Written by Megan Caruso
Photo Credit: Brandy Leigh for Festival Squad
North Coast Music Festival is somewhat appropriately branded as “Summer’s Last Stand”: the three-day fest spanned Aug. 31st to Sept. 2nd over the 2018 Labor Day Weekend. Unfortunately, summer weather took a dark and flashy turn, and the festival didn’t stand a chance against the forces of Mother Nature.
Situated in Chicago’s Union Park in West Loop, the festival is on minimal grounds and has a more boutique feel than most Midwest EDM events. To be fair, North Coast comes out to play just a month after Lollapalooza ends, so any festival might pale in comparable size with an act like that to follow. Nevertheless, North Coast has always found a way to bring big names into the electronic-jam-band niche that they have traditionally curated.
The bright blue sky that welcomed opening day on Friday was hardly threatening of what was to come later that night. Union Park has an odd, curving shape but somewhat resembles an outstretched triangle; three main stages are placed at these triangular ends. Both the North and Coast stages stand adjacent some dozen yards apart and alternate performances throughout the day. From the baseball field way out behind the crowd, you can see the masses scuttle from one to the next, forming a massive crowd at one and a barren no-man’s land at another in minutes.
Across the park and down a pseudo-street of vendors was the Attendee.com stage nestled under a canopy of leafy trees. Follow the vendors around the outer edge of the park past the steaming wok of Island Noodles, giant slices of Bacci pizza and the ever-present Cheesie’s gourmet grilled cheese food truck, and you’d find the Monaco Stage, where smaller hip-hop, house and tech-funk artists played out to a crowd on the basketball court. A fence separates a second basketball court where the silent disco is caged in with painters and spray-painters bringing standing sculptures and wooden forms to new, colorful life.
And within that 10-15 minute round-trip, you have covered the entire grounds of the park.
Drezo took the Attendee.com stage on Friday early-on with some slow, heavy bass and spooky visuals of zombies, spiders and anything creepy. While he had his own flair, Drezo’s set was heavily reminiscent of another spooky, heavy-bass guru that has been plastered all over the 2018 festival scene: our beloved Space Mom, Rezz. Even their names are eerily similar, but either way, it was a heavy dose of bass that balanced out the tech-house domination of this year’s lineup and the headbangers flocked.
Too Many Zooz followed up on the Coast stage in a blaze of red, blue, green – anything but white light. Between a baritone saxophone, a trumpet and a drum kit, these three guys made enough noise to drown out the dubstep sound bleed that crept over as Snails raged in the trees across the park.
And after a gorgeous sunny day, it just so happened that the lightning struck at its most opportune time to steal the show. Friday night boasted headliners Miguel and Axwell ^ Ingrosso, neither of whom got to play due to the monsoon that suddenly erupted with a clap of thunder that put the sound systems to shame. The torrential downpour chased off the Swedish House Mafia members to their official NCMF after party, and Miguel made a stop at the Concord for a surprise set before Manic Focus’s scheduled show.
The aftermath of rain like this to the festival grounds is usually detrimental, but the crew had the park fixed up on Saturday with sand and wood chips covering almost any visible mud. With a fresh start, Lyrical Lemonade (a multimedia outlet focused on spotlighting local Chicago rappers) took over the Monaco stage for a full-day showcase of local talent from Sunde to Lil Gnar to Madeintyo.
Over by the Attendee.com stage, it seemed like the trees were incubating the humidity from the crowd below. But you couldn’t help but laugh, literally, because Vulfpeck arrived with their special brand of funky jam band/sketch comedy show. The band busted out tons of hits, including “Christmas in L.A.,” which included a three-part harmony provided by the audience and directed by the eager Theo Katzman. The four band members continued to flow around the stage, switching between all of the available instruments after nearly every track. Between the funk, the clever comedy, and the dirty, dirty bass licks, Vulfpeck put on one of the most satisfying performances of the weekend.
Just minutes before DJ Snake and The Revivalists took the stage, that all too familiar cool, female voice rang out from every speaker in the park: the festival was evacuating again, only this time, the voice claimed it was “postponed.” Realistically, it was 8:37 p.m. The festival ended at 10. How would they plan to evacuate, let the weather pass, get everyone back inside and then kick off the headlining sets with time to spare in less than an hour and a half? Well, they didn’t, and night two ended just as the first, but this time there was no rain. Flashes of lightning in the area were abundant, and they robbed North Coast of four out of six total headliners.
But on Sunday, the energy was reanimated to a level unseen on the first two days. To make up for the inclement weather and to spare the backlash of a festival in shambles, organizers offered any Friday or Saturday ticketholders free entry into the festival on Sunday. The crowds arrived earlier, and they were bigger; despite the influx, they never reached a point of over-crowding. Even though Lil Xan and Lil Skies pulled out of the Sunday lineup last minute, the party had finally arrived, and Chicago was hungry for it.
After days of anticipation, Jamiroquai graced the Coast Stage as the first headliner to play North Coast 2018 and the final artist to play all weekend. Donning a helmet of long, glowing LED spikes, vocalist Jay Kay boogied across the stage between two full drum sets, a handful of guitars and bass guitars, a couple keyboards and an entourage of back-up vocalists. Behind him, two massive screens showed colorful industrial-themed electronic patterns. The jazzy-funk flourished for an hour and a half to an electrified crowd. Simply put, if you weren’t dancing your heart out, you weren’t at the Coast Stage for Jamiroquai.
All in all, the festival felt smaller this year: less crowded, less acts, less of the usual Midwest ragers that Chicago has come to know so well. The city is still hungry after the two-day tease where the big names fell short, but luckily festival season is not over yet. Here’s looking ahead even to 2019, and maybe then we can extend an invite to Mother Nature and calm her tears. Because even though it may not have the draw of Lolla or the anticipation of Spring Awakening, North Coast Music Festival has come to be a small end-of-summer watering hole for those of us who aren’t ready to throw in the beach towel yet.