By Matt Arena
New festivals seem to pop up every year, pull a decent lineup and then are never heard from again. In essence they’re attempts at unseating summer powerhouses like Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, but they rarely ever succeed. But every once in a while those festivals have down years, allowing room for one of these newcomers to stake their own claim on the American summer music festival market. This year is one of those years and the Firefly Festival is one of those newcomers.
While Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza pulled the usual big lineups, it’s a definite decline from last year and the organizers behind Firefly seemed to notice that. Pulling three massive, current, and arena-worthy headliners, they presented the east coast with the rare option of a massive three day festival. A very doable 3.5 hr drive from the New York area, combined with billing of a major festival in a small festival setting made Firefly a must-see for anyone on the east coast. With all three levels of three day passes selling out weeks before the festival, they released a number of single day passes which promptly sold out as well. It’s only a few days after the last band left the stage, but it’s pretty clear that 2012 Firefly Festival was quite the success. So much so that starting today July 25th, the festival will begin selling early bird passes for next year’s festival. It’s clear that Firefly will not be following the trend of one-hit wonder festivals and that they plan on becoming a summer mainstay for music fans. The first day saw some rain, but the amount of fantastic music more than made everyone forget about the somewhat sloppy conditions.
Opening up the main stage for the weekend was The Wallflowers. Having announced an end to their hiatus just this past fall, they also recently revealed they’re working on their first new record in over seven years. With the possibility of new songs and playing on the power of the festival’s main stage, it was no surprise to see a massive crowd awaiting the band’s arrival before they even took the stage. Sticking with the same lineup from their last studio album Rebel, Sweetheart, it’s clear the strength of this band revolves around frontman Jakob Dylan, keyboardist Rami Jaffee, and bassist Greg Richling. Other members may come and go, but these guys have been together from the start and that’s immediately evident when they play. Firefly boasts an excellent, albeit young, lineup, so a seasoned band like The Wallflowers was a rarity during the weekend. Playing songs spanning their five studio releases, and including a couple new ones off the band’s upcoming album Glad All Over, they still managed to give the same levels of live and energy to these songs as when they first started playing. Obviously stand-out hits like ‘Sixth Avenue Heartache’ and ‘One Headlight’ went down well with the crowd, as all it took during the latter was a few notes of the first riff for the entire field to start cheering. The new songs had a distinctly different sound to most of the band’s material, with the darker, hard rock undertones reflected in the song titles themselves, ‘Devil’s Waltz’ and ‘Hospital for Sinners’ respectively. Dylan seemed determined to get these new songs out there and in a moment of self-awareness announced the crowd that “alright, the new song section is over,” before moving into the band’s more well known material. Festival crowds can be notoriously impatient when wading through a block of the set list that is dedicated to new material, but the Wallflowers handled it well, mostly by acknowledging it was happening in the first place. This is why they were such a great choice to open the main stage; they’re a veteran band that not only understands how modern audiences work but how to rock their faces off.
Very few bands have been able to build a career like OK Go has. Breaking through to mainstream audiences with their now legendary video for ‘Here It Goes Again,’ they essentially promoted their way into people’s iPods because of their music videos. In a time where music videos are a dying art, it’s great to see a band like OK Go not only put tons of effort in it but have a ball doing it. They’ve been able to channel that initial buzz into considerable success. Playing with the same quirky energy presented in most of their videos, it creates an interesting cohesive element to all they do. This is evident on songs like ‘Return,’ in which the band plays hand bells placed amongst a chessboard. Lead singer Damian Kulash informed the crowd just prior to the song, “let’s go to church,” before breaking into the oddly captivating performance.
Walk the Moon
There are certain bands that just feel tailor-made for festivals and Walk the Moon is definitely one of those bands. Between the style of music and the band’s aesthetic on stage (and yes, meaning the face paint), it’s almost easy to see how this band would crush any festival stage they walked upon. While mostly having seen the band previously at standard gigs inside clubs (with the exception of Music Midtown, prior to their recent explosion in popularity), it was a treat to say the least to see them take on a major festival crowd like at Firefly. With a mix of songs off their latest self-titled debut album and the independently released ‘i want, i want!’ of last year, to say they struck a chord would not only be a lame pun but the understatement of the year. From the moment the band took the stage, they had the crowd, jumping, dancing, yelling, and in general just partying their asses off. It helps that Walk the Moon create some of the danciest music out there. Songs like ‘Shiver, Shiver’ and ‘Quesadilla’ vibrated the very soil the crowd was standing upon, with the groovy bass lines (courtesy of bassist Kevin Ray) and spiraling synths making the songs practically explode from the stage. The vocal, synth, and drum work of multi-talented front man Nicholas Petricca no doubt played a large part in this. It seems like every member of this band is doing five different things at once, operating whatever instrument they’re holding like pros, all the while singing and dancing with faces of guys who wholeheartedly love what they’re doing. Clearly the audience not only recognized but fed off that. When the band on stage is so obviously having the time of their life, it only elicits an even stronger reaction from the crowd.
Having seen Walk the Moon many, many times now, it’s always astounding how they manage to get better with every show. Even the band’s tour manager and publicist could be seen side stage dancing and singing just as hard as everyone in the crowd. The soaring harmonies on tracks like ‘The Liftaway’ and ‘I Can Lift a Car’ not only mixed the band’s vocal medley beautifully, but everyone in the crowd as well. During the latter, not only did the audience shout along to every single word of the irresistibly catchy chorus, but even joined in on a several hundred impromptu car lifting dance, which can only be described as Walk the Moon’s take on raising the roof. It all led into the absolute fire storm of a summer anthem, ‘Anna Sun.’ From the very first synth note, the crowd erupted into cheers as the band bounced, spun, and stomped around the stage like possessed men. To go through and list why every song worked so well and why every band member is so essential to making it all come together would take forever, so know this: there’s only one thing to do during a Walk the Moon show, drop whatever you’re doing and dance.
Headlining the secondary stage was Los Angeles rock band, Silversun Pickups. Fresh off the release of their stellar third album, Neck of the Woods, they played a killer set spanning all three of their studio releases. Having sat down to talk with bassist Nikki Monninger earlier that day, she expressed excitement at the opportunity to play the new songs live, as the band hasn’t started their tour yet. One of the best songs off the new album and maybe even the best of the set was ‘Mean Spirits.’ In trademark Silversun Pickups fashion, the track relies on the booming bass lines and fuzzy distorted riffs of lead singer/guitarist Brian Aubert. The jump from studio to live is a transition many bands struggle with, but Silversun Pickups seem to do it with ease. For a group of just four people, they make a sound that could fill an arena which is why they sounded so great at Firefly. Without the constraints that a standard club has, their sound was able to go as far as possible at Dover Downs. This was especially true on ‘Growing Old is Getting Old,’ not only hands-down the best song of the set but maybe even the best out of the entire weekend. This was a personal favorite before going in and hearing it live again just solidifies that. It takes everything that makes Silversun Pickups great and amplifies it by ten. Quite literally. It’s a building, slow burner of a track but eventually explodes into a blitz of static, distortion, bass, and primal screams that sees the band as it’s very best and loudest. Though not a single, the band thankfully kept it on the set list despite the slew of tracks off the new album, and is a highlight of every Silversun Pickups set. Having only played a handful of secret shows in LA since the album release, the band sounded as sharp as ever, even with the new tracks. The first single of Neck of the Woods, ‘Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)’ was a standout. The echoing vocals rolled all the way back to the very entrance of the festival and the repeating backing track gave the song an extraterrestrial feel. The crowd definitely loved Silversun’s set, even as far as earning thanks from Brian himself for sticking around despite the ominous clouds and impending rain. The band’s two biggest hits, ‘Panic Switch’ and ‘Lazy Eye’ both received roars from the crowd during their opening notes. While the former is much more upbeat and the latter is similar to ‘Growing Old’ as a slow burner, they were both incredible. Equal parts modern alternative and ambient rock, Silversun Pickups is one of the few modern bands with a truly unique sound. You can’t throw the “they sound like (insert band name here)” label on them and it makes that much better.
After a couple years out of the spotlight, Jack White has had a huge year. After announcing the break-up of The White Stripes and releasing his own solo album, White has been playing seemingly non-stop. Headlining almost every major festival the US has and doing a residency of club shows around the country, it seems that he’s back in a major way. Early into the day festival goers had been camping out at the front of the main stage for White, and he undoubtedly impressed. Ironically enough, he played mostly songs from his many other bands. Only five tracks released under the Jack White solo name were found; not that it’s a bad thing. Comprised mostly of White Stripes and Raconteurs “covers,” (and a wicked appearance of the Dead Weather’s ‘I Cut Like a Buffalo’), it kinda felt like a White Stripes gig. Minus Meg. It’s pretty clear he still loves playing these songs, almost as much as the crowd loves hearing them. Kicking right off with ‘Dead Leaves and Dirty Ground,’ it set the tone quite well for the rest of the set. Though clearly happy for the treat of White Stripes songs, the audience loved material off Blunderbuss just as much. ‘Freedom at 21’ made an early appearance in the set, and though a bit of a low-key track on the album, it springs to life on stage. The unmistakable riff got a roar from the sprawling crowd and the frenzied work of the all male back-up band Los Buzzardos no doubt played a key role in the song’s transformation. It may be a bit cliché to name ‘Seven Nation Army’ as the highlight of the set, but come on, it’s ‘Seven Nation Army.’ Sporting arguably the most recognizable bass line of the past 10 years, the crowd knew it was coming and still gave the loudest cheer the instant the first note was heard. To try to relate the level of energy not only from stage, but also from the absolutely packed crowd would prove nothing but a disservice so imagine this; it’s ‘Seven Nation Army’ live. Just imagine how great that would be and multiply it by about 20. Though the rain started almost as soon as he set did, Jack White didn’t seem to mind as he remarked to the crowd, “I know you’re out there in the rain, but you kind of like it, don’t you?” To which the crowd replied with a rowdy cheer. Though not a rarity at festivals this summer, Jack White still managed to more than live up to the near legendary status and fit perfectly as the first headliner of the weekend. Mark “see Seven Nation Army live” off my gig bucket list? Check.
WALK THE MOON