Article By: Andrew Brown ; Photos By: Maria Farias
For an out-of-towner, sometimes the logistical stresses of Ultra Music Festival can be enough to make you question whether the expensive ticket was worth it. First, you have to get to Miami. This year, it was made all the more difficult thanks to a fuel fire on one of the airport’s runways, which resulted in large numbers of cancelled flights. Then, you have to check into your hotel. But you probably can’t do that before 4 p.m., the same time the festival starts on its first day. Next up, you need to get a cab. I was lucky enough to secure one from my hotel in South Beach after about 30 minutes of waving at already-crammed cabs. Finally, provided you didn’t forget your ticket or ID, you wait in line to get into Bicentennial Park; it seems like it inches forward once every fifteen minutes. You feel like you’ve missed half of what you paid for before you’re even through the gates.
But once you’re through the stress washes away. The wall of bass, audible from well outside the park, is pulsating and tangible now. You may not even be able to keep from dancing as you walk to your first destination.
My first stop was the UMF Korea tent, a white, igloo-like dome, where house producer Sidney Samson was scheduled to play at 7. Samson’s bald pate emerged at the appointed hour to mild cheering, and for a few minutes, he shared the DJ booth with Cedric Gervais, who was concluding his hour-long set. There was no break in the music—Samson mixed Gervais’ last song directly into his first. Ah, the perks of dance festivals.
Samson’s set was heavy on electro-house sirens, and it jerked, though not unpleasantly, from song to song with abrupt transitions. The remixes of “Pon De Floor” and “Fuck You” elicited huge reactions, but the set’s biggest (and most anticipated) song was its last. Samson dropped the signature bouncing bass line of “Riverside” without warning and everyone in the tent jumped.
As I left the tent, I considered Ultra’s layout, which has been revamped since my last visit in 2009. This year, the stages were positioned closer together, which was a mixed blessing. In the pros column, the walks between tents and stages were now much shorter. However, this benefit was arguably outweighed by the considerable noise pollution that resulted from compressing the stages (and people) into a smaller area.
I took in Duran Duran’s main stage set, from afar while I ate a 10-dollar kabob. Perhaps people were trying to secure a position for the stage’s subsequent acts—Pendulum and Tiësto—or maybe new wave 80’s bands and popular electronic DJs share a larger fan base than I thought; either way the stage was packed.
UK grime and hip-hop artist Tinie Tempah took the stage for about 15 minutes as festival workers performed their biggest task of the day, clearing Duran Duran’s equipment and setting up Pendulum’s. Surprisingly, Tempah didn’t load his short set with his own songs, instead pumping up the crowd with the year’s biggest dance hits like “One” and Far East Movement’s “Like a G6”. That’s not to say he didn’t play any of his own songs; he ran through a snippet of “Written in the Stars,” and closed with his massive Swedish House Mafia collaboration “Miami 2 Ibiza.”
Pendulum took over almost immediately after Tempah cleared the stage. Their performance began with slow but accelerating kick drum hits and abrasive guitar chords, while disturbing images of computer-generated human viscera pulsated on the stage’s numerous LED screens. The sum of the instrument’s tension-building escalation and the screens’ creepy visuals resulted in an insatiable desire to jump, which is exactly what the throngs of festivalgoers did when the beat finally dropped. The set perfectly encapsulated drum and bass: fast, relentless, and angry—moshpit music. The LED screens crawled with suitably hostile visuals of cybernetic tarantulas (Get it? They have a song called “Tarantula”) and cockroaches that spasmed violently in time to the music. It was disgusting, eerie, and awesome all at once.
Pendulum’s gear was hustled off the stage and replaced by Tiësto’s, in short order. The Dutch trance producer’s 90-minute, day-closing set alternated between percussive trance songs and more melodic, poppy cuts, mostly from Kaleidoscope. The Kaleidoscope songs, including “Century” and “Feel it in My Bones” were welcome respites from the homogeneity of the hard trance songs.
The centerpiece of Tiësto’s set (if a trance set can be said to have a centerpiece) was “Escape Me.” Rather than mix into it, he cued the song abruptly, at full volume, and the audience cheered in response to its instantly recognizable staccato synth hook. The song’s lyrics flitted on and off the stage’s LED screens, initiating a huge sing-along from the tens of thousands in attendance.
The last 15 minutes of the set bordered on the cinematic. Jets of white confetti spewed high into the air and floated there for minutes; flames shot from fixtures atop the stage, and fireworks soared and popped overhead. A beautiful ending to day one.
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