Saturday, April 9, 2011

Ultra Music Festival Report: Day 1

So this is coming 2 weeks after the fact, plenty of time to reflect but still fresh in my mind. It seems all I'm writing about right now is these music events I've been going, but besides that and work there's not too much else to report in my life right now. I've been taking these trips and doing the music festival thing for a while now, starting in 2004 this would be my 38th event if my counting is correct. That may sound excessive, but I plan to keep doing because in many ways this is research. I am definitely going to start a music and arts festival of my own someday, with other friends obviously, and hopefully you'll come one year. Anyway onto my Ultra report, which if you don't know is the biggest all electronic music festival in the US held in Miami, FL every year. Being that I went to school in Miami it is the event I have been to the most. The first year I went it was only 1 day and about 15,000 people came. Now it has expanded to 3 days for the first year ever and was completely sold out, 50,000 people per day. As you can see these events are growing in popularity.

I didn't arrive in Miami until 8am Friday morning, drove all night with some other festival goers I met through craigslist rideshare. It was the first time I had ever done that and it worked beautifully. As such I was glad the first day started at 4pm instead of noon like the other days. We didn't get over there until nearly 5:30, and the line was absolutely insane to get in. Luckily my friends and I did a pretty good job weaving through the crowds of people and we got in within 20-30 minutes, I heard some waited an hour. On the way in my friend was assaulted by a cop for doing basically nothing, a story not really worth going into, so Ultra wasn't really sending out the best vibes as you entered the fest. But we got past the festival security just fine so I guess it worked out. Dude didn't even care I had my camelback full of water.

Walking in I immediately how different the arrangement was this year than any other year. Miami has been constructing a new museum in Bicentennial Park where Ultra is held, and they were dealing with approximately two thirds of the space this year. And I must admit for the most part they did a really good job with it. I thought the mainstage was in a great position that allowed big crowds to gather without too much bottle-necking. There were a couple of unfortunate instances of stairs at the festival, something I've never seen at any before, but other than that they adopted to the terrain really well. Well everything except for the new bathroom situation, but I'll get to the later.

First thing we checked out was Cedric Gervais on the so-called Korea stage. It was an appropriate way to start the weekend, seeing a house DJ who frequents many Miami parties and has become a staple of WMC. Ran into some friends, danced around, mostly we were just pumped for all that was to come.

Next our group decided to check out the mainstage for the first time since Benny Benassi was on. I've seen Benassi a few times at Ultra before, this performance fell in the middle for me. Definitely better than last year, he played less cheesy shit and even dropped some dubstep on us which really set the crowd off. So is the trend I guess, it was interesting to hear Benassi, a long-time house and electro artist, give in to that. But he did it well and the crowd loved it.

I wanted to check out some of the CSS show on the live stage while we had a break, so we decided to check out the live stage for the first time. It was a different setup this year, the stage now faced the water and there was a small hill to the back side, versus in previous years where the stage was . The crowd was relatively small for CSS, and as soon as they started up I sort of realized why. CSS is a very fun group, but their vibe was almost a little too punk for Ultra and their small crowd started to make sense as they played. 

I only stayed for a few songs because my friends wanted to wander around, so we checked out the adjacent stage where DJ Icey was playing. Icey has been on the scene a long time, I've even seen him play a show back in Nashville many years ago. He definitley drew the biggest crowd I saw all weekend to the small UMF radio stage, was fun for a bit but we didnt' stay too long.

We wandered around for a bit more and bought some overpriced food (Ultra really fucked people on the food this year, it was at best over-priced and ok and worst a total jack and disgusting). We even caught a little Erasure, I can definitely appreciate Ultra bringing a classic artists like Erasure and Duran Duran but I don't feel the Ultra audience returns the same interest. It was one of the smallest crowds I saw at the mainstage in the peak hours of the night. At this point all I could think about was the upcoming Röyksopp show anyway, so we watched a couple of tunes and headed back the live stage.

I have been a huge fan of Röyksopp for some time now, starting back with their album The Understanding. I had never had a chance to see them live before, so I was super pumped for the show. I didn't even really know what the setup would be, I had watched some live videos before and mostly they consisted of the duo of Norwegian duo Svein and Tjorbjor (awesome names) and guest vocalists here and there. So when they strode out on stage as a multi-piece setup and busted into their hit “Happy Up Here” I was floored. The two main members did most of the work and The crowd blew up along with them, jumping up and down as the lights hit the audience and they launched into their set. Most of the members were costumed, and the feel of the music flowed up and down as they plowed through an all-too-short-set-list but was never anything less than beautiful. The mood was great the whole time, definitely my favorite set of the day. Couple of pics and videos below, but they can only do so much:

Next up at the same stage was Trentemøller, a band I had been hearing a lot about recently, most notably they appeared on my radar ever since Coachella put this insane video of them up on youtube:

What a whirlwind of a show. They started behind this cloth fence-like structure which partially obscured the view of the band, letting the music be heard over any individual performance. The best way I can think to describe their sound is a more upbeat and electronic version of Nine Inch Nails, two parts hard house and one part industrial music. It was spellbinding, the Scandinavian artists were bringing it tonight. Eventually they pulled away the covering and the band became more visible, more people gathering around the stage as they got deeper into their set. I didn't know most of their material but it didn't matter. And when they concluded with Silver Surfer, Ghost Rider Go! I was compelled to take a video, although the sound didn't turn out that great (I love my camera but the mic sucks on it) so I recommend watching the video above instead to get a feel for the group. The show we saw wasn't quite the same spectacle but nonetheless it was amazing, and I hope to see them again at Coachella.

Once the show ended our group stayed at the same stage to see STS9 next, listening to Miss 9 on the decks in the meantime. I'd seen Tiesto enough and he's not really my thing anymore, plus since he headlines Ultra every year (literally) I felt I could miss him. Granted I've seen STS9 an even more ridiculous amount of times, second only to Miami's Awesome New Republic, and both of which I've lost count past a dozen, but I like their style better especially cause it's 5 of them playing live. And they did not disappoint, from the moment they started the crowd was into it. They careened through some classics that I recognized and definitely some new material I hadn't heard before, the visuals and sound were on point and the vibes were great. Or so I thought. 

Unfortunately tragedy struck, some total fucking asshole stole my backpack off the ground while we were partying. I was in a large group at this point and had set my bag down at the edge of everyone, and had my eye off of it for about 5 minutes and some low-life took it. I had my wallet, ticket for the next 2 days of Ultra, and my car keys inside. Sadly this kind of ruined the show for me at this point, I could not enjoy the last 20 minutes while I frantically searched the surrounding area for my (hopefully) discarded bag. My friends tried to help but to no avail, too much craziness going on with STS9 finishing their set. Then I really got angry, and my main gripes with Ultra came into play.

Once the show ended some of us spread out to look for my bag, praying someone had fished whatever they wanted out of it and left it somewhere. I especially needed my keys, I had driven not only me but my hosts for the weekend to the show and was parked at a meter. But as we started looking we were ushered out of the venue, the staff would not let me continue to look for my missing bag. I inquired about a lost and found (not marked on the map) and was told by numerous people that it was near the exit. Just go out and to the left they said, someone will help you. Bunch of liars. I come to find Ultra, which considers itself an elite music festival, doesn't even have a lost and found, much less a staff willing to help its patrons. Ultra often pretends it puts the fans first, but that is a bunch of horseshit. They charge $5 for a small bottle of water, have shitty over-priced food, design the WORST bathroom situation I have ever seen at a festival*, and have the most unhelpful festival staff I've ever encountered. My shit was stolen and every worker and police officer at Ultra refused to help me, much less even just let me look for my stuff.

It's unfortunate that an event that is in some ways so amazing could have such deep rooted problems. I've been going to Ultra since 2004, this was my 8th year, and still to this day I consider it one of my least favorite festivals. Don't get me wrong it's still an incredible experience, especially because the past few years their booking has just been amazing, for the type of festival it is no one has a better lineup. But the way this festival is run is an insult to its attendee, from the sheisty food vendors to the joke of a bathroom setup. We still come though for the music and the people, my friends are what make me come back every year more than anything. And they're the ones who helped me collect myself and make it through the rest of the weekend.

My new friend Matt who could only attend Friday gave me his ticket, an amazing move considering this was a sold out show. We took a cab back and chilled out on the beach for much of the night, contemplating the rest of the weekend. Ultra is a lot of fun but they don't have your back if you get screwed over, that's what friends are for. 2 more days to go.

*Seriously Ultra totally screwed the pooch on the bathroom situation. They essentially had one are of port-o-potties, 2 very long rows with tons of stalls going all the way down. But they made the unbelievably terrible decision to have one opening to get to all of them, and this because a total clusterfuck as people swarmed to get in and out of the same place, just to use the bathroom. People were getting knocked over, some of my friends couldn't even deal with it. It got so bad at one point that I knew I wasn't going back there again unless absolutely necessary. Whoever decided not to open up the area like it had been before should be fired immediately, it was one of the dumbest things I've ever seen a professional festival do. 50,000 people come to this thing, come on Ultra if you want to pretend to be concerned about your fans at least give them a place to comfortably relieve themselves when needed. /endrant

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