In Firefly’s fourth year, my knowledge still remained sketchy, so I arrived with few expectations, unprepared to have my mind blown by the scale, and the execution.
The music site itself boasts seven stages on over 150 acres, with another 700 acres of camping, parking and sports complexes. From the highway approach to the festival site, in the distance I saw lines of people crossing a bridge, and immediately flashed to an Animal Planet special on army ants—thousands and thousands marching purposefully in one direction. Actually, it was 90,000 music lovers, mostly in their 20s and early 30s, marching on a good day after a bad rain: a major storm had turned much of the site to mud before everyone arrived. Heroic dumping of gravel, sand and mulch made 85% of the site serviceable, but doing the math, that still left over 100 acres of squishy earth: RVs were bogged down in campgrounds, one parking lot was closed entirely and pathways were littered with sandals sucked off the feet of anyone who watched his cellphone instead of where he was going. Smart people wore rubber boots and didn’t care.
Early on, the staff’s friendliness made an excellent impression. Their attitude came from the top, from festival director Greg Bostrom, who made a funny, succinct synopsis of the festival and its history at a press conference. Some festivals hire bullies, but Firefly personnel, to an individual, went out of their way to be helpful and smiled unfailingly. That said, few of them knew their way around the site, which had a confusing layout, partly because trees obscured most long sightlines; signage was close to non-existent, and the stylized map didn’t indicate pathways, so one tended to wander.
VIP access cost at least twice as much as general admission (GA was $300-$330 for four days—no single day passes sold), but, because of the extreme heat this year, probably were a good value. (Dover is at sea level, a hair north of the Mason-Dixon Line—it’s going to be warm.) VIP food trucks and premium alcoholic beverage tents offered a step or two up from the Bud Light kiosks and the rows of pizza, Chinese, hot-dog-and-hamburger vendors out in the general population. Air conditioned halls, real bathrooms, free bottled water or soda and well-stocked cash bars made VIP life more enjoyable, and having access to one side of every stage gave us up-close-and-personal addicts a fighting chance. Other air conditioned areas, for the Less Important Persons, included a giant indoor arcade where, to my horror, hundreds of millennials played video games, oblivious to the fabulous music outside. On the other hand, the Hammock Hangout had a long line of would-be loungers, waiting to swing free in leafy shade and still hear at least one stage.
Eyeballing the crowd as 70% Millennials and 15-20% over 50, the percentage of troublemakers approached zero. Courtesy reigned. I had two offers to help me carry a plastic chair 50 feet. If I bumped someone accidentally, he or she invariably and sincerely said, “Excuse me,” and everyone held doors for everyone else. I saw no evidence of drunkenness or drug abuse, though people were drinking, and some Coloradans or prescription-holders evidently brought their stash with them. Police stood around smiling or directing traffic, and even the security detail which hoisted moshers out of the crowd and relocated them to the outskirts of the audience were laughing the entire time.
The heat, unfortunately, broke Saturday night. On reports of approaching bad weather, Saturday’s headliners, the Kings of Leon (Paul McCartney headlined Friday), were moved up from 10:30 to 9:45. Then at 9:45 sharp, we were told to evacuate the venue and take shelter in our vehicles. Loudspeakers and festival workers rushed us all out, though not a drop had fallen. In the dark, unmarked territory, people scurried in opposite directions; bottlenecks at mudholes or narrow paths grew to a thousand people. No one liked our situation. Fifteen minutes and 20 chants of “Fuck. The. Rain!” later, however, we heard thunder, and cheered the first flashes of lightning. Within a half hour, huge bolts lit the heavens above us. Then the rain. On my drive out of Dover, with wipers on high and still barely able to see at 15 mph, I bid au revoir to Firefly. I’ll be back.