For three years, my friends and I have trekked 15+ hours from our home state of Connecticut to Tennessee, host of Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. Since its start in 2002, Roo has managed to successfully please the masses with a consistently eclectic lineup, pulling in headliners spanning across musical genres like Eric Clapton, Metallica, Stevie Wonder, and Jay Z.
Other than Tennessee’s grueling summer temperatures, Bonnaroo is a wonderful experience. To put things into perspective, Roo is held on 700 acres of farmland in Manchester, a rustic city situated halfway between Nashville and Chattanooga. The festival is wonderfully managed; volunteers and paid employees alike make sure the grounds are kept clean and maintained throughout the weekend. With a quick walk in any direction, attendees could find information booths, water stations, and adequate trash and recycle bins, one of my biggest peeves about my upcoming review.
This year, however, we all decided to try something different. On June 17th, we made a considerably shorter drive to Dover, Delaware for Firefly Music Festival. Headliners included Kings of Leon, The Killers, and Paul McCartney. Hey, I even got to see Snoop Dogg, and yes, he smoked lots of weed on stage.
As much as I love the comforts that come with renting an RV, we camped in a tent again, embracing torrential rainfall, severe thunderstorms and scorching temps. Despite it all, Firefly is sure to go down as my favorite festival experience since I entered the scene 7 years back at local area festivals.
Firefly has managed to grow tremendously since its birth in 2012, attracting over 90,000 music-lovers from around the country. From my understanding, it’s not easy to pull in acts like The Black Keys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Tom Petty in its first two years. So you’d think they’d have the rest of the festival in order: grounds, vendors, safety, etc. Wrong. Despite my amazing experience- mostly due in part to great friends, campsite neighbors, and the musical acts, Firefly was poorly managed. Here is my review on Firefly 2015.
1. Public showers
Last year at Roo, I took two showers: one was so hot it could have been some kind of lawsuit if I was that kind of person (which I’m not!). My second shower was in ice water that left me numb. In retrospect, an ice-cold shower is sweet relief from 90+ degree temperatures; however, it’s not. It’s just uncomfortable. Firefly had a happy medium of moderately cold water. The prices, also, were cheaper than most other festivals. A $5 dollar price tag between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. earns you no wait. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that overhead baskets were provided for storage, unlike Roo, where your belongings go on the ground outside the shower, leaving you fumbling for your bag of goodies all the while exposing your own goodies to anyone in the immediate area. Maybe some ladies out there have that inner 60s hippie in them, but I’m not one of them.
The sound at Firefly’s main stage, where I saw Paul McCartney, The Killers, Cage the Elephant, Cold War Kids, Manchester Orchestra, and my favorite act of the weekend, Foster the People, was the perfect balance of bass and clarity, no matter how far back across the lawn you found yourself. The speakers were non-obstructive of the stage, too. A+ to the festival’s sound technicians. Also in regards to the main stage, it is the first stage (of six) that is super easy to get to from the campgrounds, unless you’re setup in “glamping,” a diva-style setup that gets you all the benefits of camping without actually camping, in which case, the long walk to the main stage is much deserved. #Hater.
3. Camp space
After a dozen or more hours on the road, the last thing any prospective camper wants to do is rush out of the car to claim their territory. At Firefly, unlike all other festivals I’ve been to, each car is allotted an equal space, separated by a white line sprayed on by volunteers prior to the festival’s start. This allows everyone sweet peace of mind, and doesn’t get neighboring campers pissed at you for hoarding space. You’re going to be next to them for almost a week, no one wants to start off a good time sanctioning off quarters in a frenzied panic.
Tennessee is hot and sunny but when it rains it pours. Mud at Bonnaroo can get intense, but at least the volunteers and campground workers have enough smarts to do something about it. Most festival veterans like myself understand the conditions of the week: dirty, sweaty, exposed to the elements; however, there’s a safety/misery element involved when mud is left unattended. It first rained Wednesday night, an entire day before the main festival grounds even opened, nonetheless, massive pits of mud left people struggling to walk ten feet to the security gate. It only got worse once inside. Calf-high mud from fence to fence slowed down the entry process, people were falling to their knees, sandals were being torn off feet and the struggle to reach dry land left people unnecessarily agitated. Days later, still… nothing at been done.
The Hub, an area of food vendors and the location for the general store, was so mud-ladden, I saw only pockets of people trudging through the muck to buy a forgotten toiletry they thought was important enough to sprain an ankle over. So when I got home I looked up hay prices online, yeah… I know. The retail price of a ton of hay is $155 dollars. If Firefly sacrificed the profit of 10 people’s admission ticket, the situation could have been alleviated on day one. Even plywood (which Bonnaroo used for their main entrance) could have been used, yet only a few scattered crates were put by the showers, which ended up another potential lawsuit as they were sloppily thrown far from one another, leaving shower-goers on an obstacle course. By the last day, I was using the sandals and shoes of strangers that had meet their muddy fate as a walkway to and from the stages to my campsite.
2. Lack of volunteers/information
If I needed any type of assistance: directions, information about weather or showtimes, anything, there was no one to be found. In Firefly’s defense, there’s an app that provides all of that, however, I’m trying to keep off my phone, I don’t want to bring it everywhere with me, batteries die, charging is hard to come by, and… the mud. Bonnaroo provides not only a grounds map, but an entire booklet about musical acts, schedules, safety and contact information, and mapped out locations for everything. All Firefly provided was a wristband and how to put it on! There was essentially no staff at the campground or even inside the festival area that could attend to anyone in need of help. At the general store (I braved the mud for a lighter), the guy behind me was frantic about his lost wallet, and the register volunteer didn’t know where lost and found was located. All I saw were state troopers, ogling the scene. If Firefly doesn’t want to hire employees, there should at least be a volunteer option with promise of free festival admission. I’m not sure that there wasn’t, but from my experience, I didn’t see evidence of volunteers.
3. Ice and Water Stations
Heaven forbid you’re dehydrated in the blazing summer sun. I know of ONE water refill station because it was down the path from my campsite, and I walked all over. No one should have to walk a mile to refill a water bottle, and since the mud to the general store was so horrific, getting to a water source was like hitting the jackpot. Inside the main festival area, I saw what was called a Camelback Refill Station and the lines were at least two-hundred people deep at any given time. Not to mention, I don’t rock a Camelback, my friends don’t rock a Camelback, and most of the people I saw at the festival weren’t rocking a Camelback, either. At Bonnaroo, there are dozens of water fountains situated across the main grounds, offering ten or more nozzles- no lines, just a quick wait behind the person or two in front of you, and you’re good to go. Firefly showed no urgency to help its attendees, most of which spend the entire day in the sun to fulfill their musical needs. It should be obvious that water is essential to surviving a festival, or life… but some people need to hear it over and over, or else they end up in EMS stretchers. Ice, ice, ohhhh baby. One ice stand, people. That’s all there was in general camping. One booth with one woman calling out orders and collecting a whopping $5 bucks a bag. The ice line spanned half of the field at which it was located at The Hub. At a standstill most of the time, I could approximate a couple hundred people in line during the height of the day. Not cool. Bonnaroo scattered box trucks around the campgrounds, never a line, $2 bucks a pop.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or if the general nature of people is getting worse, but the campground was an abomination of trash and glass. On only the first day, I witnessed trash the streets of New York City couldn’t hold a light to. No one searched our vehicles on the way in, which I guess is a benefit in some ways (hehe?), but in other ways it threatens the beauty- and safety- of a campground. Because the “no-glass” rule was hardly enforced, broken bottles became a very real problem. The mud situation had left most people walking barefoot, myself included at times, which could be a gamble at night. There were a few recyble bins scattered throughout the festival grounds, but they, too, were piled with paper trash. Enacting a clean vibes initiative is important at festivals for several reasons beyond the mere safety of its attendees. No matter where we come from, the different lifestyles we lead, everyone should have the decency and respect for other people and our planet to not throw a beer can on the ground. Stressing clean, green vibes is detrimental to the festival experience. Gathering of the Vibes Music and Arts Festival in my hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut, have clean vibes down to a science. They offer incentives for collecting cans and even picking up cigarette butts. A ziplock of cig butts earns you merchandise, a free meal, the list goes on. Bonnaroo holds a contest where the cleanest campsite, most cans recycled, etc., gets free passes for the next year. People shouldn’t need to be persuaded not to litter with incentives, but if it works, which it does, then so be it.
That is my rather lengthy comparative review of Firefly and Bonnaroo music festivals. At the end of the day, a weekend camping with your best friends and seeing dozens of your favorite musical acts in one place is really all it takes to make a lifetime of memories. On the flipside, it can’t hurt to express concerns and notable areas for improvement. Firefly is a pre-teen in the music festival world, and I’m sure these quirks will be worked out over time. I wasn’t at the first Bonnaroo so I can’t say they did it any better. If you want to know for yourself, get to a festival… there are tons all over the country, hell, internationally! For me, festivals are more than the music, it’s indulging in the weird, sharing ourselves within a community of people who share similar interests, and a platform for making new, lifelong friends. Most importantly, it is a spiritual getaway set to the soundtrack of some of the best artists in music.