The smooth, laid-back sounds of People Under The Stairs was just what the doctor ordered to begin the day. The LA-based duo of Thes One and Double K took the audience on a journey back through time with their nostalgic stripped-down beats and deep poetic lyrics. The duo did not bring a DJ, instead choosing to run their equipment themselves; it was a refreshing sight. The grins on their faces grew wider as the show went on and it indicated they were having the time of their lives on stage. The set had a very loose and free-flowing feel to it; it went by way too quickly. … Back over on the Red Bull Stage was Gramatik, who seemed to play every festival under the sun this summer. And for good reason: this duo throws down amazing live performances every time. Just the fact that it’s high-powered EDM with a live guitarist separates a Gramatik show from the pack. But add in their completely unique electro-upon-hip hop flavor and you have a different beast altogether. This was yet another strong set from these guys, but one that leaned a little too heavily on their newer, more aggressive material. Gramatik’s got a huge stockpile of these floaty-funky, chilled out songs that he seems to be getting away from, which isn’t necessarily a good thing… Dan Deacon and his band opened up their set with a quirky rendition of “Under the Sea,” the theme song from The Little Mermaid. If that isn’t an indication that an audience should expect almost anything, I don’t know what is. Deacon spent a lot of time chatting up the audience, making random observations and even making fun of the dubstep craze that has taken over. Throughout the show, he guided the crowd through several exercises that requireded mass participation. At times it was difficult to distinguish him from an actual musician or a comedic entertainer along the lines of Reggie Watts. And as for the music itself? The group’s psychedelic, noisy garage rock sounds revved up the crowd and got them bouncing around. They even threw in a cover of Built to Spill for good measure. But overall, the show came off as gimmicky and felt like it was very similar to all their shows, a one-trick pony if you will… With such an abundance of electronic and dance-based music at this festival, it was Strange Arrangement who really broke the mold and delivered some much needed guitar music. This is currently one of Chicago’s most pronounced jam bands, and with good reason. The band’s chemistry seems to be growing exponentially and lead guitarist Jim Conry seems to progress with every show. It’s exciting to see a phenomenal local band moving in such a positive direction, especially opening up their songs to create massive sandwiches like they did with “Pegasus” to bring the set to a powerful close. There are big things on the horizon for Strange Arrangement… Beats Antique‘s set was one of the bigger disappointments of the weekend. The group veered away from their percussive-heavy tendencies and opted for a more relaxed, dubby tone. It lacked energy and left a lot of people standing around. Main attraction Zoe Jakes mesmerized the audience as usual but it seemed almost too familiar, like we had seen the same show at another festival not too long ago. Although they got livelier and fulfilled our wish by the end of the set, it wasn’t enough to sway us from thinking this was all they had… It’s always cool to see an artist in multiple settings in the same festival. And that’s exactly what Thibault‘s mid-day set represented at NCMF. Unlike the previous night, he wasted no time in getting to the skull-shattering stuff, supplying enough energy to power half the city. This dude knows how to get a crowd cranked up in any environment and this day set was as devastating as they come… DFA Records sent two artists to represent their pioneering dance-punk sound. The west coast collective known as Yacht brought a fiery Talking Heads-inspired brand of rock to the Red Bull stage. The group’s funky rhythms anchored the set and separated them from other artists. Singer Claire L. Evans was especially captivating, strutting around stage like a born star. This set was an absolute gem of the weekend. The Rapture also borrowed from electronic and post-punk elements but had a bit more punch to their arsenal. The four piece had a very impressive sound, covering a lot of bases and sounding as if they had more members on stage. Both groups were a prime example of DFA’s motto: “too old to be new, too new to be classic.” North Coast favorites Future Rock returned for the third appearance, playing to their biggest audience at Union Park yet. They stepped up to the plate and delivered rousing performance. While their recent addition to 1320 Records will only raise their profile among fans, their live show will be the thing that keeps people coming back for more. They focused mostly on newer material off their two recent EP’s Nights and One Day but also threw in a some covers like Gorillaz “Glitter Freeze” to mix things up. The trio brewed up a thick, hypnotic electronic storm that swallowed up the audience and had them swimming in synthesizers… The lineup in the Groupon Silent Disco was all over the map, but there was one matchup that stood out above all the rest: Kid Color vs. Wyllys, a true disco showdown. But it wasn’t much of a competition as there was absolutely no losing with either DJ. Wyllys dropped a set of old school, sleazy ass disco funk, while Kid Color brought the modern take on disco with a slick set of disco-house beauty. It was nearly impossible to choose one over the other, so flipping back and forth was a necessity, and actually a really fun thing. This hour was yet another gem of the weekend … This year NCMF did a great job of bringing in some hip hop heavyweights to headline, with Atmosphere bringing the heat on this night. Simply put, Atmosphere threw one hell of a party. He began with “Trying To Find A Balance,” arguably his most popular song, and right off the bat it was clear that his live band was tack sharp, providing an angle on live hip hop that you just don’t see that often. This song was reworked to instrumental perfection, kicking off this mammoth set in high style. He meandered through his entire history, featuring such bangers as “Guns and Cigarettes” and “God Loves Ugly” all without the help of a hype man, which was another refreshing aspect of this show. All too often hype men can get in the way of a hip hop show, but this set was all about Slug and his smooth confidence on the big stage. This was easily one of the best sounding, most energetic, and straight up best sets of the festival… Taking Girl Talk at face value is something every music fan should do at least once. The man may not be adding a lot of substance to music production/performance, but he sure does know how to throw a great dance party. The track selection may have been a bit more mainstream than the audience was used to but it still did not stop them from singing along to the lyrics. As usual, he invited an obscene amount of people on stage and danced around more than actually mixing. There was not much new; except for maybe the confetti that replaced the toilet paper at the end of the show. In the moment however, none of those thoughts dominated my mind. He had me dancing, just like everyone else. As we said, if you take it at face value, it’s a hell of a dance party. Headlining the night at the opposite end of Union park was Umphreys McGee. The Red Bull stage was the ideal location as this more intimate setting always seems to radiate positive energy after the sun goes down. This was especially the case as UM LD Jefferson Waful unleashed the best lightshow this little corner of Union park has ever seen. This one-set show was a little off the beaten path: they really seemed to play towards the crowd more than they did last time, offering more electronic-sounding material than the staples. But that wasn’t really a bad thing thanks to a cover of Daft Punk’s “Voyager” that ended up feeling like a new addition to the ‘Nurse’ family. We also got the rare bustout of a “Mantis Ghetts” that felt perfect for the musical climate. But then they closed the set with some good old fashioned rock n roll: a massive “Puppet String” sandwich with a cover of The Who’s “Eminance Front” in the middle. The way Joel Cummins teased the beginning of “Front” as “Puppet” faded away was sheer genius. It’s the little touches like that that makes Umphrey’s McGee such a special band. It’s official: Umphrey’s McGee should probably play every North Coast Fest.
As always, NCMF brought a slew of amazing after-parties to choose from — this is one area where they truly thrive. But none of the afters stood out as much as the heavyweight pairing of Future Rock and STS9 at one of Chicago’s finest venues: House of Blues. Shows at HOB, especially Silver Wrapper/React shows have become some of the best rages in the city, and this night hovered on the edge of transcendant the whole time. Future Rock was obviously up first, but with the way they played, they could have headlined just about anywhere. This was one of the best Future Rock sets I’ve ever seen. Period. These guys have a tendency to feel a little loose at times but on this night they were as sharp as possible, pounding through a mammoth set that seemed like it could never end. A lot of bands do the ‘tension and release’ thing well, but few do it the way Future Rock does. They built these insane runs up the mountain over and over again, only to break open releases that invariably set the crowd on fire. This band has matured so far over the past couple of years and this show confirmed that they have become a band that cannot be overlooked — their raw energy is undeniable. Future Rock is a monster, and Chicago is fortunate that they call it home.
STS9‘s set on Friday night was without question one of the best of the festival, and this after party pounded home the simple truth that they are 100% back and as good as ever. They started off with the fantastic move of playing “Scheme Reprise” which instantly tied this set to their festival set, something that seems like they just wouldn’t have done in 2009. A midset “The Rabble” sounded fantastic and brought a huge energy peak before the classic “Moonsocket” came back to Earth with some of Hunter Brown’s trademark noodling (that is NOT a derogatory term, by the way). Then they ended the set with “EHM,” a song that has become a staple encore song but was brilliantly placed in the first set to establish just how serious they were. The second set was more of the same beautiful playing, led by a pair of very old songs “Evasive Maneuvers” and “Kamuy” to begin, both of which had that ‘special’ feeling that seemed to have faded from Tribe’s vibe in recent memory. Murph’s bass was in full effect in a midset “What Is Love?” and HB’s more brutish guitar style came out in “Inspire Strikes Back.” It seemed as if everything was set up for a massive, bass-drenched encore, but instead they played the soothing card with “Breathe In” which, in hindsight, came off as a great way to end. Sound Tribe is back in every possible way.