Much like the actual weather in this era of global warming, the emotional climate at Ultra Music Festival's live stage is wildly unpredictable.
The fans might love it. They might hate it. It's always tough to predict. But the fervor and size of the audience often mirrors the enthusiasm, though not always the craft, of the performers. That's about our only forecasting technique.
Last night's opening Ultra 2014 live stage bill boasted some of the fest's heaviest hitters, including Basement Jaxx, M.I.A., and MGMT. And just in that order, from most enthralling to most likely to chill-you-the-fuck-out, the three acts impressed.
While the sun was still shining, a robot voice took over the sound system, saying, "We bring you news of joy and freedom!" And man, that robot voice wasn't messing around. Basement Jaxx was about to rain down upon us actual joy, making us feel totally free to dance in any ol' dorky way.
The duo's live band performed for the next forty minutes, shooting us straight into a universe where women with flawless voices (and dressed like natural phenomenons) sang about good vibrations and asked us to take a ride with them. It was a cosmic journey that started with a very small crowd and ended with a half-filled amphitheater, hands all raised and clapping as pupils dilated from admiration, mostly not drugs.
Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe's live performers all wore outfits fit for a cosmic stage. They opened with a powerful version of "Good Luck." The two vocalists -- one dressed as a rainbow, the other as clouds -- hyped the fans with some minor twerking, momentary voguing, and a Matthew McConaughey "alright, alright, alright" while belting out lyrics like "Bring me to the rainbow!"
As they are known to do, the men of Basement Jaxx sifted through a variety of genres, all with expertly presented with the help of a crew of admirable performers. These guest stars included a lively, whining couple who brought the dancehall and two Asian ladies in tropical regalia who clawed the air and sang, "I want love!" One of their two drummers kept things sonically relevant to each tune with a variety of percussive instruments including a steel drum, bongos, and a chime tree.
It was the most inspiring, positive energy that we've seen coming off the Ultra live stage in the past four years. Burton had everyone yelling, "Where's your head at!" in unison and at the top of their lungs. Like, everyone.
From two folks in gorilla suits to a local guy in a raven costume working a trumpet and a ballerina in a Hamburgler mask, there wasn't a single person or party animal who refused to appreciatively scream. It was a near flawless showcasing of the classic Basement Jaxx sound.
Of course, the most anticipated Ultra live act of the year was M.I.A. And when you're the most anticipated act, everybody expects the best.
With about 20 minutes to set up, she and her team kept things spare. But her incredibly gifted dancers, a backup singer, M.I.A. herself, and eventually a ton of ladies from the crowd were more than enough to fill the stage.
What followed was a full-on assault, with seizure-inducing flashing lights, absurd and bright images blasting from the four screens, and so much sound. It was as if the whole internet was being broadcast live via that stage.
"Where my true ravers at?!" M.I.A. asked, because it took the full amphitheater a bit to warm up to her. But she put it all out there, vocally and physically, and once the bass really dropped, the bodies started bumping.
Once she started in with "Y.A.L.A.," there was a pause. Then M.I.A. asked all the ladies in the place to come to the stage. All it took was a tiny invite to get crazed raver girls crawling over the heads of their fellow Ultra-ites, angling to be up there. And something wonderful happened. The British superstar suddenly had a stage packed with ladies behind her.
Here's some video of the moment. And yes, M.I.A. did give the crowd her infamous middle finger.
After she geared up the crowd for more wildness, MGMT came out and brought the vibe down to the ground. These guys maybe didn't get the rave memo, but they performed a nice enough set, although it was certainly more appropriate for a seated and sedated crowd.
Most of the songs played were off 2007's Oracular Spectacular -- a near-perfect elecro-pop album that kept hipsters' and wannabe hipsters' ears perked whether or not they liked it. And the audience sang along. But once the guys performed anything off their other albums or launched into extended jams, as they did during "Electric Feel," the fans' interest faded, and they all seemed to hightail it to the Carl Cox tent that, as usual, was busting at the seams. It was a little too chillsies for the kandis or even the casual raver.
It would have been better had 2008's MGMT hit the live stage, rather than these more mature musicians with muted energy. But we ain't gonna lie, we jammed with them, singing, "You were a child, crawling on your kneeeeees toward it!" And all that took place in just about three hours of day one at Ultra Music Festival 2014.
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