We're going to be honest with you.
When Ultra Music Festival announced its entire 2013 live stage lineup, we were underwhelmed. The scope of the roster was perfect, but it seemed to lack the kind of anchor act that sets the standard for everyone else. Last year, Ultra had Kraftwerk, Miike Snow, DJ Shadow, M83, Bassnectar -- it was a good mix of old and new.
Of course, you cannot deny the talent level of the artists who performed on the live stage last night. But how are you going to put Nicolas Jaar's set against Swedish House Mafia's ego-stroking farewell party?
We arrived at Ultra much later than the 4 p.m. opening, but just in time to see Modestep getting a pretty packed amphitheater hyped up. However, we kept walking, because we really wanted to check out John Digweed at the Carl Cox & Friends Arena.
His set was superb, as always, churning out progressive house that makes me believe EDM will be OK once -- to borrow from former Space Miami owner Louis Puig -- the "VIP confetti DJ" fad is over.
Making our way back to the live stage, we waited for Boys Noize, who would finally be debuting his skull setup in South Florida. (The noizey boy was supposed to debut it at his show at Revolution in Fort Lauderdale last year, but that ended up getting canceled.)
Was it worth the wait? Well, it was impressive. The big black skull harkens back to the iconography of his 2007 breakout, Oi! Oi! Oi!. He slowly rose from behind the skull in what we imagine was some hydraulic setup underneath the stage. And once he put his hands to work, the German ripper launched headfirst into "What You Want" off last year's Out of the Black. It's a classic funky electro track that cockily shouts: "This is what you want/This is what you get." And the crowd ate it up.
The skull's eyes glowed red as Mr. Alexander Ridha continued rocking, with Kraftwerk-like graphics in the background: A mixing board melted as the beats got weirder and MS DOS commands fluttered as he picked up the pace.
All in all, Boys Noize tore through three albums worth of work, including highlights like "Transmission," "& Down," "My Moon My Man," and, our favorite, "Oh!"
Next up was Crystal Castles, who seemed to attract a large group of curious festival-goers -- from young kids to downtown hipsters to parents (we kid you not). A purplish-haired Alice Glass launched immediately into "Intimate." The stage setup was bleak. The only imagery, looming in the background, was the duo's latest album cover: a photograph by Samuel Aranda of a mother holding her son during a street protest in Yemen. It was unnerving to say the least, as extreme strobe only served to overwhelm us and spread anxiousness throughout the amphitheater.
So maybe it wasn't especially surprising that midway through Crystal Castles' set, the live stage area had emptied out. A couple hundred die-hards remained, but it seems people were looking for PLUR vibes. That caught us a bit off guard since, despite the darkeness and chaos of their music, Alice Glass and Ethan Kath have always been favorites with Ultra fans.
Nevertheless, Glass and Kath, accompanied by a live drummer, continued hitting us with cuts like "Baptism," "Crimewave," "Alice Practice," "Celestica," and "Not in Love."
The most surprising aspect of this performance: During several breakdowns, when Glass wasn't singing she got behind the boards, while chugging on a bottle of Jack Daniel's, helping Kath turn out noisy "jam sessions." It was a first for us. Usually Glass sticks to front-of-the-house duties.
Finally, by 11:10, Nicolas Jaar hit the stage. Unfortunately, there was probably less than 100 people at the live stage. "Guess we're all missing the retirement party?" Jaar joked about the Swedish House Mafia set happening at the same time.
We were sitting on the left side of the amphitheater, and Jaar's minimal sound is best heard undisturbed by any background noise. Unfortunately, the nearby bass stage was so loud that the sound bleed was unbearable. (Ultra, you need to fix that problem. It's unacceptable.) The only solution was to pick ourselves up and move to the right side of the stage.
As Jaar's set progressed, more people arrived, but the amphitheater was never more than half full. "Thank you, Nicolas Jaar!" screamed one dude. It was nice to see someone appreciate him, even if Jaar seemed somewhat aware that he was playing for an anemic crowd.
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When Ultra's stagehands started with the pyrotechnics, which included jets of smoke and fire shooting up from the edge of the stage, we could see Jaar sort of look a little lost and then smirk, knowing the bells and whistles weren't needed.
Unfortunately, Ultra-goers, you screwed up. We are happy to finally see Swedish House Mafia go. (Please, never come back.) But Jaar, he's actually making electronic music worth listening to. Yes, maybe Ultra should have done a better job of anchoring that stage with a bigger name. Because, obviously, Jaar was never going to win against "Don't You Worry, Child."
But perhaps it was for the best. After all, Jaar, it seemed, was playing only for us.