The inaugural edition of the North Coast Music Festival, in 2010 was a mixed bag as an experience. The music was excellent but the “festival” had a lot of rough edges, but given that it was the first attempt at this type of festival that was to be expected. The 2011 edition of North Coast showed immense improvement with a greater emphasis on the production level and the general “festival experience.” Unfortunately, the 2012 edition was not an improvement and was much closer to the original incarnation than that of 2011. As a musical experience it was fine, but as a festival experience it left much to be desired as it seemed that the true focus of the event seemed not to be the event itself, but rather to sell as many tickets to the numerous “after-parties” that blanketed the city.
It is possible that this view of the event was caused, in part, by how I chose to spend my time at the festival. In prior years I wandered from stage to stage to try and get as diverse a musical sampling as possible, but with the (unfortunate) increased emphasis on dubstep and djs, I chose to build my own show by seeing a sequence of acts in their entirety. For day one, my choices were EOTO, Papadosio and STS9. EOTO delivered one of their trademark sets of diverse improvised dance music that launched the crowd into a dancing fever. By relying on the use of actual instruments on stage instead of relying on pre-packaged production pieces and laptop masterpieces, Travis and Hann are able to tailor their set for their fans. They make each set a wholly new occurrence as the band feeds off the response of the fans to continually propel the music in a new direction.
Papadosio’s set was located on a new fourth stage that was tucked into the corner of the festival ground. The set started very late due to the longest most inept change-over I have ever seen. This delay revealed one of the larger faults of this year’s effort, the sound bleed from the other “competing” stages. While waiting for the crew to get the stage put together the crowd was treated to a cacophonous concoction of the PA music, Knife Party and Mord Fustang which in combination were not an aural experience I ever wish to repeat. When the stage was finally ready, Papadosio dropped a much too-short, raging set that featured music from their recently released album T.E.T.I.O.S. (To End the Illusion of Separation).
STS9 is a band that I had seen several times but had never made much of a lasting impression on me, but their performance at North Coast was one that left me with a taste for more. Previously, their efforts struck me as sterile and lacking in spontaneity, but this performance was full of life and had a raw edginess that I had not heard before. While I doubt that I will ever be a fixture on a Tribe tour I realized that they deserve a much closer listen and from that perspective day one concluded on a positive note.
My day two triple bill was Beats Antique and a couple of sets of hometown heroes, Future Rock and Umphrey’s McGee. I had only seen Beats Antique once before (ironically as an Umphrey’s opener) and my initial opinion of them was mixed. On that night one was instantly drawn to the charismatic dancing of Zoe Jakes who overshadowed the music which almost seemed to be a distraction from her efforts. On this night, though. there was a true symbiosis of music and dance. The eclectic rhythmic combinations of drummer Tommy Cappel and multi-instrumentalist David Satori remind the world that one of the true joys of music is the feeling of freedom that one gets through dancing while the artistry of Miss Jakes allows the music to take flight.
The wait for the stage to be re-set for Future Rock put a clear focus on a second major flaw with this year’s festival: the lack of water. The festival is located in a fenced off public park. The portion of the festival grounds open to attendees was equipped with a single water fountain to which thousands needed to flock to fill their camelbacks. In the previous year this shortage was met with “water stations” consisting of piles of free cases of water to which the crowd could help themselves (which, by the way, is a great example of how the festival grew in a positive way from year one to year two). No doubt the cost of this choice was excessive and, in truth, it was more than a reasonable patron could, or should, expect, but the failure to implement any sort of alternative left festival goers with no choice but to spend either time or money in order to quench their thirst.
It was strange to see Future Rock in the daylight. Normally denizens of the deep dark late night set, the Chicago based dance/rock power trio gave their hometown fans a late afternoon delight. With a set full of tight songs that are crafted to steadily build up steam until the inevitable explosion unleashes a wave of energy that crashes over the audience this band seems to feed off their fans’ burning enthusiasm. And with the flames being stoked alternately by keyboardist Mickey Kellerman and Bassist Felix Moreno, while drummer Darren Heitz relentlessly holds down the pocket, this band has perfected the self-perpetuating party which only stopped because their allotted time expired. While waiting for Umphrey’s McGee to take the stage I got a good bit of the Alesso experience. My late father had an expression that sums up my Alesso experience quite succinctly: “I’m glad I did that, now I know not to do that again.”
When it comes to Umphrey’s McGee, their shows seem to fall into two distinct categories: the free flowing dance party or, my distinct preference, the balls to the wall rock show. As was fitting to their surroundings, their North Coast set had the distinct dance party feel. When you have seen a band more than sixty times you eventually come to realize a couple of crucial truths. The first is that not every night can be their best night. The second is that the reason you have seen them so many times is because even when they are at less than their best, they are still better than most. And with that bittersweet thought day two came to a conclusion.
Day three was going to be necessarily short and I knew I needed to leave early in order to make my way to the Congress Theater for the Umphrey’s McGee’s last hometown show of the year. As a result Sunday became a double header of Van Ghost and Digital Tape Machine. Fresh off the release of their new album “The Domino Effect,” Michael Harrison Berg led his group (augmented that day by semi-regular trombonist Natalie Cressman) through a set of tunes that are both soul baring and replete with clever lyrics. It also helps that Berg can write songs that are to be sung by Jen Hartswick’s incredible voice, but it was his insight to employ the heart of one of the city’s most legendary bar bands (drummer Grant Marsh, bassist Klem Hayes and guitarist Tye “Shreddy Krueger” Grant, all formerly of Dick Holiday and the Bamboo Gang) that truly transformed Van Ghost from merely a vehicle for a very talented singer songwriter into one of the best bands in the city.
On the heels of Van Ghost’s stellar set, Digital Tape Machine took the remote corner stage. DTM is principally known as the side project for Umphrey’s McGee keyboardist Joel Cummins and drummer Kris Myers. But with a lineup rounded out by Joe Hettinga on keys (from Strange Arrangement), turntables and beatbox by My Boy Elroy (from Liquid Soul), Bryan Doherty on bass, Dan Rucinski (from Land of Atlantis) on guitar and keys, and with Chicago’s resident guitar gigolo Marcus Rezak (from the Hue) on lead guitar they might be better described as a super-group in their own right. Since their inception, this group has been relentless in developing new material and their latest batch is a diverse take on the dance party that evokes images ranging from a mellow tropical island setting to the rage of the cutting edge urban electro-dancefest. With a full Umphrey’s McGee show awaiting across town (which, fortunately, was a rock show in their finest tradition) North Coast 2012 ended of a distinct high note.