Phase Shifting in the Forest: Inside Arizona’s “Firefly Gathering”

Still unknown to much of the exploding festival world, a small mountain festival has steadily been growing into its own over the last six summers outside of Flagstaff, AZ. Watched over by the snow-pocked San Francisco Peaks and tucked within the largest Ponderosa pine forest in the world, Firefly Gathering has come into its own as the otherworldly retreat the southwest festival scene thirsts for as low-elevation temperatures creep into triple digits each summer.

Sonically, this year’s Firefly offered an eclectic selection of sounds that spanned the music spectrum, from ska and livetronica during the day to trippy hip-hop, glitchy funk and dark psychedelia well into the wee hours. Energetic house beats regularly emanated from the beautiful and intimate Innerspace stage, which boasted an ultramodern pyramid DJ booth accented by various LED-enhanced art pieces, while the ambitious “Mother Tree” stage served as Firefly’s incredible centerpiece.

Strewn throughout the festival were numerous small stages, healing spaces, workshop areas, vendors and art installations that ensured one was never wanting for something to do between musical must-sees. It was an adult playground in virtually every sense, allowing attendees to drop their guard and unleash their inner child.

Arriving on Thursday afternoon, my photography partner and I had a unique opportunity to absorb the natural scenery, explore the grounds and inhale the sweet and refreshing mountain air before the ensuing day’s festivities began. Lined by pine trees and dotted by wildflowers and small ponds, the meadow at the center of the festival seemed like an idyllic place for a gathering of this size. Though the gloomy skies overhead and wet forecast was of concern, most planners and early arrivers seemed ready to confront whatever weather mother nature might to send our way.

Firefly Meadow

© Serena Rose Photos

Part I: A Party in the Pines
Poor weather would not be in the schedule on the first day of the festival, much to our pleasure. By afternoon, the dark skies had lifted and the warm air trapped by the remaining clouds left us with something bordering on a perfect day. Fluffy cloud formations rolled through the sky toward the San Francisco Peaks while gentle breezes stirred through the trees and flowed across the meadow’s tall grass, offering endless natural textures and sounds for the senses to behold.

The first musical highlight of my weekend came that night at the hands of Warp9, whose slippery future-funk sounds pulled me to the main stage faster than my body could register what was happening. Stepping from the spectator side of the sound portal into the heart of the dance floor, I was met by a surge of swanky brass and swing-blues glitch tones that enveloped my body in pure elation.

Operating in close dimensions to producers like JPOD, Stickybuds and local DJ/producer Safi’s Lab, Warp9’s sonic identity is difficult to classify outside of its glitch ‘n funk foundation without delving into the history of music. Just when I thought I’d caught the dude’s drift, he’d toss in a classic rock, deep soul or blues break layered between oscillating groove waves and transport the dance floor into a modulated version of the past.

In my experience, this unpredictable and nostalgia-driven exploration of music new and old churns up dance floors and draws fun-loving crowds like moths to a light unlike anything else in the music world. It seems almost impossible to carry bad vibes into the tide of these sounds, leaving me to seek it out at all costs at each festival I attend. This is what it means to be involved in a dance party, and time will surely bring this approach of dance music to more stages and venues as ears are opened and bodies enthralled by its explosive sound.

As the darkness of true night descended on Firefly and my heart still fluttered from Warp9’s delicious set, the meadow was finally touched by the rain we thought we had escaped. While hardly severe or prolonged, the shower drove most festival attendees back to their tents and lingered just long enough that many would not emerge until morning.

Photo by Christian CortesThose who resisted the temptation to call it a night, however, would be rewarded by a rare sonic treat at the Innerspace stage, where Parisian disco-house producer Zimmer laid out the feel-good set of the weekend just as the rain dwindled and stars emerged from behind the clouds.

Funny thing about house music—tropical, deep, disco or otherwise—is it’s easy to dance to, capable of being talked over when you simply must vocalize your joy and almost anyone worth dancing with can move to its beat. So when a producer really gets it and knows how to guide the dance floor toward that blissful crest everyone is seeking, amazing community vibes take shape.

Call it dreamy, romantic, sexy or euphoric, Zimmer’s sound was the reward everyone who stuck through the rain deserved. Every festival needs a set like this, where the dance floor is populated by folks who have gathered their tribe(s) and said, “We’re ALL going to be here, no matter what!” Such was the case of Zimmer’s post-rainstorm Firefly late-night set… And its memory will surely live on in the crowd that made it there.

Part II: A Sudden Twist
Stable rainfall pounds on the fabric of my shade tent as the deep sounds of resonating strings and soothing vocals blend with the white noise of the mountain shower. Reclined in my tent, I shed my rain-soaked clothes and ease into the warmth of a blanket with a steaming mug of coffee in hand as improvised music fills the space beneath the canopy. Thunder crumbles through the air and though I worry for those beyond my immediate sphere suffering at the hands of the rain, I’m enjoying its cleansing cascade.

Saturday’s scheduled afternoon music has predictably stopped. We were reading in the hammock village when the first drops fell. There was a moment we half expected it to fade as it had a few times already, but in our stripped-down daytime attire, the cold beads of water felt like ice on our skin.

With few options for shelter in the vicinity, we grabbed a few friends from a neighboring hammock and sprinted to our nearby campsite behind the Jive Joint (which continued to host willing DJs through much of the rain!). We arrived just as the sky seemed to open up, signaling a pause in festival activities as workers scrambled to cover sensitive equipment and attendees ran to shelter. Few would expect the rain to continue as long and steadily as it did.

Weather will always screw with event schedules. Even if the stages are covered, dance floors inevitably turn to mud, exposed electrical equipment shorts out if not shut off, vendors close down to protect their inventories and the moods of the unprepared dampen as gear, clothing and campsites succumb to the elements.

Yet, after hours of rain that to some surely seemed it would last forever, the neglected mountain sun began to peak through the parting cloud cover, offering a brief sun shower before burning away the rain and bathing the landscape in golden light.

As we wandered out into the storm’s glorious aftermath—some campsites had been inundated with water and mud while the dryer ones were lined with improvised drainage ditches—one couldn’t help but notice the looks of relief bordering on glee plastered on the faces of attendees as they shook water from canopies, scraped mud from boots and shed their wet layers. It felt as if we had all undergone a trial and emerged at the other side—a bit wet but otherwise unscathed—and mother nature was now giving her seal of approval to party the darkness away. I have scantly ever sensed such a tight feeling of community as this, and those who made it to the sunset ceremony at the main stage that evening surely felt a renewed sense of energy.

© Serena Rose Photos

© Serena Rose Photos

Part III: The Reawakening
What do you do when a major headliner cancels and a rainstorm has taken a major bite out of your festival schedule? You can toss everything into the air and scream, sure. But you can also shuffle some performances around, give a deserving act the open primetime slot and give her original slot to a DJ whose diverse sonic identity is sure to draw attention back to the main stage.

Such was the case on Saturday night at Firefly. Having played an experimental tech house set the previous night at the Innerspace stage—where his partner Nikki Nerida had dazzled the crowd with an intimate fire dance—, cross-media artist LeafyGreen took the helm at the main stage during Dela Moontribe’s original set time (she would take the vacant slot later than night), bringing an unexpected element to the evening’s reforming festivities.

From the onset, Nikki’s mechanical gyrations and serpentine movements personified the dark and energized sounds Leafy conjured from the twilight as the sun slipped below the tree-lined horizon. As if he had already tested the difficult dance floor—where boots quickly doubled in weight as mud collected in the tread—he shifted to savory swamp glitch that offered the perfect tempo with which to traverse the earth before delivering us into the warm embrace of liquid dub.

© Serena Rose Photos

© Serena Rose Photos

My next sonic adventure would unfold not too long after as Dela Moontribe shook the main stage with a high-powered platter of dubstep, future bass and raw DnB that threatened to unhinge the jaws of the unsuspecting. This was one of those rare sets where you could keep moving from start to finish, entirely enthralled in the ecstasy of dance as pure energy blasted out of the speakers and coated the world in sound. I vividly remember looking at two friends during one of the most intense breaks I’ve ever beheld as one seemed to move faster than time as strobes reflected off her skin while the other went slack-jawed and wide-eyed as if to affirm, “THIS is why I came.” I have no doubt that anyone thirsting to unleash his or her inner animal did so at Dela Moontribe’s powerful set and will remember it for ages.

With the rainstorm already seeming like a distant memory as midnight arrived, I found myself wandering back down from the tree line after a quick refuel at my camp in search of a nightcap to expel my residual energy from the long day. West coast psybass producer Nanda would offer exactly that for my famished psyche.

On the heels of a fresh album release through Merkaba Music—the powerhouse of tribal bass if there ever were one—Nanda transported the still-muddy earth beneath the Mother Tree into another dimension, where time flowed slower and ritualistic sounds took shape as synthetic energy forms danced through the dark meadow around us. Moving through ethereal sound layers across the viscous dance floor, my body seamlessly writhed on a predetermined path as psystep basslines fueled my transition into parallel worlds.

With eyes satisfied by LeafyGreen and Nikki Nerdida’s hypnotizing dusk performance, body indulged by Dela Moontribe’s infinitely-danceable drumstep set and mind transported to other worlds by Nanda’s tapestry of psychedelic soundscapes, I savored my return to camp for the sweet, dry refuge it had become. Shedding my muddy boots and crawling into that portal of warmth with my back to the earth, I quietly laughed myself to sleep reflecting on my day with the Jive Joint’s comedic absurdities and the sound of gentle snoring my lullaby.

© Serena Rose Photos

© Serena Rose Photos

Part IV: Between Worlds
Sundays are usually my favorite day at festivals. While colorful groups of friends explore neglected pockets of the festival—the painted swing hanging from the tree branch, the exotic vendor with the entrancing garment on the mannequin, the tea dome with its plush carpet floor—, artists’ canvases begin to take shape as the colorful realities their creators envisioned, vendors relax their sales pitches and new tribes of friends begin to occupy less-crowded dance floors.

For me, Sunday acted as the soft pillow I needed to return to planet earth following a day that already sat in my memory like a dream. While there was plenty of fresh music to be enjoyed—I’ll forever remember listening to SaQi in another’s embrace atop a cushioned pyre while watching the Milky Way rise over the main stage—, I felt sonically satisfied and thirsted only for the camaraderie of friends old and new so that I might absorb some of their experiences and glean whatever granules of wisdom they cared to share. Like many festival Sundays before it, this day was one for synthesis and creation—a time to capture the beauty around me through images and words, plan for the next adventure and form permanent connections with those who might invite me into their world.

The modern music festival scene isn’t something that can be summarized in a few words or sentences. With events of every size and caliber, every identity and attitude and every vibration and tone, no single festival is a proper representation of the expansive scene that is rippling across the globe under the banner of music culture. Transforming each year into more precise versions of their former selves, today’s festivals draw increasingly larger segments of the population for a medley of reasons, with music becoming less central to the equation with each passing incarnation.

© Serena Rose Photos

© Serena Rose Photos

For some, the festival is where we find ourselves—where we tap into a deeper sense of who we are in order to become that which we know ourselves to be on the inside. For others, festivals occupy the niche once reserved for religion, but the altars of yesteryear appear now as kaleidoscopic stages and the domes and buttressed roofs of grand structures are replaced by the arcing, textured sky overhead. And of course, to many, festivals are just a great place to party, network and make memories with friends and strangers alike. Music is merely the thread that weaves together the tapestry of people, energies and ideals one finds there.

While Firefly was by no means seamless, and surely has years of growth ahead of it before it ascends into the ranks of the west coast’s most successful transformative festivals, I believe it is a truly special gathering that showcases a unique dimension of what these types of events strive to bring into the world. After getting to know the people responsible for its birth and propagation, I have no doubts that this festival will find its way into the minds and hearts of more people as word spreads about the blossoming culture emanating from the often misunderstood state of Arizona.

Should you find yourself interested in breaking from the pack of big-name festivals next summer, Firefly Gathering is one event you should not pass up.

© Christian Cortes

Our Rating

7 Musical Lineup (New, Fresh, Talented, Humble)

7 Live Performances

10 Event Entry Time

9 Art Installations and Live Art

8 Stage Production (Lighting, VJs, Set Design)

8 Sound (Sound System and Quality)

7 Sustainability (Waste Management)

9 Crowd (Present, Healthy, Happy, Engaged)

7 Vendors (Quantity and Quality)

9 Security and Staff (Kind, Helpful, Relaxed)

These ratings have been generated by our on-site media team with the intention of giving balanced and accurate feedback to the festivals and their attendees.

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