Review: 2018-06-16 - Firefly Music Festival - Dover, DE
TL;DR - Spafford played an awesome 3.5 song, 1 hour fest set, and introduced the mainstream kids to what it means to jam.
I never expected to be “from Delaware.” My wife and I moved here from the Philly burbs in 2008 to be closer to her new NICU position. Rather than have her die from falling asleep at the wheel during her 1.5 hour commute each way to her 12 hour shifts, I decided to find a job in Wilmington and we’d “temporarily” move down here. Alas here we are, 10 years later, still in the Red-Headed Stepchild State.
On the plus side, it is cheap. The cost of living is pretty low for our proximity to Philly -- I live closer to the city now in DE than I did growing up in the PA Philly burbs. Property taxes are about 20% of what they would be just 5 miles north in PA, and there is no sales tax. And Delawareans are generally very nice people. The negatives though are that Wilmington, where I live, is sometimes referred to as “Murdertown USA,” and the public schools rank extremely low for an east coast city.
And, well, culturally it’s pretty boring here. In this regard Delaware definitely earns its reputation as perhaps the most uninteresting state. Bands do not come through here, especially south of Wilmington to “lower, slower Delaware.” We did get UM once at the Grand about 8 years ago, and miraculously Trey Anastasio made a stop at that same theater a few months ago during his solo acoustic tour. But typically if we want to see great bands play it requires a trip to Philadelphia to places like the Fillmore (home of The Foundry) or out to my second home, the legendary Ardmore Music Hall. That’s why it was such a big deal for the state-formerly-known-as-the-Small-Wonder when it was announced that the largest music festival on the east coast would occur right here in our forgettable state.
Unfortunately for me, but rather fitting for Delaware, Firefly is as commercial and mainstream a festival as it gets. Each year I look at the lineup and it’s the same thing every time. Dozens of hipster/indie bands whose names could easily have been generated by an algorithm (optimized for irony), some DJ and hip hop sets (meh), and huge mainstream headlining acts (yawn). This year was no exception. Their lineup graphic says it all:
Except… wait… is… is that a jam band in the lineup? To say I was surprised by Spafford booking the festival would be a gross understatement. I mean, I know Spafford is all about the festivals during the summer -- and rightfully so. Nowhere else can they introduce large groups of new people to what we already know: Spafford jams. And really, really damn well. But that makes total sense at High Sierra, Peach, and even Bonnaroo, where the hett set can most often be found. But Firefly? A chad fest? Huh. But hey, I enjoy weird situations and it did sound like an interesting experiment, and since it’s only an hour south of me - well within my “attendance required for any Spafford show within a 2 hour radius” rule - I decided I needed to witness this go down.
Fast forward to Saturday night of the fest weekend, 8:30 pm. I get the kids to bed, kiss the wife gnite, and me and my OG buddy Boy Don (aka Domey (aka Dirt Boy)) head down to Dover. After a very disconcerting 30 minutes trying to find where we’re supposed to park we finally board the rented school bus that will shuttle us to the farm where the fest is held. It was fun being on a school bus with Don, as we first met on one in 7th grade. I felt like we should be vandalizing the thing or smoking cigarettes in the back seats or something. Instead (and for the best), this maybe-21-year-old kid chatted us up. It was his first music fest ever and he was very excited to be experiencing it. When I asked him what bands he was most interested in seeing he named the big ones - Eminem and Kendrick Lamar - and few indie bands I’d naturally never heard of. He asked for any pro-tips I could give him. Stay hydrated, wear sunblock, and if at all possible, pitch your tent next to a vehicle that will block the morning sun. There’s nothing worse than waking up at 8 am, a few short hours after you fell asleep (if you’re doing it right) as the sun heats your tent to temperatures usually only measured in degrees kelvin. Oh, and come see Spafford at 1am.
Don and I finally get in the fest, grab a beer (it was all Anheuser-Busch brands, obviously), and a few minutes later Eminem takes the stage. It was exactly what I expected. Big, expensive production value, lots of people on stage pretending to play instruments to a pre-recorded backing track (you know, cymbals are pretty loud, so it’s surprising that they make zero sound whatsoever when the “drummer” “plays” them), an of course Eminem - who I do recognize as an extraordinarily talented rapper - pacing the stage, spraying the crowd with profane, very clever lyrics.
We watched about 30 minutes of Eminem before leaving the main Firefly Stage area for the Pavilion Stage next to it, where there were already a dozen people watching Spafford soundcheck. The Pavilion was a giant, temporary metal tent, with a gravel floor, littered with hundreds of empty plastic bottles, glow sticks, broken sunglasses, shredded, empty iPhone cases, and just about anything else if you looked close enough. Baloo, Spafford’s tour manager, even said he ground scored some birth control pills, so there had undoubtedly been some serious partying going on in this pav before we got there. The big question though, was how many people will come here after Eminem’s set?
While Spafford was the last band scheduled for the night, the beginning of their set overlapped with the Portugal. the Man DJ set (just typing that name gives me flashbacks to the Chameleon Club stream) and Martin Garrix, a Dutch DJ. So yeah I could see why many of the mainstream kids in attendance would skip some unknown rock band from a red state out west for the promise of sweaty, gyrating people (read: girls) rolling tits at a euro EDM set. I set my hopes and expectations low, accordingly.
Spafford loves what they do, and they love each other. Like a true, Platonic, deeply cosmic love. I see it on their faces when they are playing, and it is apparent in their music. It’s also apparent because even though Eminem’s insanely loud set is going on right next door, the technical reasons for their soundcheck are long finished, and only they can hear themselves play through their monitors, they are absolutely crushing a no-holds-barred improv jam. As I stood there chatting up the lurkers, I kept having to stop in mid-sentence to listen to Cam play some polyrhythmic, several-bar fills with the whole band resolving on 1 at the height of Brian peaking a solo. Just fucking magical. I’m always appreciative when I get to see a soundcheck because it’s as close to seeing the band at their most relaxed and natural state possible; what I imagine their post-tour rehearsals are like. They’re free to take chances and make mistakes without repercussion, and as we all know with high risk comes high reward. Always a treat, these soundchecks. They wrap up and leave the stage as Eminem is doing his encore. Some people are now trickling in, and I run into Doug M, his brother Keith and his lovely wife Michelle, who are diehard Spafford fans. Always great seeing them, which I do at every Spafford show from DC to NY. We stake our claim on the rail and get ready to rage.
At 1:00 am on the dot Spafford takes the stage to probably 500 people. Not bad! That’s probably the average attendance these days at random tour stops outside of the bigger s’nerd strongholds. And those are headlining gigs where people came to see Spafford, so having 500 pairs of virgin ears is pretty exciting.
The band kicks it off with JJ Grey’s On Fire, which I thought was an extremely appropriate tune for the time and place. Brian seems to play it with a crunchier distortion than normal, but that might be due to the Gibson taking place of the Raven for the fest. His solo is shreddy but very melodic as always, and the band breaks down into a really funky groove. Red’s playing soulful Hammond funk, and Cam and Jordan are in lock step. Red transitions to a crunchy, almost pornographic clavinet rhythm and the band hangs there for a spell before Brian takes over again, building to an excellent first peak that earned the first audible feedback from the audience (at least from my vantage point). I looked back to see everyone dancing and having a great time, with more and more people filing in, just as the jam resolves to a quiet but dynamic, lumbering groove. Cheers from the attendees. They’re getting it.
This groove continues and deepens, with Brian repeating an untzy monophonic melody while Red mans several synths, playing a staccato beat-repeater pattern with one and accenting nicely with the other. The energy picks up as Brian builds back into a solo around the show’s 10 minute mark, raging for a minute or two before taking us back into the last verse of On Fire.
The communication these guys have is just uncanny. I’m pretty convinced that Spafford is a single, telepathic, hive mind. While I’m nowhere near a pro-level musician, I have been playing drums in jam bands off and on since the mid 1990s so I have a pretty trained ear. And unfortunately I have experienced, many times, on stage, in front of actual people, what poor communication when jamming leads to. It is not pretty. But Spafford’s transitions are simply gorgeous. They can turn on a dime without it being awkward, or even most people realizing that it just happened.
Take for example the key change that Jordan leads Red into just after the 17 minute mark in On Fire, and the almost imperceptible tempo increase to a precisely 102 BPM, setting the stage for their second song of the set. Cam introduces the untzy beat and they glide right into a perfectly landed and very well placed Walls. Fuckin A, Peter. Fuckin A.
They do the first verse and settle into a very comfortable untz jam, sticking with Wall’s 102 BPM tempo. 102 BPM is a pretty chill tempo for the untz, which typically ranges from around 115 BPM up to the 160 BPM range. The band has an exceptional ability to build and add energy to their jams without increasing the tempo at all. This Walls jam is no exception, and should be used in music school textbooks discussing the very subject.
After the perfect amount of time in the groove they complete the composed double-time section of Walls, into my favorite part where Brian’s guitar sounds like a European ambulance (I’m reminded of one every time), back into the verse and then settling into a long, bluesy, Rhodes filled untz jam lead by Red. Cam slowly introduces the edrum pad, and they ride this groove out for a good stretch. They transition from a familiar Walls chord progression to one I can best describe as having a flamenco or latin feel to it. If I were a real musician I could tell you what scale and mode it was but all I got is that there may be a bit of Carlos Santana in the solo. They finish the jam and Brian leads them into Leave the Light On.
LTLO is another good choice here as it’s very accessible to new ears. It was chosen as the first track to release from For Amusement Only for good reason. As always, Jordan delivers passionate and soulful vocals. The crowd was definitely digging this one. The band takes the LTLO jam out of the station with Red’s synth solo on top of an ethereal pad, before he moves it to the piano adding depth and space for a delicate but fast solo by Brian while Cam is keeping a great pendulum-like, backbeat groove. They start building it up layer by layer to a huge peak back into the chorus and wrap up the tune as normal.
Immediately following the final note of LTLO the band vamps on a similar groove as Brian starts talking to each member, explaining where they’re going next. A time check shows it’s only a few minutes before the scheduled 2:00 am end time, so I’m very curious where he could be taking them with only a half dozen minutes left. Brian starts playing 16th notes in faster and faster succession, pulling the band from LTLOs 90ish BPM up to 125 or so. Firmly in untz territory, the jam sits on a deep quarter-note thump by Jordan and Red and Brian shred as Cam delivers the familiar 4-on-the-floor dance groove. One big peak and the band pauses while Brian picks the notes to the… ending? ...of Weasel? Ok! Unorthodox, but I love it.
Clearly Brian wanted to send these kids back to their tents with something to remember Spafford by and called the audible. Always a barn burner and spectacular set closer, this abbreviated Weasel delivers the goods. Huge energy in the room, everybody thoroughly into it, and the crowd explodes into applause after the closing notes.
It is without question that Spafford triumphed tonight. Everyone in the pavilion was cheering, fist pumping, high-fiving, and begging the band for more as they took a bow and said goodnight. My guess is by the end about 1,000 to 1,500 attended, though from the rail it’s very hard to see where the crowd ends so I could be severely underestimating.
As we are ushered out of the pav by security mere moments after the band leaves the stage, I hear many people talking about how great the show was. “Best set of Firefly by far! BY FAR!” one guy exclaims to whomever will listen. Shouts of “so fucking good!” “amazing!” “that was SICK!” fill the air as we walk out, and I hand out some IKIS before being stopped by some very young dudes; maybe 18 or 20 years old. “Hey man, do you know where these guys are playing next?” “You liked the set?” I ask, knowing damn well they got bit hard. He proceeded to explain how blown his mind was before imploring once more “so where are they playing next??” We have an instant s’nerd on our hands. I tell him about the other fests for the summer, the inevitable fall tour to be announced real soon now (right Spafford?!) and give them each a stack of the Poe/Raven IKISs - pointing out this domain’s URL - as well as Cody’s spaffhands stickers for good measure. I really hope we see them on here, but honestly I’d be more surprised if I didn’t.
Noob show-glow is a wonderful thing to witness. I have no doubt that those kids’ lives were changed tonight. I will never forget the first time that happened to me, seeing Garcia Band and learning that there is a limitless, unbounded force out there as powerful as anything else in the universe, that we earthlings like to call “live music.” I saw that same look in those kids’ eyes as my own so many years ago. They’re on their way. Firefly was the catalyst to get them out and seeing live music, but it was Spafford that showed them truly how deep and powerful an experience that can be. It truly warms the cockles of my heart.
While I may never get back to another Firefly I’m certainly glad I went. I now totally get the booking. It was genius level strategery, and one that likely converted more new s’nerds than any hetty ass hippie fest. These kids were hungry for what Spafford had to offer, without the years of baked on, caked on jam band fan jade and prejudice.
Welcome aboard. We’re happy you’re here.
@robAF Great review, i broke the 2-hr spafford rule... Firefly was the first time they ever came to the east coast, way back in '12, wasnt it? What a whack festival, i was hoping i could get my wife in for Saturday, as her fav band is the Killers. But it was a tough sell at >$100 for a day pass!
where in DE you at? i live in west chester, but work in Wilmington on Augustine cut-off rd. We should grab some brews some time. If not i'm sure i'll bump into you at ardmore soon
Well done Rob! Great read 🙂
@PhillySpaffnerd different firefly. That fest was in Arizona.
@PhillySpaffnerd Ha, that’s amazing. I live right near Astra Zeneca just before the Augustine cutoff on 202 S. You pass my neighborhood every day. Let’s definitely hang sometime!
This set is unbelievable. Brian is on some other
even without the Raven. Thank you for painting the scene
with your trained ear for the techniques and your third-eye
for all the feelz and the vibez going on under that tent
@robAF Perfect summation man! Glad you were able to go!