and energy, Cake was playing to an already established group of fans but was definitely able to win pretty much everyone who saw them over. They’re not the type of band that will have the crowd jumping and going crazy, nor do they pretend to. But what they do so well is take their niche sound and expand upon it, possibly winning over those who at first pass on the droll nature of their studio sound.
Bands with one massive hit are always interesting to watch. Not only how they go about structuring their sets, but how the crowd reacts when the majority of them are just waiting for “that one song.” And Modest Mouse is a good band, but there’s no denying that they will draw that type of audience from ‘Float On.’ Being that the song hit back in 2005, it’s clear just from watching them play that they’re not only used to this but have learned how to use it to their advantage. They don’t pull the cliché move and use it as the encore, but throw it a little more than midway through the set, as if it were any other song. There’s not big show of “alright, now here’s the song you all came to hear,” it’s just simply there. And by putting it there in the set you give the less familiar audience members a chance to hear some other material without making them wait 15+ songs for it. It’s a delicate balance and Modest Mouse strikes it quite well. Of course it helps that their other material is great as well. Songs like ‘Dashboard’ and ‘The World at Large’ sounded full and cram packed with instrumental layers coming from the production of the festival’s main stage. It helped having what seemed like a legion of fans going 100% for every single song on the set, too.
Bookending day 2 of the festival with another Las Vegas band, this one considerably larger than the first, was the Killers. Having been on hiatus since 2010, the hype around the return of the Killers was massive. Though they tend to be a bit overrated and have a penchant for being extremely stubborn with photographers (making my job that much harder), it’s impossible to deny their ability to pull a crowd. Especially considering the current mainstream musical climate that seems to demand a non-stop presence or else a band risks losing their “status.” Not so with the Killers. After being gone for a full two years, they’re still able to draw just as well, if not better. The hiatus seemed to benefit the band if anything, instead of people forgetting about them, the demand for the band actually grew. Having headlined Madison Square Garden prior to the hiatus, it’s easy to see the band returning to a similar level of success. Especially after seeing their set at Firefly. Definitely the “biggest” headliner of the weekend, hence the Saturday slot, they definitely played like it. Bringing with them a strong amount of production for a festival and the massive hits that a band of their caliber has, it’s hard to deny that the Killers know how to put on a show. Opening with ‘Somebody Told Me,’ arguably their biggest hit, they made it clear that they weren’t pulling any punches and were there simply to blow people away. And if the sound of the screams from the crowd is any indication, they definitely succeeded. Ironically enough this billing was the main reason for going to Firefly, even though I’m not as enraptured with the band as everyone else is. They’re a massive band to have headlining, and one of the few that isn’t touring at the moment, and even I have to admit that hearing ‘When You Were Young’ is an experience in itself.
YOUNG THE GIANT