Dixon, accompanied by gaudy visuals of a woman’s ass in motion
Riverwest Festival, which took place July 4th-6th in Chicago, had a lot going for it even before the gates opened. Like a lot of major American cities, Chicago is finally hungry enough for dance music that a whole festival of it seems feasible. And with Wavefront Fest canceled this year, Riverwest stood poised to attract all the beat-hungry people not satiated by the EDM-focused Spring Awakening, the Chosen Few Reunion Picnic, or a few smaller street festivals featuring DJs. Riverwest’s line-up was broad enough to attract the above ground masses (acts like Deep Dish, Excision, and Guy Gerber), underground heads (with DJ Koze and Marcel Fengler), and all those in-between. Even better, the festival was centrally located across from Goose Island. Many of its organizers are veterans of Chicago’s club scene and several were involved with Wavefront in previous years, so it was an experience crew at the helm.
In some ways, Riverwest lived up to this potential. Being a relatively small festival, it was easy to get around, buy food or drink, access the toilets, and even the most sought after acts were never overcrowded. The weather behaved for most of the weekend except for a light drizzle on Saturday night, otherwise staying warm and mostly sunny. And most importantly, the artists delivered the goods almost universally.
Unfortunately there were some significant organizational flaws that kept Riverwest from being a full-on success story. The most glaring was the Belvedere Terrace Stage, located on the rooftop deck of the bar/restaurant Estate, which for all intents and purposes was its own separate event. Fest ticket-holders were not guaranteed access to the roof because of capacity issues, which Estate security staff told me topped out at 250 people. The only way to get up there was waiting in two long lines that moved only when someone else left the terrace — unless you wanted to buy a bottle service table for $1,500. And if you were one of the all-ages ticketholders, you weren’t getting into the 21+ Estate at all. On Friday, I spent all of Marcel Fengler’s set queuing, barely able to hear the music piped inside over the din of the crowded bar. Upon ascending to the terrace an hour later I found it was nowhere near 250 people full, looking more like 125-150 spread out across the roof’s two levels, with only 75 or so near the booth. And since it was one-in-one-out, you couldn’t leave to explore other stages or get food unless you didn’t mind missing other acts.
The other downsides were smaller but still noteworthy. In addition to a lack of printed schedules anywhere (fest-goers were encouraged to visit the online schedule instead), none of the stages were labeled by their respective alcohol sponsor (Belvedere, 312 [Goose Island], and Veuve), so guess work and word-of-mouth was required to figure out where you needed to be at what time. Security was exceptionally tight and particularly aggressive in policing the festival grounds, the work of Premier Tactical Solutions Corp, a militia-for-hire whose staff wore fatigues and bulletproof vests like they were ready for a riot. While I’m sure that rooted out a lot of illegal drugs, it didn’t make me feel anymore safe or comfortable. The large stages were positioned no more than a few hundred feet apart, which meant there were significant sound bleed issues at almost all times. Perhaps most annoying was some of the stage management, which left more than one exasperated DJ watching their set time melt away while techs scrambled to set up gear between sets instead of during other sets. It seemed like the logistics of keeping a dance music festival running smoothly — like having booths large enough for two sets of gear — hadn’t been fully considered by those charged with doing so. This added up to a sense that Riverwest Fest was thrown together somewhat haphazardly.
Upon getting acclimated with the festival grounds and catching the tail-end of local DJ Mantas Steles’ opening up the Veuve Stage, I began the long process of getting on Estate’s roof. When I arrived Matador was playing a live set of what I can only describe as MOR party tech-house whose aesthetic at times suggested the last six or seven years of dance music never happened. Another sad reminder of how far M_nus has fallen. A distressed looking DJ Koze started nearly 15 minutes late while the crew belatedly set up CDJs, but proceeded to work his magic from the first beat. His beautiful chosen melodic house tracks, all warped by extensive and expressive uses of effects, fit the late afternoon sunshine to a tee. It felt like a rare treat to be among the 150 or so people soaking up his chunky, psychedelic selections, although I felt sad for the many waiting downstairs.
As Henrik Schwarz set up, I noted that the 312 Stage in the distance behind him was still as lightly attended as it had been all day. It felt especially unfair to see a full-on stage woefully empty while at least 100+ people waited in vain for rooftop access. Schwarz’s live set proved to be more frenetic and free than I had expected, rifling through his catalog of soulful house music. It started, of course, with “Chicago,” and despite stage monitors that couldn’t keep up with his need for volume, Schwarz gave engaging performances of “I Exist Because Of You,” his remix of Emmanuel Jal’s “Kuar,” and his remix of James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s World” interspersed with snare rolls and dynamic EQing. After that, hunger and a lack of interest in Visionquest’s lengthy set led me home for a while. I skipped all the various official Riverwest Fest afterparties in favor of Derrick Carter doing (mostly) disco all night long at Smart Bar, which was fantastic. If you ever get the chance to see him playing disco, don’t miss your chance.
Unlike Friday, most of the acts I most wanted to see on Saturday were playing the 312 Stage rather than Estate. Enjoying pleasantly overcast skies, the first set I caught was by Heidi. While Canadian by birth and raised in the spirit of Detroit, it’s clear that what’s in her heart is jacking house influenced by Chicago. No matter what she played, jacking percussion was at the core and nicely suited for afternoon ass-shaking. Matt Tolfrey offered his own house sound on the Veuve stage, albeit one cut with a techno edge. While not quite my style, it was better than the lowest common denominator festival house of Steve Lawler who followed him. Lawler did attempt to finish on a high note, playing “House Nation” by The House Master Boyz until he was abruptly cut off so techs could switchover the set-ups. Watching one the festival organizers apologize on-stage to the understandably miffed Lawler was uncomfortable but reassuring. I also caught parts of DJ Tennis, who started out strong with some melodically complex modern disco-house, but quickly retreated to safer, straight ahead festival house cuts that led me to wander.
Marcel Dettmann, who played the 312 Stage as night began to fall, is rightly included in the upper eschelons of darker techno DJs, but he doesn’t get enough credit for the musical breadth of his sets. It was great fun hearing him work out of his banging techno wheelhouse into more melodic territory, then slice into stirring house cuts like Fingers Inc.’s “Music Take Me Up.” It was easily the most dynamic set I’ve seen him play, which more than made up for the smaller crowd he drew compared to Lee Foss and then Deep Dish. I watched the reunited prog veterans for a little while and found they were playing music much more closely aligned with their respective solo aliases (Dubfire and Sharam), although a few goofy prog moments made it in, as well.
Dixon closed out the 312 Stage with a set very much in line with his appearance at Movement Festival a little more than a month ago. What’s interesting about Dixon is that while he’s musically rather close with his more middle-brow peers, his selections and pacing is superior. He played several of the weekend’s big tunes — I was able to pick out Moderat’s “Bad Kingdom” remixed by DJ Koze and Ame’s unreleased remix of “From Nowhere” by Dan Croll (who sounds alarmingly like Big Bird). It does make me yearn for the days when he was still playing deep house, but for what he does, he’s certifiably the best in the business. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to keep the crowd moving, leading Heidi to jump on the mic and exhort Chicago to put more energy into their response. But, in all honesty, the crowd proved lackluster at dancing all weekend, not just for Dixon.
I decided to skip the Sunday portion of the festival, as even its most appetizing names (Apollonia, Benoit & Sergio) were not enough to justify a third day in the sun. And no one needs me complaining about DJs I knew were not going to keep me entertained.
Early on I was told by festival staff that Riverwest Fest was already scheduled to return in 2015. While I welcome the opportunity to attend another dance music festival with sought after artists, Riverwest will need to greatly improve upon its organization and layout (perhaps looking to Movement for guidance) to win back disgruntled fest-goers. Otherwise it will be all too easy to simply attend afterparties and leave the festival itself to the naive masses.