This Labor Day weekend went off oddly well!
If you know me, then you probably know I have beef with Chicago festivals. In my opinion, the crowds tend to be unfriendly in my experience which is an issue for me. But I can get caught up in a great lineup just like anyone else. Jauz, i_o, Birthdayy Partyy, and Tchami? That’s enough for me to get in the doors! So I packed my bags, and my boyfriend, and we drove the two hours down to North Coast Music Festival for a two-day mini trip to the Windy City. And boy, did NCMF squash that beef.
This year, North Coast made the decision to switch from Union Park to Northerly Island for their 10 year anniversary this Labor Day weekend and along with that, comes the comparison to the old venue. Having only been to the original venue about four years ago as a drunk, early twenty-something raver, I admittedly only remember a handful of things about Union Park: The ground was more dirt and dust than it was grass, the sound bleed between stages was terrible, an unpleasant staff all around the grounds, and the view of Chicago was underwhelming at best. It’s not much to go off of but all a big part of why I hadn’t returned until this year.
I’ll tell you this right now: the new venue made all the difference. Northerly Island had a lush lawn of grass (artificial turf but still, an upgrade), minimal sound bleed between stages, a friendly and welcoming staff, and a gorgeous view of the skyline as well as Lake Michigan. Even with my shallow, foggy memory of what North Coast used to be, it has made quite the glow up!
Walking to the venue was pretty painless even considering there were no signs to get you up to the gates. We had to guess our way around by following the others donning their rave attire through the park and past the Chicago planetarium to the gates. But once we got there, the lines were fast and efficient and before we knew it, we were on the mainstage floor.
Buying tickets came in so many options to choose from compared to the normal GA or VIP but let me break it down for you. You could get Lawn tickets with only minimal access to the grassy area behind the mainstage; the most affordable of the options. Floor, which allows you to the front paved area of the mainstage, a must if you’re a “rail rider”. Grandstand, which is the same access as the floor but you’re given a reserved seat in the stands of the mainstage, a lovely choice if you want to escape the crowd. And last, VIP grandstand which grants full access, a grandstand seat, and to the VIP lounge area if you like to be bougie.
Now my boyfriend and I had Grandstand seats which, admittedly, were only used once for all of 20 minutes total. I will say that it was a nice retreat to have a reserved place to sit down and rest my feet because I am old and everything hurts. No matter where you were in the stands, you had a good view of the stage. But in all honesty, if you had only lawn access, you didn’t miss much since all the “festival vibes” were in the lawn area. The paved floor section felt more like a concert than a fest which is why I didn’t spend much time there (except to get drinks because, hello, you could buy BOTTLES of wine in the floor section and prosecco is my bread and butter). The best times were had on the lawn with the rest of the plebs.
In my personal preference, the day one lineup wasn’t much of a must-see. Which ended up for the best because we’re weren’t restricted by the schedule and could explore as we pleased. After we met up with friends and watched Wooli throw down a notably heavy set, including some psytrance tunes I especially enjoyed, we frolicked the grounds the rest of the night. As the sun set over the Chicago skyline, we sat in our seats for the big man, Bassnectar, heard a few tracks then decided to call it a night. No afterparties for us Friday, we had to rest up for Saturday!
I usually spend my time away from the mainstage, so I was pleasantly surprised to find out there was plenty to explore beyond the floor like art installations, a volleyball court, three other stages including a silent disco, vendors, and even a couple live paintings in the lawn area. The GoodBus stage was consistently entertaining with a solid lineup of local artists and nonstop dancing both days. Those GoodSex boys really know how to throw a party. There was a small sound clash between the Bus and the Hangar stage depending on where you were standing but nothing too uncomfortable. Now if you want to talk about uncomfortable, try going into the hangar stage anytime after 6:30 pm when the bigger artists were scheduled.
This tented stage was great in the afternoon for artists like Birthdayy Partyy and Kyle Walker when there were fewer people around and you have plenty of space for activities but trying to get inside this shoulder to shoulder crowd for the likes of i_o or Jauz was damn near impossible. When the rain drizzle hit the second day during Ookay, everyone and their mother tried to seek shelter under the Hangar so we braved the rain and get wet in exchange for the ability to breathe.
I wish all the sets at the Hangar could have been like Birthdayy Partyy’s set on Saturday. Plenty of people but still enough space to dance, shuffle, mosh (oh yeah there was moshing at Birthdayy Partyy) or whatever tickles your fancy in a crowd. The absolute highlight of the weekend with a plethora of original tracks, a few unreleased tunes, and a crowd full of people who couldn’t get enough of the hometown heroes, Birthdayy Partyy. Meeting the boys’ parents in the crowd was so fucking wholesome I drunkenly cried about it later that night. I’m a drunk crier, it’s all good.
We did, however, move to the mainstage floor for Tchami on Saturday night and I, again in the theme of the weekend, was pleasantly surprised at the energy on the floor. The crowd was fun! I expected more standing than dancing but Tchami had everyone in this crowd moving in every direction. I really shouldn’t be so jaded. The pavement wasn’t preferable but I forgot all about that with all the dancing I was doing. After a long weekend and a few choice tracks from the GOAT Jauz at the Hangar, we called our car to take us back and gear up for the afterparty. You’ll hear more about that when I emotionally recover from all the feels I was overwhelmed with at the afterparties.
After North Coast’s 10 year anniversary, I’ll think twice about my preconceived notions of Chicago festivals and the crowds they draw. The people we met and the sets we say were well worth the drive. Here’s to hoping Northerly Island stays the new home of North Coast Music Festival in the upcoming years because in that case, sign me the fuck up and call me a Coastie.