Nice Fests Finish Last: CoS at North Coast ’10


No matter your thoughts on the lineup you have to admire the ambition of the North Coast Music Festival. Holding a late-summer festival at Union Park, after artists and fans have already been picked over by established behemoths Lollapalooza and Pitchfork, not to mention the countless local street fests, seemed to be a recipe for disaster. But thanks to some unique booking and one of the most pervasive ad campaigns I’ve ever seen for a festival, they did pull it off, apparently selling 40,000 tickets.

Oddly, part of the festival’s success may be related to North Coast finding a niche as a festival that is easy to hate. I had the following conversation with a friend while listening to Pretty Lights on Friday night.

Mike Denslow: “Do you think the festival will be back next year?”

Friend: “No.”

Mike Denslow: “Really?  Look how many people are here!”

Friend: “Yeah…but….fuck this.”

North Coast made its name by raiding the marginalized genres that people love to hate and other festivals love to avoid; the lineup was packed with noodling jam bands, untzy DJ’s, and everyone’s favorite red-headed stepdaughter, rap. With Pitchfork completely out of the jam band scene and Lollapalooza’s bizarre hip-hop phobia, North Coast had free reign to pick a lineup made of these genres. The beauty for North Coast is that music that inspires such feelings of hatred tends to inspire equally strong feelings in those who love it. Plus, the eccentric lineup drew people such as my aforementioned friend who weren’t crazy about the lineup as a whole, but were able to find just enough appealing acts to justify purchasing a ticket.

So gather your glowsticks, your face paint, and your moccasins, kids, because after a weekend of weird and wild sound waves (not to mention the people-watching), we’d like to hope that North Coast will be back for round two.

Friday, September 3rd

Paul Kalkbrenner
Groupon Stage, 5:30 p.m.

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Photo by Graham Sher

Paul Kalkbrenner, as one of the first acts of the weekend, was an appropriate opening soundtrack to North Coast. People were still filtering in as Kalkbrenner started his set, and his mix of mellow electronica provided a comfortable background for low key dancing and high quality people-watching. His light show colored the smoke machine’s output yellow and pink before both the smoke and the music were carried away by the brisk Chicago wind. The highlights of Kalkbrenner’s set came when he began ad-libbing to kill time while waiting for a delayed Paul Van Dyk. Kalkbrenner mixed a flute-driven track with a call-back number, and later set Gary Jules’ “Mad World” to a club beat, much to the delight of the audience. -Megan Ritt

pvd 3 Nice Fests Finish Last: CoS at North Coast 10Paul Van Dyk
North Stage, 6:30 p.m.

The first glitch of the festival occurred when German DJ Paul Van Dyk’s set began half an hour late. After apologizing to the crowd – apparently there were some problems at immigration – he did not waste any time making use of the half hour he had left, working off some high energy that kept the crowd moving. Success. -Michael Denslow

Photo by Brad Bretz

Pretty Lights
Groupon Stage, 7:30 p.m.

After Van Dyk’s abbreviated set, the audience was ready for something more substantial, and they got it when Pretty Lights took the stage. Playing with a live drummer, which added considerable energy to the set, Pretty Lights’ Derek Vincent Smith laid down a set of quick and fun party jams that had the crowd climbing on top of equipment and flailing inflatable animals in the air. There wasn’t a lot of tempo contrast in this set, but let it be said: Pretty Lights never slowed down. As they played, the initial crowd rush attracted more and more people until by the end, it was too packed to move. And living up to their name, pink and blue spotlights flooded the whole main stage area with color. There’s nothing like a compulsive dance party to really get things going. -Megan Ritt

The Chemical Brothers
North Stage, 8:30 p.m.

The Pretty Lights crowd rushed to the right-hand stage as that band finished their set; the Chemical Brothers were that night’s headliner, and they launched their sensory assault right on time. A slow bass beat filled the air, gradually increasing in tempo and driving the crowd into a near frenzy, and when the beat opened up into popular single “Galvanize”, the whole place reached fever pitch. Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons lived up to their billing by playing one of the best sets of the weekend, mixing old favorites with new songs off their latest effort, Further. The sun set completely during their set, but the light show came up to take its place. Their custom screen backdrop displayed marching robots, swirling humans finding and losing one another again and again, and psychedelic green swirls that reached out long laser lines over the heads of the audience, involving even those farthest from the stage.

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Photo by Brad Bretz

Highlights of the set included new songs “Horse Power” (with accompanying horse visuals, naturally), “Swoon”, and “Escape Velocity”. The crowd proved themselves devoted fans and were well pleased by older favorites “Hey Boy Hey Girl” and “Out of Control”. People danced almost involuntarily, as the deafening music and dazzling lights took over control duty from the nervous system. The Brothers Chemical closed things down by reminding us why they were headliners: They rock at dance music, but they also do transcendent beauty like no one else in their game. Towards the end, they brought in “K+D+B” and its floating, ethereal layers. As the lyrics built “higher, and higher, and higher…”, a beautiful visualization like one thousand white birds or like flurries of snow against a stark black background filled the screen, floating higher and higher itself, up into the night sky, disappearing somewhere over the Chicago skyline. -Megan Ritt

Saturday, September 4th

Laidback Luke
Coast Stage, 3:45 p.m.

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Photo by Graham Sher

Laidback Luke was the surprise star of the weekend; I honestly caught his set only because I wanted to find the Coast Stage. But the DJ threw down an amazingly fun, easily accessible afternoon set in the welcome shade of a leafy corner of the park. He might not have had a unique sound, but he hand-mixed a lot of his set and clearly had a great time doing it. Just listen to this guy mix in samples ranging from Daft Punk to The White Stripes to Guns N’ Roses, and try not to dance — I dare you. -Megan Ritt

grace potter the nocturnals 3 Nice Fests Finish Last: CoS at North Coast 10Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
North Stage, 4:30 p.m.

After a lot of dance party, people were ready to take a breather, and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals provided just such an opportunity. They had a great summery sound, colored a whiskey hue by plenty of guitar, and perfect for sprawling out on a blanket and sipping beer, which the audience did with abandon. Grace Potter’s got a fearless, throaty voice, best displayed on their cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”. -Megan Ritt

Photo by Brad Bretz

Future Rock
Coast Stage, 6:30 p.m.

Future Rock… not so much futuristic, not so much rock. The local band played decent electronic music, including one piece featuring a lot of high-pitched synth runs, and the crowd seemed to enjoy themselves a fair amount. Nevertheless, Future Rock somehow managed to be interesting but not particularly exciting. A bit more energy would’ve helped them out of the late-afternoon slump. -Megan Ritt

Jay Electronica
North Stage, 6:30 p.m.

One of the big stories floating around the festival Saturday was that up-and-coming New Orleans MC Jay Electronica came into the crowd and got in a fight with a fan while opening for the Disco Biscuits at a Friday after show. If there were any hard feelings between Jay and the festival crowd though, nobody let on Saturday evening. The rapper opened his stage to dozens of fans (mostly twenty-something white males) and then shielded them from the security guards trying to pull them off. He alternated between socially conscious rhetoric and crass jokes about choking during sex. He covered a verse of Nas’ “The World is Yours”. He turned the mic over to eager wannabe MC’s. As usual, Jay Electronica’s set was light on his own material, but he’s positioning himself nicely as rap’s royal goofus. And that’s not a bad thing for a genre that used to be fun. -Michael Denslow

De La Soul
Groupon Stage, 7:30 p.m.

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Photo by Brad Bretz

The shelf life of a rap group is generally a fraction of that of other genres. Don’t tell that to De La Soul. One of the legendary cornerstones of the Native Tongues crew, they have somehow managed to find ways to stay fresh over the past two decades.  While they may not be making huge commercial waves with their more recent output, they still remain much more relevant than any of their late 80’s contemporaries. Their North Coast performance was an hour-long celebration of everything a great hip-hop show should be: sparkling crowd interaction, big smiles, and hits for days. From classic 3 Feet High and Rising cuts like “Me Myself and I” and “Potholes in My Lawn” to the bafflingly awesome late career highlight “Rock Co.Kane Flow”, De La had their daisy loving fans and curious newcomers in the palm of their hands. The highlight of the set – of the weekend – came when Dres from Black Sheep joined them on stage for a rousing version of “The Choice is Yours”. The crew put the crowd in hysterics, re-starting the “engine, engine, number ninth” verse multiple times, with each false start getting a more rousing reaction until the entire crowd was yelling and jumping in ecstasy.  Bananas. -Michael Denslow

boyz noize 4 Nice Fests Finish Last: CoS at North Coast 10Boys Noize
Coast Stage, 8:00 p.m.

Saturday was a great night to be an electronic fan, and Boys Noize kicked things off in high style. He hid behind his deck at first, raising only a mystery hand to tweak the mixing board, until the music built to a crescendo and he popped to his feet, further igniting the crowd’s enthusiasm. His music was scratchy, technical electronic, a little harder to access than some but straight to the point and better for it. He improvised a lot of effects as he went and kept the crowd in the palm of his hand with the judicious dropping of big, heavy beats. Highlights of his set included “Jeffer”, “Lava Lava”, “Transmission”, and his remix of Feist’s “My Moon My Man”. Boys Noize kept things going steady until 9pm, when he shook hands with Moby and handed off the deck, without so much as a hiccup in the beats-Megan Ritt

Photo by Brad Bretz

Umphrey’s McGee
North Stage, 8:30 p.m.

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Photo by Graham Sher

I’m not going to lie: I wasn’t particularly looking forward to Umphrey’s McGee. All I knew was that they were a major jam band, and I’m definitely over that phase of my life. But I left the Fest that night impressed anyway: Umphrey’s brought their A-game and managed to satisfy both jam fans and the general crowd (those who weren’t over at the Coast Stage having their eardrums rearranged by Moby, anyway). They played the expected spaced-out jam session, sure, but there was enough crunchy, driven guitar in the mix to interest even a cynic like me. Their light show was a truly striking blend of every color imaginable, with spotlights circling all ’round the stage and creating a strong psychedelic effect. Their set ended up being improv jams mixed with good-natured rock ‘n’ roll and surprisingly technical instrumentation. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’d totally see them again. -Megan Ritt

Coast Stage, 9:00 p.m.

One aspect festival organizers may want to reevaluate going into next year is the stage setup. Four stages and a decidedly top-heavy lineup had tiny acts like The Coop playing to sparse early-afternoon crowds on the main stages while some of the festival’s biggest names were banished to the cramped confines of the Coast Stage. There was a time around the turn-of-the-millennium when Moby was the biggest crossover name of his genre and, while he is no longer the household name he once was, he still packed the area with a mix of hard-core fans, curious attendees familiar with his commercial output, and anti-jammies who just wanted some bass to drown out Umphrey’s McGee.

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Photo by Brad Bretz

The result was a large crowd that would probably have been better off at one of the main stages, even for a stripped down DJ set. On the other hand, the diminutive DJ turned the cozy Coast Stage into a glorious wonderland of weird. At one point I looked around and saw a girl in pink fishnets and furry boots attracting a crowd by hula hooping, two boys deep throating lollypops, and people dressed in all variations of Green Man. And while any of these things alone would have gotten half a glance before being written off as a festival cliché, the whole ensemble set to Moby’s soundtrack made for a surreally goofy (and enjoyable) ending to the day. -Michael Denslow

Sunday September 5

The Coop / Prob Cause / D.E.E.
North Stage / Coast Stage / Red Bull Local Stage, not 1:00 p.m.

One of the problems with doing lots of drugs is that sometimes you have a hard time getting up and getting things done in the morning. This could explain the fact that the handful of people who arrived when the gates opened Sunday was greeted by over 90 minutes of eerie silence. Not even a canned recording was heard. And at 1:00 p.m., the time when three stages were set to begin, the silence continued. And continued. Not until about 1:40 was music heard on any of the stages. Two attendees I talked to claimed they spent their first 30 minutes in the park walking circles between the stages looking for any sign of activity on any of them. When the music did finally begin, it was only a slight improvement. Prob Cause – a contest winner awarded a spot on the lineup – delivered a game but sloppy rap set. The Coop awarded their fans patience with a painfully short set. The less said about whatever was going on at the Local Stage the better. -Michael Denslow

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Photo by Graham Sher

North Stage, 2:30 p.m.

On a very comfortable weekend of weather, Phantogram just happened to play the one hour that was actually a little hot. It’s nobody’s fault, but they may have been the act on the lineup least ideal for a heat-of-the-day set. (In fact, now that I think about it, they would have been a perfect act to close out the Coast Stage.) That said, the duo made the most of it, delivering a full hour of electronic rock that was both danceable and adorable. -Michael Denslow

Dirty Dozen Brass Band
Groupon Stage, 3:30 p.m.

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Photo by Graham Sher

On a lineup heavy on electronic bells and whistles, New Orleans’ Dirty Dozen Brass Band stood out for their raw simplicity.  They didn’t mess around, tearing through classics like “When the Saints Go Marching In” (integrated with chants of “Who Dat?”) and “My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now”. The crowd ate it up. -Michael Denslow

Benny Benassi
Coast Stage, 4:15 p.m.

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Photo by Brad Bretz

Benny Benassi had a lot of his set pre-arranged on his computers, but he didn’t let the free time go to waste. He spent it instead taking crowd photos on his own camera and autographing stray beach balls before punting them back out into the masses. What he lacked in improv he made up for in fun, playing his club hit “Satisfaction” and allowing the crowd to fill in vocals on a remix of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Other Side”. He closed his set with a surprisingly ethereal remix of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” before grinning and holding up a laptop screen reading “THANKS YOU ALL CHICAGO.” Benassi is clearly a man with job, ahem– satisfaction. –Megan Ritt

Mayer Hawthorne & The County
Groupon Stage, 5:30 p.m.

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Photo by Graham Sher

Mayer Hawthorne & The County was everything that I expected: classy, soulful, dressed in dapper suits. What they also were, though, was just plain cool. It takes a certain panache to wear a full suit on stage at a jam and hip-hop festival, and it earned them a measure of respect from the crowd. They repaid that in spades with an easily danceable, chilled-out big-band sound. Mayer Hawthorne himself swung about a tambourine and smooth-talked the crowd between songs. A little late afternoon Blues Brothers style was the perfect happy hour diversion for the Windy City. -Megan Ritt

Flying Lotus
North Stage, 6:30 p.m.

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Photo by Brad Bretz

One of North Coast’s apparent strategies to success in the overpopulated Chicago festival scene was to set itself up as a sort of anti-Pitchfork by avoiding the blog-hyped bands that dominate the other local fests. While this is probably a decent strategy (who wants a third identical festival?) they may want to look at adding at least a few more of these acts next year. Sometime shortly before Flying Lotus took the stage, Union Park decided to get slam packed. The DJ did not disappoint, keeping the party rocking with a full hour of hippie-tested, hipster-approved beats, touching on everything from Portishead to Radiohead. -Michael Denslow

Lupe Fiasco
Groupon Stage, 7:30 p.m.

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Photo by Graham Sher

In the short time Lupe Fiasco has been on the national rap radar, his live show has morphed into something of a monster. Four years ago he skated onto the stage at Union Park’s Intonation Festival full of boundless energy and excitement over his upcoming debut album. Since then he has played Chicago countless times, with each show seemingly more gimmicky than the previous one. Sunday’s show was a bloated mess full of pretty lights, roaring guitars, and altogether too much new(ish) material. While there is nothing wrong with any of this, it just all sort of fits Lupe awkwardly. He is a mid-tier rapper whose live show increasingly feels like it is meant for arenas. But perhaps the most striking fact about his show was that it stood in such sharp contrast to De La Soul’s bare bones set the night before. I am no rap purist, but De La’s two turntable, three mic set was a demonstration to the uninitiated festival masses of what pure, raw, live hip-hop sounds and feel likes. Lupe’s set, on the other hand, felt like hip-hop dressed up as something else in order to appeal to the tastes of the uninitiated. And that’s fine…there is certainly a time and place for a big budget, heavily produced rap show. I’m just not certain that Lupe Fiasco is the right person for that gig. -Michael Denslow

Nas/Damian Marley
North Stage, 8:30 p.m.

Speaking of hip-hop dressed up as something it is not…

I’m not opposed to the whole Distant Relatives project. The music is good enough, and Nas should get some credit for finding ways to stay relevant and creative as he approaches 20 years in the game. I’m sure the hippies and the trustafarians had a great time at this set, but for the rest of us – and particularly rap fans – it sort of left the festival on a bit of a fizzle. Bottom line: too much reggae not enough Nas. Illmatic, perhaps the greatest rap album of all time, was a no show on the setlist. So was the emotionally charged live staple “One Mic”. Even the musical high points – “If I Ruled the World”, “Made You Look” – came off swampy and overwhelmed by all the live instrumentation and flag waving. It was all an entertaining visual display, but a bit of a disappointing turn for a rapper who holds down an empty stage better than anyone I have ever seen.

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Photo by Graham Sher

It stands to reason that when two artists as disparate as Nas and Damian Marley team up the persona of one will swallow the other. It’s unfortunate that in this case the more musically ambitious and creative mind of Nas is stifled. For what it’s worth, Marley, much more in his element than Nas, came off loose and relaxed. “Welcome to Jam Rock” was a highlight that got the crowd moving more than any of the Nas songs.

The duo closed out the festival performing their original collaboration, “Road to Zion”. -Michael Denslow

Photography by Brad Bretz and Graham Sher. Feature photo by Brad Bretz.

Gallery by Brad Bretz

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Gallery by Graham Sher

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