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North Coast Music Festival Mon Sep 03 2012
Well, we did it. North Coast Music Festival is a relatively rain-free wrap. The glitter, rage sticks and neon-colored tutus are going back in the closet for another year as festival season comes to a close in Chicago. What did we learn this summer, the first that offered real competition with other EDM-focused fests like Spring Awakening and Wavefront? Perhaps it's that excess is not always a good thing. By the end of the day yesterday, after having attending both the previously mentioned festivals and other dance music events throughout the summer, I was exhausted and, quite frankly, a little womped and wobbled out. We certainly went out with a bang though.
Savoy's set was my first of the day on Sunday and my festivals are officially blending together. I know I've seen these guys before, I just can't remember where. Any suggestions from our readers? In any case, I particularly enjoy this trio's mix of synth wah melodies reminiscent of Daft Punk and poppy vocal tracks that sound like something David Guetta would spin. Throw in a little bass dropping and you've got Savoy. The only critiques I had with this set was the slightly awkward momentum that built up, or failed to, when the mixes tried flow from bass-thumping breakdowns to pop hits too quickly.
I try never to read live reviews of acts before I see them to try to eliminate any bias. I'm sure there are hundreds of bloggers out there bashing Modestep, calling them an insult to live music. Honestly, I could care less. I'm shocked no one came up with this formula long before they did. Combining live vocals, guitar, keyboard and drums with DJ-induced dubstep tracks, this British four-piece has struck what's sure to be EDM gold with combined rock star and DJ appeal.
I fell in love with Modestep's breakout single "Sunlight," which they saved for the last song of their set, and have been anticipating their live performance ever since. Yes, at some points it's a little over-the-top. Seemingly pointless medleys of dance artist staples like Skrillex and Benny Bennassi served little more reason than to get the crowd revved up--which they were. This was honestly one of the craziest sets that I saw this weekend. However, frontman Josh Friend's vocals were rich and powerful and the other live instrumentation did really kick the performance up a few notches. The most likeable thing about this band though was their earnestness. They may not be breaking any musical barriers, or maybe they are with their rock/dance hybrid, but they're obviously thankful for where their careers have taken them thus far. Endless compliments of their fellow band mates, the crowd, the sound crew. Friend leaping into the audience mid-set to sign autographs for front-row fans. And smiles all around won this quirky musical mashup over for me and the hundreds of attendees that turned out for their set.
My sole trip to the Dos Equis stage during the festival was well warranted. It's surprising that more buzz hasn't been made regarding Digital Tape Machine, a collective of Chicago musicians from bands like Umphrey's McGee and Strange Arrangement. The group creates cool, summery jams with a heavy electronic influence and--despite the fact that I only caught the tail end of their set--I was impressed and proud to have this new group incorporated into our local scene.
The only nagging thought that I couldn't seem to shake while watching this robust seven-piece onstage was that minimalism is definitely not a part of Digital Tape Machine's act. A drummer, guitarist, bassist and four different members on various forms of keyboards, synths, MOOGs, decks and computers. Now, I'm a huge fan of live music. I think it's a beautiful thing when, in an era that electronic music dominants the charts, live instrumentation and DJs/producers can coexist. However, I can't help but think that some of the production being done by the four different electronic members could have been done by a smaller crew. Either way, I suppose the means justify the end and the music Digital Tape Machine is making, by however many members, isn't anything to brush off. - Katie Karpowicz
When you are half of one of the most prolific hip hop duos of the last 20 years, it's hard to move pass playing the hits and be your own solo artist. Especially at a festival where the crowd more than likely wants the hits. But at some point you've gotta take the leap and push your solo work front and center if you want to develop this part of your career, and sadly I don't see Big Boi doing that anytime soon. Which is a shame, since he first solo record, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, was one of my favorite albums when it came out in 2010. It had some amazing guests on it, and some real heavy and addictive beats over Big Boi's signature fast spitting of rhymes. So it's a shame that the three times I've seen him live, a large majority of his solo stuff gets mashed into a medley halfway through his set.
When he did play full tracks of his solo work it fit in perfect with the OutKast material, including the shimmy shake of "Shutterbugg" the ode to weed (that of course this crowd loved) "Fo Yo Sorrows" and my favorite standout track "General Patton" which had a better drop than most of the electro acts at the festival this weekend. Like everyone else, I love hearing "So Fresh, So Clean," "Ms. Jackson," and "The Way You Move," and I'll always appreciate hearing "B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)" which I think is one of the best rap songs ever created. But part of me wishes those songs were mixed together in a medley rather than the focus. I was also disappointed that Yelawolf didn't make an appearance so they could do a live version of "You Ain't No DJ," but since Yelawolf played Friday I'm sure he was long gone before Big Boi's set. Big Boi does get credit for keeping the crowd going and being a gracious host, inviting a whole group of kids onstage to dance. But it only pointed out the fact this is not a hip hop festival for the most part, as kids fist pumped and jumped up and down, only one lone girl actually being able to dance onstage, makes me think that the rise in popularity of EDM is making a generation that doesn't know how to move their hips to a beat. - Lisa White
Sunday's headliner Pretty Lights certainly lived up to his name. A stunning display of mulit-colored lights, pillars of LED lights and lasers matched the Colorado native's chill beats. The endless barrage of glowsticks being tossed into the air adding a nice neon accent to the skyline. The first time I saw Pretty Lights was three years ago, opening for fellow NCMF '12 performer STS9 at the Congress Theater. This was about as different of a scene than I imagined it would be. I regret that the DJ has since eliminated his live drummer from his act. Without a fellow stagemate's energy to feed off of, Pretty Lights' sets have become more laid back. I was also a bit disappointed that more of the tracks he dropped last night weren't recognizable from his sizeable catalogue of full lengths and EPs. Time changes all though, I suppose. - Katie Karpowicz
Having a plethora of options isn't always a good thing. And as Chicago gains more large scale music festivals each year (I can think of three new ones just off the top of my head) it means a lot of mediocrity, a lot of overlap in styles and genres being booked, and overall dampening the fun you have a festival if your summer is spent going to one almost every other weekend. I'm all about options, but if you are going to have a music festival, especially in a city with shining examples of doing it correctly (Pitchfork, Lollapalooza for the most part), then you best expect I will hold your festival to that standard. This is one of the main qualms I have with North Coast festival. It's the third year for this festival, so I expected the mistakes from the past to be worked out. A for effort guys, but overall there were some serious logistical issues this weekend that made me yearn for the mass organizers of other major festivals.
With the creation of Spring Awakening, I think it really hurt the booking of North Coast. Time after time as I took a chance checking out acts I wasn't familiar with, I was left hearing pretty much the exact same formulated remix of the same song at a different stage. It was uninspiring compared to some of the artists I happened upon in the past at North Coast. Not to mention the silent disco, where the idea of a DJ battle was interesting and could have been a really cool concept, but rather it felt belittling to credible DJs that had to basically play opposite to one another in a gimmicky popularity contest. If this happens again, why not have the acts battle it out at the same time through the headphones? Makes a lot more sense than making two DJs fight for same crowd at one stage at the same time. It was just one example where the right idea was there, but the execution fell flat. Another example is security. This year they improved the situation for the press/VIP viewing area by the stages, putting double gates up to discourage people trying to jump over. Great. Except there was no security watching the large area so people were still jumping. I saw one security guy having to watch the entire perimeter during Girl Talk. And one lone woman working the entrance, who was incredibly overwhelmed as groups of people slipped through the unconnected gate area right next to her. I was right on the fence, and eventually started pushing people down and back into the crowd as they tried to jump the gate, one guy actually tried to crawl on-top of me to get into the gated area. Trust me, the view is not that much better a foot in front of you. And I know from experience if you don't stop a few people jumping a fence, more will follow and then you have a real mess on your hands. Did I enjoy being the buzzkill that a few girls called bitch because I told them they weren't using my body as a launchpad to jump into VIP? Not at all. I've worked security at past jobs, and I hate it, but I'm not about to get trampled by some idiots trying to get five feet closer to the stage. As I left at the end of the night woman working the entrance actually stopped me and thanked me for my help with the crowd during the set, visibly relieved that she was done with her understaffed job for the evening.
I'll give credit for the positive efforts at North Coast. I saw a much better effort at blocking and catching people trying to jump the fence into the festival. The food options are better than a lot of music festivals around. The sound bleed wasn't bad and the overlap was timed well. The options for drinks backstage are the best of any music festival, which is a nice perk for press and VIP. Hell, the variety of drink items to purchase trump Pitchfork and Lollapalooza for the most part. But all of this still doesn't make up for the fact that my bag wasn't actually searched until Sunday. I actually had a pill case I forgot was in my bag that I carry headache medicine in, and it wasn't even touched until the last day. Or the fact that a guy tried to sell me pills less than five feet from the gate and no security or cop tried to stop him. Or that I knew people that got free VIP passes because the box office was such a mess. When my boyfriend went to redeem his Groupon, they almost gave him an extra set of tickets. I get that festivals are expensive, but you shouldn't have volunteers working significant spots and hired staff not checking bags. You should hire more security than you actually need. You should hire a dedicated publicist to build your brand and knows how to work a festival. Hell, you should probably hire a consultant to look at how you've been running your festival and what you can do to improve it. It's a lot of work, and a lot of extra cost, but if you want longevity you can't keep making the same mistake year after year. First year is rookie mistakes, second year I saw improvement, but at this point your festival should be a well oiled machine. I want North Coast to thrive, but when all the cracks are so obvious in the foundation, it's hard to ignore. - Lisa White
In addition to Lisa's well-put thoughts, I would like to point out that not all failings at a festival are the fault of the festival staff. By the time Pretty Lights went on Sunday night, the fenced-off VIP/press viewing area was a mess with non-VIP ticket holders pouring in from all sides. So much so that I squeezed my way out no more than ten minutes into the set in search of a more enjoyable spot to watch. The woman working the gate didn't stand a chance, even when a much more intimidating male security staffer stepped in to help. It's this annoying sense of entitlement that has hurt a lot of festivals this summer. If you didn't buy a ticket, it's not your right to be there. Don't hop the fence. If you didn't pay extra to stand in the VIP area, don't bowl over the security guard to get your way. I actually had a woman demand that I switch places with her because she didn't want to stand next to the cigarette smoker on her right. Cigarettes apparently were not "her thing."
Festival security is always fighting a losing battle. If the crew is good, they're labeled uptight and abusive. If not, they're inadequate. It's security's job to make sure everyone is safe, not to keep festival goers from acting like spoiled brats. Perhaps it's a good thing festival season has come to a close for our local EDM scene. A Chicago winter is just what everyone needs to cool off with. I'll be back for more next summer, though. Count on that. - Katie Karpowicz