[Sure, it's nice to talk about who played what. But it's the small things that make music worth seeing live. Wasn't there? Don't fret. Here's a cheat sheet for a festival near you. Now you can rave about it too!]
Martin Solveig’s ubiquitous presence at dance music festivals in the past year owes much to his pop cross-over single “Hello.” Never mind that he used to play a semi-interesting genre of house that bordered on soul and funk; Solveig is only concerned now about playing (and not so much mixing) tracks that the Spring Break crowd laps up. Some choice cuts: an unnecessary dose of Daft Punk, a rework of Smells like Teen Spirit, and the original mix of Wonderwall in one of his breakdowns. It was the only time that weekend when I was annoyed that the line at the beer stand was so long.
The crowd at New Order’s sunset show was probably the only one over the three days where the median age was past 25. Which makes me wonder whether these people in the audience came to Ultra just to see New Order, who has threatened to disband multiple times in recent years following the departure of Peter Hook and the formation of new sub-band Bad Lieutenant. The sound balance of their set had a somewhat muffled quality, due in part to Bernard Summer’s voice being overwhelmed by the synthesizers and the acoustics of the live stage. But since New Order also sounds like that on record, it might as well have been intentional. Like any band with a 20+ year history and a 40 minute slot, they mainly played signature tracks: Bizarre Love Triangle and True Faith back to back gave me massive goosebumps. I think I would have paid $300 just to see New Order.
Loco Dice throws it down at the Carl Cox-curated stage, which is probably the only place in Miami you will not hear Levels. As an avid listener of techno, I wanted to stay at this stage the whole day, what with Dubfire playing earlier in the afternoon and Hawtin following Loco Dice. At an American music festival dominated by billboard- and beatport-charting artists, techno occupies an ambiguous, secondary place: not as popular as Dutch house but better known than Drum n Bass, worshipped by genre nerds the same way tranceheads flock the ASOT stage, and functioning via a we-play-what-we-want mentality. Too bad I had four other stages to explore.
Whoever did the booking for Ultra really needs a pat on the back for bringing in Kraftwerk. The electronic pioneers are billed as co-headliners, next to Tiesto’s name on the lineup poster. But really, is there any comparison? As per usual, the set-up had the 4 members spaced evenly from one another, each with custom-made synthesizer stands and robotic skin suits. 3 of those are either bald or close to bald; the last, 32 year old Stefan Pfaffe, joined Kraftwerk following the departure of founding member Floridan Schneider in 2008. Playing each track separately and utilizing stunning visuals (black and white photos of cyclists for Tour de France, yellow and red radioactive icons for Radioactivity) Kraftwerk reworks their album cuts in modern takes. While nothing beats listening to Trans Europe Express on record for the first time, all of these tracks, especially Computer Love and Music Non Stop, sound massive and fired up live.
The last time I saw Groove Armada at a festival was Electric Daisy Carnival in 2010. Back then, they played a DJ set mainly comprised of hits off their recent Black Light album. Even if said album was fundamentally 80’s-inspired electro-pop, their style at EDC can be described as a mixture of tribal and minimal. Their formula hasn’t changed for their set at Ultra. Except for a vocal hint of “I see you baby,” their mixing style is a constant dark, minimal-infused house. Oh, and apparently these guys like to play in complete darkness.
I still consider it a personal tragedy that I only managed to see Tiesto when he had already stopped playing trance. Tiesto has taken his brand further this year with his college tour series and his Club Life concept. But unlike other crowdpleasers like Avicii and Guetta, Tiesto hasn’t been producing much since 2009’s Kaleidoscope (apart from his Allure side project, which has nothing to do with the Tiesto brand). So between his headlining set at Ultra last year and this year, one can’t expect anything other than Tiesto to play other producers’ Dutch house. For better or worse, no one in the crowd really cares what Tiesto plays anymore. And neither should I.
Laidback Luke, Duck Sauce
Full disclosure: I wasn’t actually there for either of these late afternoon sets. I was still in my hotel room relaxing after a morning at South Beach. However said hotel, the Intercontinental, is right next to Bayfront Park, so I did get to hear their sets through glass. Advice for future Ultra attendees: book your hotel early. Or else you’ll be looking at either far-flung hotels, or decent hotels at annoying prices. And if you stay at South Beach without a car, have fun getting back to your hotel after Ultra ends. But I digress. Yes, Duck Sauce. I wasn’t sure if I heard Barbra Streisand. But if I did I would probably be glad I’m not listening to it at 100 decibels.
I suppose if I had paid a little bit of attention, I could have told you exactly what Cook was doing with his mixer. Or what kind of sound effects he was playing with. Or which of his leftovers hits from the 90’s he played. But I was too distracted by the throng of half-naked Australian men shuffling at the back of the main stage. They were far more interesting.
I was dumb/smart enough to catch only one set at the Drum n Bass/Dubstep Ibiza Stage, and that was Andy C. He laid down some frenetic DnB as well as some dubstep crossovers. All in all an evenly-paced mixture of the faster side of the bass music spectrum and a nice alternative to the 4/4 that dominates the rest of the festival. (And no, I’m not considering Skrillex an option). Somehow though, it felt like Andy’s style caters more to a dubstep fan with DnB tendencies rather than a DnB fan who listens to dubstep on the side. My favourite thing about Andy’s set? The crowd. I love DnB crowds.
Okay I lied. The best drum n bass set I heard this weekend was at the live stage, with DJ Shadow. Maybe it’s because I’m unfamiliar with his productions post Entroducing….., but I certainly wasn’t expecting the kind of samples and sounds he integrated into his live show, which was perfect for the amphitheater stage. Some pianos here, a vocal sample there, and an interesting range of wonky basslines to top it off. It’s the kind of performance in which I couldn’t decide if I wanted to sit down and listen to what Davis is doing, or to get up and dance. “Organ Donor” as closing track? Hell yes.
The nice thing about Justice’s performance on Saturday night is that their live show doesn’t depend the strength of their 2007 debut +. Tracks like Civilization and Audio Video Disco work as well as reliable favourites D.A.N.C.E and their remix of We Are Your Friends. And even if they still are the poster children of the now 5/6-year old electro/electroclash movement, there is a sense of restraint and control over their live act. Electro for the discerning listener. Good job Justice. You’re still relevant.
Here are a few reasons why I like Avicii: he’s only 22 years old, so he gets points for achieving headliner status so early in his career. He plays a melodic variation of Dutch house and has not been tempted to produce music with ELECTRO synths or farting noises (yes SHM that’s you). The guy seems really interested in getting the crowd going. And even if he did get introduced by Madonna for Saturday’s closing set at the main stage, it didn’t feel overly gestural or insincere. After ending his set with a 10-minute long version of Levels, complete with fireworks over downtown Miami, I didn’t care that I was listening to a playlist. As a festival DJ, Avicii is perfect
By Jared D.
Ed note: Jared doesn’t go for the last day of music festivals. It’s a thing.