Farewell to Firefly 2017: Sixth annual Dover festival stayed ahead of the weather

DOVER — For festival organizers, the 2017 Firefly Music Festival will go down in their log books as one that perpetually stayed ahead of the weather despite gloomy forecasts.

Throughout the sixth annual four-day event, the temperatures ranged from mid-70s to low 90s and despite a few isolated sprinkles on Saturday, the sky was sunny and nearly cloudless almost every day. The forecasts had predicted a 60 percent chance of scattered thunderstorms for Friday, Saturday and Sunday — these storms mercifully never came to pass.

“The whole festival went really well,” said Michael Coco, senior director of operations with Red Frog Events. “We were very fortunate that the weather stayed on our side.”

Thunderstorms especially can shut the event down in a hurry. Last year’s event got its start with heavy rains just before the opening that turned much of The Woodlands into a mud pit. In 2015, downpours and high winds from Tropic Storm Bill forced Firefly organizers to evacuate the venue just before 10 p.m. on Saturday — leading to several performance cancellations and postponements of headline acts.

“Mother Nature was kind to us,” said Christiane Pheil, creative programming assistant director with Red Frog Events. “2017 marks Firefly’s sixth year, and we couldn’t be more pleased with the weekend. This year’s music line-up was filled with a wide range of genres that speaks to the inclusive community Firefly has created.”

The crowd cheers during the sixth annual Firefly Music Festival. (Special to the Delaware State News/Jon Lloyd Jr.)

Reduced attendance

Although unconfirmed by organizers, there was a lot of anecdotal evidence for reduced crowd sized at this year’s festival. Going into the Firefly season, organizers said they were expecting to reach close to 90,000 attendees — like they did last year. However, a tour of the festival grounds at peak traffic hours would show that that number was optimistic.

It stands to reason, the first people to notice the attendance dip would be those doing business at the festival. Cycle rickshaw driver Matt Soha noticed right away when the festival started that he was spending a bit more time curbside waiting for fares than he had in previous years. Mr. Soha, who has been trailering in his rickshaw from Columbus, Ohio for Firefly for the past four years, has an “open fare” policy and pulls in around $5 to $15 per ride. Although unsure to what degree the lower attendance will dent the bottom line, but he said the dip in attendance was hard not to notice during his many runs to and from the parking lots and front gates.

“I don’t know exactly yet how much I’ll make over the whole festival,” he said. “But there definitely seems to be less people here overall from last year and the year before.”

Busta Rhymes performs on the main stage early Sunday afternoon at Firefly.

Music fans noticed it too, especially during the main headliners who would have ordinarily filled the viewing areas to capacity.

“Twenty One Pilots filled out the main stage area pretty well when they were playing, but during some of the other big acts like Bob Dylan there were big gaps in the field — a lot of people had room to roll out full-size blankets and lay down not too far from the stage,” said Lance Barkley of Philadelphia who was returning to Firefly for the third year in a row. “It’s not always like that. Walking all the way to the Lawn Stage and main entrance to the Main Stage can take over 30 minutes when it’s really packed in here. It only took us 15 minutes last night (Saturday) when the main headliners were about to come on.”

Fans speculate that it could be anything from concerns about the weather to ticket prices. This year, general admission tickets were going for $319 for the full four days with possible upgrades to VIP and Super VIP passes going for $699 and $2,499 respectively. Minnie Garrett from Richmond, Virgina, who’s been at all six Firefly Music Festivals, said attendance has had its ups and downs over the history of the festival but this year’s perceived dip is probably due to the talent lineup.

Waka Flocka Flame performs on the Backyard stage early Sunday afternoon at Firefly 2017.

“It’s just my opinion, but I feel like Firefly kind of started as a more purely alternative music lineup,” she said. “It’s kind of progressively taken a shift toward hip-hop, pop and electronica-type music lately — I’d say with this year’s lineup more than any before. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting change, that’s why my friends and I still bought tickets and came, we love it. I just think that maybe some fans from previous years may have taken a pass on this lineup.”

Band launching pad

However the festival’s aesthetic has changed over the past few years, the principle of giving stage time to lesser known bands has remained the same. Dover’s own hometown hip-hop group Trio got two stage performances — one at the South Hub stage on Thursday morning and one on Sunday morning at the Northeast Hub — plus an additional appearance on the festival’s “Rambler.” The Rambler was a Humvee kitted out with equipment to act as a mobile stage to showcase impromptu pop-up performances throughout The Woodlands during the festival. Doverites Matthieu “Tribe Beats” Howe, Matt “Meeze” Coston and Samuel “SAM” Carter III, who make up Trio said the Rambler performance was a bit of a surprise that Red Frog Events offered them a few days before Firefly kicked off.

The main stage reflects on sunglasses Sunday afternoon at Firefly 2017.

“They asked us if we wanted to do it and we said ‘of course,” said Mr. Howe. “It was a really cool intimate show that was set up near the main entrance around 11 a.m. on Saturday. The whole festival was lit. It was an amazing opportunity to connect with our fans. We took full advantage of it, starting out every day early and coming back late just enjoying the music and being part of the atmosphere.”

Mr. Carter said the festival gave them some much needed face-time with fans.

“The best part was all the love we got from fans,” he said. “It was amazing to just come off stage afterward and talk to people and get to meet everyone.”

In addition to connecting with fans, Trio also spent some time with the other talent and made some connections, they said.

“We got to hang backstage with Wale and T-Pain and we met Chance the Rapper’s brother, which was great,” said Mr. Coston. “We even made a connection with another small band that played after us on the South Hub Stage. They’re a band from New Jersey called Deal Casino. We don’t know yet, but we may actually end up collaborating — it would be great to have some instrumentals with our music.”

The Firefly main stage before Bob Dylan’s show Saturday evening.

According to Kristyn Corder from the Nashville, Tennessee band *repeat repeat, just that act of playing Firefly where so many of the bands her and her fellow musicians admire is an honor.

“We’ve admired Firefly from afar from the get-go and have always hoped to attend, so it is an absolute dream to be here playing,” she said. “Bands that we love like BRONCHO, and Mother Mother have played the festival in previous years, so we’ve always had an eye on all the cool stuff coming from Firefly. We will definitely be back and truly can’t wait.”

From a musician’s perspective, her and her bandmates feel that Red Frog Events runs a top-notch operation.

“It’s such a well-run, beautifully branded event,” said Ms. Corder. “Everyone we’ve encountered here has gone out of their way to make the experience extra special. It’s impressive to see an operation of that scale so well organized, staffed and basically perfected.”

Recuperating and debriefing

In the days and weeks directly following Firefly, there will be and extensive clean-up on The Woodlands site. Gary Camp, spokesman for Dover International Speedway, which rents The Woodlands venue to Red Frog Events said that the company does an excellent job of returning the property to the condition they received it in.

A CSC security officer sprays water on the crowd at the Pavilion stage at Firefly 2017.

“They have a lot of staff out here cleaning up and disassembling everything — they’re pretty quick about it too,” said Mr. Camp. “The speedway will have a fair amount of our staff out here as well re-seeding and landscaping the ground. That whole process usually takes about two weeks for us.”

On Red Frog Events’ end, they’ll slowly filter out and head back to their headquarters in Chicago and begin pouring over feedback and making plans for next year’s Firefly. The first steps are looking at what worked well this year, and asking themselves what new things to bring next year, organizers said.

Firefly officials announced Monday that the event will return next year June 14-17.

The Pavilion stage lights up Saturday evening at Firefly 2017.

Looking at what worked well helps to inform the programming choices for following years, organizers said. Ms. Pheil noted that fans particularly liked the diversity of the musician line-up and the greater variety of food offerings. Mr. Coco said practical things like flushable toilets made a big difference to guests too.

“The flushable restrooms were a big hit and a great addition to the show this year, fans also seemed to really like The Fort and the Jellyfish (art installation) in the pathway,” said Mr. Coco. “We’re already excited to start planning for 2018.”

Mr. Coco noted that the fan curation theme will likely stay in place, and that they “will definitely have some new additions” next year.

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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