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Review Tue Sep 14 2010
Although summer is slowly slipping away, festival season in Chicago carries on. The first annual Sónar Chicago kicked off on Thursday at Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion, starting the weekend early for electronic music lovers, curious downtown office workers and passing tourists. Whatever brought you to the first day of Sónar, you arrived at a rock gig, a dubstep club night and a live electro breakdown all rolled up into one.
The evening started at 5 pm with the soft sounds of Spain's Bradien. A three-piece combo incorporating guitar, synthesizers, melodica, trumpet and a single snare drum, Bradien's dub exotica provided a gentle ease into an action-packed weekend. Hailing from Sónar's native city of Barcelona, the band were put into the position of sonic ambassadors, underlining the fact that Sónar was as much a cultural exchange program as it was a music festival.
Any relaxation stemming from Bradien's performance was quickly chucked out the window as Jimmy Edgar took the stage at 6 pm. With a flurry of noise and beat fragments, Edgar made it clear that the introduction was over and the party had arrived in full effect. Edgar's days in Warp Record's classic roster were evident as he blasted out spluttering broken beats atop ominous ambient tones. He settled down soon enough, however, retreating from his onslaught and offering up a stiff, dirty electro sound to get the slowly-growing crowd moving. Sporting dark sunglasses and a leather jacket that looked more Jesus and Mary Chain than Kraftwerk, Edgar delivered the robot rock via a heavily vocoder-laden mic as the last bits of daylight drifted away from Millennium Park.
Following Jimmy Edgar was never going to be an easy task, though if anyone was going to be up for the challenge, it certainly was The Slew. Comprised of Kid Koala and P-Love on the decks, Chris Ross on bass and Myles Heskett on drums, The Slew stormed the stage more concerned with slaying than scratching, though they did their fair share of both.
Kid Koala opened by assuring that audience that they shouldn't worry about the record players on stage, because this was just good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll, and the heavy Zeppelin guitar riffs and thick sludgy bass that followed proved he wasn't lying. Nevertheless, the primary focus of this festival always felt like it should be electronic music, and in the birthplace of house music, no one would have minded an absence of rock. The Slew had an amazing stage presence overflowing with energy and they seemed to be genuinely having loads of fun, as did much of the audience; however, sandwiched between Jimmy Edgar's fractured electro and Martyn's minimal dance music, a heavy rock act felt out of place.
Headlining the first day of the first Sónar Chicago is no small honor, and it is one that Dutch DJ and producer Martyn highly deserved. Responsible for last year's brilliant dubstep full-length Great Lengths, it's no wonder that he so frequently gets associated with the genre. Often blending techno and dubstep in his productions, Martyn is a tough act to pin down and his DJ sets open up even more possibilities for play. Knowing the history of this city's dance music output, Martyn certainly had a good number of house tracks in his crate, but he never reduced himself to pandering to the crowd. Keeping it steady and subtle, but always propulsive, Martyn had everyone dancing down in front by the end of his eclectic set.
Although the turnout in Millennium Park was modest, hopefully this doesn't stop Sónar from bringing another stellar line-up to Chicago next year. Americans have always had a more awkward relationship to electronic dance music than their European counterparts, so even though The Slew's rock jams felt misplaced, perhaps it was a wise move on the part of the event's programmers: give 'em a bit of guitar sounds and they'll stay for the beats. The events at the Chicago Cultural Center which followed on Friday and Saturday were absolutely rammed, indicating that maybe it wasn't the dance music that failed to pack Pritzker Pavilion, but the fact that the city that works needed to, well, go to work the next day.
From the smiles seen on the faces of everyone as they left, a great time was obviously had by all who attended. Seeing Sónar become a regular fixture on Chicago's festival circuit would be fantastic, as it simply makes sense to celebrate electronic dance music in one of the cities that contributed so much to it. By adding a set from a Chicago classic like the newly-reunited Virgo or some of our new footworkers like DJ Nate and RP Boo, Sónar could turn their 2011 return into an event that unifies the global electronic sound and brings it all back home.