Last weekend I made a quick getaway to Miami to attend the Ultra Music Festival, otherwise known as the biggest electronic music festival in the world. This was the thirteenth installment of this Miami institution and the first time that it was expanded to a three day event. I along with 150,000 devoted dance music fans* sampled some of the world’s best DJs, producers, and electronic-leaning bands at what amounted to a three-day orgy of drugs, sweat, booze, bikinis, concrete, and ultra-heavy bass. I have been to some huge festivals in my day and some mighty big parties, but I don’t think I have ever been to something that combined the two quite like Ultra Music Festival did.
I thought that the readers who follow my musical adventures on We Love DC might like to hear about my field trip down south. The organizers are already planning UMF 2012 and if you dig what you see and read about here, you might want to consider making the trip yourself next year.
Ultra had three outdoor stages (Main, Live, Radio), an air conditioned Heineken Dome, three tent stages, and a massive semi-enclosed structure named after Carl Cox. That’s a whole lot of stages and for the most part each one of them had it’s own vibe and remained steadily packed with an audience.
DAY ONE (Friday, 3/25):
Mustard Pimp & Designer Drugs (Live Stage): I started off day one on the Live Stage to catch a few buzz DJ duos. Mustard Pimp melted faces with some hard electro and tag-team live remixing. Their set was extended by about a half an hour as Designer Drugs couldn’t get their laptop online. Mustard Pimp impressed during the unexpected set extension by keeping their cool and the party going. When Designer Drugs finally took the stage to perform, only half of the duo showed up to DJ and what he was spinning wasn’t that impressive. Too bad because I really like the sound DD is cranking out together. Hopefully their set will feature both of them when they play U Street Music Hall next month.
Feede Le Grand (Main Stage): The great thing about festivals is the ease of sampling different acts. With Designer Drugs not really working for me, I wandered over to the main stage to catch Dutch house music master Feede Le Grand. He laid down a set of dreamy house that warmed us up for the big guns to come out later.
Benny Benassi (Main Stage): By the time Benny Benassi took the stage Feede Le Grande had the now swollen crowd ready to party. It was during Benassi’s set that I really felt like I had arrived at the biggest electronic festival on earth. The main stage crowd was humongous and Benassi won them over with his gigantic Italian electro sound and a winning smile you could see from miles away. In the middle of his set however, the maestro made what I felt was a misstep when he dropped some James Blake into the mix. Blake’s slow worble did not fit into Benassi’s high energy set at all and most of the audience including myself were a bit confused by its inclusion.
CSS (Live Stage): A short walk over to the Live Stage again to catch the first real band of the weekend. These Brazilian dance-punks gave it the gusto and their lead singer Lovefoxxx looked great bouncing around on stage.
Erasure (Main Stage): A gay friend of mine recently told me that I am anomaly because I am a straight man who loves Erasure.** When I looked around at the diminutive, nearly insultingly small crowd that showed up for these synth-pop legends at Ultra, I began to think maybe he was right. I think the small crowd for Erasure was the perfect illustration that dance music culture has a short memory and that Ultra is a festival for predominantly very young fans. Erasure took the stage like the kings (queens?) they are though and tore through a greatest hits set like they were playing for tens of thousands. Andy Bell’s singing sounded terrific and Vince Clarke was a tower of concentration. This set was a blast and made “Chains of Love” the official theme song for my friends and me as we drove to and from the fest the rest of the weekend.
Duran Duran (Main Stage): I didn’t stay for all of Duran Duran’s set but what I did stay for was on point.*** I think the boys are back (yet again) with something to prove this time around. Simon Le Bon looked kind of evil with his beard barely disguising his determined scowl. They kicked off their set with “A View To A Kill”, my favorite song of theirs since childhood. After watching Duran Duran perform that song from the photo pit, what more could their set deliver to me? Their performance of that song standing that close was a musical high point of my life.
Royksopp (Live Stage): After a few Duran Duran songs, I booked over to catch Royksopp on the Live Stage. I got there in time to watch about 40 minutes of their set. Bizarre costumes combined with massive, weird sounding electronic bangers and a loving audience made this one of the best performances of the weekend.
Trentemoller (Live Stage): With all of the superstar DJs, buzz-worthy producers, and legendary party throwers on display at Ultra, I felt at times like one of the only people there to appreciate the music rather than to party. Don’t get me wrong, I was there to have a good time and to dance til death – but I also was excited about all of the interesting and unusual acts Ultra had lined up. Unlike most other festivals, there weren’t a lot of music geeks in the audience mix. This was apparent during Trentemoller’s set. Trentemoller was up against Tiesto, the biggest name in mainstream dance DJs, performing on the main stage and Carl Cox laying down the law on his personalized mega-stage; tough competition for an obscure and extremely artistic producer of dark-edged electronica. The crowd wasn’t very large to start for this mystery man and his secretive live band.
It might not have helped their cause either, that they played their first few songs from behind a screen that probably turned off some of the curious. But once that screen lifted, Trentemoller and his band offered one of the finest and most interesting sets of the weekend. Never delving too deeply into dark atmospherics, the group kept it up tempo and hard hitting for most of their set. The light schemes employed a lot of reds and negative space between expertly place white lights to make the bayside Live Stage feel like another realm. The band played together so well, that at times I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t all pre-recorded. I don’t know if I have seen a band play live electronica so flawlessly before.****
STS9 (Live Stage): I decided to stick around for this legendary electronic jam band (mainly because I can’t stand Tiesto’s live show). I was glad I did, STS9 are a tight unit of musicians who played winding, sonic journeys. I feared that STS9 live would come across as a lame Grateful Dead for the dance music set (like Disco Biscuits does), but instead they were doing their own thing entirely; playing perfectly orchestrated and controlled electronic song-scapes sans the pointless jamming of their lesser peers.
DAY TWO (Saturday, 3/26):
Eclectic Method (Tower of Ultra): I was super excited to catch this live video-remix duo from the UK perform and was the first person to enter the Tower of Ultra stage to see their set. Unfortunately, although they were performing in the video tent, the sunlight was too bright for projections to work during the day. Their noon set time forced them to work minus their trademark videos. That said, whatever they were mixing on their laptops and decks worked for them. Their music was the best and most frantic mash-up work I heard all weekend.
Shit Robot (Heineken Dome): Into the air-conditioned Heineken dome to catch DFA-ally, Shit Robot. He was older than I expected and did not perform a show like he did at SXSW. Instead he DJ’d a set of cool electro with an exotic edge that I couldn’t quite place. Perfect music for a mid-afternoon cool-off session.
Bag Raiders (Live Stage): Okay, Bag Raiders from Australia are the shit. No really. Their name isn’t so hot and some of their music videos are weak. But fuck all that. These guys were great! They put similar bands like Cut Copy and Holy Ghost! to shame. I could not believe the energetic and flawless set this duo laid down to an early afternoon crowd at the live stage. Talk about talented; between the two of them they played all kinds of crazy keyboards, gadgets, and percussion and made it look easy. I don’t think I saw two musicians having more fun all weekend. The crowd grew during their set as people were roped in by their cool electro-disco revival sound. Out of all of the groups in that scene right now I would say that Bag Raiders are probably the best that I’ve seen.
Sander Kleinenberg (Main Stage): Back to the main stage for some more Dutch house music. I m not the biggest house fan but something about the way these Dutch DJs lay it down works for me. Kleinenberg picked up where Feede Le Grand left of the day before, with a mid-afternoon set that started kind of dreamy. It wasn’t long though before Kleinenberg unleashed some harder edged sounds. A live guest appearance by Dev amped up the crowd and Klienenberg as he live remixed her single “Bass Down Low”. Dev doused the crowd with her water and exited the stage leaving Kleinenberg with the challenge of drying us off with some super hot beats. A particular highlight was a robotic mix he laid down over Tron: Legacy visuals.
Afrojack: I know nothing about Afrojack other than he had several sets spread out over the course of Ultra on different stages. I caught some of his marathon set at the Carl Cox stage and some of his Main Stage set. Both sets were awesome and had the crowd going absolutely bananas. This guy is going to be a superstar.
Feed Me (Tower of Ultra): A protege of Deadmau5, Feed Me was making a debut of sorts in the Tower of Ultra. His electro meets dubstep style had the kids packed into the tent and made for one of the better no nonsense dance scenes of the weekend.*****
Simian Mobile Disco (Live Stage): Without a doubt one of the top three things I saw at Ultra. Last year, Simian Mobile Disco brought their unusual DJ style to U Street Music Hall and blew me away. In Miami, I got to experience their Delicacies party once again. They hosted Delicacies and DJ’d a late night set at a nightclub called Eve. It was a phenomenal set and one of the most primal dance parties I have been too in years.
That was SMD DJing. At Ultra, they were set to perform live. I had always heard good things, but nothing prepared me for what they did. Basically SMD brought their entire studio onto the stage and recreated their Delicacies album and other tunes live. It was a knob-twisting, plug-swapping, keyboard pounding, sequence programming bonanza of concentration. Utterly captivating to witness. Not only was SMD live one of the craziest and most deft live electronic performances I have ever seen, it was also one of the hardest. With each release SMD gets colder and closer to original techno. Their live set was a techno-fetishist’s wet dream. They simply annihilated the audience. I was left standing in awe of their set. It was music nirvana in the middle of the afternoon. I need to see them perform live again ASAP!
Boyz Noise (Live Stage): I know he’s got a following right now, but Boyz Noise’s jagged electro DJ-ing just left me cold.
Moby (Carl Cox Stage): I have a love hate thing going on with Moby. It has lasted years. I guess since Lollapalooza ’95 when I thought I was going to see one of underground techno’s brightest and instead got a set of limp punk rock covers. Anyway, I have always wanted to see Moby do his DJ thing and never have. So when I saw that he was going to be spinning at Ultra in the famed Carl Cox structure, I knew I had to at least check it out.
I am happy to report that Moby killed it. I mean he brought the house down hard. Right from the get go, he entered the flying saucer DJ booth with attitude. From his Minor Threat t-shirt to his screaming to his climbing onto the lip of the DJ booth and hyping the crowd up; Moby slayed us with hard as nails electronic music that sort of left me speechless. This was the Moby I wanted to see back in the day. Where had this Moby been all these years? Wherever he’s been, I am glad he is back!
Armin Van Buuren (Main Stage): The #1 ranked DJ in the world and the mastermind of State of Trance took the main stage and delivered an awesome set of hard trance with stunning visuals. I didn’t watch the whole set but I was really digging it for the 30 minutes or so that I witnessed. For some reason I expected to be annoyed by Van Buuren like I get annoyed at Tiesto sets; but Van Buuren kept it real in a way I appreciated. He’s coming to Fur in a month and I think I might go catch him again.
Underworld (Main Stage): Last year, Underworld took the crown for best electronic show I saw at 9:30 Club. They edged out Deadmau5 last year, who at Ultra was now set to close the main stage after them on Saturday night. I have to say, that the Underworld boys did it again. Underworld put on a stunning set on the main stage that for the first time all weekend really utilized the size of the crowd, the size of the stage, and the ridiculous lights and video screens surrounding it. No one does festival performances quite like Underworld. They really specialize in making their sets mass-experiences in which the entire audience and the band become one giant organism of happiness. During one of their many sight and sound maelstroms, I thought for a few seconds that the entire festival was going to time-warp into the future.
Deadmau5 (Main Stage): Deadmau5 closed out the main stage with a set that was frankly boring. His set included his trademark video cube and while he had more screen real estate around it at Ultra than he did at 9:30 Club, he made little original use of it. His set was essentially the same visuals and beats as his shows at the 9:30 Club last year. Shows which I felt were far more entertaining than he was at Ultra. I was disappointed that Deadmau5’s set offered nothing new. Here he was headlining the main stage at the biggest dance music festival in the world and he basically offered us up a re-run of his last tour. I left half-way through out of boredom.
Sasha as Vortek Live (Live Stage): To close out the night I went to the live stage to check out Sasha’s mystery project Vortek (live). Sasha has had a long and varied career with highs and lows. I would say that Vortek is a high. Playing sort of hard but meditative trance and techno from within a custom-built visual DJ-booth, Sasha delivered a surprisingly soulful electronic performance that closed out Saturday night in style. While his visual gear looked a lot cheaper than Deadmau5, Sasha sold us on it with music that was infinitely deeper than the Mau5keteer’s.
Sasha as Vortek (live)
DAY THREE (Sunday, 3/27):
Miss Nine (Live Stage): One of the most enjoyable DJs that I saw all weekend was Miss Nine. She was one of the several go-to DJs that Ultra would employ to spin during set changes. I saw Miss Nine probably about nine times over the weekend and each time she was smiling and having a great time behind the decks. Her model good-looks, infectious smile, and killer grooves made the wait between acts a pleasure.
Fake Blood (Live Stage): Theo Keating, one half of The Wiseguys (who we will never forgive for “Start The Commotion”), performed solo as Fake Blood on the live stage. Of all the DJs I saw on the live stage at Ultra, his set was probably the best. I think the hundreds of people on the cruise ship that pulled up alongside of the stage would probably agree.
Ferry Corsten (Carl Cox Stage): The string of Dutch house and Trance dominance continued when I took in most of Ferry Corsten’s set as part of the State of Trance marathon in the Carl Cox structure. Corsten laid down a commanding set of warm trance that eventually morphed into harder edged material. I’ve been noticing a return of the hard edge to Trance lately and I like it.
Alex Gaudino (UMF Brasil Stage): If there was one straight-up party DJ that I was going to see at Ultra, it was Alex Gaudino. This guy is notorious for his naughty party image and over-sexed beats. Gaudino lived up to his reputation. When I walked into the Brasil stage during his set, I felt like I had left Ultra and walked into an out of control Spring Break party down in Rio. People were going buck wild, climbing all over the DJ booth, grinding, getting all sweaty and nasty. The women were going wild the whole time, but particularly went nuts when Gaudino dropped his “Destination Unknown” remix. Being a married man, I left the tent of sin after hearing his most well-known track.
Will.i.am (Backstage): Hey, look! I ran into Will.i.am in the press tent!
David Guetta (Main Stage): I original planned on skipping Guetta’s Main Stage set. He has become so huge that I feared his set would be some kind of lowest common denominator debacle ala Tiesto. I am glad that I came to my senses and stuck around for him though. It is true that Guetta has a huge following and that he sometimes panders to crowd pleasing over originality. But he does so rarely. His set at Ultra proved a few things to me about David Guetta which I will keep in mind about him from now on.
First, the guy is immensely talented. Of all the great DJ talent I saw all weekend, Guetta just blew them away. Second, he loves what he is doing; maybe more than all the other DJs combined. Guetta was so damn happy that it made everyone else happy. Like Miss Nine proved earlier, good cheer is infectious. Third, David Guetta owns Ultra Music Festival. Before his set Guetta rattled off all of the hit songs that he debuted at previous Ultra Music Festivals. It was an insane list that showed how prolific and successful the guy is, but also how fitting a choice he is to be the final Main Stage DJ of the largest Ultra yet. His set was so huge it bordered on absurd. From a live guest spot by Flo Rida, to giant laser beam shooting robots, to hilarious French-fried stage banter (“Tonight, we will all fuck!”), to his body bruising bass-lines; Guetta was the DJ of all DJs last weekend.
The Chemical Brothers (Main Stage): Finally seeing The Chemical Brothers was one of the main draws that got me on a plane down to Miami. I have had opportunities to see them perform in the past, but they always charged way too much for stand alone performances. Besides, I had always heard that seeing The Chemical Brothers at a major festival was where it’s at. Knowing how facing that many people in an audience raises Underworld’s game to new levels, I figured big crowds had a similar effect on the Chemical Brothers.
In a way I was correct. But in another way, I was wholly unprepared for what they delivered. I would say out of my experience at Ultra Music Festival 2011 that Underworld, Simian Mobile Disco, and The Chemical Brothers were far and away the top three performances I saw. The Chemical Brothers closed out the entire festival with a live electronica display similar to SMD’s the day before; but with decades of showmanship experience, the festival’s biggest crowd, and a ridiculous sound system to back it up.
The Chemical Brothers
Their set was mind-bending. There is no other way to describe it. The Chemical Brothers unleashed sound odyssey that put their familiar discography through a mutation machine. The result was a non-stop stream of nearly unrecognizable versions of their most hard-hitting and powerful material. Up until The Chemical Brothers, I would say that Deadmau5 had struck the deepest and most powerful bass note all weekend.****** The Chemical Brothers took Deadmau5’s best bass moment as a starting point and pushed the boundaries of ultra heavy bass beyond anything I have experienced before. Their bass work was sick but it was the constant live production work, the endless noodling with equipment in their on-stage studio, that really won me over. I can’t fully express how insane their set sounded or how much it whipped everyone around me into a dance frenzy. All I can really say is that The Chemical Brothers were the perfect choice to close out a strong weekend of electronic music because they were the most creative and the most powerful act by a mile.
* This is the official head count, which I believe is adding the head count of all three days together. To me it felt like there were maybe 50,000 people there each day. It was easy to move around, simple to score great spots to watch bands and DJs, and the food and bathroom lines were pretty short.
** I am seeing them again in London in May.
*** I left early because I have seen Duran Duran twice before and they conflicted with Royksopp (who I have never seen and worship).
**** Even more amazing is that for most of the Trentemoller band, this is a part time gig!
***** Feed Me also DJ’d on the main stage during the set change between Underworld an Deadmau5. I was less impressed with his second set. In fact, it felt like he choked on the big stage.
****** At one point during his set, Deadmau5 struck on a stomach churning bass note and sustained it for almost 3-minutes. It was the high point of his otherwise pedestrian set (IMO).