Spring Awakening Brought a Banger to Chicago’s ‘Burbs

Photos by Spring Awakening
Co-written with Kaelyn Gray

Spring Awakening Music Festival has reigned as one of Chicago’s most beloved EDM-niche festivals for years. This time around, however, the fest picked up and plopped out to the Northwest suburbs on a large stretch of lawn and parking lot in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, roughly 30 miles out of downtown over the June 7-9 weekend.

The Poplar Creek venue is down a network of freeways from the city that happen to be some of the most frustrating: a 2015 highway study named the junction at I-90/I-94 as the worst, most frustrating bottleneck in America. While 2019 was the first year that the fest has offered parking, this long and treacherous trek arguably hindered the draw that SAMF usually stirs up with issues of traffic and outrageous Uber fees. But promoters React Presents came up with options to keep folks without cars coming and, more importantly, to keep those that might be pre-gaming away from the wheel of a car.

Coming from the city, free shuttles ran each day from Chicago’s L train and Metra trains alike. Parking space was guaranteed, but cost you a whopping $30 a day or $50 with a weekend pass. High parking fees seem unreasonable on top of ticket fees, but the cars piled into the lots as lines stretched out on to main roads.

Inside, the problems continued. The night before gates opened, crews were called to drain the festival grounds after they flooded in another iteration of Chicago’s record-breaking rainy season. There was no evidence of a flood on Friday at opening, but instead a huge, uneven expanse of lumpy wood chips and sand to absorb the moisture in front of the Solstice stage. It worked, but it was a letdown to some brave festival goers in wheelchairs and crutches. The main stage became less accessible for some, but it was saved on a larger scale.

How does a festival with this many infrastructure and travel issues have such great success, you ask? In a power move, React Presents organized an incredibly stacked lineup of crowd favorites that made up one of Chicago’s hottest bills of the season.

And on top of that, all five stages were incredible, including the Silent Disco. My personal favorites though were The Equinox and Solstice Stage. The Equinox stage was massive and had Spring Awakening’s logo largely constructed on both sides in front of the screens. You could be the farthest in the back, but still see the visuals so clearly because of the humongous screen. Can’t bring Spring Awakening to Chicago? Well, Spring Awakening brought Chicago to the burbs because the Solstice Stage had an entire skyline built around it! It was mesmerizing and one of the most unique stages I’ve ever seen, and I am so sad I didn’t get to spend more time there.

It was almost impossible to pick a main stage and stick with it on Friday when you could have a taste of everything: Oliver Heldens into Galantis into Zedd made for the happiest dancin’ corner of the fest on the Solstice stage, while the Equinox stage drew in the bassheads with Virtual Riot into Space Jesus into Zomboy. House bopped all day over at the Function tent stage, ending with an especially poppy set from Shiba San.

Friday had it all, but Saturday was for the headbangers. The Bass Kitchen Hangar stage had a cult-like gathering of fans in heady gear and pashminas all day for sets from Blunts & Blondes and Subtronics to Spag Heddy and Liquid Stranger. A crack formed in the concrete right outside this tented stage early-on in the day forcing security to section it off with fences and caution tape, begging the question, did everyone remember to wear their earplugs?

Just a few stages over on Equinox, Rezz hypnotized the masses on screens so large, they engulfed the eye’s entire peripheral range in red and black spirals. Her new collaboration single with Underoath was due out the following week so there was speculation that we’d hear it, but SAMF attendees didn’t get any new hardcore mixes (there were, however, the usual mixes of Rage Against the Machine, Linkin Park and Marilyn Manson).

Sunday was by far the most anticipated day with a crowd buzzing nearly double the size as days before at just 3 p.m. to kick off the afternoon. Martin Garrix was originally scheduled to close out Sunday night on Solstice, but he was recently forced to cancel all his upcoming tour and festival dates due to a serious on-stage ankle injury at EDC Las Vegas. With a headlining spot open wide, React Presents called in a Chicago legend, Kaskade, and the locals flocked.

Over on the Equinox stage, GRiZ threw down a Ride Waves set featuring tons of new music from the studio album intertwined with extra-wompy, dubstep wubz reminiscent of old school GRiZ. During softer, more emotional songs like “Barrel of a Gun,” though, Kaskade’s frenzy of full-bodied synths and erratic strobe lights bled into the sound from across the field, just overpowering enough that it killed the soulful mood for the outskirts of the crowd. Some chose to migrate to the next stage, but they left all too soon as GRiZ’s last few songs ended on the highest note of the evening.

React teased that Poplar Creek’s bigger space would be used for innovative projects to up the festival’s production. When festival goers entered the venue, a large Spring Awakening logo, which was visible from all four sides, was on a podium. At the beginning of the festival, all of the sides were a blank slate. By the end, they were all beautifully painted in various different types of artwork. Throughout the festival grounds were amazing sponsors that added to the overall event experience. There was Monaco, giving away free alcohol samples and other items such as fanny packs, fans, etc. next to its sponsored Silent Disco area. There was also a Diet Coke sponsor that gave out free samples of various Coke flavors. That stand came in extra clutch on Friday, the hottest day, with an abundance of sunscreen and wet wipes. One other sponsor that helped beat the heat had an interactive car wash experience, where festival goers walked through the soaps and suds and entered a blowdrying station to cool off.

The biggest blessing to survive the dreaded Friday heat and the entire weekend was the free water! When you entered the venue after getting wristbands scanned, there was a full stack of bottled water for the taking. There were also two big water stations throughout the venue that was optimal for camelbacks, and a booth that distributed more free bottled water at the Solstice stage. I was super hydrated throughout the entire weekend, it’s a good thing React supplied so many porta-potties everywhere!

Poplar Creek was initially met with a lot of skepticism, but I can confidently say that this Spring Awakening was one of the highlights of my 2019 festivities. The new space was used for creative and innovative additions, and it truly paid off. React Presents has been a powerhead in the Midwest market for years, and it was important that we trusted it would do what’s best for us. As predicted, React did not disappoint.

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