It was a Halloween wonderland. But with acts like Bassnectar, Vic Mensa and Pretty Lights, it was first and foremost a musical wonderland.
I was lucky enough to spend everyone’s favorite holiday weekend raging at Freaky Deaky, a 3-day festival in Chicago. In its seventh year — this being the first in a different venue and stretching across three full days — the festival combines the childlike quality of a costume party with a spectrum of music from twinkly to hardcore that is anything but innocent. Held in Toyota Park, roughly half an hour west of Downtown Chicago without traffic, the festival involved about 70 artists performing on three different stages nestled among popcorn booths and fiery sculptures.
I have to say, I was a little skeptical. Considering that Freaky Deaky is run by React Presents, and considering that React Presents is an SFX corporation, and considering that SFX was responsible for Tomorrowworld turning into a $1 Million version of our own Mudbowl a few weeks prior, you could say I wouldn’t have been surprised if things went wrong. But they didn’t. Though Freaky Deaky is a substantially smaller enterprise, I’d definitely say both the musical curation and production of the environment were up to par … I’d even venture to call it a baby version of what Tomorroworld was in aura and almost was in practice.
Friday started out with Sub Focus’s happily schizophrenic drum and bass doing more than it was probably meant for. Nick Douwma didn’t just warm us up for the weekend, he warmed us up good. Clearly whoever curated this lineup knows what they’re doing: Sub Focus was scheduled for 6:45, a time that people coming from work or somewhere roughly an hour away could probably still make it by if they had their shit together. We who had our shit together were greatly rewarded by Douwma, and as the weekend went on I found that I’d actually start craving more of his style as opposed to some of the others I heard. He definitely got me hooked. Sticking some palate-cleansing hip hop into late Sunday timeslots was another brilliant move, but we’ll get to that.
Later Friday night, Griz in all his sexy saxy-ness dropped beat after beat like they were on fire. He artfully worked in a supportive amount of hip hop samples and kept his transitions thematically relevant without getting boring; overall an A+ performance. I absolutely lost my shit when he finally played “Good Times Roll.” After trying to get my friends to adopt it as their pregame pump up songs for weeks and continuously being taken over by the likes of “Ignition” and Cobra Starship’s “Good Girls Go Bad” (they were feeling the throwback Thursday vibe), it was nice to finally be surrounded by a mob of people who appreciated the track in all its funky, self-affirming soul.
I ended the day among a heap of Bassheads revelling in dubstep glory, nestled in the middle of the crowd like a penguin seeking shelter from the Chicago-cold wind (I was dressed as a zebra, but that’s beside the point). Excuse the overly direct metaphors, but Bassnectar’s music can almost be drank; gulped down and worked into the audience’s digestive system so intricately that the sweet, sweet bass almost becomes part of your DNA. His is the kind of music that make the feathers on the headdress of the guy next to you feel softer than they probably were, and make him more fun to dance with than his first few moves would imply. We were definitely all on something quite like a sugar rush thanks to Bassnectar’s down-and-dirty style, and I’m sure I speak for more than just myself when I say I’m still dreaming about it.
I started off Saturday with Mr. Carmack who, by the end of his set, had officially crossed the threshold from sound to sound art, and it was glorious. I couldn’t help but wander by a few minutes of Riff Raff’s set on my way in, with its predictably rave-healthy dose of trap supported by a bit of (weak) drum and bass, but I personally preferred Carmack’s arguably lesser known but significantly higher quality music (apologies to you Riff Raff die hards, wherever you are). The creepy yet hypnotic visuals — complete with a psychedelic all-seeing eye that darted around the crowd as Carmack worked/played — both built on and added to the Halloween theme. It was just the right amount of nasty for the time of day, and just the right amount of hype to fit nicely into the whole weekend.
I stayed at The Crypt stage to see Hannah Wants next, thrilled to finally see a woman on stage (and killing it no less). Her energy sparkled as much as the lights blinking and flashing to the beat of her music. Not exactly bass heavy (at least, not that night), I’d place her sound in a realm more relaxed and less twinkly than trance, but more interesting than your standard techno. Hannah Wants’s popularity skyrocketed in the British house scene after she won Mixmag’s Creamfields DJ competition three years ago. Ever since she started curating her own festival stages and tours around the world, her U.S. popularity began swiftly approaching that across the pond, and has landed a residency at Ibiza’s renowned Amnesia. Of course, everyone who has ever risen to great heights in the music industry is an example of incredibly hard work, and Hannah Wants is no exception. Give her mixtapes a listen; it won’t be long before you figure out they make a great soundtrack to the parts of life that still need some filling in.
Later on, Borgore’s screeching dubstep/gorestep had everyone gleefully punching the air around them like they were mad at it. Don’t worry, we weren’t. Playing both long-standing crowd pleasers like “Decisions” and the more recent, celebratory “Forbes” featuring rapper G-Eazy, Borgore’s music really is otherworldly. He took us to outer space, to another planet where it was totally normal for your cheeks to hurt from smiling and your throat to hurt from screaming at the same time, and I loved it. He was followed by the ever cuddly Armin van Buuren, who was all smiles as usual. Under the rainiest conditions he played the sunniest music, but having already seen him live a handful of times I have to say the novelty is wearing off. His transition from “Ping Pong” into that horridly over-played White Stripes football Saturday anthem really should have been my cue that it was time to go check out Big Gigantic’s set, which I heard was exceptional. You can only listen to so much big room/trance hybrid before starting to feel like the grey matter is being sucked out of your brain, and the fact that I ended up at Armin’s after party too didn’t help. Oh well, I’m young. I’m allowed to make mistakes.
The third and final day was extraordinary, as final days of festivals tend to be. I began with the majestic Alunageorge, who most recently gained popularity with Aluna Francis’ enchanting vocal work on DJ Snake’s “You Know You Like It” and Jack Ü’s “To Ü”. The dynamic duo completed by George Reid combines the best of effortlessly powerful vocals with snazzy jazz tunes, offering a wonderful contrast to the rest of the more heavily produced electronic sounds of the weekend. Up next, Datsik was just the kind of dirt I was looking to throw on top of the previous day’s ultra-clean trance experience. I wanted something to shock my system, needed it if I was going to fully enjoy Pretty Lights at the end of the night (for those of you who don’t know, just imagine the kind of music a guy who goes by the stage name Pretty Lights plays and you’ll get it). Datsik only put out his first EP in 2009, and though he released four full-blown albums between 2012 and 2013, new stuff seems to have been somewhat sparse since then if you don’t count remixes. Which is too bad, considering his work with Excision sounds like a collaboration curated by God himself, and his latest track with Snoop Dogg is all kinds of vibey, fabulous fun. Datsik definitely came through for me in terms of playing what I was in the mood for. Day three was shaping up to be the ideal experience of discovering new artists, and it was so great.
Later on, I got to see A-Trak for the second time that week. He had opened up for a frat star-filled Steve Aoki show in Detroit on Wednesday, and I found his Freaky Deaky performance significantly improved (not just because he was wearing a Batman costume this time). The man knows his crowd; at one point, he scratched the shit out of a tune for what felt like a solid minute—working the audience into a frenzy before setting us free with a drop so heavy I think it actually made us all jump up at the same time. He went on to transition into his own version of Ephwurd and Jauz’ “Rock The Party,” a track that became the go-to summer festival anthem as soon it was released in July. One of my lovely roommates describes it as “the sound of robots having intercourse.”
Next up was Chicago native and hip-hop artist Vic Mensa, who might have actually been my favorite set of the whole weekend. I’m not exactly a hip-hop addict, but how could you not love something that makes you dance like that? It was better than Mr. Soft Feathers at Bassnectar; this time, it felt like the whole audience was really moving together, and we were all hanging on Mensa’s every word. At one point, he got us organized enough to create a runway for him right down the middle of the crowd, no small feat when you honestly consider that 8:00 p.m. on day three of a festival is ample time for the “let’s get fucked up” mentality to have fully taken hold. He didn’t end up walking his own runway, and I doubt we’d have stayed as organized for long if he did, but he really made us believe it was possible, and that’s power. The whole set was power, and it was fun. Obviously, hip hop is fun. But this was Chicago hip hop, therefore it was also good and dirty. Thank God.
The night continued with Oliver Heldens, whose moves were the only thing better than his music — like he was a part of his own crowd and was enjoying it just as much as the rest of us. Not that I doubt the rest of the performers that weekend were having tons of fun, but it’s extra nice to see an artist feeling particularly good about himself when it matches how good you’re feeling about him. I didn’t realize I knew who Heldens was until that day, which makes me seriously question if I have been living in a cave. But I was told he was a must-see, so thank you rave friends for guiding me in the right direction. I figured out during his set that he has tons of songs I recognized, “You Know” and “Gecko” to name a few, but it was his own uniquely impressive musical style that made the set what it was: flawless.
Ending on Pretty Lights was a fully loaded sensory experience, and just what I was hoping for. He expertly lulled me into a wide-eyed sway and let me rock myself back and forth into bliss for the full extent of his set. Nothing could have felt better. I mean those lasers… my god. Getting to see Pretty Lights live really is a treat. I had had the pleasure only once before, and though more Pretty Lights is all I have been wanting since Sunday night, it’s probably best to keep him categorized as a special occasion. The music alone can almost speak for itself, but the whole show is something you have to see to believe, the trip of all trips that made me wake up the next day and almost wonder if it was real. I have decided “real” is all about perception.
Pretty Lights made me feel like I could do anything. Screw the weather, I was going to explore Chicago! The night wasn’t over, everything was sparkling and the world was my oyster! Until the shuttle dropped me back off Downtown, and I really had to pee, and the city had prepared for our arrival by closing every bathroom around. So I hopped in an Uber home instead and had a great chat with my driver Tommy, thinking I’d forgo a wild night in the city for a midnight walk to the beach I was staying only a mile from. I ended up getting home, putting Pretty Lights back on, sitting in the shower, and letting myself melt into the walls while watching water droplets paint living tattoos on my legs. That’s what the music does to you sometimes, and I don’t regret for a second letting my ears blissfully ring me to sleep that night, the flashes of very pretty lights still dancing behind my eyes.