I’ve lived in South Florida for over 17 years and have never been to Ultra. Given that I’ve attended EDC Vegas and Orlando, TomorrowWorld, Okeechobee and countless other shows, but not one of the biggest electronic music festivals in the world that takes place in my own backyard, I was feeling a bit traitorous.I decided to rectify the situation and go this year.
The festival producers managed to pack 31 hours of EDM and pretty much every relevant mainstream artist into three days (March 18th-20th) that double as the unofficial culmination of Miami Music Week. They also found a way to fit eight separate stages, tons of food and merch tents and all of the backstage production and press areas into the 32 acre Bayfront Park. Now in its 18th year, Ultra Music Festival draws a global audience of 200,000+ to downtown Miami and offers some of the best audio and visual experiences that money can buy. And pay you shall. In a benevolent gesture, the ticket prices were lowered this year to a more reasonable $250-350 (early bird and GA respectively), down from the exorbitant high end of last year’s nearly $500 price of admission.
2016 was a sellout and the non-stop stream of ravers flowing through the streets of Miami and queuing up before the main gates went a long way in helping to visualize the numbers. More people gather inside these fences throughout the weekend than live in many towns and cities across the country. First impression: Ultra is a direct reflection of Miami – culturally diverse, crowded and loud.
If the lineup is king, then Ultra has the biggest, shiniest crown. With the exception of a few whose touring schedules couldn’t align, every legendary and up-and-coming producer/DJ graced one of the many stages over the course of the weekend. This year also served as a reunion for Ultra OGs Rabbit in the Moon as well as Knife Party predecessor Pendulum and marked one of the first US performances in ages for The Prodigy, who introduced me to EDM nearly 20 years ago through “Breathe” and The Fat Of The Land. Needless to say I had high hopes and great expectations.
Friday had me stuck mostly at the main stage. As a long-time Dasher, there was no better way to get my weekend started than Dash Berlin. The production trio has cranked out incredible trance anthem’s since 2008’s “Till The Sky Falls Down” and front man Jeff Sutorius has been a man on the run, delivering their signature brand of fast-paced beats and Dashups to club and festival goers alike. The climax of his Ultra appearance happened when The Chainsmokers jumped into the booth to join him for a rendition of “Roses” that went into his own remix of the track. Rather than give you a set list, watch it here for yourself.
Kyrre Gørvell-Dahll, better known as Kygo, was next on the schedule. The Norwegian has been setting the EDM scene on fire over the past year with his cool blend of tropical house originals and remixes. Soon after his performance began, Parson James came on stage to provide live vocals for their “Stole The Show” collaboration. James bowed out and the 24 year old picked right back up with his famous remix of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”. A handful of teaser tracks were dropped, including a beautiful remix of John Legend’s “Happy Birthday” that left me fiending for the next album.
Kygo would have been a hard act to follow for anyone other than Kaskade. The countless LED screens and lights on the main stage began to glow bright blue while letters from his name cascaded down the screen behind him. The speakers started to reverberate and a mashup of the track “Move For Me” that he did with Deadmau5 mixed with the trancey “Enceladus” from Sunny LAX became increasingly more audible. He launched into a big room set fitting of a major festival’s main stage with plenty of fat synths and the undeniable banger bounce that set off the massive audience that had flocked to the main stage. Seeing a live set from Kaskade is an interesting juxtaposition when you consider how he transforms his track’s original soft and sweet melodies into aggressive and energetic monsters. His set continued to defy genres and expectations as he dropped some straight trap in Dirt Caps’ “Rudeboi” that went into Missy Elliot’s impossible-not-to-dance-to “WTF”. Definitely the highlight of the day. If you don’t believe me, listen to Kaskade’s Ultra 2016 set – guaranteed to get you through any gym session or rush hour commute.
The lord of trance took the decks next to deliver his signature A State Of Trance sound. Armin Van Buuren, a talented veteran producer and DJ in his own right, has been a major catalyst in bringing trance to the masses by simultaneously giving budding artists an established platform and fans of the genre a reliable weekly dose of it through his weekly ASOT radio show, which is well past it’s 700th episode.
Armin was hosting the ASOT stage on Sunday and needing a bit of a break, I left the main stage to head to the live stage for Chet Faker. You probably recognize the name from his collaborations with Flume, but his solo productions stand firmly on their own accord. Riding the wave that’s carried tons of Aussie talent to the shores of the US, his haunting, sultry tenor sounded just as amazing in person, especially supported by the band he had with him. Unfortunately his hour-long set was practically cut in half due to technical difficulties. Sure, it was great hearing his take on “No Diggity” and “Gold”, which sounded just as sensual as the video makes it out to be. On one hand I’m thankful to hear what I did and on the greedy other, I was left wanting for the remainder of the performance.
I closed out the night in the house that Cox built. Oh yes, oh yes, Carl Cox has been at it since the 80’s and at the ripe age of 53, is more than qualified to serve as the festival elder. His years of experience beamed through in his performance. Sure, he’s won a handful of awards over the years for his prowess on the decks, has his name on the stage and is considered by many, DJ Magazine included, to be the best techno DJ on the planet – but you can tell by watching any of his sets that Cox is in it purely for love of the music. The massive tent stretched the length of two football fields, had a retractable ceiling that raised and lowered to create more of a club feel when desired, was covered with giant LED screens and pumped thousands of watts of sound from the hundreds of speakers strategically hung throughout. Walking down the ramp that led to the gaping maw of an entrance gave you some indication, but you had to venture about halfway in to truly get a sense of the spectacle. Fortunately most were at the main stage for Martin Garrix and despite the Carl Cox tent being substantially full, there was still room enough to get down.
The first foray into the world of Ultra was impressive to say the least. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow has in store.