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EDM and rainstorms mar Chicago’s North Coast Music Festival

North Coast Music Festival, now in its fourth year, hit Chicago’s Union Park on Labor Day weekend with its signature mix of producers, DJs, rappers, and jam bands. The A.V. Club waded through the wafts of Nag Champa to bring you this report.


Most confounding interfusion of sonic touchstones to surprisingly fruitful effect: Over the course of one Big Gigantic song, the band managed to use ongoing saxophone solos that landed somewhere between Kenny G and the opening scene of The Lost Boys, pew-pew lasers, and bits of Justin Timberlake’s “Senorita.” On paper, a band that not only believes that these sounds go together but also describes itself as “improvisational livetronica” would be no one’s cup of tea. Still, the neon-tutu-wearing, pacifier-sucking, pubescent attendees of North Coast ate it up with a candy-coated spoon. A couple of extended samples certainly aided the Boulder, Colorado duo’s case as the crowd particularly lost it during tracks laced with of Jay Z’s “Can I Get A…” and “Let Me See Your Hips Swing” by Savage, unabashedly furthering the “people will dance to shit that they know” mantra of wedding DJs everywhere. Somewhere between the (rather impressive) hour-plus woodwind assault, four-on-the-floor trappings ostensibly provided by Richie Tenenbaum, and Stevie Wonder synth rips was a dance party—an oddly entertaining, wildly successful dance party. [EO]

Strongest display of heart: Rap royalty Nas had not only a solid comeback, but also a solid makeover, with the excellent 2012 record Life Is Good, which shifted his modus operandi from philandering Queensbridge success story to remorseful-yet-empowered father who’s owned up to the error of his ways. At times it was painfully obvious that many of the set’s onlookers were born far after the impressive lyricist’s opus, 1994’s Illmatic, especially when the man himself proclaimed “Come on, you don’t know this shit?” after pointing his mic at the befuddled crowd. But what made the timeslot compelling was the ease with which the seasoned vet deftly spit from his vast catalog —from “N.Y. State Of Mind” to “If I Ruled The World” and “Accident Murderers”—at a fast clip, all the while peppering his prose with posi vibes, along with messages about his daughter and all of mindless killing happening in our nation’s cities. “We need some leaders out here,” he told the teens. Whether the message resonates remains to be seen, but it was far more refreshing than whatever was being sucked out of all those CamelBaks.  [EO]

Best shit-eating grin: “The Black Brad Pitt” may not be the first thing that comes to mind when basking in the goofy glory of Danny Brown’s Fraggle-esque mane, befringed cut-offs, and serpent-tongue antics. But a surprise onstage collab with young ’un SD and a juiced crowd of kids gleefully shouting along to the Detroit oddball’s raunchy metaphors (“Cool Ranch Doritos,” anyone?) made it one of the more lively sets of Sunday. Frequent pauses to throw devil horns with an ear-to-ear grin only added to the effect. The dude is beyond explicit, but how can anyone really be mad about anything he says? [EO]

Most buzzed-about hologram that never happened: Marking the 20th anniversary of its iconic debut album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), The Wu-Tang Clan launched into its Sunday headlining slot with a fervor—all the better since it was racing against a storm that eventually cut the set (and the entire festival) short. Perhaps the only thing more exciting than screaming “Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nuthing ta fuck wit” to the actual Wu-Tang Clan was the rumored way in which the eight-man operation would rep its fallen member Ol’ Dirty Bastard: via hologram. Alas, the diffracted ODB never came to life. But RZA and crew did get in a few “shimmy shimmy ya”s before everyone ran to protect their necks. [EO]


Easiest teleport to another dimension: The otherworldly, cocoon-like lighting during Purity Ring’s set cranked the fest’s atmosphere up just after the sun laid itself to rest. Instrumentalist/producer Corin Roddick’s perch even featured tiny versions of the oblong lights that flared each time he tapped them, adding a dose of Close Encounters-stylecall-and-responseto the mix. That, combined with vocalist Megan James’ dramatic strikes of a kickdrum, provided just enough atmospherics to keep the visceral nature of the group’s sound interesting in a live setting, and the crowd clung to the songbird’s every ethereal word, particularly during the pair’s delightful cover of the Soulja Boy track “Grammy.”  [EO]

Best recovery from an early stumble: Mac Miller came hard and fell hard. The Pittsburgh rapper appeared to forget that a storm forced the festival to push back set times Friday night when it cloaked Union Park with rain, so when he ran onto the stage with abandon he slipped, fell over, and missed a few bars. After an entrance like that, Miller didn’t have to do much to improve his set other than tell the crowd how many hands to put in the air and hit every line in his stoned drawl while pushing his husky voice until it sounded a little hoarse. Miller threw himself into his set often enough, wildly pumping his arms in the air during the Balkan Beat Box-sampling cut “Goosebumpz” (off this year’s Watching Movies With The Sound Off) and playing hype-man for a recording of Lil B’s “I’m God” in an effort to convert his fans to the cult of the Based God, all of which helped make that initial stumble feel inconsequential. [LG]


Best result of a worst case scenario: Passion Pit’s gear got destroyed in the rain—or at least that’s what frontman Michael Angelakos told the crowd from atop a giant DJ booth after the sugary sweet indie-pop act failed to start on time. So instead of playing their instruments, Angelakos and a couple of his bandmates spun a DJ set, with Angelakos occasionally dancing around onstage and flailing his arms to chopped-up bass drops and epic, surging synths. The paint-by-numbers EDM wasn’t at all unique to Passion Pit, aside from, say, the ramped-up remix of their shimmering single “The Reeling,” but it was still better than being forced to hear Angelakos try to hit his cartoonishly high falsetto during a normal performance. [LG]

Most solos per set, blues category: North Coast plays host to jam bands that like to take an improvisational melody and draw it out for what appears to be an endless amount of time as well as DJs who cram dozens of dance hits into an endless groove, and though Austin bluesman Gary Clark Jr. doesn’t fit into either category his set resembled a jam session hinged on creating said endless grooves. Clark rolled out huge, fuzzy guitar riffs that evoked earthy R&B and heavy psych-rock, and rode them out so expertly it seemed like he could have spent another few hours just winging it. [LG]


Best self-promoter: Canadian producer Alain Macklovitch, a.k.a. A-Trak, co-founded indie label Fool’s Gold (the home of fellow North Coast performer Danny Brown), and throughout a DJ set packed with dance hits (including “Big Bad Wolf,” from A-Trak’s Duck Sauce project) and rap remixes (“Black Skinhead”), he dropped in a vocal sample of the label’s name. A-Trak used that sample the way most DJs would use an air-horn sample, peppering it throughout the set and rapidly repeating the word “Fool’s” as if the person he sampled had a terrible stutter. The dude’s relationship with Fool’s Gold is pretty clear: He’s not just the label’s co-honcho, he’s also a fan. [LG]

Best use of a heartbreakingly short set: J.C. Brooks And The Uptown Sound had a lot stacked up against them: They were slated to play at the exact same time as the Wu-Tang Clan on a tiny stage set up directly behind the festival’s main stage. But before the Chicago soul outfit got the chance to get going, an oncoming storm cut its set short; the band only managed to play one song, a cover of the classic “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” before being forced to walk offstage. The sound was so low it was practically an acoustic performance, and even though the roar of the crowd watching Wu-Tang threatened to overwhelm The Uptown Sound, Brooks easily coaxed a small group of attendees into singing along with the band. Despite the set’s early shut down, Brooks and company still delivered a strong performance with plenty of charm. [LG]


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