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Made in America 2015 Festival Review: The 10 Best Sets + Photos

Beyoncé’s first performance in a year blows away the audience at Jay Z’s festival

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With Jay Z as its patron, Made in America’s lineup is always a good bet to have some unique performers culled from the megastar mogul’s friends and family, his Roc Nation company, as well as up-and-coming talent highlighted by his streaming service, TIDAL. After a brief stint in L.A. last year, the festival returned solely to its birthplace of Philadelphia for its fourth straight year. The 2015 edition boasted two marquee headlining acts: Beyoncé’s first full performance in about a year and one of The Weeknd’s first gigs following the recent release of Beauty Behind the Madness. But further down on the festival lineup, there were some great tiny-font acts to be seen as well, from Philadelphia natives like Marian Hill to up-and-coming rappers like Vic Mensa and buzzy indie bands like Bully. Having attended last year’s edition, I think it’s safe to say 2015 brought an even better focus to its core areas: Philadelphia artists, a range of rising and veteran rappers and DJs, and breakout rock bands. And unlike last year, the weather was perfect for Labor Day weekend: sunny without even the threat of a drop of rain.

MIA Grounds - Killian Young (6)
Photo by Killian Young

Musically, the addition of another rising talent (TIDAL) stage – with incredible, sweeping views of downtown Philadelphia – was a good idea in theory but worked less well in its execution. It was positioned on the main throughway, as well as close to the Skate Stage, another performance spot for many of the rising acts. Consequently, the close proximity of these stages added to the congestion and difficulty navigating the main entrance to the grounds and, more importantly, diluted the smaller crowds on hand at either of the stages. The sold-out gig felt even more crowded near the two main stages, signalling that the festival may be nearing the practical limits of how much it can continue to grow.

With Made in America diversifying its portfolio with a free show on New York’s Liberty Island, maybe its flagship event is quickly approaching a crossroads, one where it can dedicate an event to mainstream pop and another to indie talent. But this year, it was clear the vast majority of people came to see the likes of Queen Bey, J. Cole, and The Weeknd, all of whom rightly earned their main stage billing.

Click ahead for the best of Made in America 2015, plus an exclusive gallery.

BEST AFTERNOON WAKE-UP CALL

BULLY

Bully - Killian Young (14)
Photo by Killian Young

As the heat peaks in the late afternoon at summer music festivals, it’s easy to see why sometimes energy levels dip among attendees. Bully provided the cure for the doldrums, attracting a solid crowd at the TIDAL Stage on Sunday. The CoSigned quartet drew from their 2015 record, Feels Like, with lead singer Alicia Bognanno’s vocals proving to be a highlight, ranging from her throaty screams at the end of “Trying” to the subdued vocals at the start of “Trash”. “Fuck those jerks that only hate you,” Bognanno roared on “Six” over a searing guitar riff. “They don’t know you’re great, but I do.” It was a badass wake-up call to break through the lethargy of the day.

BEST ROCK REVIVALISTS

THE STRUTS

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Photo by Cathy Poulton

With his bejeweled shirt, shaggy hair, and liberal application of eyeliner, it’s easy to see the influence of old-school glam rock on The Struts’ lead singer, Luke Spiller. His vocals and theatrical demeanor both draw heavily on Freddie Mercury – even the way he rolls his Rs. All this might seem out of place in today’s world of often cerebral and buttoned-up rock, but to put it simply, The Struts’ music is damn fun. In the U.S., the English band recently released their Have You Heard EP, which served as the source material for most of the set. (“Kiss This” rocked with shades of The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”, and “Where Did She Go” was reminiscent of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town”.) And despite the fact the band opened the main stage to a sleepy crowd in the stifling Saturday afternoon heat, Spiller managed to get the fans excited by hopping offstage and leading them in a sing-along from the barricade.

BEST USE OF A LIMITED DISCOGRAPHY

VIC MENSA

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Photo by Cathy Poulton

Looking at Vic Mensa’s short discography, it’d be easy to wonder how the young Chicago emcee would fill a 45-minute main stage slot at a major festival. Yet the up-and-coming rapper managed to piece together a powerful set full of singles and covers, which were, most importantly, propelled by his fantastic energy. Mensa hooked the crowd early with his part of Chance the Rapper’s “Cocoa Butter Kisses” and later tore through a cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. During the performance, he frequently leapt into the air and bounded across the stage to wild cheers from the crowd. When his next record, Traffic, drops, expect even bigger and better things from Mensa on main stages nationwide.

MOST ENTERTAINING LEAD SINGER

METRIC

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Photo by Cathy Poulton

Metric’s lead singer, Emily Haines, was one of the most dynamic lead singers of the weekend, pumping her fist and boxing the air as she danced across the stage with a variety of brightly colored capes. The Toronto synth-pop quartet kicked things off with the buzzing synths of “Stadium Love” and “Too Bad, So Sad”, followed by the rollicking, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World-featured “Black Sheep”.

“Time is the only thing we need and you can’t buy,” Haines said while introducing “Synthetica” as she expressed gratitude for the band’s career, which has extended over 15 years. “This is a song about the spirit of that.” The breakdown in the middle of the track, with the instrumentation quietly pulsing in the background, provided a moment of clarity for Haines’ vocals to shine, as she powerfully declared, “I won’t ever let them make a loser of my soul.”

MOST INTERESTING SETUP

MARIAN HILL

Marian Hill - Killian Young (24)
Photo by Killian Young

With a vocalist, a saxophonist/bassist, and a keyboard player, Marian Hill had one of the more interesting arrangements for a band at Made in America. The musical combination of its members – singer Samantha Gongol, producer Jeremy Lloyd, and utility player Steve Davit – made for a hybrid sound that melded pulsing jazz, minimalist electronic beats, and sultry vocals that blended R&B and pop influences. The Philadelphia natives kicked off their set at the Skate Stage on Sunday with “One Time” as the band dug into their recent Sway EP. Next track “Wasted” layered distorted versions of Gongol’s voice over her live singing for a fittingly wobbly sound. (When I later saw the band backstage, I asked if the chopped vocal samples were recorded on the spot. “No,” said Lloyd with a grin. “But it could be! It would sound exactly the same, but would be a nightmare.”) And to his credit, Lloyd made for a dynamic presence onstage on the keys, wildly swinging his arms and jumping with the beat, while Gongol effortlessly glided between him and Davit. The band saved the best for last with their biggest hit, “Got It” (also of uber-catchy Taco Bell ad fame). By this time, a big crowd of fans and curious onlookers had gathered, drawn in by the band’s catchy sound. When Davit switched over from the bass guitar and his spirit saxophone part emerged over the sparse bass, the crowd collectively bounced – it was the perfect combination of synthetic elements and live instrumentation often perceived as lacking in electronic music.

BEST MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKER

BIG SEAN

Big Sean - Cathy Poulton
Photo by Cathy Poulton

Big Sean’s impeccable flow was on display from opening track “Paradise” as all instrumentation cut out and he speedily rapped through the second verse with only his voice to carry him. “My Last” showed that he could also handle an R&B croon, with the crowd loudly cheering and following Sean Don as he waved his arm back and forth. He also hit up some of his major features, like his verses on “Sanctified”, “Mercy”, and “Clique”.

The Detroit emcee has come a long way from the kinda obnoxious “Dance (A$$)” all the way to his excellent and largely introspective Dark Sky Paradise. Sure, the boisterous swagger of “I Don’t Fuck with You” closed the set, but the rapper brought a positive message on “Blessings” and “One Man Can Change the World”.

On the latter, he dedicated the track to his late grandmother, who he explained was one of the first black female captains in World War II and also was one of the few female police officers in Detroit during her time. With this speech, Big Sean proved to be a surprisingly powerful motivational speaker, as he also implored the crowd to cut out toxic people from their lives and “surround yourself with people on the same wavelength as you.”

MOST EXCITING YOUNG POP STAR

HALSEY

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Photo by Cathy Poulton

Halsey proved her talent went way beyond her years by rocking the main stage’s first set on Sunday afternoon. The New Jersey native wasn’t old enough to (legally) drink a beer courtesy of Made in America’s sponsor, Budweiser, but she already has an album (BADLANDS, released at the end of last month) that reached #2 on the iTunes charts. The singer – backed by a drummer and a keyboardist – performed many tracks off the new record. Highlights included “Hold Me Down” and the gospel-inspired breakdown in the middle of “Castle”, which gave way to Halsey’s powerhouse vocals and her metaphorical takedown of the music industry.

Halsey also brought a strong message about what it means to be of mixed-race heritage in America today. At the end of her set, she brought out her parents, explaining that as someone who identifies as biracial, she learned to embrace a variety of musical influences. This provided the springboard for “New Americana”, which similarly points to the idea that diversity is the future of the US.

“I think people from New York, New Jersey, and Philly have a certain tenaciousness other people don’t understand,” Halsey said earlier during the set to loud cheers in the crowd.

Even a slight misstep when she accidentally dropped her mic during “Roman Holiday” didn’t throw Halsey off her game. (“I got too excited!” she quickly recovered, with a smile.) She could certainly be a pop star who people will hear a lot more from in the future.

BEST THING NOT MADE IN AMERICA

THE WEEKND

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Photo by Cathy Poulton

“I know I’m from Canada,” The Weeknd quipped. “I hope you accept me at this festival.” If the thousands of fans packed in at the main stage to see the R&B crooner perform cuts from his excellent, just-released Beauty Behind the Madness were any indication, the answer was a resounding yes. With his live band positioned on top of a large video screen that occupied most of the stage, the Toronto native sang through the new record with gusto. (Drummer Ricky Lewis also proved to be wildly entertaining in his own right, providing propulsive beats for “Earned It” and “Tell Your Friends” and playing a speedy fill at the end of “The Morning”.) The Weeknd – probably one of the few singers whose voice is impressive enough to do such a cover justice – also paid homage to the previous night’s headliner by giving a rousing rendition of Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love”.

He closed down the set with a huge dance party on inescapable hit “Can’t Feel My Face”. He amplified the wild cheers in the crowd by hopping off the stage and imploring the fans to go crazy when the bass would hit on final track “The Hills”. When it did, The Weeknd leapt into the air and giant flames flared onstage, as the wave of heat pulsed through the crowd. The band exited, but after some cajoling, The Weeknd returned for one encore, “Wicked Games”. While the slow jam might not have been a euphoric, cathartic release to end Made in America, the fans who stuck around still bounced to the beat, simply thrilled to get another taste of The Weeknd’s incredible voice.

MOST IMPROVED

J. COLE

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Photo by Cathy Poulton

This isn’t a reflection of J. Cole’s baseline performance (which took place on the smaller Liberty Stage at last year’s edition of Made in America), but is rather indicative of how far the North Carolina emcee’s star has risen in the past year. Last time around, Cole had just dropped his tribute to Michael Brown, “Be Free”. Since then, he released his number-one 2014 Forest Hills Drive and toured sold-out arenas across the country. It’s clear that in the interim Cole has upped his live performance and fans have become even crazier about his music. This was readily apparent as he packed the Rocky Stage and commanded the audience from start to finish. He drew heavily on his most recent release, starting sequentially with “Intro”, “January 28th”, and an energetic rendition of “Wet Dreamz”. Afterwards, Cole requested all the stage lights cut off to start the ominous “A Tale of Two Citiez”, which perfectly capitalized on the dichotomy of the “hands in the air” line, ironically contrasting its lyrical context of a robbery and its concert context of bouncing along to the song. The rapper also turned in a strong rendition of “No Role Modelz”, especially as he sarcastically mimed the George W. Bush vocal sample in the middle of the track.

The set wasn’t focused solely on new music, though. Older tracks like “Workout”, “In the Morning”, and “Crooked Smile” earned big cheers from longtime fans. Cole closed with the positive message of appreciating all that you have on “Love Yourz” and the sultry “Power Trip”, which only left the audience hungry for more. The next leap for Cole will be to a true headliner, and it’s within his reach.

BEST PERFORMANCE

BEYONCÉ

Beyonce - Killian Young (6)
Photo by Killian Young

Like Kanye imploring the crowd to “bow in the presence of greatness” in the same headlining slot last year, Beyoncé had total control over a massive audience gathered to see her close out the first night of Made in America. (The Philadelphia Inquirer estimated about 70,000 people, including one very excited Mr. Shawn Carter, were on hand to see the performance.)

It had been over six months since Queen Bey last performed. (If you don’t count an abbreviated pair of gigs around the Grammys, it’s been closer to a year since Jay Z and Beyoncé co-headlined together.) And despite this layoff, Beyoncé showed no signs of rust.

In celebration of her birthday the day before, Beyoncé released her remix of “Crazy in Love”. This dramatic, slowed-down version of the track served as the opener to the set. With ominous strings playing in the background, she emerged among her backup dancers in a row of large, identical, wooden boxes, like dolls confined in a small space. But Beyoncé was slowly elevated on top of the boxes, where she continued to sing. When she returned to the stage, the horn-driven intro of the Dangerously in Love version of “Crazy in Love” kicked in, eliciting wild cheers from the crowd.

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Photo by Killian Young

These boxes and the large, wooden crate that covered them proved to be versatile set pieces, serving as the backdrop for video content, as well as a place where set and costume changes could occur. This masterful, career-spanning set was as much theatrical as it was musical. It drew upon most of Destiny’s Child’s hits (“Survivor”, “Jumpin’, Jumpin’”, “Say My Name”, “Bootylicious”, “Independent Women”) and just about every one of Beyoncé’s solo singles, from slow jams like “Halo” to more recent, sultry tracks like “Blow” and “7/11”.

And it’s also worth noting that her backup dancers performed equally as impressively – their movements were perfectly precise, adding to the visual splendor of the set. The one downside of the heavy reliance on intricate dance routines is that they sometimes overtook the vocals completely (although this was certainly a better choice than feigning with lip-synching). The end of the set made up for this by showcasing Beyoncé’s powerhouse vocals, with strong renditions of “XO” and “Love on Top”.

“I want you to sing with all your soul,” the singer implored the crowd on the former, as the audience gladly obliged, belting out the chorus.

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Photo by Killian Young

She closed the set with “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”, and it was impossible not to feel the electric energy of the crowd and the urge to dance. The Queen gazed upon her loyal subjects with a smile, and there was only one appropriate response: to bow down.

Click ahead for an exclusive Made in America 2015 photo gallery.

Gallery

Photographer: Cathy Poulton

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