An Indie Rock Nerd’s Experience at an EDM Festival

“Because the crowd only has a single wish—to dance…”

By Miriam Benjamin

An indie rock nerd walks into an EDM festival….

I’ve done some depraved shit to see artists I love, I admit. But wrangling a press pass to go to North Coast, a three-day EDM festival, in order to see The Chemical Brothers was pretty extreme, even by my standards. I’d never been to a rave before, but here I was, standing in the middle of Union Park, surrounded by the spiritual descendants of Woodstock attendees who exchanged candy bracelets using a special handshake while simultaneously intoning the phrase “Love, Peace, Respect.” (Or was it “Peace, Love, Respect”?) More observations from my weekend in raver’s paradise are as follows:

On Friday, I decided to try my hand at festival EDM. The non-EDM headliner that night was ’80s jam band Widespread Panic; considering my utter abhorrence of long, wailing guitar solos, I figured I had nothing to lose. I started with The Glitch Mob. The Glitch Mob is a group of three dudes (big name DJs are always dudes) who set up their launchpads visible to the audience. The launchpads added a visual element to The Glitch Mob’s performance and gave them credibility, proving that they’re doing everything themselves and, contrary to a long-held belief in the indie rock world, that it ain’t easy to be an EDM DJ. The amount of rhythmic coordination these three DJs displayed was unreal; they’re just as tight a unit as any band I’ve seen.

During The Glitch Mob’s set, I gathered that the goal of festival EDM is to maximize the amount of dancing the audience can do; it’s hedonism distilled into “beatz.” Thus, musical greatness is achieved by perfecting the small-beat-to-big-drop golden ratio. There need to be enough drops in the music to hold the audience’s attention, but not so many that the drops lose their massiveness.

Contemplating the carnage, I found myself appreciating festival EDM for the power it imbues in the audience. Somewhere along the evolution of rock history, the performer became less obligated to please the audience. It became more important to push the boundaries of music, or to make music for oneself. If the members of the audience came around eventually, cool; if they didn’t, that didn’t make their music any less valid. A festival EDM DJ, on the other hand, exists for the audience. Because the crowd only has a single wish—to dance—the DJ’s only job is to make that happen. And dance we do.

Following my stint at festival EDM, I decided to dedicate some time to Chicago bands, the first of which was NE-HI. Before it, I had never really gotten the chance to experience regional pride for a band. Watching it win over its small crowd (their parents were there! how adorable!), I reveled in the feeling that I lived in the same city that spawned NE-HI. Even better were the songs themselves: NE-HI used its guitars to stab out summery melodies, with the end result being both abrupt and ethereal. 

I was less attached to The Gold Web, an “art-glam” band from Logan Square (their words, not mine). It seems more art than glam; its outfits appear to have been dreamed up by Noel Fielding, as the lead singer has a pair of five-foot raven wings attached to his back. Their supposed glam rock has none of the grittiness of, say, T. Rex. It’s all Walk the Moon-style pop rock, and I felt mildly let down.

The EDM and Chicago bands were, admittedly, a lot of fun. But the reason I wanted to go in the first place was to see the headliners: and they didn’t disappoint.

D’Angelo is one of those human beings whose existence seems unjust. The guy writes and produces his own music, plays guitar and keyboard, sings, dances, and oozes charisma. Is that really fair, Higher Being? Even though he didn’t leave much talent for the rest of us, at least D’Angelo exists. He and the Vanguard cranked out one of the best shows I’ve ever seen and made it look easy. While D’Angelo is clearly the leader, almost every member of the Vanguard had his or her chance in the spotlight—D’Angelo danced with his backup vocalist, formed a chorus line with his guitarists, and even cozied up to his bass player, who smiled bashfully.

The setlist was pristine. D’Angelo opened with “Ain’t That Easy,” the lurching, menacing opener of his 2014 comeback album Black Messiah. “Brown Sugar,” from his 1995 debut of the same name, cropped up at the end to euphoric cheers. In between, he gave a shout out to the Black Lives Matter movement, with which Black Messiah heavily concerns itself. The songs he played from Voodoo and Brown Sugar ensured the older fans left happy, but it’s hard to imagine anyone walking away from D’Angelo’s set unhappy. Despite his often-dark subject matter, D’Angelo beamed his way through the performance, and his pleasure was contagious.

The Chemical Brothers are the old dudes on the block. Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons started The Chemical Brothers in 1989, when some of the other DJs on the bill were in their mothers’ wombs. EDM has changed beyond recognition from when they started, and festival EDM in particular is clearly a young person’s circus. Yet the Chemical Brothers are still around—they and their fellow big-beat pioneers The Prodigy both headlined festivals this summer. The reason for their longevity is simple: they make bangers. Take 2015 single “Go,” from Born in the Echoes—longtime collaborator Q-Tip raps over zigzagging beats and blaring siren sounds. Live, “Go” was one of the few songs that wasn’t heavily remixed; and when Q-Tip screamed, “We’re only here to make you GO!” the song turned into a mission statement. They finished with the one-two punch of “Galvanize” and “Block Rockin’ Beats,” and as I wobbled toward the exit, I decided the press pass had absolutely been worth it.