For the last weekend of the summer, Chicago’s Union Park held one more summer festival, the inaugural North Coast Fest. Friday, September 3rd through Sunday, September 5th saw an eclectic mix of electronica, jam bands & more at the most-used-for-a-festival park in the country – as well as some choice afterparties:
Panda Riot, Schuba’s Tavern
Local luminaries and QRO favorite Panda Riot graced Schuba’s Tavern as part of the first night of the North Coast fest afterparties. The sometimes electronic, sometimes jammy festival went on its maiden voyage this September to mostly rave reviews. And when the action was cut short at Union Park (a Chicago noise ordinance stipulates that all events held on public property have to shut down by 11pm) the motley crowd of wizards, ravers, stoners, b-boys, frat brothers and sorority sisters ambled their way into any number of local venues to keep the party going in more intimate surroundings. After the cross-sectional clusterfuck of the day shows, the afterparties were a nice place to unwind with your ‘sub-cultural peepz’ and enjoy bills more coherently curated than the entertaining, if mind-boggling sequences (see Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, De La Soul, Umphrey’s McGee) that took place at the main festival.
Schuba’s Tavern on Friday hewed more towards the indie rock end of the spectrum, with sets by Panda Riot, Color Radio, and California Wives. Panda Riot in particular smacked of golden age Pioneer Valley indie: buzzing guitar, warm bass, and Kim Deal vocals. If not for the drum machine and synth stylings of frontgirl Rebecca Scott, the North Coast admins might not have signed off on this one, but the full house at Schuba’s was glad they did. The trio had a surprise in store for the night – a fourth member, a percussionist that filled out the drum loops with a little live banging and clanging. One time guest performance? Or has Panda Riot added a new member to complement their guitar, bass, synth lineup?
The surprise quartet hit most of the strongest material off their recent EP far & near, including standout “Julie In Time”. The song captures a lot of what’s great about Panda Riot: cool, ethereal melodies run through just enough dirty effects to keep the song grounded while angelic choral compositions bob and weave in the heavens above. Panda Riot hit most of the right notes, though the multi-layer polyphonic harmonies will be impossible to duplicate live until Ms. Scott steals a few lovely ladies from the Polyphonic Spree (QRO photos), or coaxes the boys on her left and right into taking a chance on the microphone.
QRO got a late start on Day Two, though a top-heavy bill made it the perfect timing. Sure, we missed Grace Potter & the Nocturnals (QRO photos from Day One). Catching Jay Electronica (QRO photos from Day One) would have been nice. But the straight sequence of De La Soul, Boys Noise, and Moby is nothing to sniff at.
Living legends De La Soul could have been the only stars of the night, and the somewhat pricey $40 ticket still would have been worth the purchase. The act is one of the few veterans of hip-hop who have actually grown, matured, developed, and expanded their abilities since they hit it big as rangy, hornball teenage boys rhyming about daisies and “daisies”. A few choice cuts were served up from 3 Feet High and Rising, but mostly De La just delivered whatever they felt like delivering. The old great stuff, the new great stuff. It was all in the mix, along with some classic cornball stage tactics for pumping up a crowd (repeatedly asking which side of the audience was “more hip-hop”), though kudos for mercilessly picking on the dude in the pink Adidas cap for not throwin’ his hands up in the air for the choruses. De La Soul is probably the only hip-hop group that could derisively target a single audience member and still come off as the nicest guys in the world. How can you hold anything against them? They rep Long Island for god’s sake…
Berlin-based German electronic music producer Boys Noize was a nice add to a mostly Uncle Sam-centric bill. Known for heart-stopping dirrrty Kraut beats, the one-man drum machine lorded over a phalanx of turntables and tables of soundboards. The ‘noize’ came hard and fast and loud; really, it’s the sort of music meant for a tight, sweaty club, but the soundsystem, which proved a letdown at certain points of the fest, mostly held up to the German’s sonic assault. Not that the eardrum pounding needed any extra oomph, but there was, in any case, a visual melee projected on the backdrop behind him that emphasized his desire to send into an epileptic seizure. Dynamite stuff.
After the smoke cleared, Moby took the stage and phoned in a sub-par DJ set to a largely indifferent crowd. North Coast must look like more or less amateur hour to the pale, glassy-domed, animal loving international celebrity DJ. He didn’t bring his full ensemble – when he wants to, Moby can command a stage (QRO live review) – but North Coast probably didn’t pay him enough for that. Just enough cash was dealt out to get his name on the bill, to impress the suits, sponsors, etc. The audience, however, was not impressed. Most made their way over to the surprisingly packed Umphrey’s McGee show. The Midwest jam band was probably the hippie high point of the festival. Hula-hoops, tie-dye, and dreadlocks were in full effect: nice work if you can get it.
QRO went full steam on Day Three, and it’s no coincidence that this is the day we discovered there was free booze in the press area. A classy touch, and a bit of a surprise from a first year festival. But if you have the wherewithal and good sense to set aside a little extra cash for free beer, it’s a sensible decision. A well-lubricated press corps is everyone’s best friend.
First up were local up-n-comers Loyal Divide, a hard-to-pigeonhole and easy-to-listen-to ensemble. Certainly they make electronic music. The synth keyboard occupied centerstage. Yet the steady beat (and Parliament t-shirt worn by the implacable bassist) smacked of funk roots; the dusky, grizzled guitarist handling lead vocal duties and the high-octane drummer were pure rock n roll; the girl on vocals, tambourine and odd percussive items was jam-band-y; and the cool kat with the bass saxophone lent a big band flavor to the proceedings. In other words, a motley crew. But Loyal Divide sounds so comfortable in their own musical skin that you would never guess at the hybridization taking place. Standout hits “DDF” and “Vision Vision” from their excellent EP Labrador made an appearance. And the band seemed to be trying out more than a few tracks from an upcoming full-length album. Great sound, entertaining stuff. For such an early set it had a nice vibe – love to see them after night falls.
Other early acts included Phantogram, Holy Ghost!, and Maps & Atlases. Phantogram might just be the most attractive duo on the planet, with a special shout out to the dark-haired Helen behind the keyboards. Wow. And she can sing too. Doesn’t seem quite fair, does it? Somewhere in a small farm town there’s a homely girl with a terrible voice cursing the heavens. Speaking of sex appeal, Holy Ghost! looks like they responded to a “So You Think You Can Wear Tight Hipster Jeans?” casting call. Four would-be male models hovered over keyboards, guitars and percussion, looking like they’d rather be in a dank NYC afterhours club. But they sucked it up and gave all of us corn-fed Midwesterners a pretty decent show. Last but not least, another buzzy Chicago band Maps & Atlases gave a more intimate performance at the second-to-smallest Coast Stage. The band is a sort of post-twee psychedelic folk ensemble with heavier moments of percussion and electric outbursts lending their sound a bit more gump, chutzpah, what have you. At times the calculated cuteness of the bearded frontman in the ‘I’m in a band’ outfit steps over the line, but the songs are so well-crafted, the execution so smooth, that it’s impossible to hold a grudge.
As night fell some bigger acts took their turn. Mayer Hawthorne & The County attracted a good-sized crowd, though you have to wonder what all these people saw in the by-the-numbers soul/funk misadventures. Just go buy a James Brown record. Or Parliament (QRO photos). Or whatever. Does the world need another white frontman led band that thinks it can co-opt African American musical heritage by simply wearing a Blues Brothers outfit? And no, having a black backing band doesn’t push you into post-racial territory, it just makes you come off as a calculating sleazeball. Oh, and the music sucked.
Lupe Fiasco came on at 7:30. He’s another interesting local story: an artist with a lot of ties into the local music scene who is stuck in a battle with his label (apparently the label won’t release his record, for whatever reason, nor will they release him from his contract – he’s trapped). Whatever the nitty-gritty details of his contract dispute, there’s no denying that the man knows how to draw a crowd and put on a show. If you were at the far perimeter of the Lupe Fiasco crowd, you probably didn’t hear much, but there certainly seemed to be a lot of exciting activity up on stage.
Finally, the big closer for the night was Nas & Damian ‘Jr. Gong’ Marley, a duo with enough combined star power to guarantee a thick crowd. Their collaboration has a lot of people in the music industry scratching their heads, and the critical reception of their work has been so-so, but in terms of sheer entertainment value, the combo was a nice finale, a double-barreled cannon salute aimed at hip-hop and reggae at once.
One quick mention of a personal highlight: the live Green Velvet set on the Coast Stage earlier Sunday evening. Green Velvet is a local legend, a house DJ who owned the scene ‘way back when.’ It was a nice curatorial decision to add him to the bill. It took a little guts. The man still plays locally, but at smaller clubs for an older crowd. Tapping him for a spot was kind of like tapping Scott Bakula as your starting quarterback in the movie Necessary Roughness. You want to believe in the guy, but does he still have it? Well, once Green Velvet got on stage he did nothing else except bring down the metaphorical house. Throw in the “Percolator” dancing girls, and you’ve got one of the star sets of the festival. Daaayum!