Entering Union Park yesterday to take in the sights and sounds of North Coast Music Festival’s inaugural run, I was immediately struck by how it reminded me of a Midwest—and pared down—version of Burning Man. It also occurred to me that it could grow to the same level of success that Detroit’s Electronic Music Festival, Movement, has. Jokes abound when you mention raves—and how passe they are—but there are still a hell of a lot of kids out there that embrace the culture, complete with its glow sticks, fuzzy boots, baggy pants and all night dance marathons. North Coast clearly had this demographic in mind when they organized the fest, and while it met with a few minor hiccups (like running out of drink tickets for an hour) it otherwise harnessed the vibe perfectly. If anyone attendance last night didn’t have a good time, they clearly missed the point.
An overcast and decidedly fall evening, thankfully the cloud cover only flirted with rain for about five minutes, leaving us to a cool—ok, a bit chilly —evening and a steady thump of techno (thanks Paul Kalkbrenner, I’m sorry I didn’t hear more of your set), trance, post-rave trip-hop and an monumental first night send off from the Chemical Brothers.
Taking the mic just after 7pm, German trance colossus Paul Van Dyk apologized for a delayed start. Apparently immigration gave him a hard time upon arrival. But, honestly, everyone was already feeling the effects of numerous beers and various other extra curriculars and wasn’t about to hold anything against him. A seasoned vet, he thanked us for our patience and didn’t miss another beat, plowing straight into his uplifting and anthemic set that stuck pretty closely to the progressive mold. A few techno-tinged numbers found their way in, as did the ever present electro crunch dominating the club scene. The neon and spike-haired, bunny ear-wearing, fuzzy boot rocking masses ate it up all the same, hands held high for every epic breakdown.
Pretty Lights, in contrast to Van Dyk, took a wholly different approach to keeping the well attended night rocking. Derek Vincent Smith, a.k.a. Colorado’s Pretty Lights, and his live drummer Adam Deitch have carved a nice little niche for themselves on the festival circuit with their head nod-inducing rave-hop (as I’ve chosen to coin it). Mixing DJ Shadow-like sampling, with boom-bap beats backed up with live drums and light show that should come with a warning to those who suffer from epilepsy, Pretty Lights can simultaneously cater to the those that love the more free spirited jam band side of things and the lights and sound spectacle that’s a signature of an over-the-top electronic event like North Coast. Practically the entire crowd was front-and-center at the Groupon-sponsored stage, and while I personally found their sound a bit watered down to truly keep my attention, clearly I was a minority in this regard. In its own way, the sound and aesthetic of the performance make Pretty Lights a poster group for the whole festival. And in the end I was impressed by the enthusiastic following they’ve garnered for themselves.
And then there was the Chemical Brothers. Standing in the crowd, surrounded by undulating scenesters of every stripe—Frat and Sorority types, old school Chem Brothers fans, ravers of all ages and those (like me) who don’t quite fall under any of those banners abounded—I had to mentally check myself to be sure I didn’t shower too much praise on the duo. But as a haze of pot smoke wafted past me and the Chems set ratcheted up into hyper speed, I was stunned to nothing but a little grin and an overwhelming urge to get my hands up where everybody else already had theirs. I wasn’t alone, all my friends kept turning me, taken aback by how impressive this show was. The duo spanned from slo-mo discoid retreads of hits like “Galvanize,” the set’s opener, to big beat techno, like “Horse Power” from their newest album. In fact, the two performed much of their new album, of which “Swoon” with its swirling distorted synths and happy house beat stood out as my highlight of the night. They left no stone unturned, managing to fit house, drum ‘n’ bass and acid into their hour and a half set as well. Paired with the music, the Chemical Brothers also perform with a massive visual backdrop that flashed bombs, bouncing (and exploding) paintballs, dancing silhouettes and god knows what else at us, keeping all of our senses wrapped up in what is truly one of the best electronic music performances I have ever seen, and quite possibly will ever see.
The rave scene may technically be dead, but let’s not forget why we were there, what we were on, or what makes a show like the Chemical Brothers great: Electronic music exudes a transcendent and care free spirit, and as some dude yelled “that was fucking sick” behind me when the lights came up, I headed to the front gates to carry on with my night without a care in the world.