FRIDAY, MARCH 15
ULTRA Music Festival was in full swing for its 15th anniversary beginning Friday, March 15, starting the first of two weekends by taking over downtown Miami, with dancing traffic clogging up Biscayne Boulevard. From the large main stage to the Carl Cox tent and its mobile LED honeycomb panels, the event’s production continues to top itself from previous years’ installments.
On the opening Friday, herds of electrophiles bum-rushed the gates, two-stepping their way into the Bayfront Park amphitheatre to catch AraabMUZIK’s dubstep drop of DJ Kool’s ’96 throwback “Let Me Clear My Throat.” Less packed than usual, the first day made for easier mobility than years past, leaving gaps at every stage (the turnout for the first two days was considerably less than in years past.) But the musical presence was amplified, and artists brought their rage game to the spotlights, serving up a healthy portion of beats, keeping everyone on their toes and eager for what was in store.
YOU KNOW YOU’RE AT ULTRA WHEN
The bass is so heavy, you’re worried you might just lose all bodily control and fall right into the toilet as you break the seal on your first visit to the Porta Potty.
WE’RE NOT IN GLASTONBURY ANYMORE
Various countries’ flags cut through the rainbow of neon, representing the international presence at ULTRA. Currently in the lead: Argentina with seven flags.
NOT SO SUCKY
For the first time in my six years of covering ULTRA, only one blinky pacifier was spotted on the first day. I was both shocked (I couldn’t gawk at rolling teens) and proud (the scene is coming along), but I chalked it up to not spending much time at the main stage.
CONSISTENT MVP OF ULTRA
John Digweed. The house master dropped subtle, spooky tech bombs on a crowd that ranged from '90s worshippers to New Centuryneophytes, but his elevated post on the illuminated platform of the Carl Cox stage only glorified his godliness to the sea of shimmying admirers.
Sadly, just one. But, the weekend is young.
MOST IMPRESSIVE STAGE SET-UP
Boys Noize, who stood on a gargantuan gray skull with red LED eyes, and laid down a catalogue of robotic tracks from 2007’s Oi Oi Oi to 2012's Out Of The Black. The opener, “What You Want” seemed a fitting start, but it was “XTC” that had enthusiasts delighting in the club-drug anthem toward the end of his set. Appreciated throwbacks included “& Down” and “My Moon My Man,” though the latter lacked the nostalgic Feist-y vocals from BN deliveries past.
Ratio of guys to girls on top of shoulders
1:1. There were a surprising amount of men in need of an elevated view.
AN UNTOUCHABLE FRONTWOMAN
Having seen Crystal Castles more than a handful of times, there’s really only so much you can take of the same show over and over. But, admittedly, it’s still entertaining after all these years. From the seizure-inducing light show to Alice Glass’ synth interludes on “Vanished,” the energy of the live stage was at its peak. A lavender-locked Glass climbed the barricades to crowd surf, loving the occasional grope from a random happy hand. “Crimewave” was an '80s-drenched crowd pleaser, but the infamous “Alice Practice” had both Glass and her minions on the brink of mania, as she shrieked lyrics and fans seemed out-of-body chanting them back an act only witnessed at the Crystal Castles’ house of mayhem Friday night.
AMOUNT OF PEOPLE AT LIVE STAGE CLOSER
Approximately 100. Out of the thousands of ULTRA attendees, only a fraction bookmarked Nicolas Jaar as their headliner Friday night. As the New York-born multitasker looped catchy synths and belted warm vocals, he bantered with the crowd about his “private set.” Joking (or not) about also heading into “early retirement,” Jaar mocked his mainstage competition, Swedish House Mafia, but for indie-electro lovers, it was clear he “saved the world” of anti-househeads Friday night with his everlasting charm and intimate showcase. Shining moments coincided with the firework show at SHM, including Jaar’s delivery of his signature track “With Just One Glance,” which features the syrupy vocals of Scout LaRue, as well as a new gospel track he introduced to revelers.
SATURDAY, MARCH 16
The second day of ULTRA Music Festival brought beautiful weather and contagious good vibes to Bayfront Park. There was something delicious in the crisp Miami air, and the impressive musical talent and cheerful attendees only strengthened the ambiance.
MOST FUN ACT TO WATCH
Matt & Kim, hands down. The duo brought a vibrant energy to the stage with their logo balloon party, but it was their witty banter that had everyone laughing, grooving and singing along. “Kim, tell the fine people how beautiful they look tonight,” keyboardist Matt Johnson said. Drummer Kim Schifino eagerly shared her personal ULTRA contest, exclaiming, “We have started a competition to see who can see the most motherfucking side boob today. Let me just say I’m up to 32 side boobs, and it’s only, like, fucking 4:30.” The pair then delved into a syrupy, melodic “Good Ol' Fashion Nightmare,” followed by an intro of Dr. Dre's “The Next Episode” that segued into an extra trancey take on “It’s Alright.” While Johnson caressed the keys, Schifino beat the hell out of her drumkit as if it were her last show on Earth. They played so hard, they “broke shit,” so an apology to the crowd was in order when the couple had to forgo playing “Daylight.” Schifino was performing with a sprained ankle; at the set’s end, she fastened her medical boot, and the crowd obliged by creating a makeshift bridge out of their hands, so she could surf on by. As Matt & Kim danced out to “Mercy” by Kanye West, fans were genuinely sad to see them exit.
GREAT FOR THE AFTERNOON LULL
It might’ve seemed a bit random that Thievery Corporation made it onto the ULTRA bill, but the longtime multi-genre act brought a much-needed dose of worldly live music to the fest, performing a mix of dubstep, jazz and Middle Eastern-infused tracks. Sampled interludes included retro bits of James Brown’s “Get On Up” and “Thank You” by Sly And The Family Stone. Founding band member Rob Myers lured listeners with his sitar during the band’s hit “Lebanese Blonde,” while “Vampires,” with its kiss of Latin flavor, felt right at home in Miami.
Walking over to the main stage to catch Porter Robinson the moment he dropped “Obedear” by Canadian livetronica duo Purity Ring was a highlight for me, which produced a yearning for the experimental electro act’s presence at the festival.
INDIE WITH AN EGO
“Hello, Miami,” Chris Keating announced before Yeasayer dropped into 2007’s “2080,” warming up attendees and letting them into his vulnerable world. Keating’s shyness was short-lived: After just a few minutes jamming out with his mates, he addressed the girls who wore the “shortest shorts” with “asses sticking out of the bottom,” and guys who wore tank tops that were “a little too skinny.” From the rail, the chatter was entertaining, and Keating’s growing ego from up-close was more of an appeal than a turnoff. The high point of the set was “Reagan’s Skeleton,” the track from Fragrant World, which was laced with passionate crooning, timed beats, rhythmic riffs and thumping bass. After acquiring a Portuguese flag from the crowd, Keating proceeded to wear it, then roll around on the ground in it, as the rest of the band provided the dramatic mood music to “Ambling Alp.” Keating belted, “Stick up for yourself, son,” one last time before tossing the flag over Ira Wolf Tuton’s head, forcing him to deliver the bassline blind.
MOST IMPROVED TIME SLOT
Knife Party deserved every bit of their primetime slot this year, as opposed to last year’s afternoon set. Since announcing the breakup of Pendulum in 2012, the Aussie team have devoted their full time to this previous side project, giving acts like the Bloody Beetroots a run for their money. Knife Party’s dark and dirty set on the main stage was fueled by glitchy drops and woozy organs violating sweet and innocent house tracks. It was the musical molestation of the Swedish House Mafia hit “Save The World,” that had thousands of heads bobbing up and down in unison to the dipping bass. During their cheesy track “Internet Friends,” the pair instructed everyone to raise their phones in the air while they dished out a slaughtering brand of evil electro.
COOLEST SHOW ELEMENT
The ceiling camera during Carl Cox’s set in his own arena. The LED screen projected a view from above the British trance master’s every move on four decks and one mixer, sharing an inside look at both his gear setup and skills.
LEAST PRETENTIOUS SET
Perhaps his year off from ULTRA did some good: deadmau5’s composed and consistent set was on-point from the get-go. The “I Remember” teaser stole hearts and minds in the first five minutes of the returning headliner’s set. Woofers were stacked sky-high, bouncing bass off the city skyline as deadmau5 fried ear hairs during “Raise Your Weapon.” Unexpected, yet appreciated, '80s kids reveled in his Zelda theme song sample, which segued into “Sofi Needs A Ladder,” off 2011’s 4x4=12. Lyrical tracks were woven together by instrumental breaks, structuring a well-crafted set, of mau5’s entire catalogue, including an extended remix of new track “Maths” off > album title goes here <, with its robotic bytes and MSTRKRFT-esque rise-and-fall. “Ghosts ‘N’ Stuff” was a crowd pleaser, as mau5 heads nodded in approval while singing Rob Swire’s chorus, as was the synthesized “Moar Ghosts ‘N’ Stuff” with its reverse remix. The beloved house anthem “The Veldt” helped close out deadmau5’s set, permeating euphoria throughout the main stage, as admirers stood, hands over hearts, crooning along and singing the everlasting praises of the masked Joel Zimmerman.
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SUNDAY, MARCH 17
Attending the Church of Rage on Sunday, the final day of ULTRA Music Festival’s first weekend was more packed than its previous days, luring in curious weekenders looking for a piece of the electro action that echoed through downtown Miami throughout Friday and Saturday. For third-day ULTRA-goers running low on fuel, the refreshing pack of people was vital to maintaining the festival’s dwindling energy.
MOST ANTICIPATED NEW ACT
Alex Ridha (Boys Noize) and Sonny Moore (Skrillex) first began work on their side project collaboration known as Dog Blood last summer. Since then, electro admirers of both artists have been eager to get a taste of the duo’s live show. Taking over the UMF Worldwide Stage at 5 p.m., Dog Blood were an unusual blend of tastes and sounds, making it difficult to truly categorize the genre where the music belonged. House-heavy, yet full of glitch effects and elevated amounts of bass, the experimental act was an invigorating presentation. Since Skrillex is attached to the love-hate dubstep stereotype in the EDM community, Dog Blood were a breakthrough opportunity for the producer to showcase his range. Standout remixes featured a handful of hip-hop samples, including A$AP Rocky’s “Wild For The Night,” but it was the bass-saturated version of “Smack My Bitch Up” by the Prodigy that caused a frenzy on the asphalt.
THE INVASION OF GIMMICKS AND DANCEHALL
As always, electro-fusion, Jamaican dancehall act Major Lazer brought the party to ULTRA, attracting a sea of excited fans to the live stage. For the first time all week, the amphitheatre was packed back to the lawn, because the addictive dance brigade was just too much fun to pass up. As Walshy Fire emceed the hour-long set of antics and tunes, Jillionaire assisted on the decks, while frontman Diplo alternated between mixing tracks and throwing vuvuzelas, confetti and dollar bills into the crowd. An inflatable ‘M’ and ‘L’ on the stage meant business (and by business I mean fiesta), and so did Fire. Following a steamy interpretation of “Jah No Partial,” the act’s leading personality commanded, “Everybody take your shirts off right now. Take your pants off, take your weave out, if you don’t give a fuck.” On cue, a rainbow of apparel flew sky-high. For the Latinas and Miamians alike, Major Lazer cranked out the ’98 chart-topper “Suavemente,” but it was dirty rap tracks like “Pop That” by French Montana and Major Lazer’s own “Pon De Floor” that got the girls grinding on the pavement. During ML’s signature viral dance hit “Express Yourself,” 20 ladies were invited to the stage to show off their best booty-clapping moves, but avid fans seemed more hooked on the drum and bass delivery of “Get Free,” which was accompanied by dancers waving flags with the act’s current slogan.
MOST NOSTALGIC ACT
Naturally, Snoop Dogg greeted longtime devotees by throwing a lit joint into the crowd, a practice he repeated throughout his set. “Is anybody getting fucked up tonight? Somebody pour me some of my favorite drink,” Snoop called out, as “Gin And Juice” blared through the speakers, and a furry mascot from Doggystyle appeared alongside the legendary rapper, pumping and thrusting his hips at the audience. More than a dozen hits featuring Snoop cameos made the roster, including 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” and DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win,” but the underlying (and predictable) theme was sparking up, so tracks like Dr. Dre’s “Let’s Get High” and “The Next Episode” signaled a thick, dank cloud of chronic floating above the crowd.
Though the four most popular spots to see music were all within a five-minute walk of each other, the mini hike to the Surface Stage Sunday night introduced a true treat. London-born Maya Jane Coles served up a steaming platter of deep house, a brand my dancing neighbor Ilya admitted was the electro version of “real baby-making music.” Coles wove her beats effortlessly, as hips swayed together to the cacophony of ecstasy, releasing batches of serotonin sans synthetic party enhancers.
A DIRTYBIRD TAKES FLIGHT
Closing out the festival on the Surface Stage, Detroit native Claude VonStroke returned to ULTRA to unleash a hefty dose of minimal house, with rhythmic bass so thick, it vibrated in my trachea, as though I’d had some sort of electrolarynx implanted. The head honcho at San Francisco label Dirtybird looked merry on his pedestal, humbled by both his time slot and the turnout of supporters that chose to end their festival with the bearded bird’s instrumentals.
ONE LAST HURRAH
Splitting the final moment of ULTRA between two headliners was a tough decision, but German tech-house twosome Booka Shade rarely visit Miami, so the division was a done deal. Closing the live stage with “In White Rooms,” their performance was trippy and trance-y, with Walter Merziger boring down on his set of synthesizers as drummer Arno Kammermeier accented the sound. Both artists delighted in the intimate attendance’s enthusiasm for “Donut” (from 2010’s More!,) with its whiny effects and bouncy chords. “Regenerate” wound down the set, complete with infectious Indian-flavored vocal samples, dual synths and timed cymbal crashing. One final shimmy and another round of fireworks solidified the conclusion to ULTRA Music Festival 15’s first weekend, leaving many eager for the upcoming Winter Music Conference, while others contemplated scalping tickets to the sold-out second installment, repeating with a few additions (and subtractions) to the lineup next weekend. Alt.