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Wavefront Music Festival anchors its dance beats on the beach

Disc jockey Fatboy Slim  | GETTY IMAGES

Disc jockey Fatboy Slim | GETTY IMAGES

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Wavefront Music Festival 2013

♦ Friday through Sunday

♦ Montrose Beach

♦ Tickets and passes, $79.99-$499.99


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Updated: August 6, 2013 6:02AM

House music along the waterfront is what drives clubbers to Miami, Tampa and other sun-kissed cities where group dance parties along the ocean last all night long.

Chicago’s single chance for that kind of experience is the Wavefront Music Festival, one of a growing number of electronic music festivals taking root during the summer season. The festival, which runs Friday through Sunday on Montrose Beach, is spread over nine stages featuring more than 100 international artists, including Chicago house legends Frankie Knuckles, Derrick Carter and Jamie Principle; British DJ and rapper Fatboy Slim, and former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy.

What makes the pulsing sounds of electronic music different on the beach as opposed to a late night at Crobar or SmartBar? Immersion, says producer Brandon Carone.

“When you’re looking at a stage, you’re not looking at a stage, you’re looking at an environment,” he says. Examples: The 130-by-80-foot Wave stage is designed to evoke a tidal wave, complete with water cannons in place to shower the crowd during particularly ecstatic moments. The Cube stage puts the DJ booth in the middle of a Tetris game, where onlookers can watch shapes float into place according to the beat.

Carone comes to festival production from the ground up. A Barrington native, he started working Chicago nightlife jobs in 2006, when he was hired as a part-time host at Reserve, and rotating his way through manager and director jobs at a variety of clubs, including the Underground and Cuvee Chicago. He says the idea for Wavefront was sparked while sitting along the sands of Miami, listening to music pound the shores.

“I thought, ‘Why doesn’t Chicago have something like this?’ There’s no reason why not. That’s where it started,” he says.

Last year, Carone along with partners Dino Gardiakos, Ramsey Al-Abed and Salvatore Balsamo invested about $2.6 million in kicking off the festival’s first year; this year’s budget is about $5 million, which comes from adding a third day, which means about 60 more artists will have stage time compared to last year.

Carone signed a five-year contract with the Chicago Park District that takes the festival through 2018. The potential longevity of the festival depends on its branding so it stands apart from the other emerging electronic music festivals in the market, namely the North Coast Music Festival in Union Park, Spring Awakening at Soldier Field, Electric Daisy Carnival at the Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet and Lollapalooza’s dance stage in Grant Park. Carone is aiming for a crowd — age 26-plus — that is older than the typical festival throng and is more likely to have the disposable income required to afford a $12,000 cabana accommodating 18 people, and stocked with top-shelf liquor.

“I’m creating something that’s more niche,” he says. “I want it to be a sexy, sophisticated festival that attracts people who are older and understand music.”

The reigning star of Wavefront is Frankie Knuckles, the DJ and remixer who became a key figure in the origin of Chicago house, the music form that developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s at the underground club the Warehouse. House combines splashy drum beats, elementary synthesizer flourishes, primitive digital effects and vocals that whisper, drone and roar with the spiritual release usually associated with gospel music, but this style is designed for total physical liberation.

“I miss [the Warehouse] a great deal,” Knuckles says. “I was younger, had more energy and, like most youth, [was] very experimental. But most importantly, this was uncharted territory. It was new to everyone here. We were making it up as we go along. The city didn’t know how to regulate and therefore, left us to our own devices. As long as we weren’t hurting anybody and abiding by the law, it was all good.”

Knuckles, who headlines the festival Saturday, takes his role as “the Godfather of House Music” very seriously. Since those early days, the notion of jet-setting DJs has dominated the electronic scene, which Knuckles says is “like making the doctor greater than the medicine.”

“It’s the same in DJ culture,” he says. “To play these large arenas where the stage is so far away from the audience, the superstar DJ can hide behind pre-recorded mix programs vs. being in a DJ booth putting in the work, elevating the energy in the room and folks getting close enough to see you actually make all the musical transitions.”

Knuckles is a throwback to the kind of DJ who works a live room but whose skills also translate in the recording studio, inventing hits.

“I have to produce music at a level that’s not just appealing to kids but adults and sophisticated listeners,” he says. “I represent a lot of people who really believe in this music.”

Mark Guarino is a locally based free-lance writer.

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