This year’s edition of North Coast Music Festival will forever be remembered as the year The Chemical Brothers made their return with a performance many likened to that of Daft Punk at Lollapalooza in 2007. Masterful, classic, innovative, relentless and quite simply the perfect festival performance to end a weekend that many consider symbolizes the end of summer.
Location, Accessibility, Set-up
Six years in and its home hasn’t changed. Located at Union Park, also the home to Pitchfork Music Festival, the festival grounds are easily accessible via Chicago’s extensive CTA public transportation system or via car. Entry to the park wasn’t an issue all weekend with multiple entrances around the perimeter preventing any possible issues of bottleneck. This made for an enjoyable festival experience right from the start.
With a total of six stages this year, including a Silent Disco and Heineken House Dome, it never took more than a few minutes to walk from any stage to another and noise bleed was never an issue. The two bigger stages are set up so no two artists play at the same time, ensuring festival goers can catch most of the performances they want to see while eliminating any space or sound issues throughout the weekend.
I particularly enjoyed the addition of the Heineken House this year, a completely enclosed dome that housed local and international underground music artists the entire weekend. Oh and did I mention that it had air conditioning?
Chicago weather can be a bit unpredictable but this year’s Labor Day Weekend gifted us with beautiful sunny weather all weekend long. This meant no rain, no mud but plenty of chances for a tan. Luckily free water stations and the A/C at the Heineken House helped to eliminate any possibility of heat exhaustion.
Crowd & Atmosphere
North Coast’s crowd continues to be as eclectic as its line-up. Devised to welcome a mixture of jam-band loving fans, EDM kids and hip-hop aficionados, the festival’s atmosphere is that of a welcoming family. Overall the feeling was that we were part of a carefree weekend of music and fun with a mostly respectful and fun crowd.
Day 1 – Friday
Although the day started slow, it got going as Portland’s RAC and his pop-synths took over the 630 Stage. The crowd was eating it up as he dropped track after track with “Can’t Forget You” drawing the biggest reaction from the few thousand present under the canopy of trees that border the stage. Next up we found refuge inside the Heineken House as Heather and Waze & Odyssey kicked it up a notch with their blend of house and tech. Although not big in space, the entire dome was pumping with an excellent sound system and atmosphere perfect for the underground sounds of the entire line-up.
As evening took over, we witnessed another set by The Glitch Mob, after catching them at Imagine Music Festival in Atlanta the week before. I was intrigued to see what would be different and was pleasantly surprised to notice that despite playing some of their big hits, they kept the rotation of tracks fresh from one weekend to the other.
Ending the night we caught a bit of Knife Party but left pretty early with a taste of disappointment. The duo has seemingly not innovated much in their sets over the past few years and it was evident in their performance.
Day 2 – Saturday
Perhaps unsurprisingly, our favorite sets on Day 2 came from early performers Sweater Beats and Booka Shade. The former already took the crown as one of our favorite artists at Northern Nights last month yet managed to come up with an entirely new set of R&B-infused electro mash-ups that had the early crowd at the 630 stage going crazy.
Booka Shade were fantastic as usual, blending their signature techno sound with live performances much like a true rock band. They know how to play a crowd and get the best out of one, and did so one again for their afternoon slot on the 312 Stage.
We opted to go classic for our next choice and skipped Porter Robinson for a unique one-hour performance by The Roots. Although we heard great things about the EDM whiz-kid, I was happy we decided to break the mould and catch a band that is as iconic as they get.
We ended the night with Steve Aoki for pure comedy factor. I am not sure why he is still being booked for major festivals yet the answers seems to have been right in front of me throughout his set. Thousands of people showed up and two fans went absolutely crazy when they won a contest to get caked by the EDM performer (notice I did not call him a DJ?) on stage. It was a show alright, but one of mainstage cookie-cutter drops and build-ups mixed with the usual Aoki antics.
Day 3 – Sunday
It seemed fitting to start the last day a little deeper and so we did, camping out at the Heineken House for sets by Bentley Dean, Hexes and Bisharat. All three locals delivered with performances that blended deep sounds with techno effortlessly.
Afternoon highlights came from Chicago legend Green Velvet, who played a repertoire of his old and new hits mixed in with other big tunes such as Maceo Plex’s “Conjure Sex”, and Tycho. Both performed at the 630 Stage with the latter gracing the crowd with an effortless set of personal hits that truly embodied that familiar feeling of a dreamy, beautiful and never-ending summer.
Then came the finale. A one and a half hour audio-visual bonanza by The Chemical Brothers at the 312 Stage that people will arguably talk about for all future North Coast editions to come. Spanning decades of electronica history, the duo performed perennial favorites and classics such as “Block Rocking Beats”, “Galvanize” and my favorite performance of “Star Guitar” ever, as well as material from their 2015 album “Born in the Echoes”. It was a live performance unlike any I have ever seen from any other artist, perhaps even topping their 2011 Tour live show I managed to catch at Ultra in Miami.
Some people said that it reminded them or was perhaps even better than Daft Punk at Lolla back in 2007. And that’s saying something.
Music – 4.25 out of 5
The festival didn’t produce its best line-up to date, but it did give fans a diverse range of options from which to choose from and with the closing out by The Chemical Brothers I feel the music selection was good overall. The addition of the Heineken House was also a successful one, finally adding a (hopefully) permanent slice of house music in a festival hosted in the birthplace of house itself. While I understand the formula it did seem to feel like (other than for The Chemical Brothers) there was no real hype or excitement for the rest of the line-up and that dented the overall experience. In particular it felt that the choice of EDM headliners (Steve Aoki and Knife Party) were particularly poor given all the options on the market.
Experience – 4.5 out of 5
No major complaints at all. There was an overall chill vibe to the festival throughout the weekend and the crowd for the most part contributed in making it so. After six years, however, there has to be something said for the overall direction of the festival as far as line-up and the buzz created from it.
Value – 4 out of 5
Truth be told, tickets were moderately priced for a three-day festival in its sixth run. However, issues with line-up creativity were on the tongue of a lot of attendees. Festival promoters did well in some aspects but could have done better in proposing a roster of talent that brought more to Union Park this year.
Overall – 4.25 out of 5
Needless to say, North Coast was a blast as it is every year and the festival has become a must-go-to for a majority of dance music followers in the Chicagoland area and neighboring states. However, we were hoping for a more creative and expansive line-up considering the five years of experience the festival already has. Acts like The Chemical Brothers may not tour every year, but there’s a pool of diverse artists out there that could be brought for 2016 to spruce up the roster. And here we are, already looking forward to next summer’s last stand!