Rusko's set Credit: andrea bauer

If it had been a rave there would probably have been a chill-out room somewhere with seating, ambient music, and possibly even air-conditioning. But the Hard Festival’s Chicago stop at the Congress Theater last Friday wasn’t a rave. Raves don’t have ATMs or snack bars or 6 PM start times, or at least the ones I went to in the late 90s didn’t. So overheated dancers taking breaks from the sweltering main room had to make do with sprawling on the cool marble of the staircase in the lobby.

You wouldn’t have been out of order for expecting Hard’s local debut to be a little rave-ier. In its stationary, LA-based form, Hard’s lineups are pretty evenly split between eccentric beat-based acts—the frenetic dancehall group Major Lazer, the stoned post-hip-hop act Flying Lotus—and artists like Deadmau5, Justice, and Crookers, who both borrow their sonic aesthetic from the artists that defined the rave peak and seem to be purposefully reviving that era. Not coincidentally, LA Hard parties and similarly inclined events like the Electric Daisy Carnival are great places to spot people reviving some of that era’s other aesthetics, like “candy raver” fashion: armfuls of plastic bracelets and clothes that are either skintight or cartoonishly baggy, all in eye-searing clashes of neon.

The almost complete absence of candy ravers at the Congress could be explained in a few different ways. Chicago’s take on the larger 90s revival skews towards grunge and punk. Chicagoland’s rave revival might be based too far out—now as then, candy ravers tend to come from affluent burbs. Or maybe Friday was just too miserable a humid mid-August night to want to put any thought into dressing up, although no dedicated raver I’ve known would let something like the weather get in the way of an outfit.

Or it might have been the lineup’s fault. Surprisingly, the touring version of the Hard festival is pretty much devoid of artists associated with oversize Day-Glo T-shirts. Sinden and Crystal Castles were both associated with the bloghouse fad that helped spark a new generation’s interest in house beats, but Crystal Castles have always been just as heavily influenced by noise rock as they are house, and Sinden’s moved on to spinning the sorts of tropical beats that Major Lazer’s put in vogue recently. Rusko spins dubstep, which works a darker segment of the sonic spectrum, and the Twelves don’t stray too far from disco.

As the night went on, though, things slowly started to resemble a proper rave. By 10 PM, when Sinden went on, some attendees had been dancing for four hours. A trip up to the balcony made clear that clouds of sweat were accumulating on the Congress’s domed ceiling, and the dancers’ faces wore the ecstatic glow familiar to anyone who’s ever stood in the midst of a body-jacking marathon. Some had chemical help, no doubt, but few people were obviously rolling—although the beer lines were short, that was more likely a side effect of the show being 17+ than a barometer of ecstasy consumption. (The one possible exception: a mixed-gender quartet standing on the edge of the dance floor exchanging hugs and sucking on lollipops while a dude nearby executed a choppy version of liquid dancing using a bracelet covered in flashing lights as a prop.)

After Sinden’s set, it looked like the vibe might derail. The night’s headliners were separated by set changes and what sounded like prerecorded dance mixes; the musical transitions weren’t seamless the way they’d be in dance clubs. And Crystal Castles at first seemed like a tonal train wreck. After an hour of Sinden’s playful, articulate beats, the group’s blend of Reagan-era video-game noise and Alice Glass’s reverb-smeared shrieking struck a significantly more aggro note. The transition in onstage visuals underscored the shift, with Sinden’s wall of computer-generated neo-psychedelia replaced by columns of LEDs that alternated between blood-red streaks and seizure-inducing bursts of harsh white light. 

But the electro-fied bliss-out that had accumulated in the room didn’t disappear with Crystal Castles’ set. For every bit of audience-baiting Glass engaged in—she has a penchant for leaning over the edge of the stage to scream in the faces of those in the front row—there was a moment of transcendence. During “Baptism,” off their second self-titled album, the LEDs turned a soothing blue that worked well with the song’s arpeggiated, synthesized strings—a 90s dance-music cliche so well-worn that it could easily read as parody. But judging by the number of hands in the air, the crowd was more concerned with losing its collective shit than picking apart the track’s metadata.

When Crystal Castles left the auditorium, it was somehow even more sweltering and humid than when they started. By the time Rusko took the stage—an awkward transition, silent except for the sounds of audio gear being plugged in—the crowd had diminished by half. That didn’t surprise me. Crystal Castles are in the upper echelon of dance-scene popularity, and in America dubstep’s been ignored for the most part by those who aren’t hardcore electronic-music fiends or record-collecting geeks.

Or at least that’s what I was thinking when the crowd on the smoking patio spontaneously erupted into a chant of “Rusko! Rusko!” like something out of the dubstep equivalent of Heavy Metal Parking Lot. When he started up his set, people flooded back into the sauna-like auditorium and promptly went nuts. By this time we were within an hour of the event’s curfew, and those who were still hanging in were determined to go hard until the very end. The crowd of a thousand or so made a massive knot in front of the stage, making it impossible to penetrate more than a few feet before pushing became necessary. On the edge, a contingent of couples dressed in hip-hop casual freaked in exceptionally nasty fashion to a dubstep reworking of “California Love.” There are at least a thousand people in Chicago who think Rusko is a genuine rock star, and he could be the catalyst for dubstep’s eventual crossover.

As 1:30 AM approached, everyone in the theater, with the possible exception of the security guards, seemed locked into the beat together. That rhythmic cohabitation is the key to the transcendent feeling of unity that good raves generate, and it’s done more to make raving such a crucial part of some people’s lives than drugs ever did. By the time Rusko dropped his massive tune “Woo Boost,” I had set aside my critic’s hat. Hard Fest didn’t look like a rave or sound like a rave, but it felt like a rave in the deepest, most meaningful way possible. I put away my notes, pushed my way into the knot, and put my hands in the air.