Crowd at North Coast

REVIEW: North Coast Music Festival - Chicago

Last weekend fans flocked to Chicago's Union Park for the massive dance party known as North Coast Music Festival. Chicago writer Clayton Weimers dives right in to the EDM madness.
Crowd at North Coast

How did we get here? When did we, the concert-attending public, decide we would rather gorge ourselves on a weekend of music rather than spread out our live music intake over the course of the year? Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a good festival. In fact, I've had tremendous fun at several, from smaller city events like Pitchfork and Treasure Island, to destination camping extravaganzas like Coachella and Bonnaroo. Festivals are quickly becoming the norm, though, meaning that music enthusiasts are stuck with an all-or nothing decision to binge on concerts for a few days or stay home and wear out the grooves on their records. The number of second (and third) tier music festivals has exploded in recent years, leading me to wonder: do we really need all them all?

I have met people who prefer the festival scene to the bar and venue scene, though, so mine could be a lonely ship in a sea of disagreement on the topic. In any case, like Napster changed the recording industry, festivals are changing the live music scene. Abandoning concerts being a non-starter, I opt to adapt.

So here I find myself at North Coast Music Festival, a three-day labor day weekend party focusing primarily on electronic dance music with a handful of outliers thrown in to spice things up. There are a handful of artists I am happy to see, but there will be many performances that I would likely never experience outside of a festival environment. I suppose that's something to be said for the format.

Day 1

I arrive slightly late on a scorching afternoon, hoping to avoid some of the midday sun (who really wants to dance in 95 degree broad daylight?). Few things stand out on the first day. I nod my head cheerily to the sounds of Two Fresh, a trio consisting of a live drummer and two laptop DJs triggering electronic beats, synths, and vocal samples. While by no means breaking new ground, the group performs a tightly organized hip hop set with a small but enthusiastic crowd dancing freely. I decide to hang back and drink a beer.

As dusk sets in, I decide to check out Mord Fustang. The Estonian newcomer has created plenty of buzz for his electro-house productions. He appears to perform a live set of his own music on various midi controllers as well as an iPad—cute. The music alternates between smooth and subtle house grooves to in-your-face synth bass crescendos. The latter drive the crowd wild. I wander over to another stage to see EOTO, the electronic/dubstep side project of jam band veterans String Cheese Incident. I notice that the crowds are getting considerably thicker. After pondering the necessity of a djembe onstage with a dubstep group, I decide I really just need more beer.

I head back for the end of Mord Fustang's set as Paul Oakenfold is ready to come on. After some technical difficulties, things get up and running and Paul provides the first DJ set I've seen at this electronic festival. This is one of the smaller stages and it is still relatively early, so the crowd is probably not as big as a usual Perfecto rave. Still, the crowd seems appreciative—the electronic scene wouldn't be what it is today were it not for guys like Paul. On my way out, I fight through a much larger crowd watching STS9. After a few songs I decide to beat the traffic.

Day 2

The second day brings the majority of the acts I am excited to see this weekend. I start my day with Dan Deacon. The Baltimore producer sets up on stage with three other musicians in contrast with his former modus operandi of working his table of analog synths from within the crowd with no backing band. Still, Deacon takes opportunities to join the mob and has attendees performing all kinds of tricks, such as forming giant circles or anointing dance “leaders” for everyone else to mimic. The antics go over a lot better than your cliched call and answer singalongs and there is a real sense of interaction throughout the concert.

Later, Chicago house mainstay Felix Da Housecat delivers a solid DJ set. Next, Beats Antique appears on one of the larger stages in their usual animal masks. A live drummer plays along to pre-recorded mixes while two bandmates dance onstage. Watching the show, I begin to wonder how much people would pay to watch me drum along to records in my basement while wearing a lucha libre's clearly beer time again.

After Beats Antique, the day takes a turn for the indie. Back at a smaller stage, Yacht performs a thoroughly enjoyable synth-pop set. Later, post-punkers The Rapture deliver the closest thing to a rock show so far on the weekend. Both bands leave me with a pretty good feeling about the festival, but I decide to rest my ears in the silent disco while I wait for Atmosphere. Unfortunately, I wait too long, and the crowd is far too deep to gain a favorable position. I stick it out, but not being able to hear the vocals in the mix (essential for a hip hop group), I leave early to make sure I can at least have a good place to stand for Umphrey's McGee. The strange marriage of jam bands and dance music at festivals has never really made sense to me. The only thing they seem to have in common is their fans' affinity for psychotropics. Nevertheless, as a closet jam band enthusiast, I am happy to see the Chicago natives. Fan or not of their particular brand of prog/jam rock, their technical prowess is undeniable. The relatively short (by jam standards) 90 minute set provides a musical craftsmanship unmatched by any other artists on offer at North Coast. Just before the encore, vocalist Brendan Bayliss tells the crowd, “Today was a good day.” I am inclined to agree.

Day 3

Sunday's lineup is the most underwhelming. I arrive just barely too late to see the New Orleans outfit Rebirth Brass Band, but just in time for the entirety of Van Ghost's set. The Chicago street fair regulars seem even more incongruous than Umphrey's McGee at this festival, but their Americana classic rock goes over well with the admittedly thin crowd. Digitalism provides the only other highlight of the day, turning out a thumping DJ set of tech-house and indie electro. I hear a number of people around me ask aloud “Who are these guys?,” and I can tell the German duo have earned themselves a new batch of fans.

Unfortunately the rest of the day is sparse. Boombox puts forth a thoroughly uninspired set filled with boring electronic drum beats and lazy guitar noodling. I leave to investigate Modestep, about whom I admittedly plead ignorance, but I'm a fan of German techno purveyors Modeselektor and I hope for some commonality. Alas, Modestep are closer to a pseudo-electronic group combining the musicality of dubstep, the subtlety of stadium anthems, and aesthetics inspired by a childhood of listening to Linkin Park.

North Coast Music Festival feels a lot like the Sahara tent at Coachella extrapolated to four stages. With some exceptions, the weekend serves to reinforce an emerging trend of homogeneity in dance music today. It should be reasonable to assume I won't hear the same song twice played by two different artists at one festival, yet I did. Much of the EDM that seems to be taking over the airwaves is too familiar, too played out. The difference between many DJs seems to be a matter of packaging. These days it is not too uncommon to hear people talk about an electronic performance in terms of its “crazy visuals” instead of the music. Festival-goers are given the choice between headliners on Sunday: Pretty Lights, an artist whose very name drops the insinuation that audio is the primary component in his performances, and Steve Angello, the Swedish House Mafia figure whom many now accuse of miming his DJ sets. This seemed a fitting finale for a festival showcasing contemporary EDM. I decide to beat the traffic. On my way out, Groupon urges me to “never forgot that this happened.”

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