• Nick Gerber
  • The crowd at Passion Pit

North Coast bills itself as “summer’s last stand,” and even though global climate change and a festival season that seems to get more crowded every year appear to be conspiring to push summer back to October, Labor Day weekend remains the endpoint in many people’s minds—an occasion for one last blowout to celebrate the sunny season. The crowd in Union Park for North Coast this past weekend included lots of students, some of whom have already started the school year, and many youngsters partied like summer was never coming back. They weren’t the only ones, of course—all sorts of folks came looking to get crazy for three straight days, and they arrived at North Coast dressed for the occasion.

Some came in neon outfits emblazoned with slogans about molly or raging or some combination of the two, while others wore crisp white tank tops with the same catch phrases in neon rainbows. A few showed up in tie-dyed T-shirts (lots of Grateful Dead logos), and one intrepid attendee wore a tie-dyed button-up onesie. People caked their bodies in multicolored glitter; they dressed up like unicorns, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, nuns, and clowns; they dressed down in skimpy bathing suits or neon bras. A couple folks rolled through with Deadmau5 masks stylized after the design of the Chicago flag, and a few seapunks showed up, as did Sharkula.

There were signs too—some combined references to pop culture and drugs (a cutout of Admiral Ackbar, with his most famous line tweaked to read “It’s a trip!”), and others were lewd and crude (a stuffed rooster perched atop a wooden board, with the words “touch my” and arrows pointing to the bird). One dude managed to bring his dog, which was sporting a Wu-Tang bandana. Attendees meandered through the park selling psychedelic pins; at the outskirts of the crowd were pockets of hula-hoopers or people forming small circles to kick around a hacky-sack or light up. Smoke rose from all over the grounds, often out of a variety of unusually shaped objects—at one point a stranger seemed to confuse my sliding-keyboard cell phone for such a device, to his own mild disappointment.

At times it looked like many folks were more focused on getting fucked-up than on listening to music—not a state of affairs unique to North Coast by any means, but it was much harder to ignore here than at most festivals I’ve attended. Fortunately many of the festival artists ended up benefiting from all the allegedly entertaining chemicals in people’s systems; crowds would greet performers with jubilation regardless of the time of day or size of the stage. North Coast has evolved from its party-music template (EDM, jam bands, rap) to include a broader palette of sounds (soul, blues, Purity Ring), and people seemed to approach acts outside the fest’s familiar territory with open minds, taking in, say, the richly funky sounds of New Orleans’ Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The throngs of kids brought with them an infectious youthful exuberance that made it easier to deal with the fest’s irritations.

Like any fest, North Coast had its issues. With five stages crammed into Union Park and sometimes as many as three acts playing simultaneously within close proximity of at least one other stage, sounds didn’t bleed over so much as they collided and wrestled—at one point on Friday night I stood in the center of the park, where I could hear bass from three stages overlap into an incomprehensible mess. The weather cooperated only sporadically: a freak storm temporarily closed the park Friday night, and an incoming storm sent the crowd home early Sunday. On Friday that meant that Passion Pit had to perform a DJ set because their gear got wrecked in the rain, and on Sunday locals JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound played a single song before being forced to end their set.

  • Frank Lieu
  • Ill Legit and Pugs Atomz

Fortunately most artists had better luck and didn’t have to deal with anything worse than bad sound. Locals Pugs Atomz and Ill Legit, for instance, played the tiny “Tent Stage,” and they did the best with what they had, squeezing a couple friends onstage with them and doing everything they could to pump up the crowd—but their hip-hop tunes were crushed by overpowering bass. Another local MC, Psalm One, had better luck on a slightly bigger stage earlier that day, performing with a couple kids from her Rhyme School program, who danced, sang, and DJed like headliners. Psalm busted out material from her recent Free Hugs project, rapped with cool finesse, and persuaded people to venture out of the shade and get close despite the heat—it was hot early in the day, but Psalm didn’t let it get to her.

Many locals were scheduled in unfortunate places, but one Chicagoan had a stellar spot—and he wasn’t even on the bill. SD of Glory Boyz Entertainment dropped in on Danny Brown’s set to perform the remix for his song “New World Order,” on which Brown appears. Brown, dressed in a knee-length black T-shirt, looked a little like he was fronting a metal band during his set—he’d stomp the ground and throw devil horns while waggling his tongue. With his gooselike nasal voice, untamable frizzy hairdo, rag-doll movements, and gross-out raunchy rhymes, Brown was one of the most memorable performers at the festival.

  • Frank Lieu
  • SD and Danny Brown

Other rappers had to do a little more work to make an equally vivid impression—Nas made it look easy, rolling through his deep catalog of hits with easygoing charm and self-assured charisma. The Wu-Tang Clan fought through the din of the crowd and the tangle of members onstage to deliver 36 Chambers cuts such as “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit” with serious bite; unfortunately they didn’t bring out a “hologram” of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, something I’d wished for so much that I half expected it to happen.

I continue to grapple with my expectations of festivals, but at North Coast it’s the things I didn’t see coming that helped make my experience worthwhile. Instrumental LA postrock duo El Ten Eleven busted out a cover of Joy Division’s “Disorder,” trading Ian Curtis’s pained vocals for electric-guitar jabs. Portland producer Russ Liquid was a surprise in general. He spent his set melding the sounds of popular EDM with cool, hazy psychedelic R&B, occasionally turning away from his DJ setup to play trumpet or flute—his flute solos sometimes bordered on cheesy adult contemporary, but he played with so much enthusiasm that it kind of worked. The way he approached his set is a fine way to approach North Coast—because so many people went with more than enough enthusiasm to go around, getting through one of the last festivals of a long season was easy.

  • Frank Lieu
  • Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothing ta fuck wit