Ultra Music Festival: a two-day extravaganza made up almost entirely of Electronic Dance Music. Take a moment and think about that, two days—20 hours total—of dancing. And I’m not talking about your grandma’s foxtrot here, people, nor am I referring to the typical head-bobbing concert fare of yore. I speak of sweaty, fist-pumping, hip-shaking, foot-stomping, neck-dislocating, all-out absurdity. To be sure, one does not and should not come to Ultra unless they are ready to get extreme.
Unlike more typical music festivals (and I use the word typical very loosely here), the Ultra lineup does not cater to the general music-loving public. Rather, it is very specific in its aim, and that aim is EDM. Ultra-goers came in all kinds of kooky outfits, from rainbow tutus to Green-Man-inspired bodysuits to banana costumes. Anything neon or glowing was the norm. The clientele bore a refreshing lack of pretension—there were the usual groups of friendly festival folks, crunchy kids, electro nuts, clubbers, ravers, rollers, and even a ferociously fist-pumping but otherwise harmless faction of guidos, yet everyone seemed strangely at peace with each other. Such is the magic of truly successful festivals, which Ultra certainly embodied. No matter who we might have been individually, together we were all the kind of people who’d actually pay to subject ourselves to a 2-day marathon of nonstop basslines and booty shaking, and there’s definitely a sense of solidarity in that. Here’s my attempt at sharing that solidarity with you: a play-by-play account of my Ultra 2010 Experience.
Due to the combined forces of rush hour gridlock, a long wait at the press tent, an inexplicably early set time, and the potentially ill-advised decision to run all the way back up ten flights of hotel stairs to retrieve my collection of glowsticks, I tragically and shamefully missed the show I was most looking forward to: Pretty Lights. As such, my Ultra arrival was slightly marred by frustration, but as I crossed into Bicentennial Park’s electronic wonderland of sound, I recovered pretty quickly and began focusing on what was yet to come. Entering to the right of the main stage, my friend and I were immediately surrounded in Passion Pit’s giddy crowd-pleaser “Better Things,” but determined to check out the scene, we managed to tear ourselves away from Michael Angelakos’ dizzying falsetto to take a look around.
Directly in front of the sparsely populated main stage, the Ibiza Arena was already packed to the brim with punctual festival-goers pumping along to the pulsations of DJ Laidback Luke. It was overwhelming at first. We dithered from one stage to the other, trying to assemble our troops, before finally plunging into the Ibiza tent as Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.i.am took the stage.
Let me be clear: I despise the Black Eyed Peas. Just looking at Fergie makes me want to punch a baby in the face. However, due to the welcome exclusion of Peas abominations like “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” Will.i.am’s set quickly developed into a high-energy albeit rather typical affair of samples and remixes, including a “Don’t Stop Believing”/“Sweet Child O’ Mine”/“Thriller” sequence that got the crowd riled up enough to start climbing the suspension poles. Pole-climbing became a common occurrence throughout the festival, and as each daring idiot clambered up and beamed down at the crowd as though he were the first person in history to reach such clever heights, I was actually reminded of how much I cherish the laissez faire nature of these types of events. At Ultra, you don’t get punished for doing something stupid like climbing up a pole. If you fall, it’s your own damn fault. Ultra, and other events like it, create a time and place where the typical and often arbitrary rules of society go out the window, and the crazy kids get to come out and play without fear. In the end, this sense of jubilant anarchy in the midst of established order may be what I love about music festivals most of all.
Anyway, my friends and I ducked out of Will.i.am’s set early to grab some soggy, overpriced festival food, before heading over to watch London dance duo Groove Armada’s scheduled live performance on the Main Stage. But wait, this isn’t… who is this? It was LMFAO, inexplicably coming on early and punishing our ears with a worse-than-usual rendition of “I’m In Miami Bitch”–a phrase which became a kind of all-too-obvious theme for the festival, sampled in several other sets and plastered in Day-Glo on what appears to be this year’s most popular tourist t-shirt. The performance carried on exactly as you might expect that of the people responsible for the Jersey Shore theme song as well as every other miserably catchy vocal hook on the frat party circuit these days (personal favorite: “SHOTS! SHOTS! SHOTS! SHA-SHA-SHA-SHOTS!”).
When they finally emerged, electro-pop outfit Groove Armada provided a welcome reprieve with a healthy dose of estrogen amidst all the male energy dominating Ultra’s stages. While Tom Findlay and Andy Cato have been grooving since the mid-90’s, their most recent album, this year’s Black Light, debuted fearless female vocalist Saintsaviour, who carried the group’s performance, marching onto the stage in a suit of sparkly armor and rocking out like some kind of alien empress.
We left Groove Armada heading vaguely in the direction of Infected Mushroom, until I suddenly heard some seriously sick beats coming from the direction of what would soon prove to be my favorite area of the festival—the comparatively small but ideally situated Biscayne Stage, stationed in the very corner of the park and framed by a cluster of skyscrapers and Miami’s mini monorail track. Plunging into the small crowd gathered in front of the stage, we were immediately sucked into the spellbinding throb of a DJ none of us had ever heard of before—Fake Blood aka DJ Touché. Remixing samples from Little Boots’ “Stuck on Repeat” and The Kills’ “Cheap and Cheerful,” along with original tracks such as “I Think I Like It,” Fake Blood adeptly blended fidgety synth stabs and pitched-up vocal bits built to the brink of torment before surrendering to pounding baselines that got the whole crowd jumping. It turned out to be one of my favorite sets of the weekend.
Due to the utter overabundance of Ultra’s lineup (given the chance I’d see every single act individually, but that would take months), we would typically stick around for a few songs of each set, before quickly moving over to the next stage to check out a new scene. We spent the 9:00-10:00 slot flip-flopping between two masters of house music: David Guetta and Kaskade. French DJ Guetta is a perennial favorite of the club scene with boatloads of mainstream appeal, probably due to collaborations with radio rappers Kid Cudi, Akon, and Will.i.am (the latter, not surprisingly, stuck around for a guest appearance on Guetta’s stage). Guetta put on a show that revolved just as much if not more around visual spectacle as it did around music: the first in a series of late-night Main Stage headliners featuring mind-blowing collaborations of colored lights, long-range lasers, multi-screen visuals, and massive flame-throwers that sent waves of heat all the way to the very back of the crowd. Kaskade, on the other hand, while certainly not lacking in the lights and lasers department, spun out dreamy pulsations that could’ve retained their allure in a cement prison cell.
After working up a sweat in Kaskade’s tent, my crew and I decided to settle down for a welcome period of relaxed listening on a grassy hill next to one of the majestic white Heineken domes in the center of the park. From there we watched as the masses gathered around Main Stage for the highly anticipated Tiesto set that would close out the evening. While just as danceable as that of Guetta or Kaskade, Netherlands-born DJ Tiesto’s music is rooted in trance, and despite the progressive nature of his eclectic samplings and collaborations, his mesmerizing ability to put audiences into a mobile yet trance-like state is worth mentioning. Tiesto’s set got better as it went on, and eventually had us off the grass and into the fray, dancing wildly to the symphonic percolations of “Adiago For Strings” and the chill-inducing splendor of tranced-out Tegan and Sara collaboration “Feel It In My Bones.” The two guys gallivanting around the stage in stilts and full-body light-up suits with guns emitting billowing clouds of fog just added to the surrealism of the whole affair.
-Written by Hilary Cadigan
Check back tomorrow for our report of Day 2 of Ultra.