For Chicagoans, it’s a well-known fact: music festivals flood your calendar each June. The city’s typically brutal winter finally gives way, allowing 80 degree weather, free-flowing beer tents, and the towering speaker stacks of world-renowned fests like Lollapalooza and Pitchfork to take over. Now in its sixth year, North Coast Music Festival has established itself as a name to be held alongside its elder siblings.
North Coast bills itself as “Summer’s Last Stand,” and it lives up to this promise by perfecting the special brew that Chicago’s festival landscape is missing. Where New York has Electric Zoo, California has HARD, and Miami has Ultra, until North Coast, Chicago hasn’t had a similar multi-genre city festival to call its own. The EDM mania of Spring Awakening, Lollapalooza’s ever-expanding dance music presence, and the relative proximity of Movement Detroit are all well and good, but none strikes the diverse and distinctly Windy City chord quite like NCMF.
For the past five summers, North Coast has carved out a niche for itself at the intersection of hip-hop, jam and electronic music—a triple threat for the youthful crowd it has a reputation for attracting—highlighting it all across stages named for greater Chicagoland’s area codes. The baby faces haven’t diminished any, but they didn’t dominate the crowds either. This was thanks to concerted efforts on the part of festival organizers React Presents to lend a more mature air to this year’s proceedings, in spite of ditching any minimum requirement for attendees (a move was met with complaints from older fans and over cautious parents alike).
Festival talent buyer Michael Berg talked about the fest’s core audience in the weeks prior to the event. “This is our sixth year; kids that were 17 or 18 when this first started are now in their mid-20s,” he acknowledged. “The festival is growing up.”
This shift was subtle but evident in this weekend’s lineup, a diverse run that strategically surfed from the sprawling tie-dye rock of Widespread Panic and their dancier cousins the Disco Biscuits to the true school hip-hop and soul of Atmosphere, The Roots, and D’Angelo to rave-ready sets from Knife Party, Porter Robinson, and NCMF’s heritage favorites, the Chemical Brothers.
Throughout the weekend, you could spot fresh-faced teens decked out in Adventure Time backpacks, braces, and bedazzled faces losing their heads to the pop-laced bass mayhem of LA’s Jauz or hybrid turntablist crew the Glitch Mob. There were also maturing Burner-type couples swaying to breezy beats from Tycho or Twin Shadow and bros clad in vintage b-ball jerseys downing Heineken and pumping fists alongside Wale or EDM poster boy Steve Aoki.
NCMF thrives on this eclecticism. Sure, not everyone is down with everything, but at any given time there is something for everyone. For every hour of feel-good techno, like Berlin’s Booka Shade delivered at the 312 Stage on Saturday, there was an hour of equally feel-good funk from NOLA’s Galactic, who were joined by Macy Gray at the 773 Stage. Gray successfully walked the line between delighting with her raspy soul and her reputation for often visibly being a bit “tipsy,” at one point delving into an extended monologue about gathering the band together for the show in Chicago because she heard the girls have the best vaginas in the country. Who knew?
As the sun began to set a short while later, Chromeo ignited the biggest crowd of the day so far with its tongue-in-cheek 80s synth-disco-pop pastiche. Frontman Dave 1 ruled the stage, kicking out one Instagram-worthy pose after another with his fittingly chrome-plated Gibson always at his side. If you weren’t ready to let go of that high—and the totem-toting candy ravers that flock to North Coast were not—Porter Robinson was cued up under the canopy of the dance-centric 630 Stage with a shimmering live set drenched in the epic build-ups and dense melodies that have become his signature (if a bit heavy on the build ups).
For those ready to shift gears, the main field on Saturday opened up to an impressively diverse set from the Roots. Their years with Jimmy Fallon were evident in a versatile set that sent them from staples like “Break You Off” and “The Seed 2.0″ to extended jams that saw Questlove touching on Chicago footwork rhythms and even leading the band in a rendition of GnR’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”
The Philly outfit was (almost) immediately followed by the Chicago debut of D’Angelo and the Vanguard, the neo-soul legend’s first outing in the city with his new band. After a short delay, the man of the night and his band took the stage and despite a crowd that was equal parts mildly curious and die-hard fanatics, mesmerized with a 60 minute set of funk, stepper’s music, “Brown Sugar,” and lilting Latin rhythms paired with costume changes, dance routines and songs that stretched on for ten minutes at a time.
This run exemplifies North Coast’s charm this weekend and in general. While it’s a dance music festival, fans have real choices to make about who to see when, and with strikingly different experiences at each turn. The Chemical Brothers or the Disco Biscuits. Widespread or Slow Magic. None of the above? Then there’s an air-conditioned dome thrumming with the continuous four-four of innumerable highlights from Chicago’s rich house-music history.
It’s cultivated a diverse appeal, one that almost shouldn’t work. Raving teens, hippies, and Chicago’s hip-hop cognoscenti are rarely—if ever—found shoulder-to-shoulder, but NCMF pulls this off without suave civility. If the collective glow on the faces pouring out of Union Park this year was any indication, it will for years to come.