Chicago's Wavefront Music Festival Offers an EDM Alternative

Wavefront Music Festival

Rubin Roche

Despite some missteps, the beach fest counters other festivals with credible headliners and local talent.

Wavefront Music Festival, which wrapped its second year last night (July 7) at Chicago’s Montrose Beach, is not Electric Daisy Carnival. The accouterment for its Main Stage, dubbed The Wave, was not an animatronic owl with plasma screen eyes; it was two blue-painted wooden wave structures with some plastic “foam” on top, that looked like a high school drama club made them. The side stage called The Cube was not an actual cube, as modern festival-goers might come to expect. It was just a stage, with a few LED screens arranged in a square formation hanging from its trussing. The sound was not super. It was muffled, dull, or overloud, and bleed was occasionally crippling, as DFA patriarch James Murphy discovered during his Friday night set (“Could my monitors be louder than the sound from the other stage?” he quipped to the tech).

But all the things that made Wavefront unpolished (and in only its second year, what else could it be?) were the things that made it so endearing, and important. Because when the children of EDC start wanting a deeper, stranger, or more localized dance music experience (that’s the cycle of fan-dom, after all), someone has to be ready to provide.

With a one-of-a-kind setting on Montrose Beach (the sunsets in particular were gorgeous), Wavefront already had one point of differentiation from its electronic dance festival competitors, Electric Daisy’s Chicago event (May 24-26 at the Chicagoland Speedway), and Spring Awakening (June 14-16 at Soldier Field). The next was its lineup, a combination of the expected EDM rock stars (Diplo, Fatboy Slim) that made up the majority of EDC and Spring Awakening’s slates, plus underground heroes in headlining slots (Nicolas Jaar, Jamie Jones), and full-on dance music legends, many with direct connections to Chicago as the birthplace of house music (Frankie Knuckles, Derrick Carter).

The cocktail sounded great on paper, and as far as experience goes -- musical experience -- it was. The tent for Knuckles’ blissful homecoming set on Saturday night was only about a quarter full, but those few hundred people were communing with the legend in a deeply personal way. Fans of Jaar and Get Lost boss Damian Lazarus seemed to turn up expressly for those acts, injecting an underground club cool to the beachfest. Refreshingly, the VIP areas didn’t have bottle service - only an open bar that included free vodka, beer and coconut water. Artists like Maya Jane Coles, Crookers, AC Slater, and Jacques Lu Cont played to late-day crowds that probably outsized those that might catch them in earlier time slots at much bigger festivals.

Packs of guys in ‘96 Bulls T-shirts (there was even a Michael Jordan head cut-out bobbing about the crowd), girls in cargo shorts and bikini tops, plus occasional ravers, hippies, and even Goths made up the throng, which seemed to be relatively unsophisticated in terms of its dance music fan-dom. That greenness allowed them to roam a bit more freely, taking in stages and sounds that more finicky fans might have skipped. Some of these artists inevitably won over new fans this weekend.

Wavefront misstepped where it went against its own brand -- your kinder, gentler, more astute and democratic festival -- and invited in the EDM demigods. A troupe of naked (except for electrical tape) porn star types (not go-go dancers) simulated sex acts on an elevated platform to the left of The Wave, where onlookers gawked and snapped pictures. It was an affront to the female artists who played the festival, and the female fans who should have been able to enjoy it free from such an objectifying and male-targeted display. An image of go-go girls eating ice cream off each other’s derrieres flashed behind Frankie Knuckles during his classics set. Whoever made that choice should have been escorted from the premises. No one begrudges a young festival bringing on sponsors (kudos if it can), but sticking innovative underground stalwart Lee Burridge on the Groupon Stage didn’t feel smart. Probably equally horrified, he ended up not playing.

Next year, Wavefront should consider going two days (three felt like a stretch), investing in figuring out its sound issues, and seriously think about its female fans before it books “non-music performances.” But from the looks of things, there will be a next year, and that’s a great thing for Chicago, and dance music’s next act.

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