Preface: The first year of a three-day Music Festival is undoubtedly the most difficult to both plan and execute. You have no reputation to build from, you have plenty of successful competitors, and finding appropriate levels of funding can be extremely difficult.
Enter the first year of the North Coast Music Festival, which went down over Labor-day weekend in Chicago’s Union Park. North Coast could effectively be described as having 3 ½ main stages, and is situated in a very easy to commute to, but not overly large, urban park. Deeming the unusual mix of music at North Coast “heady” might be the best term. The center of gravity of the festival was clearly electronic music, with an abundance of DJs and electronic-friendly bands. But there was also a heavy dose of talented hip-hop and organic bands. Now that musical amalgamation may seem odd, but it worked due to the choices of acts and actually was coherent, in a way that music fans of only 10 years ago probably couldn’t comprehend.
North Coast very appropriately called themselves, “summer’s last stand.” And while in Chicago the weather in September may be the best all year, the correctness of this slogan is hard to deny. But it’s best not to be upset about such things, its better just to celebrate them, and in what better way than a weekend full of live music?
Friday: Friday was designed to work with those who still consider it a workday and consequently began at 4:30pm. There were 3 heavy hitters on the lineup this night: Paul Van Dyk, Pretty Lights and The Chemical Brothers. Another difference about Friday was that one of the main stages wasn’t being used, so consequently most all of the audience saw the same acts. While this may seem anti-festival like to many it actually provided for a great entrance into the music-filled weekend as it allowed one to slowly amp up into full “festing mode”.
Unfortunately Paul Van Dyke came on stage about 25 min late, saying that he was held up in customs at O’Hare. Luckily Paul Kalkbrenner was happy to oblige the crowd by extending his set of upbeat & undemanding techno/house (thank you Paul). Eventually Paul Van Dyke came out for his half hour show, which proved to be decidedly lackluster. He never really built up any interesting momentum, and seemed to be either experimenting with stuff or was just not feeling the vibe for some reason. It was an unfortunate occurrence, but allowed for most of us to head over and post up a little early for Pretty Lights.
Pretty Lights turned out to one of the highlights of the entire festival. Combining an urban DJ with a live drummer and placing them in front of plenty of, well, pretty lights. Break beats and gnarly effected samples were being slammed into techno ‘untz’ as the live drummer held the middle ground and gave the sound direction. It wasn’t overly complicated, yet it worked remarkably well. This was the show in which the crowd seemed to first find their collective energy and hence the festival really felt like it started then.
The Chemical Brothers then took to their stage and let everyone know immediately that their visual display was not going to be topped. A full grid of lights sat behind a LED screen that was as large as the stage setup itself. The visual potential of the LED screen was startling, but combined with the lights behind it, the stage became something wonderfully alien as well as a supplemental story teller to the music. The Chemical Brothers brought their take on intense musical energy as they sat on stage completely surrounded by an impressive array of organic sound creators & modifiers, kindly reminding the crowd that electronic music wasn’t always created solely within Macbook Pros.
Saturday: Grace Potter & the Nocturnals were one of the first notable acts of Saturday’s lineup. They play a little neo-soul, some rock n’ roll, western, or whatever type of Americana they are feeling like. Grace Potter’s sexy-smoky-smooth lyrics are the central aspect of their music, but the band can really rock out. They were at their best when they reached levels of high energy, it seems to be when the band really gelled together. Look for Grace Potter to be a name you near more and more at festivals around the country.
Future Rock was the next performance of positive note on Saturday. This three-piece electro-rock band rarely ever plays accompanied by lyrics; their motive is simply to induce energy into the crowd. They were very successful on this day as they played in the afternoon setting sun at the “Coast” stage surrounded by large trees. By being only a three-person band Future Rock can reach high levels of sonic activity without ever sounded cluttered. They played a set that was accessible to those who might be checking them out for the first time; it was more party and less jam. The crowd was in their hands for the entire set.
De La Soul took to the stage next. There were clearly many people who came on Saturday wanting to take in this classic 90’s hip hop group. However, there is probably some knowledge that would have helped the rappers pre show… It is officially not cool anymore for the DJ to stop playing a song that audience loves just to tell them they are not “into it” enough. You can do that once, but not twice, let alone the 5+ times De La decided to use this throwback of an audience technique to their disadvantage. They might be better off worth checking out in your headphones now than seeing them live.
Those who decided to leave De La before their set ended caught a bit of Boyz Noize. This German DJ is decidedly ‘untz – untz’, even for North Coast, yet to deny his abilities would be wrong as he consistently delivers crispy clean transitions and enjoyable beats. He also understands what a good balance between low and high end sounds should be. That could not be said for the act that came immediately after him, Moby.
The bass at Moby was borderline comical, and at times felt like you were in some kind of live SNL techno parody, as opposed to a show from one of the most well known DJs around. Massive, completely over the top bass is a part of almost any techno DJ set, as it should be. But when you start giving people upset stomachs, something might be array. And because Moby rarely ever bothered to alter the pattern of his bass line you really needed to be able to hear what was happening in the high end to understand, or appreciate, the transitions from song to song. The transitions were just drowned out, and that is a big part of taking in a one man DJ show.
But no fear because Chicago’s own Umphrey’s McGeewas playing at the other main stage. Umphrey’s really seemed to be trying to match the energy inherent at a electronic-heavy festival and played a high tempo set aimed at the crowd’s amusement. Highlight’s included a cover of Cee-Lo’s recent hip hop/R&B hit, F*#% You.
Sunday: It wouldn’t be much of an argument with anyone that Sunday was probably the weekend’s best day of music, and the palpably larger crowd was testament to that. The good music started early in the afternoon with the Chicago native’s, TheLoyal Divide. Playing a mix of unreleased new material (their new album drops in approx 3 months) and material from their prior releases they entertained a crowd mixed with old and new fans, who enjoyed dancing in the perfect end-of-summer weather. Their songs DDF and Vision Vision were received particularly well by the crowd. This band may be new to the festival scene, but I think it’s one they might be primed to conquer. They were an especially good choice for North Coast due to their sound drawing from a mix of rock, electronic and jam influences.
Beginning immediately after the Loyal Divide was Phantogram. This two piece band comprises of the aesthetically stunning Sarah Barthel, and Josh Carter. She plays the synthesizer, modulater and beat machine while he plays guitar. It’s electronic, but with a consistent rock taste. Their beats hit hard and are often gritty, but can employ a soft and airy side as well. Mouthful of Diamonds and Running from the Cops were especially entertaining. New Orlean’s own Dirty Dozen Brass Band was up next. They brought all the energy that a brass-based band can in the middle of the day. Also, for some reason this show brought out the wildest of dancers, as circles of participants and watchers emerged as the dozen played on. Go figure.
After taking in the differently refreshing brass styles, Holy Ghost with their brand of NYC new disco took to the adjacent stage. Holy Ghost has some real talent but not many people were there to see them, or cared to for some reason, so there was a lack of crowd energy from this set – energy that really would have been to their advantage. Their brand of dance music may have been slightly overly metro/pop relative to the festival’s lineup.
Mayer Hawthorne, shortly after recording a short video interview with OurVinyl (to come soon!) took to the “Coast” stage to entertain with his music which can sound like mo-town, r&b, hip hop, pop/rock, country – but always with a hip edge and energy. The crowd was ready for him and really responded once he began playing, due to Mayer’s impressive breadth of genre’s he infuses into his music the initial genre-clash that many might have thought would occur at such a festival never did.
Along with Pretty Lights, the next performance was one that was undoubtedly a highlight of the festival. Flying Lotus has been making a name for himself for his technique of making quasi hip-hop, quasi-electronic beats; however, if one just listened to his albums you might not expect such a rage of a show. But that is what it was, and it probably drew the most expansive crowd of the evening and maybe the festival in total. His beats walked a perfect line between spacey electronic influences and gritty, more downtempo, hip-hop influences. The beats were hefty, with large inertia, but in a way don’t take themselves too seriously. He also was not afraid to, once in a while, play a beat that is more sonically interesting than it is dance-friendly – an technique that was somewhat absent from the other DJs.
After Flying Lotus came Chicago’s own Lupe Fiasco. His brand of live rap was somewhat surprising and was a pleasant shock to most enjoying the festival atmosphere. With an abundance of organic instruments being played and fellow stage attendees he kept his energy consistently elevated. He seemed to have fun by showing off his substantial lyrical ability while not playing what seemed like a traditional rap/hip hop set.
After Lupe came the big split of the evening; one could either go to Nas and Damian Marley or they could take in The Disco Biscuits. However, due to the relative smallness of the festival grounds it was also possible to catch both. Nas and Damian came out to a crowd that was very excited to see them. A full band in addition to the necessary DJ accompanied them. They seemed to take turns playing their own songs more so than sticking to their duo music. Their song Patience off of “Distant Relatives” was a highlight. Overall though, Nas’ stage presence and performance was clearly superior to Damian, whose live energy was more sterile – so that at times he sounded like a recording of himself. As far as the Disco Biscuits went, they were situated within the aesthetically pleasing array or trees at the “Coast” stage. They were showing off their new array of lasers, which really were a spectacle to be held. Bisco seemed to be very on point this evening and wanting to take advantage of possible new fans with their 90 min set, which is relatively very short for them. This author walked up right before they covered Feel Good by the Gorillaz, which was played with gusto by the band and also really got the crowd jiving. They kept the energy elevated until the last minute possible.
Conclusion: Two eyes and two ears can only take in so much, and always miss a bunch of music at a weekend music festival, so one can only speak upon what they took in. That being said, in terms of the weekend’s music Pretty Lights and Flying Lotus were the two highlights of the entire festival. While Future Rock, Loyal Divide, Phantogram and Grace Potter all should receive honorable mentions. Moby, Paul Van Dyke and De La Soul get dishonorable mentions as they could have benefited from different pre-show planning as it wasn’t their music that was sub par, but the manner in which they presented it.
As far as design, the inaugural North Coast Music Festival was not without its flaws. The will call situation was long-line ridden, the ticket-for-beverage system just did not work and needs to be abandoned, and there were a handful of acts that did not play the entirety of their allotted time. That all being true, it was still an overall excellently executed first time festival, which had a lot of positive aspects going for it. The sound quality at every stage was absolutely superb, one could quickly move from stage to stage, the food was interestingly varied and delicious, the grounds were very easy to commute to and from, and the weather was breathtaking (no unnecessary sweating is very nice at a festival) due to it being planned for Labor-day weekend and not earlier in summer.
Now that it has established itself with a successful event it will be very interesting to observe, and cover for OurVinyl, how the North Coast Music Festival will morph next year. One thing is for sure, it better be on Labor day weekend. Because for Chicago it surely was a way to end the festival season, for us it truly was “summer’s last stand.” See you in 2011 North Coast!
Written by Sean Brna
The amazing photography was done by Tim Hara, check out his website @ THaraphoto.com
Kyle Buckland helped photograph the Umphrey’s McGee and Chemical Brothers set.