Festival Report: Spring Awakening Music Festival 2016

Ok, ok, we get it — EDM is dead. We’ve only been talking about it being dead since late 2013 now.

The festival scene, particularly in America, never got that memo, at least not until relatively recently. Spring Awakening has been hailed for its entire five-year history as the premier EDM festival in Chicago city limits, and while this year was decisively EDM-shaded in sound and appearance, this year’s crowd was among the most eclectic and diverse we’d seen at a dance event. Yeah, there were a lot of white college kids from the many far reaches of the midwest — there were also scores of folks of every age and race, far more so than at previous incarnations of this festival and indeed many other EDM festivals most of us have attended.

This year’s crowd was, at a glance, also the safest we’ve observed at any major festival. There were a few folks we noticed that had partied too hard and needed help, but no one whose safety appeared imminently in danger. This is notable for any festival, but especially at SAMF, which has felt occasionally and repeatedly unsafe in years past (lest we forget several people climbing the scaffolding towers at last year’s festival or the off-site casualty from the same year).

To say React Presents improved safety would to undersell it; they entirely revamped it. Free water was widely available and easy to find, the festival was incredibly easy to navigate, and the accessibility of both the venue and the staff inside was accommodating to say the least. Hell, even the food was good — eating Harold’s chicken wings in the shade while watching Dada Life go nuts is a highly recommended experience.

The rumors of fights in the crowd at RL Grime or mass-pickpocketers were unsubstantiated by any of us, and kind of shockingly, none of us had too rude of an interaction the whole time. What we did see were good-natured adults behaving like absolute children in the best way, losing it to the likes of Dillon Francis and Zed’s Dead, while making their own fun with whatever was lying around. Specific shouts out to the crew who used a folding chair as a festival stick/makeshift raver elevator and whoever was dressed up as a priest holding a ‘Send Nudes’ sign. When a guy in pink LED heart sunglasses handed Amber a pair of GloFX kaleidoscope glasses however, she promptly went to another level.

Next to a profound lack of clothes on attendees, this was about as PG-13 as the weekend actually got, next to a dude in a drug rug scurrying around the crowd muttering “molly molly molly for sale” as his too-young girlfriend followed behind. Normally there are a half-dozen of those types per day at a festival, but this was the only drug dealer we noticed all weekend.

You’d think this was because of harsh security, but we’re happy to report they are included in the ranks of ‘nice staff’ that were on-site. We confirmed this because there was weed fucking everywhere. I don’t get it, it’s like today’s festival-goers prefer substances that don’t make you vomit or die to further enjoy the music they’re seeing.

As far as must-see acts, Dillon Francis, Zed’s Dead, and RL Grime stole the shows for each night. Gesaffelstein ruled daytime on the second day, performing in layers of denim on a 93 degree day. He’s getting healthy because he only smoked 5 cigarettes over his hour long set – down from 11 when we last saw him at last year’s Freaky Deaky. While his set was one of the most unique of the weekend, his expression was ever-stone faced. The extent of his coolness was directly defined by his emotional distance from the crowd — vast.

Rezz additionally rocked day three with a set chock-full of unreleased material and downtempo bassy goodness. The likes of Ghastly, Light Em Up, Above And Beyond, Datsik, and Claude Vonstroke provided other highlight moments for the weekend, while we floated stage-to-stage. The best set of the festival is a hands-down draw between Zeds Dead and RL Grime — both of whom delivered jam-packed sets that recounted their best highlights and equally exciting new material.

While there were a few non- or less-EDM acts, notably Jamie XX, Crystal Castles, and Flying Lotus, maybe half of those sets really worked. Jamie XX played greatly to a smaller crowd that recognized a few tracks as Dillon Francis bodied a much larger contingent at the adjacent stage. Flying Lotus was perhaps too chill or disjointed to captivate the entirety of his crowd, despite an tight set and appearance from his rap alter ego, Captain Murphy. Politely, Crystal Castles were shambolic – Edith Frances’ vocals were entirely inaudible over nondescript synth lines from a disinterested Ethan Kath, who ended the set nearly 20 minutes early to a sparse crowd. Their set was simply not on par with the rest of the talent for the weekend, and a real letdown if you consider yourself a longtime fan.

The combination of elevated heat, sound, kaleidoscopic views, and overall tight production brought us where we didn’t expect: comfort. The entire crowd (our 20-something selves included) completely and honestly, awash in that sea of sweaty, half-naked millennials. Several of us attended the festival as bystanders, but as we all threw our Zs in the air during Zed’s Dead, we realized all in attendance were active participants. As Amber put it, I didn’t know I was a fish. But when I hit the water, I was a god damn fish.”

If we were to do it all again, we’d change very, very little. Addams/Medil Park, despite some sound bleed, was the most accessible venue React Presents has ever chosen for a festival — and you’d never know they changed it last minute by the attention to detail and orderly chaos of it all. Nothing was late, nothing sounded terrible, most people were very safe, and damn near everyone was happy. It felt like we’d all won a championship for surviving until another Summer, and we were rewarded with enthusiastic sets from nice artists.

The one major drawback was a relative lack of female artists — we counted just one on any of the main stages (Rezz) and just three on the smaller stages (Alison Wonderland, Nicole Moudaber, and Maya Jane Coles, each on separate days). You could try and tell us that React won’t sell as many festival tickets with more women on the line-up, but if you did you’d be joking.

That aside, if you checked judgement at the door, and committed yourself to having fun at Spring Awakening, you surely had it. And if EDM is dying, we sure hope that doesn’t mean shit for SAMF, still kicking hard as hell after five years.

You still think you don’t like electronic music? Sure, OK

Amber Severance and Eclair Carlson contributed to + cowrote this coverage.

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