Camp Counselor Niki’s Gold Star Review: Drive-In Edition

(All images by Nikstagraham)

The temperature’s have plummeted below 40° at night and drive-ins have made a comeback in urban America. Cars decked with party lights are filled with rage squads, blankets and camping chairs. The bar is serving spiked hot chocolate, warm cider, and Hot Toddies, ordered by QR code and delivered straight to your vehicle. Masks are required and leaving your parking space is prohibited, but no need to buckle up for this wild ride: this is festing during COVID.

2020 was certainly not the year anyone expected, but the music industry adapted quickly and rescued our schedules with drive-ins. I attended as many as I could between August and November. I promptly fitted my car with LED underglow for the occasion. If you follow the Summer Camp socials or The Campfire Blog, then you already know my lineup included Summer Camp artists such as Umphrey’s (at the Speedway & at the Drive Inn), Boogie T, and SunSquabi, among others. As November’s cold weather drew near, I still managed to squeeze in four more nights of music between Seat Geek Stadium and Lakeshore Drive-In including Gramatik, CloZee, Subtronics, Manic Focus, Mersiv, and Maceo Plex. As I reflect on this star-studded and SCamp-sprinkled lineup covering over 15 nights of live music, I’d like to celebrate some of the highlights by continuing the tradition of my Gold Star Awards to help close out live music for 2020.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Best Set – Gramatik

All personal bias aside, Gramatik’s been producing music for over 11 years with one of the largest discographies of any of the artists I saw this summer. He incorporates live instruments with his electronic music and the mix of live guitar, hip-hop, and EDM was just brilliant. Paired with a perfect setlist of new and old music, an incredibly bass-heavy sound system, a major fan base in town for the show, and all-around good vibes, this really was the cherry on top of 2020 for me. The event also featured CloZee, a 2021 Summer Camp debut performer, and Spicy Boi’s duo, Mlotik. This night hit me in the feels and was probably my favorite moment of 2020.

⭐⭐⭐Best Set Runner Up – CloZee

Fans were incredibly excited to see CloZee, the French lady-boss who is currently one of the best artists in EDM. She’s a powerhouse booking top festivals around the world as a composer, producer, DJ, and talented musician. She mixed her own music as well as other bangers including GRiZ x Wreckno’s “Medusa”. The visuals were legendary and created such a fun environment during her performance. Girl, I’m giving you five stars for bringing all the good vibes that we needed this year and making such an impact in the industry!

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Best Fans – Umphrey’s McGee

It’s one thing to get in line early for an artist you’re excited to see. It’s another to drive across the country and get in line more than 4 hours before doors. Pulling up to the line of cars in Bridgeview, Illinois, patrons had set up camping chairs next to their cars and had folding tables ready with hot wings, salads, and jello shots. Pregaming the lots was lit, but the parking space set-ups inside were even better! There were plot-carpets made of astroturf and rugs, inflatable couches, string lights, people sitting on top of every other car, and trunks popped for easy access to the cooler. Girls had Umphrey’s inspired nail art, license plates that said “UMPHLUV” and one couple got engaged right in front of me! Now, if the slew of Umphrey’s shirts, hats, pins, and jerseys still wasn’t enough, the biggest indicator was the car horns: Umphrey’s McGee fans get five stars for having the loudest harmony of car horns and cheering in between songs.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Best Sounds – Mersiv

Hands down. Mersiv‘s set at The Lakeshore Drive-In literally gave me the chills and it wasn’t because it was 35° outside. The combination of lo-fi, dubstep and experimental bass was such a treat prior to Manic Focus’ Chicago set. It was energizing, warming, and truly delightful despite how cold that night was. It was one of the most unique sets of 2020.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Best Visuals – Boogie T.

The combination of music and visuals at this set was so artistic. Kooz, an illustrator and animator, works closely with Boogie T. and other artists in the scene and was on-site to support Boogie T with his visuals live in Chicago. The level of art and dedication that went into this production alone was really impressive!

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Best Lights – Umphrey’s McGee.

Umphrey’s has always been known for their light show, but the stage got extra colorful down in Atlanta! Ben Factor, their new lighting director, did a wonderful job highlighting the stage along with Greg Ellis aka TheLaserShark who was also on-site for lighting on night two. My camera phone did not do justice to those beautiful lights, so you’ll have to check out the wonderful Tara Gracer Foto for the best captures!

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Best Vibes – SunSquabi

Perhaps we had all been stuck at home for too long and the chance to get out for live music was enough to make us all feel warm and fuzzy inside. But I think SunSquabi provided something more. Cars of people who didn’t even know each other were chatting across parking spaces. The whole venue felt like family when we got to the event.  What really stood out was the band’s sign off, when they thanked their fans and wished us well. Their message was genuine and felt really personal as the quiet came back to the parking lot. Driving home that night, it kind of hit me how much of an impact COVID has had on all of us and how incredible it was that SunSquabi is doing everything they can do to bring live music safely to their fans across the country. 

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Best Merch – Umphrey’s Checkered Hoodie

Merch is one of the best ways to directly support the artists you love, especially during COVID, so I made sure to purchase their merchandise (typically via an app or QR code) at each of the shows. With over 25 artists with custom merch, I saw a ton of sick posters, apparel, and accessories. My favorite from the entire season is the Umphrey’s McGee Zip-Up Hoodie from their two-night run in Atlanta. The fonts resemble Goodyear and make you feel like you’re at the racetrack (which we totally were!), but my favorite part is the picture of the Umphrey’s McGee racecar. It is slightly different than the Porsche Cayman the team sponsors but has so many band and song references hidden in the car’s design. The “UM” racing logo on the front of the hoodie and the checkerboard print down both of the arms made this piece of merch extra special. It’s one of the only zip-up hoodies I own and has been my go-to black hoodie since then!

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Best Dressed Fans – Subtronics

Being deprived of shows, squads were extra suited up for limited events this year. With the added element of cars, parking spots, and cold weather towards the end of the season, this was a tough call to make. However, the crews on the lot for Subtronics, for not one, but four nights, were the most decked. From jerseys and onesies to hats and pashminas, the venue was dripping with fashion sense. There were mini-lasers in cars, disco balls, neon lights, and glow toys everywhere. It was also really exciting to see so much Aaron Brooks gear and then have four Aaron Brooks x Subtronics posters drop that night at the venue!

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Best Venue – Lakeshore Drive-In.

Each of the three venues I had the pleasure of visiting was wonderful. For this award, I took into account the average ticket price per person, sound, views, spots, security, COVID-consciousness, and other accommodations such as bathrooms, merch, food, and drink, etc. After comparing the three, a winner emerged: I dub Lakeshore Drive-In as the best venue! The smaller space made it easier to hear all around and get better views anywhere in the lot. With food and drink service (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) on-site, safety-first security, and consistent shows for a smaller price, night after night after night, it ticks all the boxes for me. The skyline was also a gorgeous backdrop.

I had a great run despite the craziness of 2020. Words can’t express the gratitude I have for each artist, tech, crew member, asset, and volunteer who contributed to these events. For all of you, the guests and attendees, who came out to support, wearing a mask and celebrating responsibly. They say “absence makes the heart grow fonder” and I certainly believe that returning to Summer Camp Music Festival will be even more special after a year like this. Until then, please continue to do your best to social distance, wear your masks, wash your hands, and support artists. Until we meet again… Cheers.

XOXO – Camp Counselor Niki