This year, Detroit’s Movement festival made a conscious decision to ignore the current explosion in popularity of electronic dance music, or EDM, by shunning the top artists currently making waves in the scene.
Chicago’s inaugural Spring Awakening festival did the opposite: The two-day festival, held June 16-17 at Soldier Field, was built as a shrine around many of the genre’s top names, including Skrillex, Afrojack, A-Trak, Benny Benassi and more.
True, most of those artists have played Movement in previous years, but by snagging them and putting them together on one bill, Spring Awakening immediately positioned itself as a major player in the increasingly crowded EDM market, among the Ultra Music Festivals, Electric Daisy Carnivals and, yes, the Movements of the world.
But a festival is more than just a lineup, and while the talent assembled was top notch, Spring Awakening suffered some first year hiccups that it will have to overcome to stay successful going forward.
First up: The venue. While Soldier Field is an iconic site, it doesn’t immediately lend itself to hosting a music festival, let alone one centered on EDM. Three of the four stages at Spring Awakening were set up on the grounds surrounding the stadium, with the main stage placed inside the Chicago Bears’ home, with the stage set up in the north end zone. That was a curious decision in and of itself, considering Soldier Field’s capacity far dwarfs that of the festival. And with the stadium’s upper decks being sectioned off, the festival was never going to fill it. So why do it there at all? Yes, the tens of thousands of fans on the field made it plenty crowded, but only on about half the field, to about the 50-yard line. Which gave fans in the back room to dance and roam freely, but it made the festival feel under-attended. Isn’t the goal always to place your event in an appropriately sized room? (See also Rick Ross’ concert at the Silverdome.)
The dance tents set up outside the stadium were better, and stayed packed to capacity during sets by Kill the Noise, Dillon Francis, Gabriel & Dresden and more. DJs were set up on stages in front of large LED backdrops, and the sound bumped throughout the tents. The stages were set up far enough away from each other that there was no sound bleed between stages, and there was plenty of space to hang out on the grassy grounds, space room for bathrooms, etc.
At the same time, the festival seemed to lack the particular vibe that makes an event an experience. Perhaps it’s because it was the first year, and the event still needs time to find itself. But it felt like it lacked a true identifier, other than it being a place to party. Long-ish lines for beer and water — the latter priced at an inexcusable $4.75 a bottle — added to the frustrations.
But Spring Awakening delivered where it counted most, in the music. Although his stage set up caused Benny Benassi’s set to be cut short by a half-hour, Skrillex delivered a madcap headlining set Saturday night, which began just as rain started falling on the masses at Soldier Field. The Grammy-winning star has become a kind of ambassador for EDM, and it’s not a position he takes lightly: He now performs on a spaceship-type stage that looks not unlike an X-Wing Fighter out of “Star Wars.” And his is an active set, with Skrillex bouncing around behind the boards and working up a sweat while pumping up the crowd. The knock against DJs and EDM artists is sometimes that they’re not truly “performers,” but Skrillex takes that notion and discards it in a whir of scrambled, discombobulated technogarble. As long as Spring Awakening hitches its wagons to performers like him, the festival will be fine. But a change of venue shouldn’t be out of the discussion.