Festival Report: Reaction NYE

Night One:

In its second year, React Presents’s winter festival, Reaction NYE, seemed to take the logistical critiques of its’ inaugural event to transform 2016’s fete into a more cohesive, music-focused experience. Held in the Donald E. Stephens convention center, the festival organizers chose to barricade a large portion of the venue this year, which directed guests towards the main stage. Organizers made the venue feel more packed than last year with this strategy, as well as with the choice to book all the top-billing acts on one stage, with the smaller stages (a silent disco and an arcade-room stage) populated primarily by local Midwest and Chicago-based acts. The booking allowed for fest-goers to break off to the other stages for a more subdued experience than moshing at the main stage, and kept the flow of the event focused on seeing the acts, rather than trying to apply the various activities present at summer festivals to an indoor space. It was a positive move for the festival, and also made the convention center significantly warmer than last year – channeling all that body heat towards the center of the space was a welcome relief from the chilly atmosphere of 2015’s event.

December 30th’s most electric moments came from the hip hop acts on the lineup – Danny Brown and Anderson .Paak were the clear standouts of the night. Assisted by a DJ, Danny Brown banged out old favorites like “Smokin and Drinkin”, as well as tracks from his 2016 album, Atrocity Exhibition, for the most high-energy performance of the evening. Anderson .Paak brought his excellent band to the stage for all those who missed him at Pitchfork Music Festival this year, and made a strong case for more live instrumentalists to be booked for Chicago’s 2017 festivals. Australian producer Flume closed the night with a disappointing set that began over a half an hour late, and felt like a flat ending following the joyous performance Anderson .Paak put on before him.

While his live show wasn’t bad, I noticed that the majority of festival-goers who stayed for Flume’s performance were the bro-stepping EDM ravers or white guys who got a little too excited about the bottle service early on in the night, which unfortunately detracted from my enjoyment of the set. A note to all men approaching women at festivals: please do not grab our belongings or bodies to be playful, tell us to smile or pay attention to the set if we are on our phone, or  continue to violate our personal space. After an unbelievably frustrating interaction with a man who was far too intoxicated to still be at the event, I found myself disheartened that I had to be on guard for the rest of the night just to watch the performance.

Despite this, the first night of 2016’s Reaction NYE was a pleasant experience. A special mention goes to the security and staff working the event – the bar lines were prompt and easy to access, and I found the security to be approachable and respectful.

Night Two:

It’s the last night of a year that has in its last gasps taken so much from us all. A year of losing the people we have welcomed into our lives for decades. People from all creative ventures, but maybe most painfully music. Prince, Bowie, George Michael, Phife Dawg, and all those whose music now evokes something more to all of us that find a second home in the comfort of our headphones, speakers, small intimate venues, and sprawling festivals alike. To end such a trying year on a positive and blissful note is a privilege I was given. To be in a space, with fellow man from all walks of life to share in a common interest. To say goodbye to 2016. To not only hear, but feel 2017 greet us with warmth on a cold night, and feel the music that 2017 will bring us.

Reaction New Year’s Eve brought a place to be with people that can only be found together under the hypnotic rhythm of dance music. From all ages, races, colors, identities, and cultures, people move fluidly between each other with no second thought given or memory aroused of a divisive year in relations between the culturally rich groups that shape our world. For one moment the human was an equal in all ways to every other person around him in the churning mass of humanity awash in the pulses of bass that reverberate through the body that remind us that we are human, that we are all fragile, and that we all need the energy of our fellow man to power us through what can certainly only be another year of loss to every community, to strife, to days of triumph and days of defeat, and always to music to get lost in. The college student, surely the target audience, comprised the largest segment of the night’s population. Particularly the white and male. However, they did not have clear majority. The dress of the evening was also varied, with everything from girls wearing little more than what was needed to not break public nudity laws, to the coat check skippers wearing full length dusters spread wide open to trap as little heat as possible.

The clothing however spoke little to the personalities. As is frequent with any musical event, drug use was more than noticeable. This is despite a rigorous security procedure to enter, multiple police dogs, 3 stops to get into the venue, and one of the more aggressive pat downs that I have ever received. Once past these checks however, it seemed as though only those in need found themselves in contact with any event staff, aside from bartenders and vendors.

For a very small few, the night warranted medical attention, which came swiftly and seemingly out of nowhere. No more than 5 stretchers were seen by myself personally, and only one ever had to stop moving to get through the crowd, which as ever seemed to part instinctively without any turning of heads or missing a beat. One particular moment stands out. We had made our way to the other side of the venue from our normal post and just past a barricade was a girl, mid 20s, and clearly overserved struggling with her balance and keeping her composure. With her was a man of similar age, trying desperately to cox her to sitting down. As the medical staff arrived we turned back to face the stage and we met the face of another reveler. Dressed in a red green and yellow drug rug, what seemed to be tie die hemp pants and Osiris shoes, he smiled with a face that clearly said “there’s always someone who takes it too far” then he captured the whole night with just three words, the only words he spoke to us: “Happy New Year.”

As far as physical altercations, there were few. At an event this sized with many planning on ringing in the new year inebriated, I expected more drunken anger than was seen. Only one exchange of words and a rather overplayed shove were the extent, and the aggressor was quickly talked down and walked away by his companions as the bewildered dancer now found himself amid a group of young women clearly together and clearly startled by this new face in their midst.

While I am continuously alert for pickpockets in crowds, and even the slightest bump to the pocket I carry my wallet in, nice try I’m not telling you which pocket, Reaction as a whole never game me one second to doubt that the person behind me or those to either side of me ever intended to walk away with the “folding money” I carried with me. Never was there even a passerby whose hand grazed my pocket that caused me to question the whereabouts of my property.

The talent as it always seems, disappointingly did not represent the demographics of the crowd. The male artists heavily outnumbered the female, while the number of minority performers was below the number of Caucasian performers. It should speak volumes when a white male between the ages of 18 and 35 thinks that there are sounds missing that only those different from himself can bring. I will have choice words for you if you try to tell me that a young woman of color did not make the crowd lose its collective mind with her inspired and emotionally charged poetry delivered with unrivaled energy that night. Performances like hers are enthused and fresh.

The audial entertainment found 3 main directions. The soulful St. Louis rap of Smino took the first with hip hop and less focus on anything electronic, while notably he stood in front of an image synonymous with his hometown, the Gateway Arch. Acts like Milk N Cooks, who displayed the most joyful stage presence I have personally ever witnessed, brought a harder and more boisterous sound to electronic while they smile and laughed with each other. Clearly they’re brothers, and clearly they have no problem poking each other mid set because they know that the crowd they attract feed on this energy. Finally acts like Zeds Dead which was with us to ring in the new year packed the floor with more festival friendly pure dance inspired step.

Goodbye to you 2016, you were a year that tested our resolve more than most, but without you we would be without some superb music for years to come. And hello 2017, we welcome you with open arms. As one unforgettable man said to me as Zeds Dead’s pounding bass shook my body, “Happy New Year.”

Reporting by Staley Sharples and Andy Gasper

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