Glowsticks. Pacifiers. Enormous pants. Fuzzy backpacks. Day-Glo angel wings. Music from the likes of The Prodigy, Tiesto, Paul van Dyk, Roni Size, Carl Cox, Moby, and Goldie. Yes, you could be forgiven for thinking this year’s Ultra Music Festival had whisked you away to 1996.
Thankfully, the U.S.’s largest electro-centric music festival had much more in the way of modern sounds (though perhaps not fashions, unless you count the thousands of of-the-moment “I’m in Miami Bitch” T-shirts being paraded around). Held March 27-28, 2009, in downtown Miami’s Bicentennial Park during Winter Music Conference, the 11th year of the event featured current favorites, dependable crowd pleasers, and elder statesmen across all electronic genres and regions of the world on eight stages.
Weatherwise, the weekend was near perfect: sunny, low ‘80s, and precipitation-free (though the festival could have used a bit more shade). But Bicentennial Park is far less lush and opulent than one might expect — think Virgin Festival’s racetrack grounds instead of the Coachella polo fields. Smaller, too. That was extremely evident on Day 2, when just trying to walk from one point to the next meant shoving your way through a dense ocean of inebriated, perspiration-soaked bodies. The entire area near the main stage felt like a life-endangering clusterfuck, with several other walkways and stages also way too overcrowded.
Other minuses included so-so food options with no seating areas; too-long lines for drinks; the Porta-Potties (the newfangled ones with sinks, flushing toilets and A/C would have been much appreciated here, but those were only available for VIP attendees). Security was a mixed bag. My mini-backpack barely got a look from security on the way in, but some staffers were downright nasty. Example: photographers were banned from the photo pit for The Prodigy after just one song, and even before the set started, at least one female photographer I knew was manhandled by them for no reason.
The biggest negative may have been the confusion about the schedule. Although the scheduled set times were handed out to attendees on the way in, lineup changes that came after the brochure went to print meant some inaccuracies. With billboards all over the festival grounds displaying set times for various stages, you would think the organizers could have at least updated those. Instead, festivalgoers were left to guess for themselves or miss sets. (To this day, I still cannot confirm whether Tiga actually performed or not. I was told Bloc Party canceled, and heard secondhand there was no Hercules & Love Affair DJ set, either. Apparently Timbaland was added at the last minute, but because he appeared on neither the printed schedules or billboards, I have no clue whether he actually did go on.)
Where Ultra excels, though, is in its lineup. Big draws like Aussie drum ‘n’ bass-heads Pendulum and trance favorite Armin van Buren brought the crowds out in droves. Legend Carl Cox hosted his own massive tent both days, featuring the likes of Busy P, Benny Benassi, and Moby. Consistently jam-packed, the incredible humidity generated by that tent’s crowd actually formed beads of “sweat-rain” that dripped down from the roof.
Sometimes the best times could be found at the lesser-attended stages. Seeing Paris’s Institubes crew (Surkin, Para One, and friends) get down from late afternoon until after dark was definitely one of the highlights for me. In a low-pressure setting, playing quality bangers to eager ears while scantily-clad (and I use the term “clad” loosely) dancers writhed on stage, partaking of drink and smoke, the dudes seemed to be having their own party that everyone wanted to be part of.
Festival organizers did a phenomenal job with the electro (my personal genre of choice and prime reason for attending Ultra this year), assembling popular dance-floor blazers like Simian Mobile Disco, MSTRKRFT, Deadmau5, and Crystal Castles. Newer artists in the house like British sensations The Whip and Late of the Pier and masked Italians The Bloody Beetroots (who actually performed both days) whipped crowds into frenzies that could match those of most of the veterans.
Other notable performances that killed included Cut Copy (in their last tour date for quite some time, sadly), The Presets, Boys Noize, and Booka Shade (with a long sunset main-stage set that simply emanated good vibes and the duo’s showmanship). I’d like to say something about The Prodigy’s heavily anticipated performance, but unfortunately the aforementioned security kind of killed my chances of seeing most of it. I do know Keith and Maxim flew around the stage like bats out of hell amidst intense, high-decibel sound and seizure-inducing strobes — and would you expect anything less from The Prodigy?
Despite the heat, most of the festivalgoers danced nonstop, an anything-goes group that skewed on the young side — which made it all the more bizarre to see hordes of 16-year-olds decked out like the NYC club kids of the mid-’90s. This year’s Ultra hosted more fashion don’ts than I ever imagined to see: inappropriate underdressing; inappropriate overdressing; ‘80s throwbacks; costumes of all shapes and sizes; vinyl and fur and fishnet and clothing with built-in LEDs.
Yes, Ultra had it all (sometimes all in the same outfit). There was vomiting aplenty and probable widespread recreational drug use, and there was a pleasantly surprising lack of violence. Looks like PLUR, like electronic music, is still alive and well.