Unlike the last few editions, the dance music gods gave Ultra Music Festival a break this year and blessed the festival with clear skies and cool weather. And despite all the commotion about extra security, things seemed to go smoothly on the first day.
Even if you aren't lucky enough to be part of the mass of ravers at Bayfront Park, Ultra's live feed is proving to be quite entertaining. The festival is making a big deal out of its 20-year milestone, with presenters bringing DJs into the on-site studio to show them footage from their past Ultra sets. (Hardwell had such a baby face!) Even Ultra OG, Josh Wink, got in on the action. He performed at the very first edition in 1999.
Not that Ultra attendees today would know that. The festival also did some on-air trivia with festivalgoers. When the presenter asked two young women which acts on this year's bill also performed back in 1999, the first woman responded with Steve Aoki — which, OK, he's not that old but he would have been 20 back then so not completely impossible. The second woman thought about it for a second before blurting out, "Martin Garrix!" Yes, Garrix, the 21-year-old Dutch DJ, who besides not being on this year's Ultra lineup would also have not had the mobile dexterity get behind the decks in 1999.
Cringe-worthy moments on the feed aside, here's what New Times witnessed on the ground.
Pete Tong. Remember the Saint Pablo Tour? Kanye had it right when he put his stage above the crowd, letting the lucky fans in the pit mosh it out to their heart's content. Ultra had a similar idea with their smaller Arcadia Spider stage: the area is tucked away from the rest of the festival fray to minimize sound bleed. The DJ booth sits about 20 feet above the crowd, still visible to the dancers yet removed. People don't face front, ogling the DJ like they're waiting for him to do something other than play records. They actually dance. Kind of like how clubs used to be, yeah?
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When I arrived, spinning records in the Spider's belly was none other than BBC Radio One mainstay Pete Tong. His set was a perfect oasis of Balearic, deep house-y goodness. It felt almost like Steve Aoki's mainstage, bring-out-Daddy-Yankee-for-the-Hialeah-crowd set was as far away as the Spanish mainland is from Ibiza. Set against a bayside view of the dusky, pink-and-blue Miami sky, it was almost like paradise. —Doug Markowitz
Azealia Banks. Ultra attendees were still filing in by the thousands when To Jasper closed out their opening set on the Live Stage early Friday evening. They played to a slim crowd of about 50 people and could be heard thanking the crowd, “mostly because you’re all my friends and family.” The crowd had swelled to a couple thousand by the time Azealia Banks hit the stage, but it was still a criminally low turnout for a unique Ultra set in which Banks transitioned from some of the most raunchy songs in her catalogue to an a capella jazz cover of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” The crowd grew as her hour-long set progressed, but fireballs could be seen lighting up Steve Aoki’s Main Stage set just above her shoulder as her two backup dancers vogued behind her to “Bad Bitches Do It” and “Yung Rapunxel” off her promising 2014 debut Broke With Expensive Taste. Banks screamed the chorus’ ”brr-brr-brr-brrat!” refrain into a megaphone with a self-satisfied smile as the crowd in the front pit spit every word back at her. Less successful was her cover of Berlin, on which Banks’ sweet vocals shone, but save for a few snaps in the air the crowd was ready for her beats to compete with the ones echoing from Aoki and the adjacent UMF Radio stage. —Celia Almeida
Fischerspooner. If you're wondering whatever happened to the lost art of the costume change, don't worry: Fischerspooner are keeping it alive and well. At the beginning of their set, frontman Casey Spooner emerged wearing a glitter-covered black duster. He threw it away. Then he took off his black robe. Then he ripped off his white t-shirt. And then the leather pants came off, revealing stirrups and patent leather thigh-high boots! And he accessorized it with a woolen cape! And then he abandoned all that and was just dancing flamenco shirtless in a gown-length skirt!
But beyond, or perhaps partly because of, the feature-length striptease, Fischerspooner's set was — and this is both an understatement and a compliment — the gayest thing Ultra has ever seen. Against the backdrop of thumping electroclash beats, Casey Spooner brought out an entire tribe of half-naked beefcakes. He fondled and tongue-kissed them. He did a lap dance with a daddy during "TopBrazil." He projected gay erotica on the back wall, and I'm sure a bunch of EDM bros are questioning a lot of things because of it. It was a celebration of queerness, and it ended triumphantly. As the band finished things out with their hit "Emerge," the dancers returned with protest signs: "Gun Control Is an LGBTQ Issue," "Mike Pence - Queer Basher." It's not just a smokeshow here, folks. —Doug Markowitz
Empire of the Sun: Almost ten years onward from their debut album Walking on a Dream, Empire of the Sun reminded Ultra attendees last night why their brand of theatrical synth-power-pop has remained perennially popular. Joined by drummer Olly Peacock on drums for their live performance, the duo, comprised of singer-guitarist Luke Steele and guitarist Ian Ball, played a career-spanning set accompanied by visuals and spectacle befitting of the intrigue posed by their album art and imagery. The band was flanked by four dancers, whose costume changes – ranging from anthropomorphic plant creatures to pink Valkyries – kept things lively while psychedelic visuals unfolded onscreen. It helped that Steele embraced his role as a frontman with gusto; between his guitar smashing antics during penultimate song “Standing on the Shore” and his playfully catty banter (“Isn’t DJ Khaled a local?), Steele’s flair for the dramatic proved to be a great fit for the excessive antics of Ultra. Closing with Ice on the Dune single “So Alive,” Empire of the Sun set a high standard for Live Stage acts at Ultra 2018. —Zach Schlein
John Digweed & Sasha: When it comes to performing at Ultra, John Digweed & Sasha have earned the freedom to do whatever they want. Over the course of their involvement with Miami’s most high-profile festival, the two electronic titans have rightfully remained a constant presence, repeatedly topping the festival’s lineups even as electronic and dance culture have undergone several sea changes.
Whether it was due to well-deserved nostalgia or simply because they happened to be in good moods, Digweed & Sasha’s Friday night closing set at the Arcadia Resistance Spider felt particularly celebratory. Although significantly less crowded than their performance at the Carl Cox tent at Ultra 2017 (aided in no small part by last year’s horrific Saturday night rainfall), it didn’t feel any less joyous. Overlooking a noticeably older crowd – many of whom were no doubt Ultra veterans – Digweed & Sasha rejected the darker elements of techno for something more sonically inclusive, winding through acidic 303s, twangy bass lines and the occasional heavenly female vocal here and there.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the two have changed thousands of lives several times over at Ultra, showing festival attendees not only how amazing electronic music can sound, but how uplifting it can be to groove alongside complete strangers. Speaking personally as a music journalist exhausted by the unending hedonistic insanity that is Miami Music Week, Digweed & Sasha brought me back to life, compelling me to involuntarily shuffle my feet and throw down with the most energized of festivalgoers. That’s the power of dance music, and that’s why Ultra remains a cultural powerhouse 20 years onward. —Zach Schlein
Rezz. Green and blue lights emanating from Rezz’s LED light-up shades were all that could be seen bobbing up and down in the darkness above the booth at her penultimate set at the Ultra Worldwide Stage. Red backlights caught flashing glimpses of her ponytail swinging wildly to the tempo of her punishing dubstep beats. You’d need slightly more than your own two hands to count the 12 women on the Ultra lineup this year; a glaring disappointment given the opportunity for a 20th anniversary reset on their lack of inclusivity. If any of that was on Rezz’s mind, she didn’t make it known as she smacked the crowd with an aggressive set including her 2017 song “Relax” and a bit of The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” thrown in for good measure. —Celia Almeida
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Virtual Self. In the '90s, two new conceptions of utopia emerged. There was the internet, whose early adopters envisioned it as a new world where identities could be warped and reinvented. There was also the rave, where partiers could express themselves through dance and art free of societal expectations.
We know what happened to these things: the rave was commercialized through events like Ultra, while the limitless potential of the internet was constricted into our social media hellscape, where the version of ourselves we present is a false one.
And yet, thanks to Porter Robinson, the utopian visions have shined through once again. Under the name Virtual Self, he has fused early internet aesthetics and the genres of mid-90s dance music - drum and bass, happy hardcore, etc - with the shock and awe of contemporary EDM. It is a cocktail of nostalgia, breakbeats and anime footage hammering the senses. For children of the '90s, who were too young to experience these sensations in person, Virtual Self has done none other than bring them to the fore in stunning fashion. This is the future of EDM, and the future is in the past. —Doug Markowitz