While the main stage always draws the biggest crowds, some of the best performances were found elsewhere on Sunday. Fortunately the Live, Worldwide and A State Of Trace (ASOT) stages were all triangulated within a couple minutes of each other, as I spent most of my Sunday bouncing between them.
Fedde Le Grand is a mainstay at most festivals and for good reason. With over a decade of experience producing and DJing, he knows how to string together a good set and the turnout for his 4 PM main stage performance was a testament to his reputation for serving up some funky house. A familiar face in dance music since the 2006 release of “Put Your Hands Up 4 Detroit”, Fedde has played pretty much every club and festival you could think of and this was one of the better sets of his I’ve heard. He worked in some of his new mashups with older remixes that struck a nice balance and pleased the crowd. Those who made braved the heat and humidity and pressed up to the front row were rewarded with Fedde flags and a fun, energetic performance from one of the greats.
Sam Feldt was second on my “to see” list for the day. I discovered him while listening to Thomas Jack’s Spotify channel a few months prior and was pretty stoked to see how he’d deliver his blend of tropical and deep house. The Worldwide stage was packed front to back while the rest of the horde spilled out onto the sides. Apparently I wasn’t the only Sam Feldt fan. His was a very Miami set in both sound and visuals and in keeping with the trends, brought his saxophonist out to riff over the tracks. He mixed in his own happy and bubbly originals like “Been A While” with the likes of Oliver Helden’s “Shades of Grey“, as well as 90’s classics like CeCe Peniston’s dance anthem “Finally” (it’s happened to me – you know the rest) in a tribute to 90’s sound he’s cited before as an inspiration. Then the clouds that loomed over the festival for the better part of the afternoon started to leak.
I made my way to the ASOT stage to catch Deadmau5 for the second time in as many days. This whole situation came to be when Deadmau5, in his typical twitter trolling ways, tweeted at Armin that his ASOT was anything but Trance. Armin challenged him to walk the walk and throwdown a real trance set and here we are. Predictably, his set opened with a heavy grindcore/blastbeat song laced with satanic screaming while rivers of fire lit up the giant LED screens behind the booth. After amusing himself and riling the crowd up enough, he launched into the real deal.
What many anticipated and what was delivered were two totally different things. When people think trance these days, they think the melodic, synth-heavy, fast paced tracks and that’s what many, myself including, were hoping to hear. What we got was Deamau5′ textbook, archaic definition of trance that while technically and historically correct, was far and away from the modern definition. What could have been his moment to steal the show turned into an exercise in self-righteousness. But that’s to be expected from the Mau5 by now. It’s not like he doesn’t have the arsenal either – “Some Chords”, “Strobe” and “The Veldt” – pretty much anything off of 4×4=12 – all phenomenal tracks of his that would fall onto the trancier side of things. Sure, he did tease with some acapellas and even went into “I Remember” a bit, but the set was overall lacking and bordering on boring. As it drew to an end, he got on the mic to say “Thank you Armin, we cool” and half-jokingly, “a paycheck’s a paycheck”. He closed with Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades”, which I was cool with, but was probably lost on most of the audience.
I caught the tail end of Marshmello’s traptastic set on my way back to the Worldwide stage and then it was time for Duke Dumont to take over the decks. A series of solid remixes over the past decade laid the foundation for Duke’s recent wave of successful original productions, which in turn lead to a heavier touring schedule and a Grammy nod for best dance recording. His sound exudes Miami in the 80’s – pop synths, a snappy beat and ethereal vocals that combine in a way where his tracks would sound just as at home on an episode of Miami Vice as they did coming through the speakers at Ultra 2016. Those wanting to hear his hits were not left disappointed as he opened with “I Got U” and paid homage to 90’s dance music with songs that were probably on some version of Jock Jams. To close it was “Need U (100%)” that led into, you guessed it, “Ocean Drive“. Duke Dumont was one of the better DJ sets from the weekend and is definitely worth checking out. The rain continued to fall as I made my way over to the live stage.
Rabbit In The Moon intrigued me when I saw the name on the lineup. An EDM relic whose first track came out over 30 years ago, theirs is a distinct sound you’d imagine hearing in a dark, sweaty warehouse rave in the late 90’s and you wouldn’t be far off. Frontman Bunny came out onto stage in a surprisingly well-made spacesuit (it probably helps his girlfriend is a costume designer for Insomniac) for a special reunion that was RITM’s first show together since an extended break that began back in 2010. Their show was a equal parts techno timeline, performance art and acid trip that made me question my sanity at times. A CO2 gun got frequent use, blasting the people in the front rows with massive clouds of cool, compressed air. Bunny went through a handful of costume changes. Break dancers came out in nothing but pants and rabbit ski masks during “Mind Fuct” and in one moment that probably caused a minor stroke in whoever handled liability insurance for the festivals, sparks of metal were shot off into the crowd’s faces. Entertaining to say the least.
I ended my night by sticking around the live stage to catch Purity Ring while the majority chose either Knife Party at the main stage or Armin Van Buuren closing out his ASOT broadcast. Tchami was a very close second, but I’d just seen him at TomorrowWorld back in September and had heard great things about Purity Ring. An intimate crowd of a thousand or so peppered the amphitheater and was treated to what I felt was one of the best performances of the entire weekend. I’d been a fan of theirs for a few years since Shrines and hadn’t heard any live material from their latest album Another Eternity. The rain finally subsided just as the stage came to life.
Their stage presence was incredible; singer Megan James floated around in her white mesh cape while Corrin Roddick stayed tucked behind his musical tree of lights and beat pad. Her voice was on point, as pretty and powerful as it did on the album. She joked about how weird it was to be playing Ultra, but how happy she was to be there and the cheers let her know the feeling was mutual. After a solid hour performance that covered favorites from both albums, at 11 on the dot, fireworks went off over the main stage signaling the official, city-mandated end to the festival. Although they had one song left, it would go unsung since the producers cut all power to the stages. She tried, but unfortunately couldn’t bend the rules to close their set and came down to the eager crowd that remained around the barricade to explain herself, shake their hands and thank them for their support. What a sweetheart.
Ultra was the antithesis of Okeechobee – crowded in every sense of the word; from the eight stages they managed to cram into Bayfront Park to the hundreds of thousands of people who passed through the gates over the course of the weekend to the more than 100 acts on the lineup. And while it had a few moments during some tropical house sets and at the Live stage, Ultra was pretty far from chill. Ultra in that sense was actually a great reflection of Miami. But none of that’s necessarily a bad thing if that’s the experience you’re seeking – you should just be aware of what you’re getting yourself into. No Youtube videos or live set streams can prepare you for what it’s like to stand in front of that main stage when it’s fully lit up and the pyro is going off or trying to navigate through the never-ending rivers of people.
Official numbers put the total attendance over the course of the weekend at 170,000, which is pretty staggering and it definitely felt and looked like that many and more. Fortunately most gravitated towards the three biggest venues that were the main, worldwide and Carl Cox/ASOT stages respectively. If you could tolerate the sheer volume of humans that gathered before them, you were rewarded with some of the most insane visuals, pyrotechnics and headliners in the dance music business. The only downside to the mainstream attractions was the monotony – I think I heard a version of “Antidote” during every main stage set and Valentino’s “Deep Down Low” more times than I can remember. I mean the song slaps, no doubt, but c’mon. If you wandered off the beaten path to check out the live and resistance stages, you were rewarded with some incredible and intimate performances. Either way it was hard to go wrong. Sure, The Prodigy ended up canceling at the last minute and there was major sound bleed at times, but for the most part, there was plenty of bang for your buck.
Ultra is a spectacle to behold. A modern musical colosseum packed with enough dancing, mayhem and debauchery to make ancient Romans jealous. If you embrace the YOLO lifestyle, Ultra Music Festival is a must.
Fortunately Ultra is a global brand and you don’t have to wait until next March to get your rage on again. If you don’t mind heading to Rio de Janeiro, Ultra Brasil will be taking place in Flamengo Park in October – Quaisquer amigos no Brasil têm um quarto disponível?