Story by Anand Harsh
Photos by Ed Howey - Opsin Creative
Origin stories are difficult to pin down—especially in music. Ethnomusicologists have a hell of a time in America, the melting pot of the world where cultures crash into one another at full speed and trends are born and die at a frenetic pace, where it’s hard to trace any one line back to its root. Jazz historians point to Congo Square, the spot in New Orleans where slaves, Creoles, and Indians were allowed to dance on Sundays during the mid-to-late 19thcentury, as the birthplace of jazz. Jamaican-born DJs like Kool Herc were spinning records at parties in the Bronx during the 1970’s, isolating drum breaks in funk and soul records like dub artists back home. Hip-hop belongs to the BX. The much-forgotten, little-respected sound of Chicago house carved out a home for itself in the mid-80’s at a dilapidated venue in the near north neighborhood of Bucktown: The Congress Theater.
Built in 1926 as a movie theater, the Congress fell on hard times for a stretch during the 70’s and 80’s. During the gentrification process of the past decade, the theater has housed live music, comedy, and even some semi-professional wrestling. The theater’s façade is chipped and cracked. Its marquee sags, its outdated design sticking out badly on a stretch of Milwaukee Ave. populated by Latino grocerias and strip malls. Inside, paint flecks off the interior walls, the carpeting is unwinding, thread-by-thread. But stepping inside, the ornate, gold-leaf dome still inspires a sense of awe. Only recently, the brains behind React Presents realized this theater may have lost its luster, but it hasn’t lost its majesty.
Founded in 2009 by Lucas King and Jeff Callahan, React has been throwing some of the biggest electronic events in the Midwest. The company is running the show at The Mid, a decent-sized club on Halsted in downtown Chicago, and has been pushing their Spring Awakening at the Congress. One look at React’s bill just in the past few weeks and shortly into the future is staggering: Diplo, Skream & Benga, Steve Angello, Shpongle, Rusko, Excision, Datsik—if you’ve got one of the members of the Swedish House Mafia lined up back to back with of the hottest, hippest DJs in the world that just happens to be a focal point for a global marketing campaign put on by Blackberry, you ain’t doing too badly. The top-shelf promoters made a (perhaps unwittingly) fitting tribute to the theater’s history, booking one of the top house DJs on the scene, and a group blazing a totally new sound for a new generation.
The Glitch Mob stormed the stage with much fanfare. Openers Midnight Conspiracy did their job, pumping up the exuberant young crowd with a blend of indie-electro, prog house, and a dash of the step. Hometown faves, they actually grabbed the audiences full attention, a task, to say the least. Poised, mature, and eclectic, Orchard Lounge set the stage while React's stagehands literally set the stage. The Lounge's chill house let the crowd bounce and bop, keeping their energy up. The anticipation for the Mob, though, was undeniable. Poised and ready behind three iridescent-blue setups, EdIT, Ooah, and Justin Boreta elicited a lion’s roar from the fervent masses.
Slamming straight into their rehash of Daft Punk’s “Derezzed” from the TRON: Legacy soundtrack, The Glitch Mob plunged the crowd into their thick stew of sub-fuzz and enveloping synth. It’s hard to believe that their debut album, Drink the Sea, has been out almost a year. The tunes keep hitting the airwaves and are on everyone’s tongues, especially those completely lacking words. During improv cutouts in “Animus Vox,” you could hear people scream-singing the melody lines. Their mega-hit, “Drive It Like You Stole It,” was accompanied by an aerialist, who tumbled from the catwalk on long strands of silk. She spun and clung to the juking drive of the cut. The trio moved in unison, doing god knows what at their collective workstations. Besides the drum trip, when you could actually seem them hammering out their sound, it was like a three-way magic show—a skinny-tie-and-mescaline version of The Blue Man Group. To close out their set, The Glitch Mob pulled out their hard and heavy remix of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” Like drum majors leading a parade, the trio whipped the crowd into a frenzy, marching them in place to the beat.
In truth, riding the strength of the burgeoning bass movement, The Glitch could have closed the show. Every single they create ends up licensed for a sleek, new, and hip commercial or plastered all over America’s Got Talent. The thing about the Mob, though, is that their tracks are slow—ridiculously slow for electronic music, and for an adolescent crowd that craves pounding, heartbeat pulses. We’re talking a good number under 100 BPM. When Steve Aoki hit the stage, it was like standing too close to the track when the subway hits the platform. Wind buffets your hair and close and whips at you with a pounding, steady torrent of force. Aoki’s arrival signaled a Sea change.
Taking the vibe from a chill intensity to hyperdrive in a matter of minutes, Steven Aoki went big quickly, throwing out blasting subs at breakneck speed. The audience took his latest power-crusher “Wake Up Call” (see the new video here) to heart. Blending genres left and right, he moved from the pulsing dirty house of his collab with The Bloody Beetroots, “Warp 1.9,” across the board to Skrillex’s car-crash-step remix of I SQUARE’s “Hey Sexy Lady.” Aoki sandwiched his club anthem “Turbulence,” a joint effort with Laidback Luke (and a head-scratching hypeman appearance from Lil’ Jon), between a redux of Daft Punk’s “One More Time,” and a fuzzed out version of Kid Cudi’s MGMT-fueled, emo-hop, pick-me-up “Pursuit of Happiness”
Possibly the biggest crowd-pleasing moment came not from behind the decks, but when Aoki disappeared backstage, only to reappear 20 feet above the floor on a side balcony. An inflatable raft, which has been making the rounds at a few React shows, served as a landing platform for the fearless DJ, who hurled himself at the mercy of the crowd. Don’t try this at home kids; Aoki’s dad was an Olympic wrestler for Japan in the 70’s. He’s got the blood of an athlete.
The sound is just too hype to deny. Jumping, clawing, scratching, and fist-pumping, the youngish crowd was making up for being born ten years too late to catch a Warped Tour moshpit at its most Rancid. Aoki convinced the seas to part, splitting the floor into left and right, and had the crowds run full steam at each other. Kinda metal for a laid back, Cali guy. Ditching his ego for the last medley, Aoki ran through the opening strains of the Lion King theme into the ball-busting intro for Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade,” before hooking up the most crowd-pleasing, happy time, sing-a-long in all of history—you guessed it, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The sheer magnetism of Aoki’s presence, coupled with the theatrical lunacy of The Glitch Mob, had such an impact on a city with a reputation for being easily impressed. To pull off such a mesmerizing spectacle in such a holy venue was a statement. Perhaps the statement is threefold: The Glitch Mob and Aoki are at the top of their game, React Presents is well on its way to owning the Second City, and the Congress Theater has, and always will be, a place where electronic music history will be made.
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