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Riverwest's First Year Shaky But Promising

By Katie Karpowicz in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 9, 2014 9:30PM

The inaugural Riverwest Music Festival last weekend set it sights on the underground. The event’s organizers (many of whom were involved with the former Wavefront Music Festival) spent their money booking a laundry list of underground artists in favor of the top dollar DJs that fill up Union Park and Soldier Field each summer. Despite boasting an original concept and strong lineup, Detroit has already beaten Chicago at its own game.

It’s impossible to critique Riverwest without first comparing it to the Motor City’s “Movement Electronic Music Festival.” An admittedly larger and more established event, Movement and Riverwest share the same vision of ┬ábringing small time dance acts and new genres to the forefront while including enough headlining artists to push ticket sales. Established nearly 15 years ago, Movement has grown into a massive production with a lineup featuring over 100 artists over the course of three days.

With an event of that stature just a few hours away, Riverwest and its microscopic presence stand at a serious disadvantage. Looking forward, it’s going to take far more planning and organization for the small techno fest to penetrate Chicago’s crowded dance music market. — Robert Martin

It’s true, music festivals can’t be judged based on their acts alone anymore. The festival industry has grown so large that certain standards have been set, both locally and worldwide.

Some elements of Riverwest left us pleased and hopeful for the future. Others, however, glaringly missed the mark. — Katie Karpowicz

The Lineup - 8

When this writer arrived at Riverwest on Sunday, the crowd had already been treated to a Fourth of July performance from Adrian Lux, a rare appearance from Deep Dish on Saturday night, along with dozens of other house and techno performers over the weekend, but things kept rolling in a big way.

The saddest news of the day came when English dubstep producer Rusko cancelled his set due to illness a mere two hours before he was scheduled to go on. However, the festival made sweet lemonade out of that unexpected lemon by expanding Iranian house DJ Sharam’s set to a full two and a half hours. Easily the most diverse performance of the day, Sharam explored the deep corners of house and techno while still managing to work in strains of mainstream dance and pop music sounds.

Benoit & Sergio, Hot Since 82 and Damian Lazarus kept house music at the forefront of their sets through the afternoon. Morgan Page’s set, on the other hand, played out more like EDM karaoke (at times, literally, as the songs’ lyrics splashed across the stage’s LED screens). Half an hour into his set, Page had already managed to work in hits from Calvin Harris, Afrojack and Tiesto. By the sixty minute mark he had added Empire of the Sun, DeadMau5 and Alesso to that list. Excision’s set, while enjoyable, also awkwardly changed the pace of the day with a rumbling bass-heavy set. We appreciated the variety but the change in genre changed the mood just as substantially. — Katie Karpowicz

In its first year, Riverwest was defined by its artists more than anything else. Leaning towards more obscure names like RJ Pickens and deep house DJ Heidi, a majority of the lineup seemed more at home in the depths of a dark basement club than a sunny daytime festival set. What these acts lack in stage presence they make up for in sound selection and variety. Riverwest is maybe the only dance music festival in Chicago this summer where you’re unlikely to hear the same song played twice. In an industry ruled by “festival anthems,” and number one singles, it’s nice to hear something different for a change. In fact, the only artists that seemed to be spinning these played out tracks were the festival’s largest names, including Morgan Page and bass buffoon Excision. — Robert Martin

2014_07_riverwest_logo.jpg The Layout - 4

We knew going in that Riverwest’s was a quick turnaround. The festival announced its existence just one month prior. So, we expected a few minor bumps. What we got though were mountainous problems that defied the aforementioned festival standards in the worst way. On a day when the temperature climbed to the 80s, the lack of water bottle refill stations seemed a bit ridiculous. Other noticeable absences were shade and places to simply sit down. Also, we hope attendees weren’t prone to headaches because the sound bleed from the two main stages (less than 200 feet apart) was, at times, unbearable. Poor Jamie Jones’ deep house set on Sunday night was audibly blown away by Excision’s subwoofers.

The largest, most blatant oversight of Riverwest was the Belvedere Terrace Stage, located on the adjacent bar Estate’s rooftop. Getting to this stage meant waiting in line at the door, discarding all food and drink you had purchased in the primary area of the fest before entering only to wait in another (seemingly unmoving) line to get onto the rooftop. It didn’t take long for the roof to hit capacity and even if you were able to make it up there, performers were not elevated in the slightest so your chances of getting sight of them was slim. Due to the mess of it all, we decided to forgo some of our most anticipated acts of the day like Eric Volta and Art Department.

Another almost laughable aspect of this stage was the fact that it was limited to attendees 21 and over. Frankly, if this writer was an attendee who bought a ticket to see Visionquest or Guy Gerber and could not because of capacity or age, factors that weren’t clearly explained beforehand, she’d be furious. The stage may have been good advertising for the vodka brand but it created an amount of disconnect and chaos within the fest that was too hard to overlook. — Katie Karpowicz

The festival’s biggest issues came in its organization. Stepping inside, Riverwest felt more like one of Chicago’s “donation-suggested” street fests than a major concert priced at over $100 for a weekend pass. This vibe carried over to the festivals two “main stages” that were nearly identical in structure and minimal on the frills. No physical schedules were offered upon entering Riverwest and neither of the stages were clearly labeled. This meant that fans hoping to see a specific artist at a specific stage were left to figure everything out on their own. The hilariously small gap between these two stages didn’t leave much room for the sound that bled back and forth between the two all weekend. If this weren’t bad enough, the festival’s third stage was nearly inaccessible for the majority of the weekend (something festival organizers noted on Facebook Saturday morning in a post and comments which have since been deleted). The Belvedere Terrace Stage setup on the rooftop patio of the Estate Ultra Bar on Elston Ave. made sense spatially, but the capacity restrictions left many waiting in a lengthy line indefinitely. Considering how limited this space was, it’s simply mind boggling that festival organizers would opt to have Sunday headliner Art Department close out the stage that was accessible to so few ticket holders. — Robert Martin

The Atmosphere - 8

We have to hand it to Riverwest on this one. They had a lot going against them with the limited promotion period and the holiday weekend but the festival drew a sizable crowd. It didn’t hit the numbers of similar fests like Spring Awakening or North Coast, but the grounds certainly weren’t bare.

Sure, there may have been a few more River North bottle service fans there than we typically prefer but the attendance also encompassed a younger crowd ready to get crazy whenever the beat dropped and a good number of genuine house heads carelessly dancing away the day. Everyone seemed content finding whatever experience they desired as it should be at music festivals, regardless of the genre. — Katie Karpowicz

Riverwest’s “less is more” attitude played well to the event’s crowd sizes. There wasn’t a single set throughout the course of the weekend that felt too full, and eager fans could almost always find that coveted gap to the front row. Attendance generally picked up as the night progressed, but early afternoon sets saw a definite lack of energy with sometimes less than 30 people dancing along. The audience was a solid mix of the teenage kids you’d see at Spring Awakening and the more adult crowd that frequents clubs like the Mid and Spybar. — Robert Martin

The Potential - 6

Should Riverwest return next summer, it will be interesting. Wavefront Music Festival, which had taken place over the same weekend prior to taking a hiatus in 2014, is promising its return next year. Its similar past lineups and target audience will put up tough competition for Riverwest.

Space was also obviously an issue already in 2014 for Riverwest based on its stage placements but, unfortunately, we didn’t see much room for expansion on that lot.

With so many artists looking to bank off of the summer festival circuit now it’s not too much of a feat to book a solid lineup, which Riverwest undoubtedly did this year. The trick is creating the right setting. — Katie Karpowicz

Overall - 6

There were some definite hiccups in Riverwest Music Festival’s first year. Limited time for planning and a small venue led to problems that no one paying top dollar for live music should experience. That being said, a lineup that strays from the standard festival fare with intriguing new artists that have yet to hit the top of the beatport charts was a saving grace. If Riverwest hopes to survive into next summer, it will have to reconsider just about everything else. With the right amount of work, this event could easily rival Movement festival as a premier venue for up and comers behind the decks. — Robert Martin

We genuinely wanted to like Riverwest Music Fest. It filled a hole left by Wavefront’s absence and brought house and techno music back into the spotlight amongst Chicago’s music festivals. The downsides to this festival were a disappointment though and we hope with an entire year--rather than just one month--to prepare for the next installment, Riverwest will be able to right its wrongs in 2015. — Katie Karpowicz