Electronica Hits the Highway

Traditionally summer is the season of blockbuster concert tours–superstars taking their acts to suburban sheds, where they attempt to make up in spectacle what’s lacking in intimacy. But as the pop landscape increasingly stratifies, to the point where even U2 has had to sweat a little to sell out stadiums, the thematic package bill has emerged as the vehicle of choice. It’s not just Lollapalooza and HORDE out there nowadays: urban music has the Smokin’ Grooves tour, punk and ska have Warped, female folk rock has Lilith Fair, directionless Deadheads have Furthur, metal has Ozzfest, alt-rock everyone’s already forgotten has Roar. And electronica, the new kid on the block, will soon have not one but two such shows on the road: the Big Top tour, which kicks off Wednesday at the Riviera, and the Electric Highway tour, which rolls through Navy Pier’s Grand Ballroom on September 5.

Big Top, organized by a pair of old-school underground dance-music supporters, is being promoted in Chicago by the firmly establishment Jam Productions, while the Electric Highway tour–sponsored by BF Goodrich and Spin–has gone through the respected independent promoters at Innovations, who are also behind the popular local rave magazine Thousand Words. Depending on how you look at such things, either the street cred in both cases balances out the corporate interests or the corporate interests negate the street cred. But the fact remains that even at street level, electronica boosters are eager to run with the big boys of summer.

When New Yorkers Marci Weber and Barry Taylor–who as MCT organized the first significant U.S. tours for Moby, Aphex Twin, Orbital, and Prodigy–started planning Big Top, they envisioned an all-day outdoor event that would take three separate “rings” to venues that could hold between 15,000 and 25,000 people. With the added heft of co-promoter William Morris Agency behind it, the notion didn’t seem that far-fetched. But as spring turned to summer, the size of both the venues and the roster began to shrink. Heavy hitters like Spring Heel Jack, Death in Vegas, Fluke, LTJ Bukem, Aphex Twin, and Paul van Dyk canceled as headliners (though the last two will drop in here and there on the ten-date tour), and those left on the bill are expected to play to crowds of between 2,500 and 10,000. “We had to scale it down,” says Weber. “We had been overambitious at the start, and since we want to build on this we figured it would be better to start a little smaller.” Local promoters’ fears, problems with visas, and conflicting artists’ schedules all contributed to the downsizing.

The Chicago kickoff is actually one of the smaller stops on the tour. It runs from 8 PM to 2 AM, with more production-oriented acts on the stage and DJs spinning from the balconies. Because of the limited time, a number of the tour’s most interesting performers are not on the Chicago bill, including drum ‘n’ bass heavies like Grooverider, Ed Rush, Trace and Nico, and techno pioneer Kevin Saunderson. Neither Aphex Twin nor van Dyk will drop in, and contrary to earlier plans, top local DJs won’t be included either. What remains is a still-large 14-act bill that squeezes in elder statesmen Moby and 808 State; a big “tribal” techno contingent that includes Loop Guru, BT, Banco de Gaia, Michael Dog, and Eat Static; a few unexceptional young acts like Empirion and Headrillaz; and, in a laudable nod to the music’s beginnings, Detroit techno avatars Juan Atkins and Derrick May.

According to Innovations’ Chad Sommer, the biggest difference between Big Top and Electric Highway will be the vibe. “Big Top’s going to be cool, but it’s still going to have the look and feel of a concert at the Riv, with DJs between each act,” he says, whereas Electric Highway, exploiting the wide-open spaces of Navy Pier’s pricey ballroom (it rents for about $10,000 without the required union staffing or other charges and holds about 5,000 people), will feel like a true rave. “It’s going to be a party, not just a stage with an audience,” he says.

Sommer and his partners, Wade Elliott and Bobby Villalon, have promoted countless underground dance events in the last few years, and most recently they’ve organized the slightly higher profile Juice nights at House of Blues on Sundays, bringing in relatively well-known artists like LTJ Bukem, Joey Beltram, and Keoki. Some of the DJs on the bill they’re lending their name to are terrific, including Japanese techno oddball Ken Ishii, British groove abstractionists Skylab, and Chicago house giant Cajmere (aka Green Velvet), but most of the marquee names–among them Crystal Method, Arkana, and Fluke, who bolted from the Big Top to join this tour–are crossover hopefuls whose music is only a few blips removed from the Wax Trax industrial disco of ten years ago. Electric Highway’s attendees will be greeted by vendors and have their aesthetic sensibilities tweaked by what tour publicity calls a “series of massive ‘tire art.'”

Despite Sommer’s implication that the Electric Highway show will feel more authentic than the Big Top, all this plus the fat corporate cushion brings the Electric Highway a shade closer to Lollapalooza than Big Top will come this year. And with electronica jockeying for po-sition in the pop arena, maybe that’s exactly the idea.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Chad Sommer, Wade Elliott, and Bobby Villalon photo by Brad Miller.