The city started to thaw yesterday, but inside Navy Pier, it was still winter. Paper snow poured over the grand ballroom, while lamps and tables meant to look like ice sculptures glowed in a rainbow of colors. The VIP enclaves were labeled “luxury igloos.” Everyone was asked to wear white, and most people who trickled in to the festival at the end of the pier did.
Last night, Chicago’s first-ever Snowstorm Fest drew an array of electronic artists, seasoned and fresh, to the historic pier to celebrate the end of our long, long winter. Split into two stages, a “chillout lounge” upstairs and a main stage on the ground floor, the festival felt as airy and welcoming as any open-air summer concert, maybe more so. The crowd was healthy but never suffocating, and drifting between stages was a breeze, even as the night rolled closer to its headlining acts. Upstairs, Zimmer would close out the small stage; in the main hall, Moby was set to bring the night home.
Even if you’ve never felt a house pulse in your life, you know Moby. He’s the one who loops old gospel recordings into unmistakable hybrids of EDM and new age, with dashes of hard rock or pop thrown into his albums for good measure. He’s a behemoth of pop culture with a fierce love for the electronic underground and an untouchable knowledge of EDM’s history. If you book Moby for the first incarnation of your festival, your festival is going the right way.
The whole night was full of sets from people who love music, rabidly and professionally. Aside from an early set by ASTR, very few original songs played out on either stage. Most of the music was scavenged, bent, and reborn into something seamless and whole. And while some artists threw out a few easy crowd-pleasers — I heard “Ignition (Remix)” twice, from two different DJs — most of the mixes hit hard at strange angles. Local mashup duo The Hood Internet mixed Rae Sremmurd’s “No Type” into Caribou’s “Our Love” before diving into a sparse remix of “Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child. Every time I see them, I’m reminded just how purely they love what they spin.
Many of the artists at the upstairs stage also came from Chicago. Some of them hardly looked old enough to drink, but they manned their tables, laptops, or whatever with dexterity and often humor. Win + Woo, two dudes from around here, locked deep house grooves into the sample from Kanye West’s “Bound 2”. They also finished out their set with a pitch-shifted remix of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles”. (Only ’90s kids will get this.)
Trippy Turtle had some ’90s nods too down on the main stage, like a mix of the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” that hailed down like machine gun fire, but his more obscure picks were a delight to hear on a sound system that big. He slipped Sophie’s “Lemonade” into his set, and a surprising number of PC Music fans lost their shit. This was a guy with a gimmick — turtle hoodie, turtle avatar — but his set was elastic, buoyant, and joyful. He’s one hell of a frontman even though he’s alone with his gear.
Not everyone who makes this kind of music is a performer, though. RJD2 ripped out an original set completely obscured by an LED screen, though his meditative turntablism sounded right alongside the red and blue visuals that flickered over us. He addressed us over a mic at the beginning of his set, scratched some records, lulled us, and was gone. But Moby? Moby made “Porcelain”, Moby made “Natural Blues”, Moby made the sad, weird stuff that comes on the radio when you’re driving home across state lines at four in the morning. And Moby is a performer the way that ’80s metal frontmen were performers. He threw more devil horns last night than you’ve ever seen in your life.
His set squealed and pounded; he’s short, so you could barely see his scalp at the table over the screen, but he leapt up from his DJ station to stand on top of the speakers and reach his arms wide like a tiny bald Christ. (He doesn’t have that cross tattoo on the back of his neck anymore.) He pumped his fists and stretched his whole body toward the ceiling and probably screamed at us, though I couldn’t hear anything over the deep, deep cuts he’d picked out. The music was supple and sharp, heavy and driving, quick to change — you’d latch on to one melody and scream to hear it again until it surfaced 30 seconds later and then was gone forever. He started the thing with a quick loop of “Natural Blues”. He ended it with a jagged slice of “Where’s Your Head At”.
We don’t talk about it much, but house was born in Chicago, in gay, black nightclubs where outsiders yearned for what some people got out of church or whatever. I bet Moby could talk your ear off about electronic music’s rich and hidden histories. I bet he loves to play Chicago.