Outlandish. Positively weird. Kooky. Unabashed Merriment. These are just some of the observations one could walk away with after attending the second incarnation of the North Coast Music Festival. This fest, which deems itself as “Summer’s Last Stand”, is the last of 3 major music festivals that now descends upon Chicago annually. But while Pitchfork is a collaboration of whatever is hot in the indie realm, regardless of genre, and Lollapalooza is an endurance-required marathon of the contemporary popular, North Coast is a straight up dance party that cares to be nothing more than a dance party, and an aggressively abnormal one at that.
With 3 main stages, and one smaller (but still visually decked out) local stage, the festival rests snuggly within Union Park. With 2 adjacent main stages that alternate shows, and 1 stage on the opposite side of the park, no walk further than a few hundred yards separated the stages with music on them at any time. That, combined with the fact that the food, amenities, and bathrooms were for the most part on the exterior of the park made for a very cozy and easy feeling to this festival (Pitchfork, who inhabits the same park, did not place their food & drink stalls in the same manner and created for a couple of dreaded crowd bottlenecks). This solid planning, along with the more reliably pleasant weather of Labor Day weekend, clearly makes this the superior festival that occurs in Union Park each summer. But let’s take a look at the music.
Some of Friday’s highlights: Friday started a bit later than Sat or Sun would, allowing those of us who have to work to not miss out on too much. The first act that really turned up the heat and created for the first festival feel of the weekend was The Hood Internet. Often mixing/mashing pop or hip hop lyrics/beats, with other more house-like beats and intentions, he created for a very fun atmosphere that provided something for everyone. But also an atmosphere in which no one was to take themselves too seriously. This was made obvious by the hilarious cut-out of a man in a suit that stood next to him (which on the screen looked like another person), or the dancing 90’s Apple computers.The Hood Internet – Decalogue (The Hood Internet vs The 2000s) by KristaJournalista
James Zabiela, one of the handful of UK DJs at the fest, was up next after The Hood Internet at the Red Bull Stage. Side note: this stage was placed a part of the park that created for an welcoming atmosphere as well as natural/unnatural scenery for the eyes. Surrounded in a semi-circle of trees, upon which a large black & white dragon-tail-looking structure was strung (it must have been 100 yards long), the setting creating a happy & rousing vibe. James played a pretty decent day time set of Techno House, and the crowd responded well. What also added an appeal was the fact that he was meticulously working at the turntables tweaking and morphing his sound/song progression. Even if it wasn’t your taste in music, it was fun to watch him manipulate the music and therefore the crowd.
Wolfgang Gartner brought his brand of deep house, or electro house (or whatever you want to call it), to the main stage for the coveted sunset set. With varied progression, swells and sways on top with undercurrent beats, and an knack for knowing when to hit it hard and when not to – he easily placated the crowd that was more than happy to celebrate the relief from the beating Sun on what was a relatively warm day. Space Junk was the track that seemed to really induce the crowd into silliness.Wolfgang Gartner – Space Junk by hionelop
The headliners on Friday, while undoubtedly drawing many to the fest, didn’t seem to be the best way to utilize the musical momentum of the day. David Guetta seemed to be a little too into himself to allow others to get into his music. The poppy aspect of many of his tracks, and him saying things along the lines of “are you ready for my world famous beats?”, didn’t seem to gel with the established atmosphere of the afternoon. Wiz Khalifa also produced a similar conclusion. While it wasn’t the genre that didn’t work – indeed there were a handful of hip hop acts that drew many fans – it was more the aggressive ho’s and money talk, combined with numerous mediocre beats, that left this author feeling unimpressed.
Some of Saturday’s highlights: Saturday started off in a serious down pour. It eventually stopped in the early afternoon, thank God, but the effect was to add a palpable humidity to the day. However, the temperature didn’t rise too high and eventually, by mid afternoon, the rain was only a memory. Future Rock – who came on in the mid afternoon – is no stranger to Chicago, in fact they call it home. That’s why there was a friendly and animated crowd to meet them. With their electro rock styles (emphasis on the electro), spliced with a jam-band soul, these guys have the ability to showcase the best of those aforementioned genres. Also, they just seem to have such a great time themselves, always a contagious thing for the audience.
Holding down one of the sunset spots of the day was Carl Cox, who unexpectedly (for this author at least) dropped on the audience arguably the best DJ show of the entire weekend. Although he hasn’t released a full length album in years, his live game is apparently not harmed in the slightest. What was so enjoyable was the dynamism to his song progression. He seemed to allow every beat to sit with the crowd for the perfect amount of time before he would slide into the next one. There were many bangers, but with different genre undertones. Sometimes it was Techno, other times house, there were latin-influences to some songs, and even a crowd-enticing version of Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name Of. One could tell many people who were either walking by, or heard the music from a distance, were drawn in by what they heard.Carl Cox 2 by hmarcel
Another highlight was the California Wives playing at the local stage (FYI they were featured on OurVinyl’s July edition of the Back of the Rack download). Their neo-new wave indie electro rock styles came off well. It was also pleasant to be able to move from the sizable crowd of Carl Cox to the more intimate crowd of the local stage, where you knew everyone was an ardent fan of the band. Purple and Blood Red Youth were clearly highlights of their set.
Common also performed on Saturday evening, to the delight of his home town crowd. It is interesting to point out the difference between the vibe of this show to Wiz’s. Same genre, but Common’s performance style, coupled with a live band, really made this show feel much more at home within the North Coast Lineup.
STS9 (Sound Tribe Sector Nine) and Fatboy Slim finished off Saturday. STS9 employed a very cool stage design, which elevated a couple artists above others and giving most in the crowd a sight line to the musicians. This, combined with an extravagant light show, made them a pleasure for the eyes. However, you really need a jam-band soul to fully appreciate these guys. In addition, they really seemed to take their time building to full momentum on this evening, which may have been okay for their established fans but didn’t work as well for us who were there to check it out. But no matter what your taste in music is, the crowd at STS9 was impressive, energetic, and humorously entertaining. Glow sticks were abound, whether in the air or incorporated into costumes. Light dancers of all kinds frolicked about. It was a true electronic Halloween.
Some of Sunday’s highlights: Friday was warm, Saturday was wet, but Sunday was absolutely perfect. Attendees to North Coast ran the festival-weather gauntlet, but were lucky to end with the best day. With beautifully clear skies, mid 70’s temperature, and a steady calming breeze, it was quite literally ideal. The first act to really delight on this day was Colorado’s Paper Diamond. Paper Diamond is the DJ incarnation of Alex B from Pnuma Trio. 2011 was when his first album dropped as this new moniker, as well as it being his first tour year. There is a reason he is already playing festivals. With dexterous and proficient DJ skills Paper Diamond presents beats that are funky, unexpected, and authentic. Not sticking to any particular tempo he weaved his way through many electronic genres, always being sure to not get ahead of himself, or to incorporate too many sounds into any particular song or transition.
Playing later in the afternoon at the local stage, Loyal Divide put on probably the most superior performance that stage saw all weekend. With the sound system turned up to 11 (seriously, that thing was kicking, my God!), these local electro psychedelic rockers put on an all out show. With many new faces in the crowd, this band displayed to the ravers that people with guitars can melt your face as well. DDF and Perv Fury seemed to especially delight.DDF-Loyal Divide by Laurel Kathleen
After LD there were a couple compelling indie bands in a row, which were sparse over the weekend. Little Dragon played first on one of the main stages, followed by Of Montreal on the adjacent one. And while Of Montreal wins the award for most goofiness of the weekend, as there was an endless stream of wildly costumed individuals on stage, and various interesting things throws into the crowd from the band – including a seemingly endless chain of blowup balloons – Little Dragon came off as the musically superior group on this afternoon. With their toe-tapping beats, adroit instrumentation, and positive attitude they created for a simple but positive vibration.
Ending out the night was Bassnecter and Thievery Corporation. Bassnecter, like STS9, brought out the neon alter ego in everyone. One would have to guess 2/3rds of the crowd was at his show to take in some stouthearted and thick dub step set to an prodigious light display. And while some of his beats really hit the spot (while some didn’t), it was hard not to wander over to Thievery Corporation, where one could move relatively wherever they wanted to catch their brand of DJ-with-full-band electro-psych reggae. It was hard not to be impressed by the 7-8 musicians on stage all staying in perfect time for their songs, which either require adroit finesse, or unadulterated energy. The reggae influence also created for a poignant juxtaposition to all the previous music of the weekend, in a positive way, as well as adding that lighthearted energy that reggae music brings with it.
Conclusion: The 2011 North Coast Music Festival packed quite a wallop of musical merrymaking. On top of that, it was quite a singular event. From electric costumes, home made hot air balloons, wild planking, to the guy who brought in a turtle to dance with – it was just a circus for the senses. There was also the fact that attendees went from uncompromising summer weather on the first day, to purely delightful autumn weather on the last, with a taste of rain in between. It was a large festival, in the sense that it was sold out, with some large names, and at numerous times reached that intangible crowd tipping point where wild energy abounds. But it was also in a relatively small area, with easy movement from stage to stage, and uncomplicated procurement of amenities. That balance, combined with the all-out-party of a line up, really created for a manageable exuberant experience.
Was everything perfect? No. At times the sound bleed from one stage to another was way too much (Bassnecter.. cough cough) and detracted from the experience. The local stage could have used less volume and better balance to it’s sound, as only a couple acts there over the weekend were kind to the ears. And while these are issues that could have been addressed, festivals without sound issues don’t really exist. The lineup was overall pretty good, and definitely placated the dancers among us. Would a little more genre diversification be beneficial, such as last years show, probably. But at no point was their a lull in the energy or a massive let down (such as Paul Van Dyke last year…). For the most part, those aspects the producers (who are all independent locals by-the-way) could most easily control; the food, the drink, the bathrooms, the set up, the flow of the daily lineup – all of those were accomplished well. And in only their second year, one could only assume they will get better with experience.
It was an untamed, gregarious, friendly, nutty, neon, battery-powered, weird, chest thumping, wonderful musical event. Thanks North Coast for closing out Chicago’s 2011 festival season in style. See you next year!
Written by Sean Brna
Photography by Max Rasche
To see more of our stellar photos from North Coast Music Festival just click here!