During the closing moments of deadmau5’s 2010 headlining Ultra Music Festival set, a lone voice manned the mainstage microphone, and sent the sweaty, exhausted masses off into the sultry Miami evening with truly epic news: Ultra Music Festival 2011 would be expanded into a three-day electro-extravaganza. But for an event that is currently celebrating its 13th anniversary, the additional day was just another step toward global DJ domination.
Launched on the sands of South Beach in 1999 by business partners Alex Omes and Russell Faibisch as a Winter Music Conference closing event, Ultra grew into a full-day experience the following year, then relocated to Miami’s downtown in 2001 to accommodate for the rapidly growing audience. In the mid-2000’s, Ultra fought off the festival challengers Bang and The Global Gathering, and in 2007 added a second day, cultivating an international brand.
In 2010, Ultra far overshadowed the week-long Winter Music Conference, to the tune of 100,000 attendees to a meager 3,763.The festival also solidified itself as a truly international series, hosting UMF events in electronic meccas Brazil and Ibiza. So, it was really not too big a surprise when Ultra 2011 sold out 34 days prior to its March 25th kickoff.
But Ultra couldn’t roll into its 13th anniversary without some unfortunate events. The Winter Music Conference decided to move its dates up by two weeks, forcing many participants and some attendees to choose between the two events. And apparently due to a conflict in booking fees, stage selection, and set time, The Swedish House Mafia decided to forgo Ultra in 2011, for their own Masquerade Motel: One Night Stand, which drew a sold-out 12,000 member crowd, and coincided with deadmau5’s Saturday headlining slot. And if those weren’t enough obstacles for Ultra’s organizers and promoters, due to construction at the Miami’s Bicentennial Park, the event’s homesite, organizers were forced to pack 200 acts across seven stages, and the expected 150,000 attendees in an area roughly two-thirds that in the past. No one ever implied setting up a massive festival was easy, just ask the folks behind Pemberton, Rothbury, or any of the other fallen US festivals.
Photo by Craig Yunger
Speaking with the Miami New Times days before the launch, co-founder Faibisch seemed undaunted by the challenges. With plans for the first ever Asian UMF event, Faibisch is set on building the diverse global brand from Miami,Ultra Music Festival is all about the Magic City. We are very committed to keeping Ultra in Downtown Miami.
So, with the stages up, set-times announced, and day-glow outfits planned, there is really just one remaining question: Can we last three days?
– Derek Staples
Friday, March 26th
If you have ever been to Miami, Ultra weekend or otherwise, you already know that South Florida is one massive traffic jam. To make travel even more cumbersome, Miami International Airport suffered a massive fuel fire Thursday morning that canceled over 175 flights, delaying arrival for many attendees until late Friday night or even Saturday afternoon. With an opening day bill featuring Fedde le Grand, Benny Benassi, CSS, RÃ¶yksopp, TiÃ«sto, TrentemÃ¸ller, STS9, and legends Erasure and Duran Duran, the delay was a massive setback for many both domestic and international travelers.
The restructuring of the venue grounds, which has remained fairly constant since 2007, was surprisingly beneficial. While visually toned down slightly, the repositioning of the Main Stage along the southern boundaries of the park allowed for a much better flow of crowd traffic between the smaller house oriented stages on the Northern end – not to mention, given the reduced diameter of the park, it kept the sound from bleeding. What’s more, 2011’s Live Stage, which has been notoriously difficult to reach due to Main Stage crowds in the past, was secluded on a rocky embankment with Biscayne Bay on two sides, maximizing the live acoustics and shaping a more communal experience for attendees that appreciate more hands-on musicianship.
Apart from the additional day, 2011’s most recognizable change was the two-story Carl Cox Tent. Taking a few cues from Coachella’s Sahara Stage, the tent doubled in height, held 10,000 attendees, and increased the visuals overhead to create a more comfortable, fan/artist friendly environment.
The restructuring of the venue led to just one major issue: bathroom breaks. Dancing outside in the hot South Florida sun, it is definitely advisable to stay hydrated (especially when ravers brought along their friend Molly), but when attendees had to relieve themselves, waits often lasted longer than 30 minutes due to the bottlenecked placement. This is one problem that must be resolved prior to Ultra 2012, which has already been set for March 23rd, 24th, and 25th.
Similar to Austin’s SXSW, Ultra’s talent flows into the host city’s streets, nightclubs, and anywhere else with a decent sound system. With a few extra pairs of eyes in Miami to assist in coverage, CoS was able to put the proverbial pen down and soak in the parties that kept feet moving, bodies swaying, and eyes dilated until sunrise…of Monday.
Fedde le Grand – Live Stage – 5:20 p.m.
With audiences still making their way into the venue, Fedde le Grand spun a fan-friendly remix-heavy set. Le Grand kept the set slightly toned down, especially compared to his Carl Cox performance on Saturday, but the audience reacted nicely to a remix of Empire of the Suns Walking on a Dream which slid effortlessly into Otherside by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Laurent Garnier – Carl Cox & Friends Tent – 4:00 p.m.
Laurent Garnier embodies the international flair of Ultra. The 45-year-old French tech DJ first began spinning in Manchester, UK, and later fell in love with the Midwest, incorporating both Chicago House and Detroit Techno. With a three-hour long set to debut the newly redesigned Carl Cox tent, Garnier showcased the many sides of house music, keeping the audience moving, but providing ample mid-tempo repetition to keep bodies fresh for the rest of the weekend.
Holy Ghost! – Live Stage – 5:45 p.m
Ultra continued to broaden the lineup outside of traditional DJs in 2011 with an abundance of actual live talent. Holy Ghost!, originally formed by high school friends Nicholas Millhiser and Alexander Frankel out of Brooklyn as a studio only project, are still gelling as a four-piece live collective, but have amplified their energy from earlier LCD Soundsystem opening performances. Not every band with a live drummer and guitarist won over the Ultra crowd, but the live take on nu-disco anthem Hold On and I Will Be Back changed some minds, and helped add new fans to a quickly growing base.
Benny Benassi – Main Stage – 6:30 p.m.
Photo by Craig Yunger
Similar to Ultra 2010, Benny Bennassi took to the Main Stage with the bright Miami sun still beating down to work the audience into a sweaty, hard house hysteria. The dude is a legend, and sometimes he sticks to closely to his classic beats, but Friday evening Benassi kicked off his set with new bangers Electroman and House Music. Surprisingly, Benassi tipped his hat to what is next, remixing James Blakes Limit To Your Love. But Benassi must have felt the track was about 40 BPM too slow, because he turned up the dial and knocked the fans with some electro-grime. Unlike the live performers and new acts like Rusko, Boys Noize, Simian Mobile Disco, Kaskade, or the rising masses of Colorado dub DJs, Benassi never really seems to be doing much on the decks. However, when you produce hits like Satisfaction, it’s perfectly acceptable to spend time checking texts during your set.
CSS – Live Stage – 7:00 p.m.
Sao Paolos CSS might get tired of being sexy, but fans always want a little more. Even with a sparse turnout of possibly about 100 – not enough bloops and bleeps for the typical attendee – singer Lovefoxxx tore through the outfit’s indie-dance staples. As Jager Yoga finished up, Lovefoxxx leapt into the crowd, and cracked a joke, politely asking what their favorite alcohol was. The band waited until about half-way into their set to play crowd-favorite Music Is My Hot Hot Sex. With the collective rocking, Lovefoxxx shed her leather coat, tore off her pants to reveal a pair of short denims, and rode the onstage lighting fixture – which was apparently as hot as CSSs set.
Erasure – Main Stage – 7:30 p.m.
Friday night was not a good day for electronic legends. If the turnout for CSS was bad, the attendance for Erasure was almost disrespectful. Ultra has brought in fellow innovators like The Cure and Depeche Mode in the past, but the Main Stage area grew desolate as Andy Bell stepped up to the mic and the legendary Vince Clarke manned the programmer. Even with only a few hundred in attendance, Bell twirled around the stage as if he were performing for thousands. The production lacked some normal Erasure elements like glitter-throwing and multiple costume changes, but the group’s mystique was kept intact with Clarkes five-piece red suit, Bells sequined Union Jack denim jacket and tank top, and the two backup singers resembling 1950’s carhops. Even after 25 years, Bell’s vocals are still amazing, and the flair in which he performs can only be topped by the best of mega-artists. While I try to take an objective view of the Ultra-culture, the lack of a crowd is further proof attendees are often more about the drug induced experience than listening to what the electro-world has to offer.
RÃ¶yksopp - Live Stage – 8:20 p.m.
Unlike 75% of the acts at Ultra, the vast majority of Fridays crowd had never had the opportunity to experience Norways RÃ¶yksopp live. Whatever is in Norways water leads to some crazy creativity, and RÃ¶yksopps set was nothing less than mesmerizing, both musically and visually. The duo of Svein and Tjorbjor craft electronic mood music, ranging from the darkest of techno to much bouncier electro-pop tunes. In the live setting, the outfit takes fans by the gut and sets out on a visceral trip. The synthed out vocals and eerie costumes create a sense of haunting psychodelia, that they ease away with more easily digestible tracks like the super popular Remind Me. Accompanied by vocalist Anneli Drecker, RÃ¶yksopp stayed on stage for the one song encore performance of Tricky, Tricky, which originally featured Fever Ray/The Knifes Karin Andersson. As Drecker delivered the line Im about to lose it, there was a mutual understanding and appreciation across the starry eyed crowd.
Duran Duran – Main Stage – 8:20 p.m.
Photo by Craig Yunger
Apparently, the promoters of Ultra missed the memo that live guitars and lyrics are now suitable raver repellant, because the Main Stage was empty for Duran Duran. The band opened with Hungry Like The Wolf, which predates roughly 70% of those on hand. The energy wasnt there from the audience side, but Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, and guest vocalist Anna Ross did their damnedest to keep those remaining from the Erasure set energized. Being 25, the set was like a soundtrack of adolescent car rides, with spot-on performances of Girl Panic, Sunrise, Girls on Film, and Ordinary World.
TrentemÃ¸ller - Live Stage – 9:35 p.m.
Photo by Craig Yunger
Have you ever had a terrible brain freeze, but your beverage was so amazing that you just couldnt stop drinking? Well, that is the easiest way to describe TrentemÃ¸llers live performance. To define the sound is daunting – it hides in the dark shadows, and builds through both tribal drum beats and more minimal ambience, with added techno/breakbeat textures and live guitar riffs. At times, four of the five live members would all go at the drum kit at once, sending the track and the audience into a dizzying panic. Other times, it is all about the build, stretching four to the floor beats out for minutes. TrentemÃ¸ller is not for the faint of heart, but have developed a sound that deserves to be explored by fans across musical genres.
Pendulum – Main Stage – 9:30 p.m.
If Australians are truly descended from the English penal colonies located there in the 19th century, Pendulum demonstrated that social divide Friday night, finally bringing some energy to the Main Stage following the performances of Erasure and Duran Duran. Pendulum have strayed from their early live drum n bass and breakbeat days, into more of a Linkin Park knockoff, but their Ultra set was raw, brutal, and aggressive. In true Ultra style, the visuals brought the spectacle to the next level. With visuals of liquid metal rushing to coat the human skeleton, scorpions killing roaches, and other industrial imagery, Pendulum was striking fans on at least three senses sight, sound, and due to epic bass, touch. Prior to performing The Island Part 1, Rob Swire announced that the track was made specifically for nights like this. As Ben Mount delivered the hook, Left with no reason we come undone, fans better understood Swire sentiment.
Photo by Craig Yunger
There is very little that hasnt already been said about TiÃ«sto, the man is truly a God in the field. He plays every mega-club, headlines festivals worldwide, and pretty much plays his signature feel-good dance music each and every year at Ultra. So, its best just to watch and enjoy.
(Shout out to Miami New Times for Live Stage video features)