There are a lot of festivals these days, and on paper Dover, Delaware is far from the most exciting place to have one. You don’t get to travel to a major city, and you don’t get something as majestic as Sasquatch!’s setting of the Gorge in Washington, or Hangout’s Alabama beaches. Yet Firefly is a contender when it comes to endearing locations for a festival. Instead of the rectangular sprawl of Lollapalooza or the mudpocalypse-prone Randall’s Island of Governors Ball, you get the beauty of Dover’s Woodlands, a large swatch of forest-y festival grounds attached to Dover International Speedway. (You also get the bugbites that come with the Woodlands, but you win some, you lose some, I guess.) At night, when you’re moving amidst LED lights and the shadows of trees, it can have a transportive effect. This year’s lineup included festival conquerors like Florence & The Machine and Tame Impala alongside reliable standbys like Kings Of Leon. Among the several stages and various scenery available at Firefly, Stereogum (along with SPIN, Vibe, and Brooklyn Vegan) returned to the Toyota Music Den for a weekend of intimate sets.
After the threat of rain dissipated, Friday at Firefly was an agreeably warm and non-stifling summer day for a festival, which made it a fitting one for Sun Club’s shiny and angular afternoon set. The Baltimore art-rock weirdoes released their full-length debut, The Dongo Durango, last fall, and while they’re still touring behind that, recent lineup changes and new musical interests have led to them playing a lot of new material. At the Toyota Den, they continued road-testing new songs, playing their first-ever show as a four-piece. While changes and new music are afoot, however, anyone who’s seen or listened to Sun Club before would be familiar with what they were like at Firefly: These are songs that perpetually feel on the verge of splitting apart into a million glistening and warbling fragments, yet instead tumble and zig-zag through some deluded logic. There’s something about watching a Sun Club set that’s like a children’s cartoon gone mad, all primary colors warping and growling into a very idiosyncratic sound.
Later that day, the Shelters took the stage with their garage-y classicist rock. The Los Angeles band has a long history with Tom Petty: He caught them playing around town once, and years later members of the Shelters have contributed to the most recent Heartbreakers album, Petty co-produced their debut album (which came out on Warner Bros. earlier this month), and the band is currently on tour with Petty’s other gig, Mudcrutch. When the band broke out the Byrds-ian jangle of their single “Rebel Heart,” you could see why they might’ve drawn the interest of a guy like Petty. Much of the set followed suit, offering up out-of-time classic rock celebration with some really long solos.
Following Slaptop’s DJ set on Saturday afternoon, Boston’s Quilt were next on the bill. The underrated psych-pop group were as appropriate an artist for Saturday afternoon as Sun Club had been for Friday: Instead of coming across like acidic sunshine, though, they played the sort of gentle and hazy set built for daydream interludes during drifting summer weekends, or exhausting festival weekends, for that matter. Their latest album, Plaza, came out back in February but I can’t imagine listening to this music in wintertime. “Roller,” their sneaky earworm of a single, is full of the kind of Britop vibes and loopy keyboard embellishments that seem built to soundtrack humid and searching afternoon meditations.
Later on, Son Little returned to the Toyota Den once more to follow suit — while his music normally relies on a full band to help bring his sunburnt soul-blues to the stage, he opted for a hushed solo acoustic set at the end of day/the beginning of the evening. It played as a whispered prelude, a quiet reprieve to the bombast of the night’s headliners to follow.
The final day of the Toyota Den kicked off with Wet. Sunday was a lot hotter than the preceding two days, and it was the conclusion to a four-day festival, yet it may have been the most fervent and active the crowd looked all weekend. Wet have proven divisive, and maybe the pristine surfaces of the group’s debut Don’t You just don’t work for you, but you should at least believe some of the hype. Their set on Sunday was nearly unrecognizable from the band’s iteration in the studio — frontwoman Kelly Zutrau backed just by guitar and bass, the music stripped of all the synths and beats that normally define it. The songs might move a bit more with the full lineup, but this context allowed for a full showcase of Zutrau’s voice, which was the most powerful one to fill the tent all weekend.
While most of the artists opted for restrained and stripped-back sets at the Toyota Den, Laura Stevenson came full force — a powerhouse drummer, squalling two-guitar fireworks, and, well, an accordion on some songs! Stevenson released her latest album, Cocksure, toward the end of last year, and live she uses those songs to craft a brand of gnarly but infectious rock music that’s at times indebted to punk and at times indebted to folk. While the music itself was a steamroller, Stevenson and her band were also some of the most affable people to play the Den this weekend. After an audience member asked Stevenson if she had a bottle of water she could give them, she bemusedly quipped, “I’ve never been asked that onstage before,” and then received a hair tie in return. It was a casual but take-no-prisoners kind of set, from an artist who rolled through Firefly to only play two very small shows (the Toyota Den, and a set in Firefly’s campgrounds). She seems destined to become a much bigger name in the future.
The weekend wrapped up with the one-two of poppy synth-rockers Transviolet and Walshy Fire, of Major Lazer. At this point, the festival was leaning into its final act, and the crowd that gathered at the Toyota Den definitely seemed to be peaking in energy. During Transviolet’s set, a group of three or four fervent fans took over the front of the stage, screaming along to every word or grinding on each other — sometimes self-aware and comically, and sometimes very, very seriously. Soon after the band noticed that and asked the crowd for more erotic dancing, that original group switched to the Macarena for a song. Go figure.
After that, the crowd of diehard Transviolet fans switched out for Major Lazer devotees. Walshy Fire’s other gig was headlining later that night, so the set at Toyota Den was like a small preview, showing everyone what a solo DJ set from him is like. He dropped “Panda” (of course), alongside “M.A.A.D. City,” “Power” (amongst a few other Kanye and/or Watch The Throne tracks), and a chunk of “Can’t Feel My Face” before he teased everyone and cut it off right before the chorus. The grinding couple were back, but this time they fit in more — the crowd for Walshy Fire looked and acted more like a late-night club crowd than festivalgoers at 6 PM on the final day of a summer fest. “I don’t know what it is, but you hand-picked the craziest people from the crowd,” he said onstage. It was one final burst of excitement before Firefly drew to a close.