Ultra 2013, Weekend 2—The Ultimate Review
This year Ultra Music Festival announced that for it’s 15th anniversary they would be blowing out the festival to two weekends: March 15-17 and March 22-24. And a blow-out it was: top headliners hailed from around the globe and across different genres within the EDM scene, UMF Radio exclaimed that there would be technology unlike ever before, and over 300,000 attendees piled into Miami from 83 countries (not to mention the millions watching live online). Despite its reputation of excessive drugs (we all remember Madonna’s “Who’s seen Molly?” comment and that girl who made out with—and slapped—a tree), bros, and 13-year-olds, it is still the premier electronic music festival in the world and therefore I could not resist going.
Friday, Weekend 2
On Friday the festival opened at around 5:00 pm but, after waiting on line en masse with about 5,000 other people, we were herded through the entrance at about 6:30 pm. We wandered around, but I wasn’t really feeling most of the artists, so it was a good opportunity to explore. In comparison to the last Ultra I had been to (Ultra 2011), which was located at Bicentennial Park, this year’s festival was definitely different. The location at Bayfront Park was much more choppy, giving you the sense that the grounds were smaller (even though the grounds were definitely bigger this year). Here are the site maps from 2011 & this year (sorry about the not-so-awesome quality of the first one), where you can clearly see that in 2011 there were 8 stages (including the Heineken Dome) but they were all on top of each other, whereas this year there were only 7 stages but they were way more spread out.
The stages this year were cool, but I really believe the stages at Ultra 2011 were much more awe-inspiring. The Mega Structure (which is where you would find the Carl Cox & Friends Arena on the first two nights and A State of Trance on the last night) this year had LED screens on the ceiling that were shaped like honey combs and could actually move down toward the crowd, creating a really cool optical illusion. However, at the stage in 2011, the actual DJ booth (marked on the map above as the Carl Cox & Friends Arena) was shaped like a spaceship which was completely lined with LED lights, as well as massive LED screens behind the DJ. In 2011 they would also create this really intense fog and then shine bright lights into it, creating this insane effect where you couldn’t see anything but that color. Maybe they got rid of it because it was a fire hazard or something, but it was very cool and I was sad not to see it again.
The Ultra Worldwide stage this year was interesting: it was a giant arch which had these hanging inflated spikey things (someone at Ultra loves these– in 2011 they were in the Carl Cox & Friends Arena as well as the Tower of Ultra) and some big LED screens behind the DJ and on the DJ booth. On the first night this was called the Ultra Brazil, then the Dropzone, and on the final day Ultra Korea. If anyone out there can tell me what it was about the lineup or stage that harkens Brazil or Korea, please let me know, because the relationship was beyond me. Anyway, in 2011 there was a stage called Ultra Worldwide but this year’s Worldwide stage was more equivalent to 2011’s Tower of Ultra, a semi-closed dome that had a wall that could have colors and images projected onto it, and in the middle of the wall, elevated about 30 feet in the air, was the DJ booth. This was seriously so awesome:
In 2011, there was also something called the Heineken Dome, which was an enclosed dome for 21+ only that had kaleidoscopic visuals projected onto the ceiling and live DJ performances. This year, it was an enclosed building that had lights and fog and LED screens of the concert going on at the Worldwide stage, which is cool but definitely not as cool as having 360 degrees of trippy visuals going along with live music. Here’s a video of the Heineken Dome from 2011 to give you an idea of just how incredible it was:
The Eco-Village this year was really small (it was small in 2011 as well), and it was in a really weird location that seemed really obvious because it was right in the middle of all of the main stages, but it was actually confusing to get to and I’m still uncertain of where it was exactly. However, the music I heard emanating from it was always pretty fun. I have an embarrassing confession to make now: I never made it to the UMF Radio or Bayfront Stage. Even when I was trying to explore, I always thought I went too far and missed it. It also had to do with the fact that there were just too many amazing acts going on all the time that I was never able to move beyond the main 4 (Main Stage, Worldwide Stage, Mega Structure, and the Live Stage). Every time I tried to get away, I would get distracted by music! I even tried to arrive early every day (at least by 2:00 pm—hours before my friends arrived!) to try and explore, but it was to no avail.
Anyway, it wasn’t until about 9:00 pm on Friday night that things started heating up. I left my friends, who went to see Avicii, and headed to the Live Stage to check out Boys Noize. All I can say is, FINALLY the festival had started. Boys Noize kicked it off so hard, I just got so pumped up for the rest of the night, even if it was half over already. I really enjoy the hard dance sounds of Boys Noize and always have; this show definitely did not let down. The light show was also spectacular, with the DJ placed in a giant skull and really cool LED images behind him. My friends joined me after, reporting that Avicii was “just okay.”
Immediately after were the Bloody Beetroots, an Italian DJ and producer who wears a signature black Venom mask (unfortunately I was all the way in the back so that I had more room to dance, but couldn’t see the mask). He was just non-stop dance fire and my friends and I could not stop dancing. I think it was really perfect to have Boys Noize and Bloody Beetroots play one after the other; their musical styles are very complimentary in that they are both seriously electronic dance music (I mean that in the sense that you can’t help but dance to this music and that it can only be described as electronic). When it was over we all groaned that it had been too short. How could the night already be over? How is it possible that it was already nearly midnight? While walking towards the exit, we ran into the Eco-Village stage which had Krafty Kutz playing. Krafty Kutz is a breakbeat DJ from the UK and maybe I was simply excited to still be hearing music, but I was loving it for those last five minutes before he had to stop playing at midnight.
Saturday, Weekend 2
Saturday I woke up “early” and arrived to the festival around 2:00 pm (it opened at noon). Despite this “early” hour, it was already really hot (like in the eighties) and there were a fair number of people there. Today would be my dubstep and drum and bass day, and since not too many of my friends still like this genre I was going to take good advantage and see as much as possible (so glad I brought earplugs!!!). Datsik, a dubstep DJ from Canada, got things super sweaty right away at the Dropzone (AKA Worldwide stage). As the sun moved across the sky, the shadow over the crowd from the arch moved and even though the heat from our bodies was slightly trapped under the arch, it was definitely better to be in the shade. I think in general most artists know that 50% of the crowd doesn’t arrive until dusk because of a combination of hangovers and the heat, so I give any DJ who can draw in a crowd in those conditions and get them raging lots of props.
I left Datsik’s set a little early to catch Rusko, UK dubstep DJ and producer, at the Main Stage. What’s tough about this stage is that there is no escape from the sun. Despite the seriously lethal sun (if you forgot your sunblock, you’re screwed), there was still a great crowd; Rusko is a legend in dubstep after all. One thing that surprised me was how young Rusko looked; I was able to get close enough to see his very blond head bopping around on stage and it just made him look very young, like a teenager (he’s 28, I think).
Afterwards I zipped over to Kill the Noise, a dubstep and dnb DJ from Rochester, NY, back at the Dropzone. Kill the Noise had a really great set that was complimented by really cool visualizer images, not just your standard image with the DJs name on it flashing over and over.
At the Live Stage I caught Thievery Corporation, which had their full live group including singers and musicians. It was a really nice breath of fresh air to hear live music with real instruments and vocals and Thievery Corp has a really unique sound which they call “outer-national” (as opposed to international), but what I guess most people call “world music” or ethnic music. They run the gambit of genres, from reggae to jazz, Middle Eastern and Indian to Brazilian, and I was loving it. The highlight is definitely the sitar player, which is such an alien sound amid all the DJs at the festival. The female vocalist was also a great highlight—her voice was unbelievably beautiful. I also discovered that they had really nice confetti being shot off at this stage periodically, and at this moment, with the sun lowering behind the buildings and being at such an angle, the confetti looked especially colorful and vibrant.
I then zipped over to see Italian DJ and record producer Benny Benassi at the Live Stage. Despite the 1,000 times I’ve heard his song “Cinema” I still love it and sing it to all my friends (come on, you know you do too!), so this was a set I couldn’t miss. Sadly, Krewella was playing at the same time as Benassi, so I had to miss their set, but they’re always on tour so I figured I would be more likely to catch them again than to see Benassi. A lot of my friends agreed that Benassi had a great set, but I did overhear someone say that Krewella killed it (I expect no less from them!). Krewella always brings great energy to the crowd and I saw in a photo that they were crowd surfing, which really feeds into their tough-girl attitude (Krewella is a Chicago-based dubstep/house group that consists of 2 females and a male).
Again, I had to make a tough decision. I chose to forego Fatboy Slim and Booka Shade to see Zeds Dead, Sub Focus, and Flux Pavilion vs. Doctor P, who were all playing at the Dropzone. I heard Fatboy Slim’s set was awesome, so I’m a little bummed I missed it. Zeds Dead was a TON of fun with lots of upbeat dancing going on. When UK DJ Sub Focus came on though, his set was much more drum and bass heavy and I was really feeling it. I had originally hoped to dip out of his set to catch a little of Booka Shade, but in the end I was having so much fun at Sub Focus that I couldn’t pull myself away. So I stayed through the performance and was there for Flux Pavilion and Doctor P. The friends I was with left because they wanted to avoid the “crowdstep” (a new expression for me—I love it!), but I was still pretty eager since I hadn’t seen them live yet. They threw down a really great set, but the crowd started to really swell to the point of being uncomfortable. Some people tried to crowd surf, which is always a fail at electronic shows and is definitely an indication of the type of crowd (you know, the annoying kind). I knew I needed to escape before the Bassheads arrived and would totally crush me in. I had the intention of heading from there to Flosstradamus, the #1 trap DJ at the moment, but the trap stage was pretty far and I was sidetracked by Carl Cox’s set at the Mega Structure which this night was called Carl Cox & Friends. The set was good, the lights were great, but I was really far in the back, so I had renewed vigor to see Flosstradamus. And then, again, I got sidetracked by the Live Stage where Faithless was playing. I head never heard of Faithless, which is a UK electronica band, but they had really fun dance music; I was pleasantly surprised. I ended up running into my friends here and we danced for a bit before heading to the headliner for the night: Deadmau5.
Now, I will be the first to admit that, when I’m at a festival like this, I try and get the most value out of the (very expensive) ticket and therefore I try to see artists that I love and/or who I otherwise wouldn’t see. If Brittney Spears did a cameo, I’d be there. Two years ago, at Ultra 2011, someone texted me, “P. Diddy is at the main stage!!!” I ran as fast as I could to see it, despite none of my friends coming with me. When will you ever have another chance like that?! While there was no celebrity guest at this year’s Ultra (bummer), Deadmau5 is definitely a celebrity in his own right and someone who’s tickets will always be out of my price range.
Even though we got to the stage a little early, there were already tens of thousand of people awaiting Deadmau5’s arrival, so it was really hard to see because we were so far back. Through the crowd, if someone moved their head the right way, I could catch a glimpse of the big cheese himself. Two years ago, the LED mouth of the mouse head actually moved so that it appeared as though he was talking, but I didn’t see that this year. It was actually so hot out (despite his set being 10:30 pm-midnight) that he had to take the head off, which was like Batman taking off his mask—I didn’t really think it was possible! He gave an exaggerated fanning motion to signify to the crowd that it was too hot, and then gave a friendly, casual wave, to which you couldn’t help but wave back and then laugh because he obviously couldn’t see you.
Deadmau5’s stage was pretty amazing. He was standing in a cube that had LED screens on it and there were also LED screens behind him. The visuals were really sick, some of them really beautiful as well. The lights on some of the mouse heads (he wore several different ones, including the original one which doesn’t have lights on it), were pretty cool too—one made it look like he was wearing a Tron-esque helmet. In the end, I’m glad the mouse didn’t start talking—it freaked me out a little last time.
Sunday, Weekend 2
When I left Saturday night, my feet were killing me, I was hungry, and I was thirsty. As a result, I tried to relax a little at the pool the morning before to relieve my sore feet, causing me to arrive a little later than expected to the festival. I arrived at 2:30 pm, frantically trying to make it to see Nervo, who went on at the Main Stage at 2:00 pm. Nervo is a DJ duo of two beautiful Aussie chicks who have a ton of personality on stage. The temperature was insanely hot; so hot, in fact, that they had girls on stage in bathing suits dancing in water fountains (the kind that come up through the ground and you would run through as a kid). It’s unfortunate that Nervo had such an early set, but I guess someone has to play the earlier sets at the Main Stage. One thing that made me laugh was they kept saying, “Happy WMC!” But this was UMF, not WMC (Winter Music Conference). They are mildly related in that they happen around the same time and many of the artists overlap, but they’re actually totally different festivals. I was curious if everyone in the crowd even knew what WMC was…
Next I meandered over to the Live Stage and found out that Modestep was going to be playing in about 15 minutes. Modstep is a live electronic rock band from the UK. I arrived 15 minutes early and found the diehards already waiting in the heat, jockeying for the best spot. Everyone around me was talking about how they’ve been waiting for Modestep to come to the US for years. One guy even got into a fight with some girl, shouting at her, “I HAVE BEEN WAITING TO SEE THIS BAND FOR YEARS! NO, I WILL NOT FUCKING GO WITH YOU AND MISS THIS! YOU ARE SO SELFISH!!!” This band is so amazing that they are apparently worth breaking up with your girlfriend over. To my surprise, they really were that good. They did a ton of great covers which they really made their own (especially by adding dubstep), as well as many of their originals. I love how they rage on the stage, clearly loving their own music and never tiring of it. It had a really metal feel, which was perfect for true dubstep, as it makes you want to headbang so hard. I had originally planned to leave early, but couldn’t pull myself away. The whole crowd had a punk feel, which was awesome for an electro festival because it was fresh and original. One of the members, who plays bass and DJs (especially dubstep), had a lot of that hardcore feel to him: he wore a bright yellow mask, a little scary looking, and at one point he shot champagne into the crowd. He really had the audience going nuts. Modestep pleasantly surprised me and I would highly suggest catching them while they’re on their US tour.
Afterwards, I headed over to the Worldwide stage to catch Zedd. Unfortunately, it was a difficult transition going from the full band, metallic dubstep of Modestep to the brostep of Zedd, but once I got into it, it was still fun. Zedd did a cool dubstep version of his super famous song, Clarity. This song is so big, Jet Blue had it on their main TV page. I like that Zedd did an alternate form of this song; everyone loves the beautiful vocals and lyrics by Foxes, but it is so popular it would be silly for him to just play the song as it is—you can just hear it on the radio that way. After Zedd, I stayed for the beginning of Porter Robinson, a DJ who comes from Chapel Hill, NC and who, at 20 years old, really has just launched into the scene.
I then zipped over to the Main Stage to catch Bingo Players, a Dutch house duo, who played really fun dance music that had me jumping up and down like a rabbit. Then I moved to the Mega Structure for A State of Trance, where Above & Beyond was performing. Above & Beyond is an English trance trio who recently debuted in the US at the Roseland Ballroom in NYC about a month ago. Their debut was a hit and the show was completely sold out well in advance. During their set at Ultra, they posted uplifting phrases on the big LED screen behind them, making positive statements like, “You’re so beautiful,” and “Millions are watching from home. We’re the lucky few who are here together.” The statements were all posted live; I know they were live because you could see they had typos and had to backspace and correct them. At one point, the ceiling of LED screens came down, and that was a really cool optical effect.
After their set, I tried to get to the Main Stage. The Worldwide stage and the Mega Structure are in an area that is accessible by two routes. One route was all the way on the other side and I would have to struggle through the massive crowd at the Worldwide stage. The other route was this path that on the other days was fine, but today so many people came to the festival that it became dangerous to walk. People were pushing an pulling in different directions and it was so crowded you sometimes had no choice about where you were going. It was terrifying and definitely not safe. If you are claustrophobic at all, this would be the worst place in the world for you.
I was able to survive and make it to the Main Stage to see Dirty South, a Serbian-Australian DJ/producer, where I again danced like mad. I decided to head over to see Knife Party’s set afterwards, but I knew that the Worldwide stage was going to be very crowded, so I watched the set way in the back, behind a fence near the Live Stage. The set was great, I always really enjoy Knife Party. However, in the distance I could see A State of Trance and I knew Armin van Buuren was playing. The light show looked insane and I later heard that his set was amazing. If it wasn’t such a death trap to get there, I totally would have gone, but since I knew I would have to try and get back down that treacherous path, only to want to come back up for Pretty Lights, I decided not to go. Sigh.
So then I went to Pretty Lights at the Live Stage. We all know that Pretty Lights is amazing, but every time I see him I’m in awe of just how amazing he is. The light show, the music, the crowd– it’s all awesome. He played a ton of their more classic songs (my favorite is still “High School Art Class” and I was so excited he played it). I wish I could find the set list, but I can’t! Please post a comment below if you happen to have it! I know I didn’t see Armin, so this statement may be slightly inaccurate, but I would go so far as to say that Pretty Lights was the best set of the weekend. Seriously. The only serious competition would be Armin van Buuren, so then maybe it would be a tie. Since I couldn’t be in 2 places at once, I’m going to have to go with Pretty Lights.
Finally, the main event of the whole weekend: the final performance of Swedish House Mafia, ever. Pretty Lights and SHM unfortunately overlapped, which means I arrived about 10-15 minutes into their set and had to stand way, way in the back. Some parts of their set was great (I loved the fireworks!) and it was cool to be a part of electronic music history (SHM is a powerhouse in house music), but overall it was ok. I ended up talking with my friend most of the time, which is never a good sign, and I partially blame that on being in the back where the sound didn’t travel well. I heard one guy complain that the set was the exact same as last weekend, which is never what you really want to have said about your last performance ever. On the other hand, I understand: it’s your final show, you want to coast through it and enjoy as much of it as possible with your friends, and you’re probably a bit tired of it all (hence why you’re breaking up). Nevertheless, it was a good set, just not as amazing as I thought it would be—I certainly didn’t leave feeling like the festival ended on a low note though.
In retrospect, I wish I could have done both weekends to see a lot of the artists I was forced to miss. I do worry that many of the DJs may have just done the same set, like SHM is claimed to have done. Two weekends in a row is also a lot to handle physically & monetarily. I wanted to see so much in three days that I barely ate or drank (or even used the bathroom!) as I ran from stage to stage. I lost like 7 lbs from all the sweating, dancing, and not eating! I was ready to escape a little north to Jupiter, FL to relax on the beach, put my feet up and eat a good meal.
There are a lot of things besides the lineup and stages that I believe deserve mention. The Ultra Music Festival app was a really great feature and I highly recommend that you consider using it if you decide to attend next year. What works with the app for this festival versus other festivals is that at night you go home and can charge up your phone, whereas at camping festivals you might not have this opportunity, rendering the app completely useless. What was great is that it was really easy to select artists to put on your own calendar, which you can then share to Facebook. Pretty much anyone with a smart phone was using this app because it was so useful. Big kudos to the app developer on this one!
The way people dressed at this festival was totally different than the way we dress up north. Up north we have wookies, dreads, flatbrims with pins, hula hoops, and darker clothes. In Miami they were all about elaborate bead-wear—even the toughest-looking guy would be spotted with a handmade bead mask or bead elbow pads. Everyone also wears neon to the max: if you don’t look like every part of your clothing came from a highlighter factory, then you’re the odd man out (and forget about wearing black!). Lots of guys were wearing baseball caps, which you really don’t see at shows up north. There were also a ton of kids with braces. My friends and I are pretty young—just in our early 20’s—but as one of my friends pointed out, “I felt really old the whole time!” The fashion trend of sucking on Blow Pops or Ring Pops and wearing geek glass doesn’t help in figuring out if someone is legally an adult or not, either (Oh yeah, geek glasses are all the rage down there. Weird.).
One really cool aspect about Ultra, however, was that it was a very international crowd. I loved how during Knife Party the DJ started calling for people to start waving their flags and he started naming the countries: Australia, Israel, Spain, Italy, the US, France, Brazil, and more! I was actually really surprised by the number of Australians that were there and I wish I could have asked them if they were here because of the festival or if they were already travelling/studying abroad and decided to come through (Oz is really far after all).
I have to comment on the food and drink because I’m such a gourmand. Overall the food and drink experience was abysmal. Festivals are famous for their delicious food options, but I supposed the festival coordinators assumed that most people would be too messed up to notice if the food was any good or not. We all know that the food would be overpriced, but come on, $9 for three chicken tenders? I think that Ultra needs to get in touch with Governor’s Ball, which was a daily city festival that has epic food trucks. The food just was really not fun and at a festival I want all five of my senses to be titillated. Worse, however, was the beer situation. For $8 you could get a Heineken or for $10 a mixed drink. I talked with several other festival goers and they concurred: the tap beer was definitely watered down. I also discovered that the clear alcohol was watered down. However, the dark liquors they couldn’t water down (you would be able to see the color difference), but the bar tenders were still pouring the drinks as if they were watered down, meaning that they were doubly strong (I watched them pour me drinks where it was straight up 60% alcohol and 40% soda). So, I think as a general rule, I’m going to stick to whiskey.
Overall, Ultra was an amazing experience. The crowd was as one would imagine it to be (not so awesome) but the lineup is simply unbeatable. Ultra provided me with the opportunity to see many artists I would otherwise never see: Nervo, Modestep, Faithless, Above & Beyond, and so many more. It was actually a little too difficult to choose between seeing artists I know and love and artists that I’ve never seen and would like to experience for the first time. For all it’s commercialism, it’s still an epic festival that brings more than a quarter of a million people together to celebrate this new wave of music, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Next year’s Ultra will be March 28-30, 2014. Stay tuned for more details!